Archive for the Music Category

Straight Outta Compton

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 16, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Straight Outta Compton  photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe formation and eventual breakup of seminal rap group N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitude) is the subject of Straight Outta Compton. The biopic mainly charts the careers of 5 artists from Compton, California who greatly influenced hip hop in the 90’s and beyond. In 1988 N.W.A was dubbed “the worlds most dangerous group”. Much of this due to their explicit and profanity-filled lyrics about urban crime and the gangster lifestyle. The FBI even sent them a warning letter. In retrospect, they couldn’t have asked for better publicity. Their music, including songs like “F— tha Police,” received no airplay from mainstream radio. Yet publicity fueled the album’s success and their popularity grew with the masses.

Any memoir must edit facts in order to streamline a narrative. Straight Outta Compton is definitely a bit guilty of selective history. The lineup of N.W.A. began with Arabian Prince, DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice Cube. Although N.W.A formed in 1986, MC Ren actually didn’t join until 1988 just before the release of their first album Straight Outta Compton. Arabian Prince left shortly after but he did contribute to their debut. As a matter of fact, he appears on the album cover. So why doesn’t he rate a mention here? Even a bus driver gets a credit. Delving a little into this personnel shakeup would’ve been nice.

The film mainly centers on members Ice Cube (real life son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) are key people too but remain somewhat in the background. All of the aforementioned three get ample screen time, but interestingly it’s Eazy-E’s story that is the most compelling. From drug dealer to last minute replacement rapper, his drama is never short on surprises. His solo debut single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” is presented as almost an afterthought. Short of stature with a voice pitched in a higher register, his characteristics belie an intriguing personality. The strength of his business partnership with manager/friend Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) was a development I wasn’t expecting.

Straight Outta Compton does a nice job of encapsulating a fairly dense plot that juggles a myriad cast of characters. The era leading up to N.W.A’s creation is dramatized but also the period following their breakup. Dr. Dre’s association with Suge Knight is detailed, as well as his split from Death Row records amid rising tensions, to form his own label Aftermath. At 2½ hours, it is a bit long but there is still a lot of interesting material here. The first half that focuses on N.W.A’s inception and transformation is best. Occasionally director F. Gary Gray falls victim to the standard rise and fall cliches of music biographies. The fable succeeds most when detailing the harsh realities of urban LA that inspired the song lyrics of their true-to-life tales. They were rallying against poverty and prejudice. We’re given news events that establish a timeline. The Rodney King trial is referenced for example. In light of current ongoing media investigation of police brutality, their social commentary rings even truer today. The details behind N.W.A is something of which I knew little. Yet the movie gave me a reason to care. The complex evolution of how influential artists popularized a burgeoning subgenre called gangsta rap, is frequently fascinating.

08-15-15

Amy

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on July 27, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Amy photo starrating-4stars.jpgAn effective documentary sheds light on a subject heretofore seen as an an enigma. For those casually aware, Amy Winehouse was a troubled singer that fell prey to the perils of drugs, drinking and that catch-all term we call the rock & roll lifestyle. To many she was a lamentable figure gifted with the soulful voice of an artist twice her age. Her existence cut short at 27 by her own self destructive behavior. On March 23, 2011 Amy recorded the duet “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennet. 4 months later to the day, she died.

Director Asif Kapadia assembles a portrait of a vocalist we apparently didn’t know at all. The chronicle charts Winehouse’s life from her childhood in Southgate, North London, to her death in 2011. Her hard partying public personae was the subject of talk show hosts’ jokes, but privatively she was a depressed soul needing guidance, someone to say “No” to her vices. Amy’s mother, Cynthia, reveals she was afraid to get tough with her young daughter. Amy told her mom she was “too soft.” Amy’s parents’ divorce when she was 9 is a turning point that negatively affected her behavior. By 13 she was already on antidepressants. Kapadia interviews her friends, family members and the collaborators who knew her. These sound bites play as recorded narration behind home videos. Few had the intimate picture of Winehouse as her first manager, Nick Shymansky. Her early path to fame taped with a cheap video camera. Her raw talent on full display along with her addictions, depression and bulimia. Both sides are recounted through newly assembled interviews, rare photos and unearthed films.

