Archive for the Music Category

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

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Music, Science Fiction with tags on August 30, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bill_and_ted_face_the_music_ver3STARS2.5So the last time we saw Bill & Ted, it was 29 years ago.  A lot has changed since the duo’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bogus Journey (1991).  I mean, let’s be real.  It’s been nearly three decades.  Neither installment was what I’d call great cinema but they both coast on the affable charm of the leads.  “Be excellent to each other!” and “Party on dudes!” they proclaimed.  I really wanted to like this sequel because (1) of nostalgia for the first film and (2) there are flashes of inspiration that kept me hoping it would get better.  Unfortunately, the production is a chaotic, loud special effects-laden fantasy that never quite gelled for me.

So the boys (well men — Bill & Ted are in their 50s now) are tasked with writing a song that will unite the world and save humanity.  If they don’t, then reality will collapse.  Being the slackers that they are, they decide to reutilize their old miraculous phone booth to time travel into the future where the tune already exists, steal it and bring it back to their current era.  But there’s so much more going on.  They are married and their wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) are also time traveling to find an existence where each woman is happily married to their respective husband.  Bill & Ted are also pursued by a neurotic robot (Anthony Carrigan) that has been sent by The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) to kill the duo in order to restore balance to the universe. Whew!

Now on to the most righteous part.  Bill & Ted are aided by their daughters, Thea and Billie, who want to help their fathers write the song.  Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine embody the offspring with charisma and appeal.  Their personalities reflect their fathers’ demeanor but with more wisdom.  They have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and they put it to good use as they recruit a supergroup of the greatest musicians from throughout history.  Mozart (Daniel Dorr), Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft), and Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) are among the choices.  This is the story thread that harkens back to the sweet simplicity of the first movie.  The portion concerning the two girls is actually the most compelling.

The bloated saga is tedious though. Bill & Ted keep running into depressing or silly future versions of themselves.  In one they’re muscle-bound inmates in prison, in another timeline, hippies, in still another, old men.   None of these different iterations are very funny or clever.  Of course, most people tuning in won’t care.  They want to see “Bill” played by Alex Winter and “Ted” portrayed by Keanu Reeves.  The dudes are back and that’s very important because nostalgia is everything in this episode.  I think it’s safe to say if you haven’t seen the other two chapters or didn’t enjoy them,  then Face the Music is definitely not made with you in mind.   This is for the fans and it relies on jokes and asides that reward people who are.

8-28-20

Hamilton

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music, Musical on July 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

hamilton (1)STARS4For those living in a cave, Hamilton is a musical about Alexander Hamilton who was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  The play is known for a couple of daring distinctions.  It stars mostly non-white actors and incorporates hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul into “a story about America then, as told by America now.”  The stage production may make creative selections in casting but it still uplifts what is known as the American Dream for a group of men who were immigrants to a new land.

No musical has had a greater cultural impact on Broadway in the last decade.  Over the past 5 years, shows have consistently sold out and when you could buy a ticket they were prohibitively expensive.  This is a filmed version of the phenomenon that debuted in 2015.  There’s no trying to hide the theatricality of it all which makes it is a rare treat for audiences.  At this point, it’s unclear when theater will resume.  Fans can now witness the visual representation of the work they know by heart.  This was accomplished utilizing the original cast.  Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda inhabits the starring role and Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Aaron Burr.  There’s also Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette & Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Jonathan Groff as King George.  Those are the featured actors.  There are many other talented performers as well.  I wish I could list them all.

The play received a record 16 Tony nominations and won 11 including Best Musical in 2016.  This is a chance to see the magnificent achievements of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry for which they all won.  They may not be conventional choices for those roles, but they are extremely captivating.  Furthermore, the performances from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, and Christopher Jackson were all nominated.  The cast is indeed outstanding.  You can literally see the spit fly when Groff as King George III enunciates his lines and music.  It may be surprising to realize that the rest of the cast actually outshines Miranda in both singing and acting.  One scene where he’s required to cry feel particularly forced.  I saw this performed when the national tour came to San Francisco.  An actor named Julius Thomas III played the titular role and he was incredible.  However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a genius for writing the music and screenplay.  This is a work of art.  (He received Tonys for the Book and Original Score.)

