Posts Tagged musical

Rocketman

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Dexter Fletcher.  Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones.

An unreliable narrator covers a lot of storytelling sins. If a plot point seems unbelievable or outlandish, but it’s coming from the lips of a narrator who’s extremely dishonest, an addict, or highly depressed, that plot point can and should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of Rocketman, highlights from Elton John’s life are shaped into a musical fantasy, framed by narration from Elton recounting his life’s story in group therapy.

That life story follows the standard beats of a biopic: talented child becomes famous, hits rock bottom, and then turns his life around. There’s nothing particularly new about this sort of musician biopic, especially compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which largely follows the same narrative pattern.

However, when compared with Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ways Rocketman excels become apparent. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Rocketman embraces its musical form and doesn’t shoehorn songs into a clichéd narrative. Instead, it works a narrative around those songs much like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, or Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

After an elaborately and outlandishly costumed Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) marches into a recovery group at the film’s beginning, the film flashes back and forth between that meeting and memories of his life, which ultimately led Elton to seek help with his addictions. The first memory receives a song of its own as Elton sings, “I was justified, when I was five…” and then the film transitions into a full-scale production number of “The Bitch Is Back” to set up Reginald Dwight’s (Matthew Illesley and later Kit Connor) childhood and serve as a welcome to the show number.

Much like 2007’s Beatles inspired Across the Universe, the songs are re-orchestrated to fit the context in which they are being sung. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used for a bar fight and passage of time as Elton plays there for several years. The overall effect throughout the film is both a moving tribute to Elton John and his music and an effective use of the music to underscore the drama.

The drama draws from mostly well-known episodes in Elton John’s life. His classical piano background, which is apparent in all of his songwriting, and his prodigious ability are the focus of the first section. The latter is obviously exaggerated, but that is in perfect keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. His meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) by chance and their years long collaboration as well as Elton’s abusive relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) form most of the film’s narrative. The backstory is a little too thorough, trying to cover too many details, and it slightly bogs down the film’s pacing. This is the type of story where a nonlinear recollection of memories from Elton at rock bottom would probably have made a stronger effect.

However, despite the predictable trajectory of the narrative, the film soars in its presentation of the music. The best musical choice among many great ones is the song that frames the film. Coupled with Elton walking into therapy is an instrumental of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which returns as an 11 o’clock number at a crucial moment between Bernie and Elton. Since that song is about dreams not turning out as planned and walking away from the razzle dazzle of showbiz, it is a perfect and highly poignant choice, especially when the chords of that song are the first thing we hear in the film.

One song I was truly surprised not to hear was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For a film that takes this unflinching a look at the dangers of addiction, there were countless places where it would have been a perfect fit, either as a testament to Bernie’s support through Elton’s substance abuse or in regards to Elton acknowledging his homosexuality and escaping his unhealthy relationships.

As Elton, Taron Egerton does a commendable job singing some rather difficult songs and convincingly portrays the high highs and low lows of Elton’s life through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Dexter Fletcher, after completing the last couple scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, shows he does have a good eye for staging musical numbers.

Lee Hall, who collaborated with Elton John on Billy Elliot the Musical, has penned a script that honors his friend and his music while refusing to lionize him or his mistakes. Most beautifully, it shows the power of any great art, in this case Elton John’s music, to transform, inspire, and be a means for both creator and partaker to share in something greater beyond themselves. And for that, I’m exceedingly grateful to have seen this movie too.

 

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited).             Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, and Mike Myers.

bohemian-rhapsody-3

Considering Bohemian Rhapsody unexpectedly and undeservedly won the Golden Globe award for best picture—drama last Sunday, I thought now would be a good to share my thoughts on it.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that does exactly what you expect it will do. It shoehorns Freddie Mercury’s life into a formulaic biopic, and it also showcases enjoyable covers of Queen’s greatest hits in what is basically an extended music video.

In other words, if one enjoys this movie at all, that enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much they enjoy the music of Queen. And for the record, I’m a pretty big fan of Queen.

