Archive for the Music Category

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on October 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s not uncommon for a musical to have origins in the theater, but how many of those works sprung from a documentary first? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie can trace its beginnings to the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — a 2011 portrait of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old boy who wanted to wear a dress to the prom. His true story inspired a West End stage play by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Jonathan Butterell directs this film adaptation of that smash hit musical.

Jamie New (Max Harwood) — as he’s re-named here — is gay. However, that’s not even the issue. His classmates already know this. Jamie is out at the beginning of the picture. While his peers are thinking about what they want to be after graduation, Jamie wants to be a drag queen. He craves the spotlight and needs to be a star. The upcoming prom is the pivotal location where he hopes to unveil his new persona. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) may register slight surprise initially, but quickly shower him with unwavering support. There’s also local drag legend Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). He acts as a mentor. Even Jamie’s schoolmates seem mostly OK with his decision save for the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley). The underwritten character casts a dismissive remark here and there, but never physical violence. Providing more genuine conflict is his absent father (Ralph Ineson), who wants nothing to do with him and one teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan).

Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is a fascinating character. She imbues the saga with some unexpected nuance and complexity. She isn’t so much intolerant as irritated by this diva who demands to be the center of attention in her class. “I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it,” Jamie sings in a lively production number where the boy daydreams a full-on performance with his classmates as backup dancers. Miss Hedge has no problems with his desire to wear a dress and be a drag queen. However, the prom she contends is not the setting. The yearly dance is a place for all the kids to shine. Jamie’s desire threatens to seize focus. The gala for many becomes a celebration of one. In a musical where you’re playing to the back of the house, her negativity has the undermining temperament of a villain, but here it’s registering a little subtlety. Her pushing back on his narcissism starts to make sense.

The central conceit could have been handled in any number of ways. Here the drama is presented as a cheery and upbeat crowd-pleaser. The lesson promotes the timeworn mantra “Be true to yourself.” Disregard what other people think. The thing is, Jamie does care. His biggest fear: being ignored. He is supremely self-absorbed. He aspires to be famous and demands that everybody love him. His personality is all ME! ME! ME! His ego grows a little less inspiring after a while.

Propelling the lighthearted spirit is an energetic collection of show tunes. Full disclosure — initially, I thought the songs were merely pleasant. I couldn’t recall a single one immediately after I watched the film. Then I started listening to the movie soundtrack. Its buoyant energy started to work its way into my consciousness. I’ve been humming it ever since, “Everybody’s talking ’bout J-J-Jamie. Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy in the dress who was born to impress” the students sing at school. The title track occurs after they attend Jamie’s drag show the night before. Other highlights include Jamie’s mother’s poignant ode “He’s My Boy” and “This Was Me,” a vulnerable reminiscence from Hugo about the past. The aforementioned “And You Don’t Even Know It” is perhaps the stage musical’s best-known ditty. These hook-laden melodies paired with the imaginatively staged routines elevate the production. The subject of self-acceptance comes across as superficial at times but the colorful, catchy compositions have a joy that propels the message of encouragement with vitality and verve.

09-19-21

Dear Evan Hansen

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on September 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

These days it’s far more likely for a popular movie to be turned into a Broadway musical, but I long for the time when the hit Broadway musical came first and then became a great film. West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music are perfect examples of this. It rarely happens anymore. Sorry, but Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, Rent and Rock of Ages were turned into terrible movies. Les Miserables and Dreamgirls are more recent examples I did enjoy and interestingly it occurred again this very year. In the Heights was a solid production. Back in 2017, Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for 9 Tonys and won 6 including Best Musical. All the critics loved it in New York at the time, but it’s a complete bummer of a movie now.

This coming-of-age tale had everything going for it. (1) The film is an adaptation of Steven Levenson’s multiple-award-winning stage play, (2) it’s directed by Stephen The Perks of Being a Wallflower Chbosky, and (3) features the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who composed the music for La La Land and The Greatest Showman. I was primed to love this.

Evan Hansen is a teenager who suffers from severe social anxiety. We’re talking apprehension so intense he has trouble ordering a pizza. His therapist recommends that Evan write letters to himself detailing what will be good about each day. In his latest “Dear Evan Hansen” message, he regrets that it wasn’t such a great day after all. For one, he aspires to know school crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) better. “Maybe if I could just talk to her” he laments. He also wishes that anything he said mattered, to anyone. Would anyone notice if he just disappeared?

