Back in 1984 David Byrne and David Lynch gave us unequivocally the best concert film ever released with Stop Making Sense. It is the bar by which I judge every concert film and, unsurprisingly, even more appropriate in this case. So, here we are 36 years later and Byrne has teamed with Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) to capture his Broadway concert and bring it to the masses.
First off, the music and musicianship are great. But that’s no surprise. Byrne has a wealth of music to draw on and has always gathered capable artists around him. The shape of the concert, however, isn’t quite what he managed with Stop Making Sense.
There is a shape. But unlike Stop Making Sense, which builds on the music and performance, American Utopia focuses on message. And, oddly, that message comes most into focus most powerfully when he performs Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” rather than his own songs. But while there is a thread of connective tissue thematically to the song choices and presentation, it never quite has the build and completeness of the earlier movie. Lee got lost in angles and points of view the audience didn’t have rather than just making the story on stage work. It isn’t poorly done, but it feels more like a filmed performance than it does a story.
If you have any love of The Talking Heads or Byrne’s music, this is a must-see concert. But if you’re hoping for a career topper after such a long gap, you may be a bit disappointed. Go for the concert and leave your expectations set appropriately. You won’t be sorry you spent the time. Byrne can still control a stage and his message is a timely one for our world.
Here’s a potpourri of material for all kinds of tastes. Though, admittedly, not all are easy to get your hands on.
Not the movie (which isn’t so good), nor the vampire series (which isn’t so bad), but a Polish mystery series. It’s not quite a cozy series, but it isn’t a deeply effective procedural. The mysteries drive it along, but it’s just as much about the band of misfits solving crimes as it is the criminals. They also take a nice sharp left at the end of first season and into the second that shows they were working hard to keep it going. And while the second series isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, we’re still waiting to hear if it is renewed to continue the tale. Even so, there is enough closure that it is entertaining and gets better as it goes along.
McDonald & Dodds
Another amusing detective odd couple story, with a few overwrought characters thrown in. Dodds, played by the wonderful character actor Jason Watkins, is the absolute center of these stories…all by being quiet and steady in the midst of chaos. Paired with relative newcomer Tala Gouveia, the two navigate a strained relationship into something quite a bit more interesting. Were it not for their Super, James Murray (6 Underground), being written like an outright fool, the show could really fly. As it is, the two episode inaugural series is fun, and I look forward to its return, but I hope they get the writing more under control.
YA Science Fiction:
The Cul de Sac
This is a far from perfect Kiwi YA fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but with a nicely evolving mystery and characters. It’s still written for tweens, so don’t expect brilliant plotting and complex emotions, but do expect some amusing dialogue. The first two series built on each other nicely. I’m hoping the third series will wrap it all up nicely, though I suspect it won’t entirely. It will likely be a year before it is available to stream or buy as they seem to be being trickled out after their wrap in NZ a couple of years back. As a short distraction, at 6 ep. seasons/22 min. each, it’s entertaining.
We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Do you know who Freestyle Love Supreme are? Well, this will tell you something of them, but not really showcase their talents. It’s a docu best seen by fans of the improvisational rap group or, individually, like Lin Mañuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns). It is really more a tale of how show comes into being, with some insights into what it’s like to be a performing theatre creative in NYC.
On the other hand, this music documentary is really very good and engaging. I wouldn’t have thought that the rise, and fall, and rise of the Go-Go’s would be able to keep my attention. But Alison Ellwood’s documentary is cleverly edited, and and the band are very open about their journey. In addition, Ellwood puts it all in great, historical context, following these young women and their influences and influence. This is a story about young women as well as about the music industry. It also is surprisingly reflective of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–or, perhaps, not so surprising, though that movie was completed before The Go-Go’s even hit their peak.
I know this is the movie that launched both a franchise of many movies, a series, and, probably most notably, Channing Tatum (Smallfoot), but as a movie is it only just OK. And, yes, I know this is Fame-like fantasy. The formula is intentionally predictable and obvious. The relationships, banter, and tragedies foregone conclusions. They only left out sexual confusion and discovery from the standard mix. So perhaps my expectations should be set on acceptance rather than a desire to be impressed. But for all its silliness, the original Fame had a lot more heart and impact because the characters were that much more real.
But, clearly, the focus on street dance and music hit a chord with audiences that continues to last. I can’t say I was bored, and I certainly laughed many times at intended points; I just wasn’t transported. Part of the problem was that the movie was unbalanced, the focus being pulled by Tatum’s character rather than as part of the equilibrium.
Even the director, Anne Fletcher (The Guilt Trip), knew that the real star, or at least find, of this movie was Tatum and not his co-star and eventual spouse Jenna Dewan. Not that she isn’t a solid dancer and a good actor, it’s just clear that the movie is Tatum’s. Need definitive proof? During the final, climactic scene of the performance that Dewan’s character has been striving toward, and around which the entire movie pivots, not only is she not center stage, the follow-spot is always on Tatum and never her…unless she’s in Tatum’s arms. Forgetting the fact that Fletcher didn’t know how to film dance, it was the most distracting element of the movie for me because it was so blatantly wrong for the story and the moment. She didn’t even really use Rachel Griffiths (Hacksaw Ridge) to her full extent, though perhaps that was fair, if disappointing. And even with little screen time, she does make an impression here.
