Archive for the Music Category

Cyrano

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on January 20, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I’ve always had a hard time understanding people who make the blanket proclamation, “I hate musicals.” How can someone write off an entire artistic discipline? It’s akin to dismissing all Westerns or horror movies. Their reasons inevitably vary, but it’s often based on the artificiality of it all and no enthusiasm for the songs. To them I say, you haven’t seen the right one. But as I sat watching Cyrano, I sympathized with those people.

It’s a tale as old as the 19th century. That’s when poet Edmond Rostand wrote a play that ultimately outgrew the fame of the actual man who inspired it. It barely needs recounting but I’ll oblige. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a cadet in the French army. He’s both a talented fighter and an expressive wordsmith. He carries the torch for his longtime friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Although his short stature (it’s his nose in the novel) gives him a lack of confidence. A foppish duke (Ben Mendelsohn unrecognizable under pounds of makeup and a big white wig) also has designs of marriage on Roxanne. She has eyes for neither. Her attention is captivated by a soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who returns the same affection. However Christian is inarticulate and Roxanne demands to be wooed with eloquent words and letters. A mere “I love you” isn’t going to cut it. When Roxanne admits having feelings for Christian to her lifelong friend, Cyrano secretly decides to assist by ghostwriting the letters that Christian will send to Roxanne. They come from the heart.

Let’s start with the good. Actor Peter Dinklage is captivating and the #1 reason to see yet another adaptation of this work. This version is penned by Erica Schmidt who is married to the star. Dinklage and co-star Haley Bennett were part of the original stage production. When Cyrano hears Roxanne has something to confess, he assumes it is her love for him. His dejected expression perfectly captures heartbreak when she doesn’t return his feelings. His crooning is less mellifluous. Peter Dinklage’s bass-baritone is reminiscent of Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies. In fact, all of the singing is — quite frankly — mediocre with Haley Bennet being a notable exception. She is the only vocalist with a dulcet tone. I appreciated her ability. Nevertheless, this is a perfect segue into what didn’t work.

Music is the foundation for any great musical. “Well, duh!” The show features songs by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the indie rock band The National and lyrics by Matt Berninger (also of The National) and his wife, Carin Besser. Sadly, Cyrano lacks memorable tunes. One forgettable ballad follows another. I’m usually humming the melodies after a production. I cannot recall a single one. They’re pleasant I suppose, but dull — like dialogue recited with a singsong delivery. I’d say more but I can’t discuss them with specificity. Oh, I do remember one where Christian sings the reprise, “I’d give anything for someone to say…” but that’s only because of the choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman. The soldiers flamboyantly prance about with overly affected gestures as they fence. It is a sight.

I have an issue with the original text. Cyrano de Bergerac is a bummer of a story. The titular character pines for a woman oblivious to his love. Here the poor guy is pouring out his soul and she’s completely distracted. Her heart has been duped by — let’s face it — a handsome face. She wouldn’t be the first, but is she worthy of his admiration? I think not. I wish Cyrano would just move on. So sad. Meanwhile, her growing frustration with Christian’s clumsy vocabulary adds self-righteousness to her obnoxious qualities. Roxanne’s ongoing fascination with Christian becomes even more superficial. I’ve never found Roxanne to be deserving of praise. Viewers are rewarded for enduring her behavior with a complete downer of a resolution. It casts a pall on the entire saga.

Even when mounted well, the developments of the narrative are difficult to embrace. The 1897 play by Edmond Rostand has been adapted numerous times, most famously as a 1950 film starring José Ferrer who won an Oscar, and as a 1990 French picture with Gérard Depardieu (he was Oscar-nominated). Roxanne — the 1987 modernization with Steve Martin — sidestepped the letdown by substituting a happy ending. Erica Schmidt’s Cyrano was originally a stage musical. I’ll give her credit for trying something new. Unfortunately, the songs don’t enhance the production. Peter Dinklage’s performance kept me somewhat engaged. This leads me to assert it would have been better as a straight-ahead drama. And yet there are so many of those. Did we really need another?

12-14-21

Belle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Music, Science Fiction with tags on January 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When they call you the spiritual successor to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, you must be doing something right. Director Mamoru Hosoda originally garnered fame at Toei Animation in the early 2000s with two films in the Digimon Adventure series. In 2011, he co-founded Studio Chizu. Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast were their first two films. Mirai followed and was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated feature in 2019. Belle is the studio’s fourth release.

OK, let me see if I can make sense of this story. Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan. Following the death of her mother, the high school student retreats into an online virtual world called “U” with 5 billion players. She creates an avatar linked to her biometric info and becomes a pink-haired pop princess named Belle (also with freckles). It is within this alternate reality that Suzu achieves her true potential. As a lithe and beautiful Barbie-like singer, she attains global superstardom. She later meets a mysterious fellow player within the fantasy world called “The Dragon.” After this beast interrupts her concert — ultimately ruining it — he is pursued by a phalanx of vigilantes led by the arrogant Jason. They have superpowers naturally. Suzu’s desire to uncover The Dragon’s true identity develops into an obsession.