Director Asif Kapadia presents a legend-in-the-making. What impresses is the striking contrast between the simplicity her life before she achieved massive fame and the way it changed afterward. The frail singer dogged by aggressive swarms of paparazzi stalking her with flashbulbs that go off like strobe lights in a disco. Amy was driven by a love of jazz music but also plagued by demons. She was unprepared for the rabid notoriety she archived. By the time of her final concert in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, she was a woman completely unraveled. Unable or unwilling to even perform as she stumbled about the stage in an apparent daze while thousands screamed for her to sing. What ultimately comes through is the tender portrayal of a shy but gifted singer whose outrageous conduct often overshadowed her stunning talent during her lifetime. Friend Tony Bennet compares her to the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It might sound like hyperbole, but coming as it does near the end of this documentary, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

07-22-15

Magic Mike XXL

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Magic Mike XXL photo starrating-3stars.jpgOn paper, a sequel like Magic Mike XXL shouldn’t work. It has no plot and no conflict. The director of the original surprise hit has changed (Steven Soderbergh is editor and cinematographer), and major star, Matthew McConaughey, is gone. This is simply a road trip movie with a bunch of guys hanging out, who also happen to strip for a living. They’re on their way from Florida to Myrtle Beach for the annual strippers’ convention. They have conventions? None of them are getting any younger, so this is seen as their last hurrah together. Their vehicle, an old ice cream truck, makes stops along the way. Friends are made in different locales.

Magic Mike XXL stars men, but it’s really about the women. Those they meet on the trip and those for whom they entertain. There’s Nancy (Andie MacDowell) who hosts a group of well-to-do Southern ladies sipping wine at her luxurious estate or Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the proprietor of a ladies’ club that caters to an African American clientele. At a beach party Mike meets Zoe (Amber Heard), an acerbic love interest in a truly expendable character. In between getting from point A to point B they perform shows.

The gang’s routines relied on the “classics” in the first film – the fireman, the cowboy, the military number. This time Mike (Channing Tatum) seeks to reinvent their show so that it’s more fun for them to act. He hopes their renewed passion will invigorate the show. Joe Manganiello as Richie steals the spotlight, not once, but twice. In the finale, Joe Manganiello outfitted in a tux, mock proposes to a girl in the crowd. He walks her through a wedding ceremony while Donald Glover sings Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” in the background. (Oh Matt Bomer sings a couple times too and it’s shockingly good.) Then comes the wedding night and “Closer,” by Nine Inch Nails plays. The performance is prurient, but it’s also creative. There are some genuinely hilarious moments too. The guys dare Richie to walk into a gas station and make the unhappy plain jane behind the counter smile with a dance routine to the Backstreet Boys. The scene has a sexual bent but its overall gist is one of sweetness. The scene is shot to amplify the energy of the club.

Star Channing Tatum is charismatic and he can dance. Now I’m not talking the smooth elegance of Fred Astaire or the dazzling technique of Gene Kelly. But Channing exhibits an athleticism that draws on the bump and grind mentality of the tradition. The choreography employs enough gravity defying flair with physical lifting to make what he does seem difficult. His earnest “let’s-put-on-a-show” ethos is infectious and he heads up a cast of dudes that really just want to entertain. Their heart is in the right place, even if their chosen profession is a bit salacious. They enjoy hanging around each other almost as much as they enjoy being onstage. It’s their friendship that unites the spaces in between musical numbers. These are nice guys who happen to be in great athletic shape. In most movies they would be stereotyped as greasy jerks. But these buddies don’t put anybody down and they never act in a mean-spirited fashion. The boys have a relaxed, easygoing camaraderie that is contagious.