At just over two hours in length, Bohemian Rhapsody almost evenly splits its runtime between depicting a fictitious, streamlined creation process behind Queen’s most famous songs and performances of those songs as well as depicting a simplified and highly fabricated summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, focusing on his rise to stardom, his relationship with Mary Austin, his homosexual affairs (but not his heterosexual ones), and his role as a member of Queen.

The half that is essentially a lengthy music video of Queen’s greatest hits is a lot of fun, and it’s almost enough to carry the movie. The half which attempts to provide some portrait of Mercury’s life is a total train wreck.

Rami Malek gives a commanding performance, impersonating Mercury’s dance moves almost perfectly. However, he never rises above imitation. The movie makes a big deal about his very noticeable prosthetic teeth, far more noticeable than Mercury’s, and that becomes a tiring distraction when he’s not performing. As the other members of the band, I thought Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello played off Malek passably well, and as trite as the lines about a band being a family are, the dynamics among the four actors are enjoyable enough that it didn’t matter too much that they were all taking a backseat to Malek’s Mercury.

The first big problem is that there is no driving force beyond enjoyment of Queen. The second big problem is that for the extreme liberties the film takes with Mercury’s life, those liberties form a dull, clichéd story about a lower class nobody rising to fame, the fame going to his head, fighting with his friends, then reconciling in the nick of time for a big concert. Most of that never happened. While Mercury (and other members of Queen) recorded some solo albums, the band never broke up, and the Live Aid Concert was not a last-minute plan after a hurried reunion, and I seriously doubt Mercury ever became this insufferable.

The other big problem with the movie is how massively unlikeable Mercury becomes while under the influence of his abusive, manipulative boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech), which takes up a significant portion of the film. I spent much of the film shocked that anyone would portray gay men as pejoratively as this in 2018, especially one who, in the world of the film, is a victim of abuse.

That brings us to the unavoidable issue that Bryan Singer, himself accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, directed the majority of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it seems the film’s unhealthy understanding of sexuality mirrors his own, as can be seen when the film shrugs off Mercury attempting to grope a man as an innocent drunken mistake. Admittedly Singer was fired from the film, but it seems that was because of a scheduling conflict, and he was hired with those counts of sexual assault against him well known.

The very fleeting relationship Freddie has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) at the film’s end hardly makes an impression after the time spent on the toxic relationship between Freddie and Paul. The other major issue with the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality is that it refuses to let him define it. In an early scene Freddie tells his distraught fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he’s bisexual, and she corrects him that he’s gay. Considering that the film never challenges her, and that it neither acknowledges that Mercury continued to identify as bisexual nor shows any of his affairs with women, calling the film an act of bi-erasure, as some critics have done, is not underserved.

At the same time, the music of Queen is incredibly powerful, having moved and inspired millions, and the film respects and acknowledges that, even as it fails to spin an engaging story around that power. Nonetheless, roughly half of the film is a decent music video with a soundtrack featuring “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “Love of My Life,” and the title song. And when the film ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions,” it makes it easy to focus on the real star of the movie: the music of Queen.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

 

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Mary Poppins Returns

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Rob Marshall.      Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, and Angela Lansbury.

Mary Poppins Returns

When Jurassic World and Star Wars: Rogue One were released a few years ago, both with scores by Michael Giacchino, I noted at the time that as talented a composer as Giacchino is, when his John Williams imitations were placed next to the original John Williams cues, the only thing he accomplished was reminding audiences that he is not John Williams.

Of all the wonderful songs that the Sherman brothers wrote for the original Mary Poppins, one of the least impressionable is probably Jane and Michael’s nanny advertisement: “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition…” When Mary Poppins returns to the Banks’ home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as the title of this sequel fifty-four years later promises she will, that tune plays as underscoring. Save for one scene saturated in nostalgia toward the film’s end, that brief bit of underscoring packs more of an emotional impact than anything else in this film. And as talented as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are, when clips of the Sherman brothers’ songs are placed next to their new songs here, the only thing that achieves is reminding audiences that they are not the Sherman brothers.

