Tag Archives: Musical

Come From Away

[4 stars]

Every person has a story, or so the saying goes. And with nearly 7000 in-comers nearly doubling the population of one corner of an island, that’s a lot of potential stories to tell. But I can’t say I rushed to watch this remembrance of 9/11. I mean, a musical with true stories about one of the most shocking days in recent history? I knew it had been lauded, and I’d even seen a number or two performed, but I just couldn’t let go enough to enter that world. I wish I had sooner.

Despite the subject, the show is full of humor and human kindness (all summed up with one, and intentionally, very bad knock-knock joke near the end). The music and stories are wide ranging, with actors playing multiple roles. It touches on the whimsical and the dark, but leaves you with hope and some sense of bittersweet joy. Not because of any one story so much as the overall efforts of the people of Newfoundland during the five days the world came to a halt. The whole thing is delivered as a swift 90 minutes without an intermission and with a solid cast. And the filming and sound are wonderful, keeping the feel of a stage performance but with cinema level visuals and soundtrack.

My suggestion to you, if you’ve avoided the show so far, is to give it 10 minutes. If it hasn’t locked you in by then, you’re not their audience. I found myself totally absorbed despite the stories mostly being obvious and the overall tale part of history. It is cathartic in its way, but neither jingoistic nor apologetic. It is focused on the minutia of the tragedy and the reminder of who people can be. Honestly, it isn’t a bad message for today either, given the strife and division tearing at society as a whole. The fact that it was filmed during one of the first performances after Broadway reopened after the pandemic shutdown only enhances that echo.

Come From Away Poster

How to Build a Girl

[3 stars]

Growing up is difficult, but finding your place in the world, generally, sucks. However, from the outside, those evolutions can be both enlightening, heartwarming, and hysterical. So, if you enjoy coming-of-age flicks like Sing Street, Blinded By the Light, and about a 100 other Brit music-based stories, this one’s for you. It has the added bonus of riffing a bit on Almost Famous as well.

Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) dances on the edge of adulthood in this story of finding herself and escaping the financial struggles of her area and family. The film is loaded with recognizable and new faces, most of which are just fun to spot. But a couple standout as worth flagging. Laurie Kynaston as her brother and mirror, and Paddy Considine (The Third Day) as her supportive-but-often-pointless father are among them. And then there’s Alfie Allen (Jojo Rabbit) in an unexpectedly calm and contemplative role. The rest you’ll have to find for yourself.

Coky Giedroyc directed Caitlin Moran’s adaptation of her own book with a real sense of love and life. This isn’t a terribly deep story, but it has enough to sink your teeth into while also making you laugh. The side-eye commentary is plenty of fun as well. Check this out when you need a lighter laugh and a reminder of what it was to make that transition from thinking you are the world to being part of it.

How to Build a Girl Poster

Cinderella (2021)

[3 stars]

Cinderella is a tale that is told over and over again in various formats, from Ella Enchanted to Pretty Woman to the recent classic retelling or even as another reimagined musical. It endures because it speaks to hope and escape. It can morph into many frameworks because those feelings and fears are untethered to a particular venue or time. So it is no surprise that Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect) wanted to tackle it with her own musical spin.

The result is entertaining, if very much on the surface. Imagine In the Heights meets Beauty and the Beast with a dash of Moulin Rouge. Songs you already know slotted into big numbers to bring a feudal setting to current life. Mind you, the songs often expand the running time unnecessarily and the choice of songs was odd to my ear. I knew most of them, but this was a movie aimed at young girls and women…and almost none of them were alive when they released and were popular. If Cannon was looking for familiar touchpoints, she mostly missed the mark in her selections.

The cast certainly gave it their all. X-Factor alumn Camila Cabello brings energy and joy to her Ella…enough to keep it all afloat. And she’s surrounded with some solid talent to help her along. But of them, Billy Porter (Pose), Minnie Driver (Spinning Man), and Idina Menzel (Frozen) are the most memorable. And while they all support Cabello well, there just isn’t enough Billy Porter. I understand why…Cannon wanted Ella to be her own savior. And I applaud that approach, but after he appears (way late in the film), his lack is sorely felt..and the story feels like it’s missing something.
On a more general note, though humorous, the CGI for the mice is awful. How they could cheap out on that aspect was a surprise as it ruins their moments on screen. And the songs are over-engineered to the point of almost being lifeless. They’re so clean as to have no emotion, no guts. Notes, yes, but no humanity.
Grumbles aside, there is a feminist message throughout that goes full-blown, Handmaids included, in a quietly angry musical number that is among the best and poignant in the flick. Ultimately, the story pays off in the way it should, even if unsurprising. Subtle the movie isn’t, but it does try to forge new ground. It just would have been nice if it had some depth to the soil it spread.
Cinderella Poster

Annette

[3 stars]

Describing Annette in explicit detail is pointless because it would provide events absent context…and Annette is all about context. The movie is, in truth, an opera couched as a meta musical. It’s about love and fame and family and pop culture and the insatiable need by the public to be fed a story. It’s also about children and narcissism and that moment when children become their own beings. It’s broad and yet also microscopic in its focus.  But is it good?