What elevates the production is the utter feeling of positivity. Good vibes surround the film. The boys are charming. They have big hearts and they want to make the audience feel good about themselves. Their performances are highlighted by spectators that are average everyday women. These are not gorgeous models picked out of central casting, but average girls who are missing something in their lives. The analogy is made that the dancers are like shrinks catering to “queens who need to be worshiped”. They’re selling a fantasy. The bros are manipulative, but so is the drama. The picture never pretends to be anything less. Magic Mike XXL is such a pure film, it’s practically revolutionary. It’s a surprisingly lighthearted production given the subject matter. The whole thing has an uplifting view of humanity that I wasn’t expecting. Yes the narrative is a (ahem) skin deep examination of this lifestyle, but it’s still a better movie than it has any right to be.

06-30-15

Love & Mercy

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Love & Mercy photo starrating-4stars.jpgCo-founder of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson gets the biographical treatment in Love & Mercy. Taking its name from a song off his 1988 self titled solo album, the picture is an engrossing portrait of a complicated man. A complex man deserves a likeminded biography and as such, the production submits his life as two halves, each played by a different person.

In the 1960s the chronicle shows Wilson as the mastermind behind the unique California sound of the Beach Boys which culminated in the critically revered Pet Sounds in 1966. Actor Paul Dano embodies the very talented young man who endured a rough childhood at the hands of a hard-hearted father (Bill Camp). Music was a creative outlet. The group comprised his two younger brothers Dennis and Carl (Kenny Wormald and Brett Davern), their cousin Mike Love (Jake Abel) and friend Al Jardine (Graham Rogers). Together they poured their hearts into song with Brian as their primary composer. The chronicle presents the songwriter as a gifted genius struggling to reconcile the “voices in his head” and then put that into music. Wilson had several nervous breakdowns. Paul Dano has a quality that lends itself to Brian Wilson’s off kilter personality.

The other half of his life takes place in the 80s when Brian Wilson was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. From the start, he is already under the care of “psychologist to the stars” Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy has an around the clock presence in the musician’s life. Wilson meets car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabath Banks), one day while shopping for a Cadillac. The two strike up a relationship. An actress usually known for playing comedic parts, the dramatic weight is a stark contrast to the roles she usually plays. Banks is a revelation. A nurturing presence, she is a foil to Landy’s svengali like control. Her speechless reactions while Landy barks at Wilson, perfectly conveys her growing unease with the situation. Landy clearly sees Wilson’s burgeoning romance with Ledbetter as a problem. She becomes a calming force. I will admit that the story could have just as easily been told from Landy’s point of view and dismissed Ledbetter as a gold digger. This is not the case, however. Landy is vilified as a doctor with no redeeming qualities. The portrait then begs the unanswered question, how did this particular man obtain so much authority over Wilson’s life?

Love & Mercy wisely narrows its focus. By staging the existence of Brian Wilson as two separate people, we get a richer appreciation for the complexities of the man. It puts distance between two stages of his life. Paul Dano is particularly good as the younger Wilson. It’s easier to accept him as the talent that guided the Beach Boys because he looks quite a bit like the guy. He does a great job portraying his musical obsessions in a very natural way. John Cusack has a harder time because his long face and dark hair deviate so sharply from the physical features of the actual person. It’s an interesting idea though. Cusack’s mannered performance highlights a compelling soul. Two sides that link one man, unite the story as it jumps back and forth between the past and the present. His mental illness compounded by abusive people, first by his father and then his doctor. Through it all we get glimpses into the creative process. Love & Mercy effectively depicts the hidden torment behind some of the 60s most uplifting music. Thankfully it’s not all misery. In the 80s, it’s his bond with Ledbetter that gives us hope with his troubled life. Elizabath Banks is that oasis of calm that compels you to watch.