Shaiman is unquestionably a good composer, but his best work in musicals has been the raunchy, irreverent satires. While none of his songs here are bad, the style of music he writes well is so different from the simple, light-hearted sincerity of the Sherman brothers’ original songs, and his attempts to imitate that here pale in comparison. It does not help that the plot points of Mary Poppins Returns follow the original almost exactly, and the song placement occurs at the same dramatic points. “Can You Imagine That?” is emphatically not “A Spoonful of Sugar,” nor is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” the equal of “Step In Time,” and “The Lovely London Sky” is no “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go” is a good song and one of the two best of the score, but once again it doesn’t hold a candle to its dramatic counterpart, “Feed the Birds.”

The one song that is debatably a better piece of music than its original equivalent is “A Cover Is Not the Book,” which Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) perform within the animated world to the delight of the children. It breaks strongly enough stylistically with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” not to be a reminder of that song, and we get to watch a top-notch vaudeville routine with Blunt and Miranda, complete with the latter rapping and decent dancing from both of them. At the same time, it really stands out musically and dramatically, feeling like it would be more at home in a darkly satiric musical such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

That song segues into one of the few places where Mary Poppins Returns does break with the original with the introduction of a villain, both in the real world and in Mary Poppins’ magical outings. I understand the dramatic purpose of teaching the Banks’ children how to recognize whom and whom not to trust, but it noticeably darkens the tone from the rest of the film, and more problematically it leans too heavily on the over-used cliché of the surprise villain. To be fair, the audience learns of that character’s evil intentions early on, but I literally said to myself the scene before that reveal, “I really hope that character is sincere and not a villain,” knowing that would most likely not be the case.

If it is not clear by now, I absolutely love the 1964 Disney original. It was one of the few VHSs my sisters and I watched repeatedly as children, complete with our own dance routines involving some of the non-fragile living room furniture. With its painstaking care to mirror the original, Mary Poppins Returns is certainly not a bad movie, but it is one that constantly invites comparison to the original, and that is not a comparison it benefits from.

The plot here concerns adults Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the former who is continuing her mother’s political activism, and the latter who is trying to raise his three kids despite a recently deceased wife (hurrah for another Disney cliché) and the bank threatening repossession of their home, against which he took out a loan. Michael is a disorganized wreck, and he and Jane have both forgotten the wonder and magic of their childhood time with Mary Poppins, becoming preoccupied with the hardships of daily life. (Just for once, I’d love to see a family film where a child grows up and doesn’t forget his/her magical adventures.)

As the magical nanny, Emily Blunt knows better than to imitate Julie Andrews. Her take on the character is slightly less prim and proper, but it is still plausible to call her “practically perfect in every way.” For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Blunt’s characterization, and she once again proves her formidable singing and acting chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda is her screen equal as Jack, a next-generation Bert who accompanies her and the children on their magical adventures.

The trailers spoiled that Dick Van Dyke has a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. While it is easy to guess who he’s playing, I won’t say here. I will say that scene is the only one I truly loved, not just for his appearance, but also for the choice of underscoring and for the lines he references from the original film. It was the one bit of nostalgia which landed perfectly.

As delightful as it was to see Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final scene, the song which accompanies it, “Nowhere to Go but Up,” is such a pale retread of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that the magic was promptly lost for me.

In a time of deconstructions and reboots that subvert their originals, one thing I am grateful for is that Mary Poppins Returns has nothing but affection for the original film, and that affection only serves to increase one’s admiration for the original, even as it reminds you that you would be better off watching the original for the hundredth something time.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content advisory: Mild menace.                                             MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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All That Jazz

Year of Release: 1979      Directed by Bob Fosse.  Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Leland Palmer, and Deborah Geffner.

“And they’re dread wrong, I know they are/’Cuz I can play this here guitar/and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star on Broadway.” I remember in an undergrad pop music class analyzing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song On Broadway, from which those lyrics are taken. The one thing I remember from that discussion was the professor pointing out the irony of immediately following that line with an unremarkable guitar solo, which is quickly swallowed up by the band.