Hamilton, the 2020 film of the Broadway experience, is much more than simply a filmed stage play.  Director Thomas Kail edited from 3 shows (2 with an audience, one without) during June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.  This all from the finest seat in the house.  This is a view better than any theater patron could have ever imagined.  Kail knows when to pull back and afford the presentation a broad overview and when to zoom in and be intimate.  He utilizes close-ups, Steadicam, crane, and dolly shots to give the viewer the very best perspective possible.  It is an impressive achievement and most definitely a perfect manifestation of Lin-Manuel’s artistic vision.  A filmmaker must make many critical decisions when presenting a live performance.  Director Kail’s craft elevates the spectacle to maximum effect.  There’s something undeniably special about being physically present in the theater.  Nevertheless, this is the optimal way to see Hamilton for most people.  Few records of this type have ever felt so immediate, vibrant, and vital.

P.S. It’s hard to catch all of the crucial lyrics of the songs and rap battles as they’re delivered. Turn on closed captioning for subtitles that will make your experience even better!

07-03-20

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted in Comedy, Music with tags on June 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

eurovision_song_contest_the_story_of_fire_sagaSTARS3So the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest was originally scheduled to culminate on May 16.  For the first time in the festival’s 64-year history it was canceled, but that doesn’t mean we can ‘t honor the spirit of that competition in a work of fiction.  As I sat there watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, it gradually dawned on me what makes a successful comedy.  Sorry, no.  This is not a great comedy.  However, it does indeed contain marvelous segments that occasionally elevate the film.  The problem is those inspired bits must be connected by dialogue that unites the pieces into a coherent whole.  That’s where this movie comes up short.

For the uninformed, the Eurovision Song Contest is an annual international tournament held since 1956 among mainly European countries.  Many Americans are still unaware of this cultural event.  Some facts: Ireland holds the record for the most wins with 7.  Sweden is close behind with 6.  As a fan of ABBA, I happen to know they won for Sweden with “Waterloo” in 1974.  Most of the winners are unknown to American audiences although French-Canadian singing sensation Céline Dion won in 1988 representing Switzerland of all places for reasons I still don’t understand.  Regardless, some allege the match tends to recognize the most bombastic, overproduced pop music you can imagine.  And to those people I say, what’s wrong with that?

This is a surprisingly respectful take on the event.  Homer Simpson once said, “It’s funny because it’s true.”  Even a simpleton like him knows that humor is most effective when there’s a kernel of truth to it.  The thing that saves the production is that Eurovision is less a parodic skewering but rather holds genuine affection for the source material.  There’s a lot of infectious music in this movie that brilliantly straddles the line between frivolous fluff and melodic earworms.  The first instance occurs early on, not 3 minutes into the picture.  Lars (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) of Fire Saga present a mesmerizing pop video called “Volcano Man”.  The spectacle features costumes that would’ve made KISS look restrained in their heyday.  I relished the sight of Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams excessively dolled up in shiny armor and resplendent fur respectively.  The lyrics are silly, but the tune is a bass-thumping banger.  It’s brilliant.  Unfortunately, their fantastic number is cut off halfway through for a laugh.  I’m still disappointed by that.

All of these wonderful musical ditties are poorly united with a screenplay by Will Ferrell & Andrew Steele (The Ladies Man) that is a real downer.  For one thing, the chronicle is far too long.  The film is over 2 hours and it goes through a lot of tangled machinations.  The Icelandic council first needs to pick twelve acts to compete for the Eurovision slot.  This includes a frontrunner named Katianna (Demi Lovato).  Fire Saga succeeds with another feel-good jam called “Double Trouble”.  However, one judge named Victor (Mikael Persbrandt) doesn’t want his own country to win for an illogical reason that could easily be solved by simply not participating.  Bizarrely all of the potential entrants die in a freak accident, save one.  Guess which act survives?  In Scotland, the heads of our central duo are tuned by other singers.  Sigrit is drawn to Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) a Russian competitor and Lars by Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) from Greece.  We the audience know that Fire Saga must get to the semi-finals.  I mean that is the whole point.  Yet there is so much convoluted nonsense that really taxes the viewer’s patience.  This is an endurance test.

Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) is a vision as Sigrit Ericksdottir.  She is the more charismatic half of their amateur pop musical duo.  Her charm is undeniable and when she sings it is a revelation.  Alas, it is not her voice but dubbed by a performer named Molly Sandén, who represented Sweden at the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.  There is one point in the adventure where McAdams does sing a ballad about her hometown “Husavikat”.  Not the climatic version but earlier in a quiet moment at a piano.  Sigrit is a captivating presence.  When she pleads with fellow partner Lars to stay in the competition, all of our sympathies are with her.  We resent Lars for the decision he makes.