06-11-15

The Blues Brothers

Posted in Action, Comedy, Music, Musical on May 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Blues Brothers photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Blues Brothers began as a novelty act on Saturday Night Live on January 17, 1976. Dressed in bee outfits, the duo sang “I’m a King Bee”. They made 3 appearances total on the show but their fame grew far beyond these performances. The invented personas and life histories for the Blues Brothers followed later. John Belushi was lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues and Dan Aykroyd was the harmonica player/backing singer Elwood Blues. Dressed in iconic matching suits, skinny ties, dark glasses and fedoras. The actual band, was composed of well-known and respected musicians. Despite the comedic leanings of the sketch TV show, their love for the blues was anything but a joke. The Holland Tunnel Blues bar was a place that Aykroyd rented (or bought?) for the cast to hang out following shows. It was here that Aykroyd inspired Belushi’s interest in the blues. The popularity of the pair led to the release of their debut album on November 28, 1978. A runaway success, Briefcase Full of Blues reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum.

Given the chart success of their album, I suppose a feature film was only a matter of time. The plot is elementary. After Elwood Blues’ brother, Jake is released from prison, the two visit the orphanage where they were raised. It is there that they learn from Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a. The Penguin) that they must raise $5000 in order to save their beloved childhood home. The brothers decide to put their blues band back together and stage a big gig as a fundraising event. But can they earn enough money? It helps that they are on a “mission from God” as Elwood reminds us.

The Blues Brothers is a spectacular blockbuster filled with car chases and big, bright musical numbers. It seems so upbeat on the surface, but it was a nightmare behind the scenes. The 6 months in development script, primarily written by Aykroyd, was an unwieldy tome that needed to be hacked down to size by John Landis who also got screenwriting credit. A ballooning budget and Belushi’s cocaine addiction, compounded a production that was wildly behind schedule. The action featured perhaps the most destructive race of cars in pursuit ever filmed, part of which takes place inside a shopping mall. The picture cost $38 million dollars, an unprecedented amount for a comedy at the time. The critics were unconvinced. Nevertheless the megahit grossed $57.2 million in the summer of 1980 making it the 10th biggest movie of the year with the same frat-boy contingent that made Animal House a classic. Both directed by John Landis and both starring John Belushi.

Over time The Blues Brothers has grown in stature to become a cult classic. Separated from the storied Hollywood backstory it’s easy to see why. The chronicle is host to a plethora of cameos including R&B legends Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown. The love the filmmakers have for this music is obvious. The production numbers are buoyant and sensational featuring a cast of hundreds dancing with a joie de vivre rarely captured on screen. Aretha Franklin performs “Think” as a warning to her husband in a diner and the moment is miraculous. Granted the plot of this overlong 135 minute extravaganza is simplistic in the extreme. The story is essentially an an ever escalating car chase that includes the Chicago police force, Illinois state troopers, a parade of Nazis, an outraged country & western band and Jake’s jilted girlfriend (Carrie Fisher). But heck if the whole thing isn’t enjoyable fun. Laying waste to the greater Chicago area never felt so joyous….or soulful.

05-20-15

Pitch Perfect 2

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pitch Perfect 2 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the apparent mantra of Pitch Perfect 2. In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an obvious riff on Bring It On, but instead of competitive cheerleading, it was a cappella singing. Despite the familiarity, it was a delightful bit of fluff . The presentation was charming and it had a nice soundtrack to boot. Now in 2015 we have the sequel. Perhaps less innovative given we’ve seen this all before, but nevertheless it’s enchanting as well.

The saga picks up 3 years after the original. The Barden Bellas — collegiate champions — are now headed by Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). They’re rounded out by the same team of lovable music geeks, including goofy Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), soft-spoken Korean Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), lesbian African-American Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) and new Guatemalan exchange student Flo (Chrissie Fit). Talented and likable characters all. Fat Amy comes across the best because she seems like a fully formed individual. The rest have apparently been assigned one funny gag each to which they apparently must promote into the ground. Flo grew up very poor for example and she reminds us of this fact over and over and over. They’re not the focus so these formulaic conventions don’t detract, but a little more nuance to their personalities would’ve been appreciated.

