Archive for the Musical Category

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

09-19-21

Dear Evan Hansen

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

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09-23-21

** POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ***

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

Vivo

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

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

08-11-21

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

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

Frozen 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on November 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

frozen_two_ver8STARS3.5Truth be told, I enjoyed Frozen just fine in 2013, but I didn’t think it was the be all and end all of animated cinema.  I was in the minority because somehow it ended up making $1.2 billion worldwide and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I was rooting for Despicable Me 2 that year incidentally and yes I’m 100% serious.  Now we have Frozen 2, a sequel to the Disney megahit.  Coming on the heels of Ralph Breaks the Internet, I suspect that Disney is in the early stages of producing many followups to their successful properties.  Pixar has been doing this for years.  I could be snarky and say you could almost throw anything up there on the screen and it would be a hit but the filmmakers didn’t play it safe.  They have put in considerable work to deepen the drama with a complicated backstory.  I appreciate the attempt, but it’s an effort that feels unnecessary.

Before we get to the adventure, however, let’s starts with the basics.  It’s not hard to see how Frozen 2 checks off the ingredients in a recipe: bring back familiar personalities we know, introduce new characters which can be marketed as great toys, pre-package girl power messaging and highlight a musical with original show tunes.  Not a problem.  I was prepared for that.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) return.   A magic water horse called the Nokk, a cute salamander named Bruni and a family of giant rock monsters are newly added merchandising opportunities.  It also grants us an entire soundtrack of new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  There seems to be some debate, but I contend that “Show Yourself” is the one designed to mimic “Let it Go” musically and visually in the film.  “Into the Unknown” is the ballad they’re pushing as the hit though.  The best ditty, however, is not when the soundtrack is trying to rewrite the melodies from the previous chapter.   It happens when our expectations are subverted.  Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) 80s influenced “Lost in the Woods” is the greatest power pop ballad that REO Speedwagon never sang.

More isn’t always better.  The story presented here proves that.  Sometimes more is just more.  The chronicle is a needlessly convoluted fantasy with more subplots.  It offers answers for questions you never thought to ask but are going to receive anyway.  Some people will adore that level of mythology.  Are you one of those people?  You have to ask yourself this question: What do you require of a cartoon?  If simplicity and clarity are what you crave, you are likely to be a bit perplexed by the elaborate exposition.  However, if you prefer more legends and fabrications, then your curiosity will be satiated.  You’re going to get a lot of expounding.  For example, the narrative will produce explanations as to why Elsa has magical abilities, and what happened to her and Anna’s parents.  I didn’t need that level of detail, but thanks for the info…I guess.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough.  The production is beautifully animated and features some nice music.  It’s a formula but it’s a formula that works.  Frozen 2 did $127 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend so be ready to take your children to a movie they will beg you to see.  That is if you haven’t seen it already.

11-21-19

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

Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

beauty_and_the_beast_ver3STARS3.5Disney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

Sing

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_zpskxzncfte.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBuster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.

Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.

“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.

12-22-16