The sequence of happenstance and coincidences that follow could only transpire with help from a writer. Evan goes to the library to finish and print the correspondence to himself. While attempting to retrieve the letter from the printer, he runs into Zoe’s brother, Connor (Colton Ryan). He’s another marginalized classmate going through some pretty weighty issues of his own. In an effort of goodwill, Connor makes small talk with Evan. He even signs the cast on Evan’s arm. In doing so, he inadvertently finds and reads Evan’s message sitting on the printer which mentions his sister Zoe within the text. Sensing something insidious and feeling tormented, Connor grabs the letter and storms out of the library.

Three days later, Evan is called to the principal’s office where he discovers Connor committed suicide. There he meets Connor’s mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) and his stepfather Larry (Danny Pino). Cynthia gives Evan the personal letter that was found on Connor — construing that her son wrote this as a suicide note for Evan. Although Evan attempts to correct and explain, Cynthia and Larry are deeply touched by the correspondence. They believe Evan to be Connor’s only friend and they derive deep comfort from this idea. Understandably, Evan can’t bring himself to reveal the truth to Connor’s parents. His heart is in the right place. Instead, he propagates the lie with the help of his classmate Jared (Nik Dodani) out of a desire to further console his grieving parents.

Evan Hansen’s lie begins to have a positive effect on everyone. It becomes a blessing in his own life as well as within the Murphy family. They rediscover the son they never knew. Heidi and Larry’s marriage is strengthened. Meanwhile, their love for Evan provides the welcome support of a traditional nuclear family that Evan so desperately craves. This concerns his single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore), although she is still presented as a loving and supportive parent. Unfortunately, Heidi is frequently absent, constantly working simply to make ends meet. That’s admirable. Nothing wrong with that. Actress Julianne Moore is compelling in the role famously portrayed by actress Rachel Bay Jones on Broadway. Jones won a Tony for her achievement.

Live theater and movies are such different things. So let’s address the elephant in the (social media) room — Ben Platt’s much-maligned inability to pass for a high schooler. He’s 27 and for the record, I don’t have a problem with that. The principal actors playing high schoolers in Grease — one of the most beloved musicals of all time — were all at least in their mid-20s. Heck Stockard Channing was 34 when she played Betty Rizzo, and she was fabulous. What I do have a problem with is Platt’s cloying performance. It’s manic, overwhelmed by facial tics and twitches. He’s trying too hard. His hunched shoulders and cutesy expressions convey neediness. I guess that worked in the play where he was playing to the back of the house. Cinema is more reliant on subtlety. Platt is way overcompensating for his age and it’s distracting.

So what about the music? I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the most memorable songs. “Waving Through a Window”, “For Forever”, and “You will Be Found” are pleasant enough and Ben Platt is a competent singer. I’ll give him that. The real standout selection — in the movie anyway — is “Sincerely Me”. This is the moment where Evan enlists his friend, Jared, in creating fake backdated emails between him and Connor to corroborate his story. It’s the only production number featuring a sadly underused Colton Ryan. Their imagined camaraderie and friendship is one of the few moments where the film elicits pure joy.

Dear Evan Hansen is two-thirds of a good movie. It’s times like this, I wish I was a script doctor. I would’ve loved to get my hands on Steven Levenson’s screenplay. Before the final act, I was ready to give this film four stars. I found it a clever conceit how a little misunderstanding benefited everyone. Then the plot takes a fatal turn. A classmate named Alana Beck (Amanda Stenberg) senses some inconsistencies within Evan’s story. She confronts him about the veracity of his friendship with Connor. Everything from that moment on was a quick plunge into an epic fail. A sweet, uplifting tale descended into a funeral dirge on a dime. Like I got whiplash at how fast my joy turned to sorrow. By the end of the picture, I felt betrayed.