There are some random subplots too. Beca interns at a high profile recording studio headed by a cruel music producer (Keegan-Michael Key). Fat Amy’s burgeoning romance with Bumper (Adam DeVine) continues to grow. And how will new recruit freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) fare in the group? She is a legacy whose mother was also a Barden Bella. Her songwriting talents blend with Beca’s producing skills. Emily’s original composition “Flashlight” seeks to duplicate the success of “Cups” from the last film. Emily even develops a little on-screen romance with adorkable Treblemaker Benji (Ben Platt). Unfortunately his fellow Treblemaker Jesse (Skylar Astin) barely registers any screen time in this outing. Oh but Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are back as politically incorrect color commentators. They’re good for some giggles. In fact, Pitch Perfect 2 is funnier. The script by Kay Cannon and Mickey Rapkin keeps the rapid-fire humor coming at a steady pace. An offhand reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Impressive.

Plotwise this is virtually the same thing. The story even begins with yet another public disgrace at a competition. They’re performing live for President Obama and one of the girls has a, shall we say, wardrobe malfunction. The incident is dubbed “Muffgate”. The team must now regroup and prove themselves once again. The disgraced Bellas are banned from contests at the collegiate level. Although they are not prevented from competing internationally. Thank goodness for loopholes. This time it’s at the world championships in Copenhagen where they must face rivals from schools on a global level. Thing is, no U.S. a cappella group has ever won this event before. Can they do it? If you really think they don’t have a chance then can I interest you in purchasing some prime Florida swampland?

To be quite honest, the predictability of the narrative is kind of the selling point. You come for songs, jokes and camaraderie and you’re given exactly that. However now the laughs are bigger, the music is better, and the cameos are more badass. I can’t spoil who pops up, but there are some very amusing appearances. Several are highlighted in an exclusive invite only a cappella riff-off. (YES another one). Here the Bellas battle against one special guest team of note I won’t reveal. Also competing at the party are all-boy harmony group The Treblemakers, Barden University alumni The Tonehangers, and a spectacular German group co-led by Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Pieter (Flula Borg). Das Sound Machine is a formidable opponent of Teutonic vocal precision and intense choreography. They are the primary antagonists of the film. Kommissar “actually speaks 8 languages, but loser is not one of them.” They perform “Uprising” by Muse at a car show and it’s breathtaking. I can say without hesitation that it was THEIR finale at the world championships that impressed me the most.

Pitch Perfect 2 goes down easily by championing wholesome values like friendship, teamwork and the importance of practice in between gently outrageous PG-13 rated behavior. The first category in the mid-story riff-off is “Songs About Butts” which allows for an admittedly inspired medley of “Thong Song”, “Shake Your Booty”, “Low”, “Bootylicious” and “Baby Got Back.” The musical ditty is just one of many exhilarating numbers throughout the film. I didn’t expect to hear Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” or Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”. It’s the music that propels this retread into a must see experience.

05-17-15

The Last Five Years

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical on February 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Last 5 Years photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Last Five Years begins on an elegiac note. Anna Kendrick’s beautifully sung “Still Hurting” is a mournful ballad about the breakup of her marriage. Yup, the couple breaks up….in 5 years according to the title.  You would call this production a romantic musical.  Although the tone for this genre is usually buoyant, you realize right from the start that this going to be anything but a happy tale.

Kendrick is Cathy Hiatt. Her story begins at the end and is told in reverse as we progress to her happy beginning. Actor Jeremy Jordan is Jamie Wellerstein. His account is told chronologically and reaches the same conclusion but in the opposite direction from her. Technically there are other people on screen, but the drama only involves these two characters. Back and forth their sagas are interwoven. When she’s singing, we’re going backwards. When he’s crooning, we’re going forward. In the middle they sing a duet. It chronicles the few ups but mostly downs in a five-year relationship between the rising novelist (him) and the struggling actor (her).

