Archive for the Music Category

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

Blinded by the Light

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music with tags on August 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

blinded_by_the_light_ver2STARS4Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a teen living a humble existence in the city of Luton, England.  It’s the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.  Javed is a poor Pakistani immigrant whose family came here for a better life.  It has been hard.  The economic times are blighted by mass unemployment.  Apparently, skinheads and neo-Nazis roam the streets.  Amidst these political and racial tensions, he attends high school.  He longs to be a writer finding solace in composing poetry.  However, his devout father pushes his son to seek a more lucrative career.  He means well.  He only wants the best for his son but his strict Muslim traditions clash with the boy’s desires.  Right now Javed simply longs to be a kid.  His buddy Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring synth-rocker, invites him to parties to which Javed is forbidden to attend.  He’s also smitten by Eliza (Nell Williams).  One day, a fellow classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) turns his ear onto the music of American rock star Bruce Springsteen.  He is transformed.  The words play off of the cassette tape and into his heart.  An unlikely fandom is the focus of this winning film.

The subject is so quirky it almost feels like the construct of a writer but this is indeed based on a very real journalist – Sarfraz Manzoor.  He co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Mayeda Berges and director Gurinder Chadha. There are so many personal and offbeat touches.  His life clearly resonated with the director.  Manzoor’s saga is a labor of love.  That heartfelt touch comes through every scene and it will resonate with an audience unfamiliar with the time period or his religious upbringing.  Chadha has often approached her subjects from the perspective of Indian women living in the UK.  As an immigrant, they must reconcile a traditional background with their modern society.  Our passions can motivate us.  The equally wonderful Bend It Like Beckham is her most famous work.  The enthusiasm that Chadha evoked from soccer, so too does this extract that same feeling from the music of Bruce Springsteen.

If you’ve ever been an obsessive adherent of a particular artist, this portrait will ring true.  There are moments of despair, but the overall tone is uplifting.  The cast is populated by charismatic individuals which includes an intimate depiction of Jared’s strict but positive Muslim family.  Everyone is wonderful, but young actor Viveik Kalra is particularly appealing as the star.  We genuinely hope his dreams are realized despite the stress it places on his father (Kulvinder Ghir).  It’s not necessary to be an admirer of Bruce Springsteen but I do think it helps.  Much of the drama capitalizes on his lyrics in musical vignettes.  The charming numbers are amusing because of their sloppy choreography and guileless lack of precision.  Surprisingly the more compelling sequences just feature the lyrics of “The Boss” literally swirling around Javed’s head.  We are instantly made aware of how the words of a working-class hero from Jersey could galvanize this British Pakistani fan.  Rapturous and exuberant but also unfailingly cheesy.  That’s Blinded by the Light in a nutshell.  Occasionally the sweetness is so overbearing it can get a bit twee.  This is a sincere celebration of how art can inspire us.  Is there such a thing as being too earnest?  For most, the answer would be no.  Blinded by the Light is overflowing with joy.

08-18-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19