09-23-21

** POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ***

It’s difficult to explain the extent of my disappointment without divulging specific details of the plot, but I can explain the nature of my frustration with an analogy. If your best friend has a baby and that newborn is shall we say, less than attractive, I see no harm in “misleading” them by saying their infant is beautiful. I would continue to promote that so-called “lie” because it harms no one. It merely creates happiness and preserves the friendship. Writer Steven Levenson is not of that mindset.

Vivo

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Music, Musical with tags on August 26, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Vivo has staying power. The release from Sony Pictures Animation debuted on Netflix back on August 6. Three weeks later and it’s still in the Top 3 of all movies on their streaming site. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a brightly colored cartoon musical with catchy songs and an original story. A family looking for convenient entertainment at home could do far worse.

Vivo (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a kinkajou that sings and dances while old and humble bandleader Andrés (musician Juan de Marcos González of Buena Vista Social Club fame) is the organ-grinder/guitarist. The charismatic duo entertains street audiences in Havana, Cuba. Then one day Andrés receives a letter from Marta (Gloria Estefan) — his ex-singing partner for whom he always carried a secret love. The Celia Cruz-esque entertainer is about to retire and requests his presence at her farewell concert in Miami. Finally! The ideal opportunity to tell Marta how he truly feels in a song he wrote just for her before they parted ways. Tragically Andrés dies that night in his sleep. Now it’s up to his pet Kinkajou to fulfill his master’s dream and deliver the tune to his unrequited love. At the funeral, Vivo meets Andrés’ widowed niece Rosa (Zoe Saldana) and her offbeat teenage daughter Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). They’re both headed back to Florida. The mammal stows away in their luggage.

Vivo is the heart of a tale that features a rather unconventional star. We the audience can understand the creature as he speaks perfect English but it sounds like unintelligible chitters to everyone else. The “honey bear” is a member of the raccoon family that is native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. So what’s he doing in Cuba? Well, he answers that question in the captivating ditty “One of a Kind” where he raps: “Maybe I fell in a shipping crate as a baby.” You see this is a musical with music and lyrics courtesy of none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Emmy-Grammy-Tony Award winner also voices the titular personality. (No Oscar yet although he came close with “Best Original Song” for Moana). This isn’t exclusively his picture though. Kirk DeMicco who gave us The Croods directs and co-wrote the movie with Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights).

Vivo has a great foundation. A flashback presented in traditional 2D animation elicits the much needed romantic nostalgia that the cold modern textures of CGI lacks. An unorthodox beginning that features the death of a beloved character is so unexpected. I was ready for something singular and bizarre. No such luck. Don’t get me wrong. It’s pleasant entertainment and the fact that this is a musical elevates my review into a recommendation.

You can best believe the creator of In The Heights and Hamilton has offered up a plethora of hip-hop and Latin music-inspired tunes. When the melodies kick in, the narrative shines. The surging “Keep the Beat” while Vivo and Gabi drift their way through the Florida Everglades is a highlight. The same goes for Gabi’s prideful declaration “My Own Drum” where she asserts her individuality.

The first half overshadows the second. Gabi’s hyper disposition grows tiresome. Seriously people who solely think they alone are distinctive (she has purple hair) while deeming everyone else to possess a cookie-cutter personality, suffer from narcissism. News flash: every single person who ever lived is a unique human being. This account succumbs to tropes and clichés as it devolves into a banal road trip adventure. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to appreciate. Those less inclined to dissect and ponder the narrative are likely to enjoy this even more.

08-11-21

CODA

Posted in Drama, Family, Music with tags on August 22, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The term CODA was coined in 1983 by Millie Brother while founding the support organization Children of Deaf Adults. However, the word can also describe a concluding passage or event. That meaning is equally relevant here. This is a heartwarming tale about a hearing girl named Ruby played by Emilia Jones with Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur as her parents and Daniel Durant as her brother, all of whom are deaf. Writer/director Sian Heder’s picture is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier whose plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1996 German movie Beyond Silence.