Belle is nothing if not bewildering for the number of plot threads it throws into the mix. The title acknowledges a debt to Beauty and the Beast. It even has an extended sequence that “pays homage” to the iconic ballroom dance from that Disney film. That’s merely one minor component. An ordinary teen who secretly performs as a pretty singing star is reminiscent of the 1980s American cartoon TV series Jem but in a simulated existence. Think Jem visits The Matrix.

Suzu is constantly being pulled between reality and fantasy. In the real world, Suzu is trying to come to terms with her mom’s passing. A group of uniformed high school peers comprises a soap opera that could be the foundation for a completely different movie. Suzu has a crush on childhood pal Shinobu. Popular “It” girl Ruka has eyes for jock Kamishin and appeals to Suzu for help. Meanwhile, her intellectual but snarky best friend Hiro offers Suzu advice on how to navigate the internet world of U. Hiro assists in trying to unveil The Dragon. It’s here that the saga goes off on another tangent as various odd characters are introduced: a troubled baseball player, a tattooed artist, and some random woman pretending to be the ideal housewife. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also an investigation into child abuse. Why have one plotline when you can have six or more?

Belle is an ambitious tale inundated by exquisite imagery. There are undeniably dazzling moments. Mamoru Hosoda populates his virtual environment with a glittering confection of digital avatars, pixies, critters, superheroes, confetti, glowing orbs, and whales in the cosmos. When Belle sings “A Million Miles Away” at the climax, it’s an epic finish that achieves a poetic finality. Unfortunately, the chronicle continues for another 20 minutes in order to tie up some unfinished details. The bizarre unpredictability of the production may have more appeal for fans familiar with the capricious nature of anime.

It’s sci-fi! It’s a fairytale! It’s a soap opera! Belle’s demanding two hour+ runtime entertains a dizzying number of subplots. Sadly they don’t coalesce into a compelling singular narrative. The spotlight is on Suzu (and her alter ego Belle), but this poor girl is beset by a myriad of distractions. The death of her mom, the cute boy at school, acquiring confidence, a J-Pop singing career, computer technology, and helping out an abused youth, all vie for her attention. Those craving a focus will be mystified. The lack of consideration for one central objective makes an emotional connection to this material impossible.

01-07-22

West Side Story

Posted in Crime, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’ve got to hand it to Steven Spielberg. In his 50 years of making movies, he has never directed a musical before and when he decides to start, he chooses to remake one of the most illustrious of all time. That takes guts. The 1957 Broadway show was conceived by Jerome Robbins featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It became a landmark 1961 film that made $43.7 million ($400 million adjusted for inflation) and won a whopping 10 Oscars including Best Picture. The soundtrack spent 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at No. 1 of any album in history. It was an imposing task. I’m happy to say the gamble pays off.

The beloved tale is a well-known formula of timeworn components. Rival street gangs face off in NYC. It concerns the Sharks who hail from Puerto Rico vs. the nativist white gang the Jets. Side note: actor Mike Faist is a revelation as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and the story isn’t even about him. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former Jet who went to jail and is now a reformed character. He meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), a beautiful 18-year-old at a community dance. Tony and Maria instantly fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Ah, movies! Complicating matters is that she’s the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Anita (Ariana DeBose) is his assertive girlfriend. More on her later. Trying to keep the peace is Valentina (Rita Moreno), a widow who now runs Doc’s general store. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a doomed romance between star-crossed sweethearts. In this case, from different sides in 1950s Manhattan.

This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” – I’ve loved these tunes for years. Every fan will cite a favorite. For me, the highlight has always been the spirited “America” sung by the Puerto Ricans that pits the women who list all the things they champion about their adoptive country against their male counterparts who play up all the negative aspects. I appreciate the mixed meter of a chant that espouses pro-American views but is rooted in vibrant Latin rhythms and Spanish guitar. It’s both funny and athletic. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I thought, THIS is cinema. I was enthralled. The singing is stellar across the board. In a cast of many highlights, the MVP goes to Ariana Dubose as Anita. She has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rita Moreno famously received a well-earned Oscar for that role. Ariana is more than up to the task.

In a word, West Side Story is spectacular. This grand production is a perfect marriage of old and new. There is such respect for its iconic predecessor. Composer David Newman arranges Bernstein’s timeless score with passion and verve. Meanwhile, Justin Peck updates Jerome Robbins’ influential dance routines. Peck is the resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. They honor the source material but gently modernize the piece for a 2021 audience. The balletic moves are more realistically violent when depicting the fights. Additionally, screenwriter Tony Kushner spends extra time fleshing out the Puerto Rican personalities. Many have called this the “greatest musical ever made.” * I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” The leads as written in the play have never been the most captivating characters. The supporting parts have so much more charisma. That’s true once again, although I’d argue Tony and Maria are slightly more compelling here than their 1961 equivalents. Apologies to Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Whether this tops that version overall is debatable. I can’t give a decisive answer because I’m still not sure. However, just the fact that I’m even entertaining the idea, speaks to the immense talent that is Steven Spielberg.

12/09/21

*Not a definitive list, but offhand I know I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and The Sound of Music more.

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