The Last Five Years is based on a 2002 Off Broadway production written by Jason Robert Brown, a 3-time Tony Award winner (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County). Forget the story because this one is absolutely rote. That doesn’t have to be a problem. Some of the greatest musicals of all time (Singin’ in the Rain for example) are nothing more than a fabrication designed to highlight a bunch of great songs. The tunes in this case are good, but not great. The best belong to Anna. Beside the aforementioned “Still Hurting”, there’s “I Can Do Better Than That” about her friend who ended up in Smalltown, USA.  There’s also a delightfully ubeat ditty “A Summer in Ohio”. It’s imaginatively staged as she’s talking from afar with her hubby via video internet chat. The creative number is performed with backup dancers practicing their routines at the theater .

The strength of any musical rests on its music. These melodies are odd. They’re not fabricated using a typical song structure made up of an intro/verses/chorus components. Instead they’re sung dialogue that propel a weak story. Sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but obviously not a film as sacred to aesthetes. What The Last Five Years has going for it is a nice showcase for Anna Kendrick to sing. She could sing the dictionary and it would sound delightful. She’s got a fantastic voice and she interprets the hell out of these songs. She employs just enough vocal interpretation to be interesting, but not so much that seems like she’s showing off. The play embraces its own artificial theatricality. The issue is that their “love” is never uplifting. There’s precious little chemistry between the two leads. This is partly due to the fact that they’re portraying a fighting couple through most of the picture. Their disenchantment with each other kind of rubs off on the viewer. However the sheer singing talent of Ana Kendrick compels me to give this a pass.

02-24-15

Get on Up

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 5, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Get on Up photo starrating-3stars.jpg1988 – A man in a green tracksuit arrives at a strip mall that he owns. He realizes someone has been using the bathroom without his permission. With shotgun in hand he enters a room and points it at the small gathering of people demanding to know the guilty culprit. He accidentally fires a shot in the ceiling amidst shrieks of the people now cowering on the floor, frightened out of their minds.  Police sirens are heard approaching in the distance. James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, is that man.

The practice of digitally encoding music and reusing it as part of another song is common practice today. They claim that James Brown is the most sampled artist of all time. In that vein, director Tate Taylor (The Help) gives us haphazard excerpts of a life. These vignettes are selected from different years at various intervals as if chosen from a buffet of life experiences. A detailed handling of the life of James Brown would be a formidable enterprise no doubt given the amount of material the man’s life would entail. Perhaps the filmmakers realized the task of accurately recounting the biography of a man with a long and complicated life would be too daunting. Nevertheless the disregard for chronology is odd. Get On Up is a biographical drama about the life of James Brown, where telling a traditional chronological tale is rejected in favor of emotional touchstones grouped by feeling.

As a result, the saga never has a chance to build momentum. We start near the end where James Brown is already a legend in his own lifetime. People are chanting his name as he walks down a concert hall. As he reflects upon his life, we get the aforementioned run-in with the law. We see a sketch during the 60s where he’s nearly shot down, right before he’s entertaining the troops in Vietnam. 1939 – He’s a little boy running in the woods of South Carolina with his mother, Then he’s performing at a gig in 1964 with his singing group The Famous Flames preceding The Rolling Stones. Jill Scott plays Dee-Dee Jenkins, James Brown’s second wife. One minute they’re handing out gifts as Santa and Mrs. Claus. The next he’s beating her within an inch of her life. Before we can process what‘s happening, the narrative has moved on to another year. Flashback and flash forward. Back and forth, all over the place.

The technique becomes particularly frustrating on the occasion where James is celebrating in his dressing room at the Apollo theater after a show. His mother, whom he hasn’t seen in years, walks in smiling. The power of that scene dissipates as it abruptly ends right there and we skim a myriad of other time periods instead, detailing different relationships with assorted women. All the while an alert viewer is wondering what exactly was the outcome of that fateful reunion of James Brown and his mother. We finally get the answer but it’s over 30 minutes later. In the interim, we come to realize how James Brown could be an effective mediator. A concert at The Boston Garden following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. is nearly cancelled for fear of riots. In an effort to diffuse a situation that has an excitable police presence on edge, he appeals to the crowd for order. James calms an excitable crowd whose dancing members keep getting up on stage. It’s a powerful moment.