Because Ruby is the only one in the household who can hear, she assists in the family fishing business as an interpreter with the outside world. She plans to do it full-time after finishing high school. However, Ruby can also sing and tries out for the school chorus. It turns out she is quite good. Choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is impressed. She’s paired up with a fellow student named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) for a duet and a sweet romance blossoms.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. CODA is a simple saga that is honest, wise, and unassuming. The chronicle concerns a girl who triumphs through different challenges by juggling her talents and interests with the demands of her family. It’s a formulaic account, but it gives the audience exactly what they want. A powerful reminder that the most enduring movies are derivative. Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life, and Galaxy Quest are all based on the same narrative. Their blueprint — The Magnificent Seven — is an inspiration which itself was a remake of Seven Samurai. The westerns of director John Ford inspired director Akira Kurosawa. It never ends. Formulas don’t negate an artistic work. It’s HOW these elements are creatively put together that matters. CODA poignantly captures the heart with sincerity — a human life artfully presented in a way with which anyone can identify.

My empathy was fully engaged. I admit I teared up at several points. In the final 20 minutes where Ruby sings the Joni Mitchell chestnut “Both Sides Now” I was on the precipice of full-blown waterworks. The screenplay is funny too. Earlier in the story, there’s a moment where the parents are discussing Ruby’s singing career. Mother is worried. “And what if she can’t sing? Maybe she’s awful,” she says and the father quickly responds, “She’s not awful.” The mother counters with “Really? Have you heard her?”

That deft mix of emotions is a big part of why this warm and earnest movie works. Also, credit goes to a charismatic ensemble. Special mention for newcomer actress Emilia Jones in the starring role. I was surprised to learn she is from the UK. Another Brit who can do a spot on American accent. She is just fantastic. CODA won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and has gotten a limited release in theaters and through Apple TV+. It’s one of the highlights of the year for me.

08-15-21

Respect

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on August 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Let’s start with the fact that the Queen of Soul herself handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her before she passed in 2018. She knew what she was doing. Jennifer Hudson is an entertainer whose life story could also form the basis of another fascinating biography. Hudson initially rose to prominence as a finalist on the third season of the singing competition American Idol in 2004. She even sang two Aretha songs on the show: “Share Your Love With Me” and “Baby, I Love You.” Despite making the Top 12, she struggled to maintain popularity with the audience and only placed seventh. Then somehow turned that relatively mediocre finish into a feature film debut as Effie White in Dreamgirls in 2006. The role garnered widespread universal acclaim. A slew of awards followed including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The accomplished Grammy-winning singer has continued to appear in films.

If it wasn’t obvious from my introductory paragraph, Jennifer Hudson is the heart and soul of Respect. She is incredibly compelling. Conversely, the production follows the rote story beats of a traditional biopic. It begins with Aretha (Skye Dakota Turner ) as a 10-year-old girl circa 1952 growing up in Detroit. We meet a domineering father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and a sympathetic mother Barbara Siggers (Audra McDonald). They are separated. The young girl performs to the delight of partygoers at her father’s behest with luminaries like Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke in attendance. It sounds idyllic, but her childhood was tainted by trauma and tragedy.

Aretha’s adult life had its share of difficulties. She gained notoriety but was also fraught by dark periods. These episodes are referred to as her “personal demons.” After a string of 9 albums with Columbia and no hits, she changed labels. At Atlantic, she meets veteran record producer Jerry Wexler (Marc Maron) and eventually achieved mainstream success in 1967 with her 10th record Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The title track and the #1 “Respect” were both smash hits. Her career would take off from there. The chronicle recounts an abusive relationship with husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans). After they break up she dates tour manager Ken Cunningham (Albert Jones). Along the way, the pressures of fame predictably drive her to drink. The trials and tribulations culminate with her biggest selling disc, the live gospel recording Amazing Grace in 1972.

Aretha Franklin would continue to have hits well into the 1980s. A string of successes for Arista Records included the classic 1985 album Who Zooming Who. A follow-up would include her duet with George Michael. “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was a #1 single. That kind of achievement for women of a certain age is such a rarity. I wish the film had touched on that decade.

Respect is a conventional account that offers a smattering of wonderful numbers. Of course you’ll hear the title track, which was recorded by Otis Redding first, but you’ll also learn the genesis of the arrangement. The recreation of an iconic concert where she performs the song at Madison Square Garden is mesmerizing. There’s a host of other performances each one a joy in their own right. Aretha Franklin sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “Amazing Grace” among them. The vocals are so good that you’ll be fidgeting in your seat waiting for the next tune. This is a 2 hour and 25-minute movie. There’s a lot of information packed in this chronicle. Truth to tell, I didn’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life. I did learn some things, although her Wikipedia article is just as informative. Respect is a serviceable biopic that presents the highlights of a career. This works best as a Broadway-style jukebox musical where the songs are the point. Jennifer Hudson makes it worth watching.