It’s worth noting that, in addition to Tatum, several others got a boost from this flick. Writer Melissa Rosenberg went on to create, among other things, Jessica Jones. Co-writer Duane Adler went on to do several more in this series and other dance films, having found his niche. Damaine Radcliff leveraged this to go on to several industries and interests. Of course Heavy D and Mario already had careers, but it gave them some nice moments. Mario, in particular.
When you’re looking for some thin romance, and some romanticized stories of the “street” and having it tough but being able to succeed, this may do. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t brilliant, but it is entertaining enough to carry its weight. At this point, I’m probably far too jaded to just give in to the fantasy of it all. For its intended audience of tweens and teens, it’s going to be much more effective.
I really, really wanted to like this more than I did, but I’m not sorry I spent the time with it. Billed as the “Historic farewell performance of the King of Glitterock” it was anything but. However, it was the retirement of Bowie’s Ziggy character from the touring stage. The concert isn’t filmed particularly well, though the sound isn’t bad. And it isn’t even the complete show. However, it is as curious for what songs are included as which aren’t, given this was in 1973 a few months after the release of Aladdin Sane. For example, we do get Watch That Man, but not The Jean Genie. Go figure.
What is interesting is seeing Bowie prepare and perform when he was still somewhat raw. His control of the audience was still developing. And his cult of personality had just begun to grow, though he certainly had some chops for this tour.
Generally, this isn’t going to be of interest to anyone who isn’t a huge fan and who many not have been old enough to see him live way back when. This isn’t on the scale of Glass Spider or even with the simplistic polish of his Sound and Vision tour, but there is a raw rock’n’roller joy and energy and it’s filmed very much in the style of the era (and with suitably grainy stock thanks to the low light).
There are plenty of docus about Bowie that include archival footage and put it in context, if you want to see more performances and his evolutions. Five Years is one of the best, if you’re looking particularly to learn about his genesis. So this one is up to you. Concert films are rarely brilliant (Stop Making Sense aside) but they are rare moments in time to be enjoyed if you enjoy the artist.
Some silly escapist fun, with enough music and movie references to keep the adults mildly entertained. After an opening that rivals Moulin Rouge’s frenetic introduction, this settles back into a treacly distraction with a timely, if overly hammered, message. To its credit, it mostly manages to do so while also making fun of itself.
The story itself is a little more complex than the first installment. It also has a wider range of music, thanks to some serious retconning. And, of course, it picks up the fuzzy tension between Anna Kendrick (A Simple Favor) and Justin Timberlake’s (Wonder Wheel) characters. They’re joined by a host of recognizable singers and actors that fill out the story, most of which are best left to surprise you. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), however, leads that crowd and drives the new story. She’s amusing, but lacks the nuance to completely sell the transformation necessary.
I can’t say that either the story or the music were entirely engaging. The songs were all too short or medleys with small snippets of tunes that end up more of a tease than satisfying. But the animation was inventive and expanded the original design from the first movie.
All that aside, yeah, kids will love it and adults won’t feel twitchy every time their small charges turn it on. At least not quite as quickly as other children’s movies with longer musical sequences. For households without kids, it’s a very weak recommend.
I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed that this movie still works after almost 40 years. Its points still hold and its humor is still on point. Not bad for Lou Adler’s (Up in Smoke) only second directing gig. And it has some fairly good music performances in it as well.
But, message and amusement aside, it is the cast that wows you. Not because they deliver such great performances…they’re reasonable. But the main cast are young stars that were all near the beginning of their careers. Diane Lane (Serenity) is the front person for the Stains; a young woman with an axe to grind and a desire to succeed. She’s joined by Laura Dern (Marriage Story) and one of Marin Kanter’s few performances. And then there are early appearances of Christine Lahti (Operator) and Ray Winstone (Point Break) as well.
This isn’t a great movie, but it is surprisingly effective for all its lo-fi, indie feel. It captures a small sense of the era, and takes some wicked swipes at the music industry. When you have time and want to spelunk the early 80s and the Punk/New Wave movement in a light way, it is a fun and entertaining view.
If 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton attempted to have a screwball comedy offspring, this might be the result. Bodied lives in the odd cross-hatched zone between its dedicated audience and explaining itself to the rest of the world. And somehow it works. It is loaded with moments both funny and painful, and builds to an inevitable climax that is as gripping as it is tragic. What it lacks, in the end, is, well, an end. It gets to its point and then sort of just stops (if admittedly on a musical joke).
Director Joseph Kahn (Detention) is well known for his music videos. This story, which he conceived of as well, plays into his strengths on that point. But Alex Larsen’s script based on that idea doesn’t always live happily with Kahn’s choices. The opening, for instance, is choppy and distancing. And while several of the characters come across as genuine, others are absurdly broad. It is all presented through a particular lens, but it makes for an uneven picture.