Well, it’s certainly unique. So let me come back to that question.

Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Sparks have put together a mesmerizing story of intense fame and intense love. It is obvious it’s a tragedy from the start, but the path to that end, and then end of that path, makes you pull for change of course.

Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard (Assassin’s Creed) are an odd couple, by design. Each performs wonderfully, but I can’t say I ever really understood why the two of them were together. Perhaps that was by explicit choice or perhaps a lack of chemistry. Honestly, I can’t say which. It works for the story, but it is a bit less satisfying for the viewer.

Other than the chorus there aren’t many other individual characters to lay out this tale. But two others certainly make an impression. Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) puts in a fine showing from their periphery, and the very young Devyn McDowell frankly blows the doors off with her scenes.

But again, is it good?

I honestly am struggling with that question. It is fascinating. It is inventive. It is almost so true to life as to not feel like it was an opera. It left me with ideas and images. And it was beautifully filmed and presented, right up there with a Peter Greenaway flick. I don’t want to talk about specifics because, honestly, you should be allowed to experience them as they appear… if you decide to put in the 2.5 hour commitment the film requires. Suffice to say, if this isn’t your cup of whiskey, you’ll turn it off in the first few minutes. If it is, you’ll find it a long sip to the bottom, but probably as intriguing as I found it. So let’s allow the decision of “good” to be in the eye of the beholder.

Annette Poster

Schmigadoon

[4 stars]

This wonderful anti-musical is a riot of satire and wry humor. The more you know classic musicals the funnier it is, but knowing is not required. Not since Galavant has anyone really tried to tackle this vein of humor and production. And even those who hate musicals have found joy in the show, because it makes fun of the format as much as committing to it fully. And at only 30 minutes each, no episode is too long to support the joke.

It also doesn’t hurt that the cast of this crazy production is a glorious collection of singing powerhouses. Giving any of them away sort of spoils the surprises. But it’s all held together by the love story of Keegan Michael-Key (The Prom) and Cecily Strong (The Female Brain), an unlikely power couple from NYC trying to save their relationship.

Go for the fun and absurdity of it all, but stay for the very real sense of emotion it leaves you with. Barry Sonnenfeld (Nine Lives) gave us six episodes that traverse a landmine of clichés without a single miss-step. Go visit Schmigadoon and embrace its silly wonderfulness and biting wit.

Schmigadoon! Poster

Vivo

[3.5 stars]

I love that animation, particularly animation aimed at younger viewers, is starting to tackle deeper subjects. Look at Coco or Soul for examples of this shift. It speaks to bravery on the part of the studios and an emotional awareness on part of the writers and directors. The trick is to balance those more adult aspects with a younger person’s point of view and perspective of the world; you can’t share a message if you don’t have enough common ground.

And this is where Vivo, for all its wonderfulness around Cuba, music, love, and loss, stumbles. It really isn’t balanced for the widest audience. I suspect it will resonate much more for adults than kids, despite some fun and funny moments.

The main culprit is the script by Kirk DeMicco (The Croods) and Quiara Alegría Hudes (In the Heights) which hides Ynairaly Simo’s reasons for engaging on the adventure until it’s too late for audiences to latch into it. Adults may see what’s going on, but many kids just won’t and, for all her wonderful and brave acting, she just comes off as being silly rather than purposeful and with something invested until near the end.

Fortunately, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (In the Heights) energy, and his ability to connect with the other characters, does help pull it all along. And his songs don’t suck either. Michael Rooker (Fantasy Island) gets a prime bit of screen time…and is every bit as memorable as Sterling Holloway’s (or even Scarlett Johansen’s) turn as Kaa in Jungle Book. (Rooker also had a double opening weekend with The Suicide Squad.) And Gloria Estefan as the lost love and famous singer was an inspired choice, though I wish she’d have gotten to let loose her chops some more. The rest of the voice cast is generally serviceable.

Vivo is really a sweet film to share. The story may be, well, incredulous, but the message and emotions are real. And the animation has moments of true beauty, though it is generally just your typical 3D CGI that we’ve grown used to accepting. It works, but I’m still finding the clash between landscape photo-realism and weird balloon people a struggle at times mentally. All that said, it certainly entertains. And, depending on where you are in life and mood, it may just grab you by the shoulders and shake you (in a good way) a little.

Vivo Poster

Ailey

[3 stars]

Through contemporary interviews, much-abused archival footage, and the rehearsal efforts of the American Dance Theatre to honor their founder, Jamila Wignot does her best to introduce us to Alvin Ailey, the man. But the truth is that much of who that man was had never really been captured in public records…or at least none that have been readily shared, if the resulting documentary is to be believed at face value.