One thing is for sure. Get on Up is highlighted by some great acting. Let’s start with the supporting parts. Dan Aykroyd as his manager, Viola Davis as his mother, and Octavia Spencer as the Aunt who raised him – they’re all memorable. But none more so than actor Nelsan Ellis (TV’s True Blood) who matches Chadwick Boseman’s work for unadulterated emotional heft. While in prison, James Brown met the man that would change his life, Bobby Byrd. Wives and band members would come and go but his long suffering sidekick stood by his side through the best and worst times of his life. As one of the most moving relationships in James Brown career, it’s a poignant performance that lingers after the music has faded.

Chadwick Boseman is impressive as James Brown. He fully embodies the man in vocal inflections, attitude and behavior. Boseman gets James’ signature raspy voice spot on, extending beyond mere mimicry. And when James sings! The musical performances are the best part. All of his hits are here including “Get Up Offa That Thing”, “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, Pt. 1”, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”. The presentation relies on lip synching to actual James Brown tracks and personally I’m glad that decision was made. The singer’s idiosyncratic musical style would have been extremely difficult to duplicate. Chadwick Boseman gets the electricity of James’ delivery down pat, complete with the dancing, the splits and the sheer athleticism. People in my theater actually got up and danced. I’ve never seen that happen. Get on Up isn’t a deep film. It samples from the highlights of a very intricate life with a slapdash approach. I suppose the disjointed sampling is appropriate in an ironic way. It’s how his music is often manipulated today. However, it doesn’t lend itself to a dramatically affecting story arc, just a well acted one.  Chadwick Boseman is indeed an actor to watch.

08-03-14

A Hard Day’s Night

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on July 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Hard Day's Night photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was fifty years ago today…well August 11, 1964 to be exact….that the picture A Hard Day’s Night was unleashed onto the American public. The soundtrack was The Beatles’ third studio album. Beatlemania was already in full swing and the teen public’s hunger for anything having to do with the British phenomenon was insatiable.

After signing them to a 3 picture deal, United Artists could have put anything out with John, Paul, George and Ringo in it and it would’ve been a success.  The surprise was that A Hard Day’s Night was actually quite good on its own merits. The production was helmed by an American movie director based in Britain named Richard Lester. He had created a short called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film starting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The Beatles loved it and selected him from handful of choices to direct their first feature.

The plot for this mock-documentary is simple. It’s a day in the life. The Beatles, playing themselves, are on their way to perform on a London TV show. The ongoing constant is that the Fab Four are eternally having to duck hordes of screaming fans at every stop. They board a train, get settled at their hotel, rehearse at the studio. Then Ringo gets separated from the group. Along the way on their various lightweight adventures, the Beatles display a charisma that is irresistible. The script is filled with little exchanges like the following.

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I’m a mocker.

A Hard Day’s Night is not particularly deep but it is fun – displaying an irreverent charm that is joyous. The Beatles come across as likable and witty. It simplifies their personalities and then amplifies them in short easy to digest sound bites. Yes, they are caricatures of their personas but these are appealing distortions of themselves. The production is highlighted by a manic energy. There are a lot of funny bits contained within. My favorite: Ringo puts his coat down for a girl so that she can walk across a muddy puddle several times before she ultimately falls down a deep hole. Oh and let’s not forget the music! As far as this Beatles fan is concerned, every song is gold, but highlights include: “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “She Loves You” and the title hit of course. Incidentally “I’ll Cry Instead” was excised from the sketch where the Beatles flee their hotel room via the fire escape. It can still be found on the soundtrack. However the more upbeat “Can’t Buy Me Love” was used in its place because Richard Lester felt the tune suited the scene better.