08-17-21

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted in Drama, History, Music with tags on July 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everyone’s heard of Woodstock. It has pretty much become THE symbol of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The 3-day music festival was held August 15–18 in 1969. Its mystic significance has only grown since. Half a century later, the influential touchstone is still a historical benchmark of popular music as well as a defining moment for a generation. Michael Wadleigh’s landmark 1970 documentary cemented its status as a phenomenon.

There was another music celebration in New York that year. 100 miles away from Bethel, the Harlem Cultural Festival started earlier that summer. From June 29 to Aug. 24 on each Sunday at 3 PM in the afternoon, a concert took place in Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973). The event was hosted and promoted by Tony Lawrence, a genial and charismatic nightclub singer. The stated purpose was to celebrate African American culture. Promoting the ongoing politics of black pride was also a motivation.

A jaw-dropping assemblage of talent showed up. The 5th Dimension, Sly, and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson all took the stage at different points. Gladys Knight and the Pips also appeared. Would you believe they weren’t even considered headliners at that point? Despite the fact that their recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had been a massive hit in 1967, their legendary reputation had not been established. Gladys Knight’s performance is among my favorites and the Pips choreography is nothing less than sensational.

The actual event presented in the Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) was by all accounts a success. The series of six free shows boasted a combined attendance of nearly 300,000. Then it faded from memory. TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the exhibition on 50 reels of tape which comprised 40 hours of live footage. He tried to get somebody — anybody — interested in his document. New York’s WNEW-TV Channel 5 (now FOX 5) broadcast hour-long specials at the time but that too failed to cause much of a stir. Later Tulchin tried dubbing this as the “Black Woodstock” to generate interest. It didn’t. For the better part of 50 years, Tulchin’s film was stored away in his basement in Bronxville and largely forgotten — until now. Sadly Tulchin, who died in 2017, is not around to see its resurgence.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was shocked to discover this occurred in the summer of ’69. As the musical director for The Tonight Show and the drummer for the hip hop band the Roots, he’s a knowledgeable individual. Like the majority of us, Questlove was completely unaware of its existence. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) becomes a riveting capsule of history. In between clips, we are treated to interviews with assorted people providing historical context and comment. Some of it is a bit redundant as it hammers away at a predetermined social narrative. Its virtue is abundantly clear simply from the visual spectacle and unvarnished facts. Nevertheless, the observations are deeply fascinating. Others are amusing. Festival attendee Musa Jackson was there when he was four with his family. “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken” he fondly recalls. “It was the ultimate Black barbecue.”

One of the best things Questlove does is filming the artists today watching their appearances back then. Getting founding members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension to comment is a deeply emotional experience for them as well as the audience. They apparently are witnessing the footage simultaneously for the first time as us. The group’s lush, meticulously crafted version of “champagne soul” straddled the line between various genres. They openly discuss their concerns at the time.

Many intriguing tidbits are revealed. Contrary to some reports, the NYPD did indeed provide security. You can clearly see them at various points throughout the crowd. They kind of stick out. However, for the June 29 date featuring Sly and the Family Stone, they did refuse and it was instead provided by members of the Black Panther Party. The 3rd show literally occurred on the very same day as the Moon landing. Illuminating interviews of the attendees provide their frank and cogent opinions on the relevance of that cultural milestone versus this one.

So many wonderful highlights. Its difficult for me to convey the passion of an actual performance. When elder gospel legend Mahalia Jackson invites protege Mavis Staples to sing, it’s certainly one of the film’s most powerful moments. The torch-passing spectacle of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was a favorite of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader had been assassinated one year earlier. Another inclusion that shows how much things have changed: New York City mayor John Lindsay — a white Republican — is warmly embraced by the crowd. He takes the stage in a mutual support of the community.