His cultural truth, his childhood truth…that is on display throughout and in his choreography. That said, there are a few moments of unguarded, personal truth that let us in. Ailey, the man, even though he avoided most of the worst of segregation and prejudice in his working life, never felt safe to be his true self till very late in his life. At least not in the dance part of his life… which by all accounts was most of what he was.

The resulting total of his story is one that leaves you educated and affected deeply. He was respected and loved by his dancers and the arts world. What is sad is that the quality of a lot of the archival footage is pretty worn as, I’m sure, no one saw the point of capturing and protecting the work of a primarily non-white dance company back in the 50s and 60s.

But the film doesn’t focus on the choreography per se. What Ailey thought of himself, his place in the world, and how he dealt with those pressures, is what Wignot really wants us to understand. Not just to comprehend Ailey, but to understand the culture he came from and to help break that cycle. Find this and support it when you get the chance. Even if you know about Ailey and his work, this likely will expose more than you were aware of about him and the American Dance Theater.

Ailey Poster

We Are Lady Parts

[4 stars]

Come for the title, stay for the utter hilarity with just enough truth to keep it grounded. In true-to-the-best of Brit humor We Are Lady Parts is part fantastical, part reality, and all heart. And to describe it at all is to blow some of the fun and surprise in this 6-episode first series.

Like other unexpected comedies such as Uncle and Moone Boy, it shouldn’t work, but it really does thanks to the incredible writing and direction of Nida Manzoor’s solid cast of mostly unknowns. Top among them is the band members Sarah Kameela Impey, Juliette Motamed, Lucie Shorthouse, Faith Omole, and our main narrator Anjana Vasan. A couple of better known faces in peripheral characters help it all along as well, especially Shobu Kapoor and Aiysha Hart (A Discovery of Witches).

Suffice to say it a fun and sympathetic look at a culture that rarely gets that treatment. And a bit of female punk rock to boot. At 22 minutes an episode, it isn’t a huge investment to find out if this is for you or not. I highly recommend giving it a try.

We Are Lady Parts Poster

In the Heights

[3 stars]

A story about finding and realizing your dreams, big and small, yours and others, deserves to be told in music. It is no wonder this caught the imagination of Broadway back in 2008. It isn’t just a quintessential NYC story, it is a very human story whether you’re a recent immigrant or not.

There were moments that I wondered if Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) wasn’t being too indulgent with the scope of the story; it is a long tale. But he uses all aspects of the pieces he lays out, and each fits together to provide a fuller picture at the end. Basically, trust the story-teller, he knew what he was doing.

Anthony Ramos (Honest Thief) carries the energy of the story well, if a bit light-heartedly. He is guileless and, often, clueless about how to approach what he really wants. Then again, part of the tale is him figuring that out, as it is with so many of the characters. Melissa Barrera (Vida) makes a wonderful object of his affection, and her personal interactions are great…though her drive to her own dream is somewhat washed out and weak for me. On the other hand, Leslie Grace has a thorny path that she treads well and shares beautifully for the screen as she struggles with her own doubts. She and Corey Hawkins (6 Underground) play well together as a couple, while she and Jimmy Smits have some very real engagements about life and family.

There are tons of additional characters filling out the Heights. Each gets a moment or two on their own. And all come together more than once to express joy or frustration together as a community. Of them Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are worth calling out for their presence and impact. But as a whole, the cast is solid and capable. All the voices are great and the choreography is inventive and fun (and occasionally a bit distracting, truth be told). Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) had a blast adapting the stage version and managed, for the most part, to make it feel like it was always intended for film with his direction.

Miranda also, despite the fantasy aspects of the story, allowed his characters moments of reality to keep it all grounded, providing windows into the real world. Which he then, of course, peanut butter’s over with great tunes and dance to take out the sting. The overall impact is as close to Fiddler on the Roof that I’ve seen in a long time. Few other musicals try to tell the story of a whole people (or peoples) and manage it with a full range of emotions. Heights isn’t at the level of Fiddler; the scope is more narrow, more personal. It tells parts of several people’s stories in a way that creates a pastiche of the experience and realities. However, it never fully acknowledges or tackles the whole ugly mess…it is more Hollywood musical (think La La Land) than off-Broadway life lesson. Still, it’s an entertaining love story and peek inside the lives of people who are so often unseen.

But, if you’re wondering why I haven’t rated it higher, it’s because it didn’t embrace some of the darker aspects of the stories we hear. Even though the script claims that not all dreams are fulfilled and not all endings are happy, Miranda couldn’t really stop himself from trying to make it that way. And I understand he wanted a celebration of life, but it made it feel too easy for me, which made the story less credible and less revisitable. Of course, others will have different reactions, or even prefer that approach, and that’s fine. Either way, you should take the trip north on the 1 train at least once at some point. And stay till the end of the credits for an extra, and amusing, scene.

In The Heights Poster

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday Poster