As the setting for an interesting tale, Eurovision is a great idea.  Will Ferrell gets a lot of credit for that.  He isn’t just the star, but also its writer and producer.  However, I wish he could’ve swallowed his ego and cast someone who fits the part of nordic pop star Lars Erickssong better.  Alexander Skarsgård is the most obvious choice but Joel Kinnaman or Jakob Oftebro also come to mind.  Will Ferrell may “only” be 11 years older, but he seems more plausible as Rachel McAdams’ father than her love interest.  Oh, but on a related note, the actor playing Will Ferrell’s father Erick is none other than James Bond himself, Pierce Brosnan.  Brosnan sports a graying beard but the two guys still look like they’re nearly the same age.  I had to check.  Brosnan is merely 14 years Ferrell’s senior. Apparently, father Erick started young.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that every casting decision flatters a star who also happens to be the producer.

Key moments uplift this picture into something worth watching.  A cinematographer can elevate a film.  That previously mentioned video for “Volcano Man” is stunning.  The piece was photographed on location at a real volcanic lava field near Keflavik, Iceland.  The segment is lavishly photographed as is the rest of the production which highlights gorgeous vistas shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow when they get to Scotland.  Oscar-nominated cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables) deserves some serious credit for raising the film’s aesthetic into art even when the words coming out of the actor’s mouths are not.  Another high point occurs when the contestants gather together for a party.  Suddenly it’s time for a group sing they call a song-along.  The joyous medley combines Believe (Cher), Ray of Light (Madonna), Waterloo (ABBA) Ne partez pas sans moi (Celine Dion), and I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas) into one singular anthem.  Eurovision fans in the know will recognize a raft of past performers in a series of cameos.  It’s performances like this that ultimately push my review into a recommendation.   It’s such a pity that the non-musical portions are so tedious.

The High Note

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on June 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

high_note_ver2STARS3At first, the focus of this fetaure appears to be Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B/pop music superstar along the lines of Beyoncé or Rihanna.  However, Grace Davis is older than those artists.  To its credit, the screenplay makes a feeble attempt to address the concerns of an aging woman in the music industry.   Unfortunately,  it merely pays lip service to those feelings without tackling them in any meaningful way.  Manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) assumes that her hit-making days have passed.  He advises Grace to accept a Las Vegas residency.  He’s not wrong.    I’ve always regarded a residency as an impressive honor.  In the last decade beloved performers such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have solidified their ongoing appeal in this way while reaping millions of dollars in the process without having to tour.  Curiously the drama regards the very consideration as an embarrassing desire — an acknowledgment of being irrelevant.  Call me crazy, but the idea is not hitting rock bottom folks.  Far from it.  This is in fact an account detailing the enviable choice between two very attractive options.   There are literally no stakes here and therefore the plot is inconsequential at best.

The narrative slowly morphs, however, into a tale centered around a completely different person.  Grace is indeed a big personality.  She is a demanding individual with a huge talent and the sizable ego that comes along with it.  But she also has Maggie, a personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who is a dedicated and overworked soul.  Maggie’s job description apparently requires her to do trivial things like break in Grace’s new pair of shoes.  Maggie’s dream is to be a record producer.  Much to my surprise, it is really her ambitions that ultimately become the main focus of the film.

Figuring out the point of view of The High Note is rather confusing.   You’d think supporting the achievements of an aging woman in show business would be something we should admire.   Yet Grace Davis is presented as a wholly self-centered creature.  She carelessly dismisses a request from a fellow accomplished and well-known musician (Eddie Izzard) because he doesn’t have as many Grammys as she does.  In other scenes, Grace is hellbent on suppressing her own creativity.   It has been years since the artist put out new material.  Assistant Maggie encourages her boss to release a new album because she believes in her talent.   Nonetheless, Grace doesn’t agree.  She counteracts with a declaration highlighted in the trailer:  “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black.”  [Fact-check: Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Sia and Mariah Carey have all had #1’s over the age of 40.]  Maggie is trying to support the creative expression of this celebrity, while the woman herself argues against the idea.  Maggie has taken the time to learn everything she can about her employer.   She is uplifted as an intrinsically kind-hearted human.   I’ll admit these admirable qualities may be a requirement of Maggie’s job but Grace can’t even be bothered to learn Maggie’s last name.  Ouch!