Now that it has been unearthed, it will be interesting to see the effect this long-forgotten document of history has on future generations. It already won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Critical acclaim has been ubiquitous. Thanks to Questlove’s influence, he was able to secure and edit this testimony. It is an impressive directorial debut. Finally, the revolution CAN be televised….for the first time in over 50 years.

07-02-21

In the Heights

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on June 14, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before Hamilton, there was In the Heights — Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other Broadway musical. A blistering heatwave is affecting the residents of Upper Manhattan, New York City. The chronicle details the days leading up to a citywide electrical blackout. Washington Heights is colloquially known as “Little Dominican Republic.” The thriving neighborhood is home to a lively population that also includes Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans, and most notably Dominicans in this particular story. They call this Latino enclave home. It’s hard not to be reminded of West Side Story. Lin-Manuel Miranda has admitted the Arthur Laurents / Leonard Bernstein / Stephen Sondheim play did inspire him but he wanted to tell a different narrative. This isn’t about rival gangs but simply an uplifting tale about the vibrant community of immigrants and their pursuit of the American dream.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) is an orphan and owner of a bodega in the neighborhood. He longs to return to his family’s homeland in the Caribbean. He was raised by “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz), though she is not his grandmother by blood. Usnavi has a crush on the beautiful Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) who dreams of getting out of the barrio and moving downtown where she can pursue a career as a fashion designer. She has been friends since childhood with Nina (Leslie Grace) who moved to California to attend Stanford University. Unfortunately, Nina finds adapting to the culture at Stanford a lot harder than she thought. She is pursued by Benny (Corey Hawkins). He is a taxi dispatcher for Nina’s Father, Mr. Rosario (Jimmy Smits). Benny hopes to open his own business one day.

I am an unapologetic fan of musical dramas. Contrary to popular belief, they never left. Case in point: The past five years have given us Sing Street, La La Land, The Greatest Showman, Mary Poppins Returns, A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, even (I’ll defend it) Disney’s live-action Aladdin. I embraced them all for their sunny attitude. So how much joy can you handle? I freely admit that musicals are inherently sentimental already. Name another genre where people burst into song to clarify the way they feel. Yet even I was a bit surprised by the onslaught of joyful intensity that awaited me in this film.

The score features a mixture of hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and soul. Rarely have I seen a movie so zealous on conveying happiness and enthusiasm. The principals are all going through various trials and tribulations. They have their doubts, but you know they’re going to come around right before the finale. There’s no place like home is the underlying moral. Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to convey that feeling, so I get it. That sentiment also underscored the philosophy in The Wizard of Oz, but the sheer exuberance here makes that masterpiece look like a funeral dirge.

How about those production numbers! In the Heights is a veritable smorgasbord of one spectacle after another. There are sequences of spoken dialogue, but the lyrics are essentially conversation set to a tune. As such — and I mentioned this in my Hamilton review — the picture is best viewed with closed captions to better comprehend the rapid-fire exposition. It explains these characters. Just three minutes in, the film’s first ditty “In the Heights” debuts with Usnavi’s talk/singing to the audience. He recounts to us how he got his name. His father saw the letters “US Navy” imprinted on the ship that passed by when he entered the country. That is but one tidbit. There are so many more details dropped in this 7+ minute tune. The melody is a chaotic montage of key information and quickly edited images. No newbie could possibly take it all in one sitting. The ability to watch and rewind that performance is a luxury to be savored.

Then comes the moment that virtually justifies the movie’s existence. A winning lottery ticket has been sold at Usnavi’s store and the “96,000” prize is the subject of a spectacular exhibition at New York’s public Highbridge Pool. The chanting chorus track with synchronized swimming and 500 extras is like something out of 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid. Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams would be proud. But there are many more. How about “Carnaval Del Barrio” where Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega) lifts the spirits of the block (and the audience) while the neighborhood is lounging around depressed in the sweltering heat with no electricity. Even quieter ballads like “When the Sun Goes Down” feature a little magic during an exquisite dance sequence where Nina and Benny sashay up the vertical wall of a building.

Director Jon Chu most successfully directed Crazy Rich Asians (2018) but his work on the dance movie Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and its sequel Step Up 3D (2010) lay the foundation for his stellar achievement here. The story celebrates community. The idea that family and friends often come together during difficult times is nothing new. What elevates the saga are the production numbers which are beyond compare. If you love musicals (as I do) then, In the Heights will not let you down. If not, this nearly 2 1/2 hour film might test your “Paciencia Y Fe” — but only in the most hopeful way possible.