Bob Fosse uses On Broadway for the opening number of his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz. Over the course of the song we watch director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider in a career best performance) run a grueling day of auditions for his next musical as the mass of starstruck wannabes grows smaller and smaller. It could seem like a cynical song to open a cynical movie, but Fosse’s musical is every bit as much a love letter to the glamorous showbiz life as it is a critique.

On the one hand, All That Jazz is in many ways a seedier and more unflinching version of Fellini’s with elaborate song and dance numbers. Joe Gideon is a famous director who is facing a midlife crisis, struggling to finish a film that is well behind schedule and over budget, while simultaneously unable to make up his mind how he wants his next Broadway show to go. In the midst of these work conflicts, he recalls his formative experiences working in showbusiness and looks to the various women in his life for inspiration from the ingénue actress he cast in his latest show so he can sleep with her, to his current girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his angelic muse.

If this set up sounds like a version of the “sexist man abuses everyone he knows and gets away with it, because he’s a great misunderstood artist” trope, it is because All That Jazz is a sort of confession for Fosse, who himself was a womanizer who abused drugs and alcohol, the same as Joe Gideon. However, Fosse is not interested in absolving Joe (or by extension himself). Indeed, he focuses more on the pain caused to the women by Joe’s selfishness, and the viewer’s sympathy is always with his resigned ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his heartbroken daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) who wishes her dad took better care of himself, or his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) who quietly accepts the other actresses he decides to sleep with.

In addition to Joe’s mistreatment of women, he also abuses drugs. There’s hardly a scene when he does not have a cigarette between his teeth. His carefully choreographed morning routine involves pills and eyedrops so he can get an inspirational high before putting his nose to the grindstone. However, the passion he throws into his abusive behaviors is an equally strong driving force for his work, which the film makes clear is a vocation for him.

On the most basic level, All That Jazz is a cautionary tale about wasting one’s talent and the dangers of throwing one’s life away on copious sex and drugs. At the same time, it is also more than the story of a super talented director and choreographer who dances and drugs himself to death. A sense of vocation permeates the film, from flashbacks of Joe’s childhood to interactions with his own daughter and Joe’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as he arrives there. All of these scenes show a burning drive to create that no amount of drugs or sex can replace or squelch.

Importantly, the creations are marvelous to behold. For my money, this is the best Fosse choreography ever captured on film. (No argument though with anyone who prefers his film of Cabaret.) A lovely scene of father-daughter bonding when Michelle stays late in the studio one night and dances with her dad shows how Joe has shared his talent and time with his daughter, the two gifts she wants more than anything else. Later she returns that gift with her dad’s girlfriend Kate in a two-woman performance choreographed to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. Erzsebet Foldi and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s own partner and collaborator for several years) are fabulous dancers, more than doing justice to Fosse’s dance routines.

Life imitates art imitates life. This is true both of the film and its creators and of the creations and characters within the film. The one scene we see edited over and over again from Joe’s upcoming movie is a monologue from a stand-up comic about going through the five stages of grief when one finds out they’re dying, which Joe himself starts enacting as his health begins to worsen. An elaborate striptease in a musical that is going to be a star vehicle for Joe’s ex-wife showcases the brilliant choreography and tremendous talent of Joe (and Fosse) while adding a sexual tension that is present in many aspects of his life. Finally, the way Fosse turns the final scenes into grand production numbers is the zenith of art and life blending.

As someone who works in the performance industry, it is rare to see anyone who lives life quite as recklessly as Joe Gideon. It is not uncommon to know people with substance abuse problems or a history of unhealthy relationships. However, even when an artist’s passions are misspent on destructive choices, that desire to create and partake in the divine creation is an unconquerable force. It’s a force Fosse understood, which is made clear throughout this entire film, especially in the fantasy sequences involving an angel (Jessica Lange) who forces Joe to reflect on his life even as she inspires him.

I suppose it is strange to find inspiration in a destructive tale of excess, but the celebration of beauty and art becomes a form of grace offered to even the most undeserving. While the film is cynical in critiquing the destruction an artist can choose to inflict upon himself and others, it simultaneously is a joyful celebration of the achievements the same artist can do if he applies his talents the way they were meant to be used.

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

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