The High Note is a glossy pop distraction directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.  This superficial fable won’t any awards for originality.  However, it’s well-acted by the entire cast.  It exists as lighthearted entertainment that is easily consumed as comfort food to make you feel good while sheltering at home during dark times.  Let’s not ignore the fact that this music superstar is depicted by the daughter of one of the most iconic personalities that ever lived: Diana Ross.  Tracee Ellis Ross brings knowledge and depth to a role that few others could.  There are two additional standouts: Dakota Johnson is engaging as the assistant.  I continue to be impressed by her.  Check out The Peanut Butter Falcon if you need further proof.  There’s also Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays David, an aspiring singer who becomes Maggie’s love interest.  The actor was also in Waves last year and he’s definitely a rising star.   See the movie for them.  If you want to watch something new and you need it now. The High Note will suffice.

05-30-20

Judy

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music with tags on September 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

judy_ver2STARS4Oh sure there’s entertainers Judy Collins and Judy Holliday but a biopic simply called Judy would have to be about Judy Garland.  Any endeavor presenting an account of the stage, screen and television star has an awesome task set before them.  Judy, however, is narrowly focused in scope.   This is not a traditional biopic of an entire life in showbiz.  It’s a highly selective snapshot.  Judy is adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.   It chronicles her life in 1969 when she did a series of sold-out concerts at London nightclub The Talk of the Town.

This is not a happy tale.  These are the events that occurred during the last year of Judy’s life.  The drama presents the details of her existence at the time.  As such it is the profile of a career in decline.  She has no home, losing one hotel room due to nonpayment and checking into another one with kids Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) in tow.  She accepts a gig for a 5 week run of shows in London so that she can afford to take care of her kids.  The irony is that by agreeing to the engagement she is physically unavailable to be with them.  And what about those concerts?  Well, depends on what night you showed up.  Sometimes she would come out and deliver that legendary magic in a stellar show greeted by thunderous applause.  Other times she wouldn’t take the stage at all, or if she did, perhaps she’d stumble out in a drunken stupor.

Judy is about one woman.  However, many other personalities affected her experiences.  Director Rupert Goold occasionally cuts to flashbacks of Judy’s childhood (portrayed by Darci Shaw) where we eavesdrop on her interactions with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  These berating conversations on the set of The Wizard of Oz will foreshadow the insecurities of her adulthood.  There are some lighthearted moments too.  The most uplifting occurs in the present.  Garland runs into two fans named Dan and Stan, an older gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira.  They’re waiting to greet her outside when she leaves the nightclub where she’s performing.  Feeling lonely, she asks to join the stunned pair for dinner.  The characters may be fictional but the warmth of their interaction is genuine.  The film also stars Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, her third marriage, Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.  All of these individuals encompass the portrait of an artist but make no mistake, they are all in service to the tale of one superstar.

As a story, it’s sad and muted but as the presentation of a singing idol, it’s spectacular.  I admit I walked in rather skeptical but I walked out a believer.  Renée Zellweger channels Judy Garland in a way that is uncanny.  I still can’t believe this is the same actress that played Bridget Jones.  It is a transformative performance.  Renée embodies Judy’s vulnerability, insecurity, and sadness in a manner that is profoundly personal.  Zellweger famously starred in the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago so it shouldn’t be surprising that she actually sings here.  No, Renée doesn’t sound exactly like Judy but this was a period in the legend’s life (let’s be honest)  where she wasn’t at the top of her game.  Renée’s somewhat flawed vocals serve this production perfectly.  It’s hard not to consider the trajectory of Renée herself who received 3 Oscar nominations during the heyday of her career.  She won the award 15 years ago as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cold Mountain in 2004.  She hasn’t been nominated since.  That will undoubtedly change this year.

Renée captures Judy’s soul.  My favorite line is when Mickey Deans greets her at a party with a cocktail.  “You can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” he says to Garland.  “Oh Frank Sinatra’s here?” she coyly replies.  Renée Zellweger effortlessly delivers the quip with an impish twinkle but it’s an external facade that glosses over raw emotion deep within.  At best, Renée’s work here is her crowning achievement.  At the very least, her acting is a compelling reason to see this picture.

09-26-19