06-10-21

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on March 3, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The script is the single most important component of a film. We’re talking about the story and dialogue. So it’s particularly heartbreaking when an actor delivers a sensational performance from a screenplay that is seriously flawed. There’s no question that the heart of The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a stunning achievement by Andra Day as the jazz legend. Andra is an accomplished singer in her own right. She released her debut album in 2015. It was a modest success on the charts. She received 2 Grammy nominations for the album. Who knew she was also a gifted actress? Her ability to channel Bille Holiday is uncanny. She is the best thing about the picture

Like 2019’s Judy starring Renée Zellweger, this saga isn’t a full biopic. It just focuses on the last 12 years of Holiday’s life and in particular the controversy surrounding the song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by Holiday in 1939. The lyrics convey the horrors of a lynching. Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) subsequently targets Holiday for performing that tune. He’s a snarling mustache-twirling villain without depth or subtly — a hate-monger exploiting the “war on drugs” to promote his racist ideology. The movie depicts her as a civil rights hero.

Harry Anslinger sends a Black FBI agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) to befriend Holiday. In this way, Anslinger hopes Fletcher will obtain information so he can make an arrest. Despite working for the government, it appears Jimmy Fletcher is conflicted, so he treats her a little nicer than most. Rhodes gives the 2nd best portrayal. That isn’t saying a lot since most of the remaining characters are poorly detailed — some like Miss Freddy (Miss Lawrence) and Reginald Lord Devine (Leslie Jordan) are inventions, made up of composites or in the case of Talulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), caricatures that distract from the main thrust of the drama.

Andra outshines a mediocre story. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks is mainly focused on the government’s obsession with her. It also recounts how predatory people exploited Holiday for money. Director Lee Daniels frequently relies on superficial montages sloppily inserted where dramatic insight should be. There is no joy unless Billie Holiday singing on stage. This is a woman dependent on heroin and alcohol. Utterly lacking is any enlightenment into her personality. Furthermore, the narrative doesn’t hold her accountable for her addiction. This is the portrait of a sad victim. It’s a very depressing movie. More focus on Holiday’s unparalleled talent would have been nice. The movie did inspire me to listen to Billie Holiday’s music again, so it ultimately had a positive effect on my own life.

02-26-21

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on December 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

We get a taste of Ma Rainey’s immeasurable talent at a blues concert on stage right at the beginning. Our story concludes with a staid rendition of a song in a recording studio that has a much different energy. In between, there are a lot of lengthy speeches that serve to explain why. This is an actor’s showcase based on August Wilson’s 1982 play. Wilson is best known for a series of ten theatrical works collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle that deal with themes of race and the African American experience. Adapted by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and directed by George C. Wolfe, this is the one piece of the cycle not set in Pittsburgh. It’s Chicago baby.

Viola Davis portrays the legendary “Mother of the Blues.” Ma Rainey was a trailblazing star in the 1920s. Readers may recall Viola Davis also appeared in Fences in 2016. That adaption of August Wilson’s play was shepherded by Denzel Washington who produced, directed and starred. He is a producer here and there are plans to bring all 10 of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle to the screen under his guidance. It’s 1927 and Ma Rainey travels to Chicago to record a selection of her popular tunes. The play centers on a fictionalized recording session of one particular song which also serves as the title of this movie. Incidentally, the “Black Bottom” was a dance craze of the era. The chronicle touches upon a multitude of subjects that include race, religion, and music — specifically the exploitation of black artists at the hands of white producers.

The performances are spectacular. Ma Rainey is a bold presence — strong-willed, set in her ways. She is keenly aware that these white men need her. She has something of value: her voice. She withholds that talent like a negotiable commodity as they are constantly at odds. With makeup, weight, gold teeth, and impressive singing, she cuts an imposing figure. Veteran soul singer Maxayn Lewis provides the vocals. Viola Davis embodies the woman. She won an Oscar for Fences and she most certainly will garner a nomination for her extraordinary work here. Whenever Ma Rainey is up on the screen, the drama is at its most fascinating. She commands the room.