The cultural impact of the film cannot be underestimated. Its importance was immediately understood even garnering two Academy Award nominations at the time (Best Original Screenplay and Best Score). Although uncomplicated and seemingly insignificant, the narrative had an impact on spy thrillers like Dr. No, inspired 60s TV sitcom The Monkees and influenced later day pop music videos. It additionally makes a strong case as to why the Beatles became a worldwide sensation.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, a spectacular new restoration was released to theaters on July 4th by Janus Films. If you can’t make it to the cinema, Criterion Collection has assembled a special new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll marvel at the stunning black-and-white cinematography. Please re-discover this classic.

Begin Again

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on July 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Begin Again photo starrating-4stars.jpgBegin Again is a horrible name for a film. It’s generic and bland and forgettable. Everything that the actual drama is not. Let me be clear. I loved the film. Hated the title. Apparently test audiences didn’t agree. Back in the Fall of last year the picture was called Can a Song Save Your Life? Oh how much better and more interesting that quirky caption would’ve been had it stayed. This is a pure, effervescent slice of happiness that celebrates the beauty of music. The current moniker doesn’t do this inspired tale justice. For the life of me, I always struggle to remember what it’s called.

Begin Again is a distinctly New York saga. Keira Knightley is Greta, a young songstress still stinging from the breakup of the relationship with her “no-good ex-boyfriend” Dave Kohl, played by Adam Levine. Mark Ruffalo is Dan a once prosperous A&R executive whose career has hit the skids. Now disillusioned, he hasn’t had a success in years. Then one day their paths cross on open-mike night in some nondescript East Village club. Could the promising folk singer and the struggling A&R rep have the right chemistry to make it big? If this slice of life sounds thematically similar to the musical drama Once, that’s because Director John Carney was also responsible for that surprise indie hit in 2007. It’s been about that long since we’ve had such a sweet ode to musicians who write, compose and perform their own material. Most people will remember Once for the ballad “Falling Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The singing-songwriting stars won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year. Begin Again is highlighted by a delightful soundtrack as well.

The story works because of the authenticity of the performances. But this is a film that relies just as heavily on its soundtrack. Gregg Alexander, best known as the frontman of the New Radicals, co-wrote the music with Nick Lashley, Danielle Brisebois, and Nick Southwood. If there’s anything here that might break out, it would be the quietly soaring “Lost Stars”. Director John Carney does the impossible. He deftly extracts the talent to sing from Keira Knightley with the ability to act from Adam Levine. He minimizes their limitations and highlights their strengths. Knightly isn’t the greatest singer in the world but Carney wisely doesn’t have her push her voice beyond a pleasant lilt. She comes across like someone who idolizes Sara Bareilles. The script namechecks Nora Jones. Adam Levine plays a hungry singer who has recently been signed to a major record label – a moment he once occupied in real life before he achieved mega superstardom. He gets to sing several songs here stripped of the traditionally slick production of a Maroon 5 single. Marc Ruffalo’s appearance as Dan borders on crazy homeless guy. It’s supposed to highlight his downward spiral from success but he’s sheepishly charming by nature so Carney simply allows his personality to assert itself.

Begin Again is a beautifully realized valentine to the visionary forces that create music. Director John Carney fashions a collection of snapshots that wonderfully detail the inspiration in producing an album. Dan and Greta first meet in a joyful scene. Dan watches Greta sing “A Step You can’t Take Back” accompanied by nothing more than her strumming guitar. But he imagines the little ditty with a full accompaniment behind her. Each instrument sonically realized before our very eyes as they start playing by themselves in the background one by one: strings, a piano, the drums behind her. Each addition technically only existing in his mind, but we the audience experience what he hears and the results are a window into how an A & R executive might envision the work of an artist.

Begin Again is filled will little vignettes that feel like authentic depictions of the music business. It’s a romantic comedy in which you’re never quite sure if the sparks you see happening between Greta and Dan will ever actually erupt in romance. That little guessing game makes the script a bit unconventional. It’s reminiscent of director John Carney’s previous showbiz drama Once. I loved that film so I’m happy to revisit its style. Along the way we’re treated to some beautiful musical numbers as Greta and Dan record an album at various locations throughout New York City. Now excuse me while I go buy the soundtrack.

07-02-14

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