Calum Worthy (Rapture-Palooza) owns this story with a solid assist by Jackie Long. The two play off each other well. Adding to the on-screen posse are a motley and talented crew: Jonathan Park, Walter Perez (Queen Sugar), and Shoniqua Shandai (I Am the Night). Anthony Michael Hall (Foxcatcher) is probably the oddest surprise in the movie, casting-wise. It isn’t a great, or even warm, performance, but he pulls it off. There are a ton of known rapper faces throughout as well.
But, be warned, like the roots of the tale, it is purposefully offensive. It is intended to raise ire and blood-pressure. But it manages to build it all into the story and provide a context. It even manages to force you to examine your own reactions and thoughts. It’s still a bit of a clunky film, but it definitely is more than the sum of its parts.
This is another odd documentary that isn’t exactly focused on what you expect. Lambert and Stamp were the guys behind The Who. They didn’t pull together the band, but they were the guiding force, for good and ill, behind their rise, direction, and, ultimately in many ways, their demise. But The Who are merely the foil to discuss the men and their work. At least that is the intent (and the title backs that up).
But, let’s face it, we’re talking about The Who… Townshend and Daltrey figure heavily in the present-day interviews, and there is a ton of performance footage. Of course the band and the men draw focus despite all efforts by the first-time-feature director, James D. Cooper.
What really sets this movie apart is that Lambert and Stamp had always intended a movie of their efforts managing the band. Mind you, they thought that would be a couple years before the band (whichever band they picked) would flame out and they could then focus on their purported first love: film. But as fate would have it, they ended up with The Who, one of the longer lasting forces in modern rock, which has ended up outlasting even them. But that plan and intent means is that there is a lot of high-quality footage and interviews from the very beginning of The Who’s journey with their producers/managers rather than the type of “found footage” you’re stuck with 40 years down the pike looking back.
Cooper did an amazing job sifting all these years of archival footage and new interviews to pull together a story. It may not have been the story Lambert and Stamp had envisioned when they started their efforts, but it is still a fascinating one. And, with The Who as the backdrop for it all, it tends to be interesting generally.
Have you never heard a song and been transported back to a different time and place? For anyone aware in the 60s-90s (and even a bit more) Linda Ronstadt had songs for all occasions and all styles, blazing a trail for female rockers as she went. And because she was so varied and so successful for so long, it’s easy to forget just how wide a path she trod, and how many songs she recorded that mark out lives with milestones of sound.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to documentaries or stories from past eras from Howl to The Celluloid Closet to Lovelace they are constantly seeking corners of pop culture and history to explore and explain, and winning awards while doing so.
This latest offering is told through Ronstadt and many of her friends and collaborators. It’s an interesting, but not exactly gripping, biography. For one, Ronstadt is just a nice person with little, if any, controversy associated with her (or at least little the directors were willing to expose). What does come out is her impact on the industry and those around her, which is likely much bigger than you remembered. Certainly it was for me.
Despite the lack of “oh wow” moments or deep dark secrets, the film pulls you along and, ultimately, tells a story. Honestly, for much of the docu, you’re pretty sure it won’t resolve into a cohesive point or tale, but the music combined with the archival and contemporaneous footage are more than enough to keep you engaged until it all comes into focus.
For anyone who likes music or who simply want a nostalgia trip, this is a solid 90 minutes worth your time. If nothing else, it will reinvigorate or establish some serious respect for this diminutive woman with an outsized voice and confidence to set her own path.
Horror auteur Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) takes a hard left with his latest production. Waves is an often painful, sometimes triumphant look at a Florida family, all to the backbeat of a range of curated music. Structured in two parts, we get to watch the disintegration of one sibling and its effect on the family and remaining sib.
Shults didn’t just work with his actors to set mood and action. His camera work and lighting, from the opening through to the final moment, are designed to elicit emotion and energy. He manages to create the out-of-control energy of being a teenager as well as the contemplative, anchorless sense of being lost as a way to inform the already powerful performances. However, if you suffer any degree of motion sickness or sensitivty to flashing lights you may find it challenging to watch at times.
Part one of the story is focused on Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes at Night) and Alexa Demie (Euphoria), whose relationship is intensely passionate. At the same time, we see Harrison navigate the expectations of his parents and himself. The combination is, as you’d expect, volatile.
Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) head up part two of the story, who pick up the thread of the story and tie it back to the opening of the film. The relationship here is the yin to her brother’s yang tale. The combination turns the movie into a visual Taoist structure.
In a bridging story, Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) give us the parent’s perspective that wraps and reflects on the young adults around them. It’s a complicated situation for them and their household, but it is also a little forced as written.
The movie is a bit more of an interesting experiment and piece of art than it is a great film. In part that is due to its length and structure, but it is also due to the self-conscious visuals and editing. That isn’t so much a ding as an acknoweldgement that this story happens more to you than with you. It is sweet and brutal and honest, but it is also somewhat presentational. That said, there are moments that will drop your jaw and, in my theater, had people talking out loud. So there is no doubt it is effective.