In a most poignant elegy, Chadwick Boseman gives his final performance. As trumpeter Levee, he’s brought in as a hired musician for Ma Rainey’s latest record. The two fiercely independent types butt heads. He would rather perform the tunes he has written with his own musical combo. To make matters even more constrained, he also has eyes for Ma Rainey’s girl Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Levee is the biggest part of the entire production and Boseman is getting the most accolades. He’s up on screen more than anyone, even Ma Rainey. Boseman is undeniably great and a likely Oscar nominee. However, actors Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts portray the other members in her backing band. Their contributions are worthy of note as well. The cast is a captivating ensemble.

The overall presentation beautifully captures the craft of the stage but it’s not cinematic. The production is stagey, and it unfolds in an extremely claustrophobic setting. Fences suffered from theatricality too. Its dialogue ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize though and the movie transcended that obstacle. Most of the “action” here takes place in a recording studio — and by action, I mean talking. Perhaps that confined feeling was desired, but it’s not pleasant. There’s a lot of monologuing going on here. Characters recount various stories. Most underscore how racism has affected their lives. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom leans so heavily on amplified displays that it becomes a demonstration where actors act. We the audience are invited to marvel at their diction and technique. Those theatrics work perfectly well on Broadway, but it can be difficult to pull off in a film. Hamilton is a notable exception. Movies and plays are each elevated by distinct qualities. Great performances unite them both, but the rest doesn’t coalesce into a fully-realized whole. I was oddly unfulfilled by the end. Given that, I’d enjoy Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom a lot more on a theater stage than a TV screen.

12-18-20

Sound of Metal

Posted in Drama, Music on December 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is a drummer in a metal band. To be specific, he’s one half of the duo Blackgammon with his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) — short for Louise –who is the lead singer. The duo are holding onto the dream of hitting the big time. They enjoy a nomadic existence driving from gig to gig in a spacious RV that doubles as their home. Then Ruben swiftly begins to lose his hearing. It essentially happens immediately in one scene. Not complete silence, he can still hear some noise, but it’s severely muffled as if he’s wearing earplugs. Words are indecipherable. A conversation is impossible. Is this a result of his profession? He goes to an ear doctor (Tom Kemp). The physician’s ambiguous explanation is neither decisive nor positive. That frustratingly feels like real life.

It would appear from the plot synopsis that the narrative could easily devolve into a rote disability melodrama — one that cloyingly tugs on your heartstrings. Sound of Metal is not that movie. It’s a raw, realistic account starring a pragmatic young man. We deeply empathize with his predicament. There are two striking reasons for that. The first involves the sound design which puts the audience inside the head of a musician going deaf. The sonic perspective shifts back and forth and the contrast is jarring. We are subjected to his ordeal. The effect is a tangible and affecting experience.

Riz Ahmed’s sober performance in the lead role is the second reason we so relate to his plight. Ruben isn’t a saint. He’s a former drug addict who simply wants to keep pursuing his passion: making music. And like a junkie, he will do anything to be able to keep doing that in life. This all-consuming desire introduces him to several different contacts. At one point, he comes to stay at a place for other deaf recovering addicts. His interactions with a counselor named Joe (Paul Raci) is a fascinating development to the story that was rather unexpected. Joe is a former Vietnam War vet who lost his hearing in the war. Also a former alcoholic, he runs this remote community where people in need can get their bearings. Actor Paul Raci is pretty great too.

Sound of Metal is precisely the kind of human drama I adore. It’s intimate, honest, and ultimately quite moving. I suspect it will inspire many to rethink the way they view the deaf. This emotional saga changed me for the better. Joe’s guidelines are powerful declarations to Ruben. His words once even brought me to tears. The Place Beyond the Pines writer Darius Marder makes an auspicious directorial debut here. He and brother Abraham Marder wrote the screenplay together based on Derek Cianfrance’s unfinished docufiction project “Metalhead.” This is a modest feature, but I am but one of many who have heaped praise upon this work. I love it when a movie completely lives up to all the euphoric buzz. We’re getting to the end of 2020 (finally). I can confidently say this film is among the very best of the year.

12-08-20