Tag Archives: Musical

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate

La La Land (redux)

I was worried this movie wouldn’t hold up to a second watch. It is, after all, a fluff movie with some sharp edges. I needn’t have worried. It still delighted and tugged at emotions and dreams in all the right ways.

It is also one of the most beautifully composed films I’ve seen. The framing, edits, and production design are just, simply, delightful. The camera floats along with the action. The colors are striking, and the intra-scene edits are almost non-existent (and when they are, they are seamless).

It is still flawed, as a story. Uneven and, shall we say, light on characters, not to mention just a tad long for its purpose. The lightness is was what it was meant to be, so I don’t judge it for that so much as still get frustrated when other films of the year (like Arrival) were pushed aside. But I ranted on that enough already. I will say that I still marvel at the choice and delivery of the final moments. It was brave and a much better resolution than the obvious.

La La will remain in my circle of rewatch for many years, I’m sure. Just as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, neither of which are perfect movies either.  And I will certainly be watching whatever Chezelle comes out with next.

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

Gimme Danger

Music is a visceral thing. It gets into your head, your blood, and your bones as you grow up. It is all about time and life, love and loss. It is why a few notes can bring back memories, both good and bad, for just about anyone on the planet. The Stooges were a powerful force in the evolution of modern rock, by personality if not by talent. They fought manufactured music, created the stage dive, and were a large part of the force that ushered in what would become Punk rock.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) corners the members and gets from them some of the most jaw-droppingly honest interviews about an icon I’ve seen captured. Jim Osterberg/Iggy Pop, in particular just lays it all out there, not that he was ever particularly shy. But none of the interviews, current or past, try to hedge who they were and how utterly messed up things got for them. The film never devolves into wound-licking, however. It remains poised and comfortable with itself, perhaps a bit too much so as it glosses over some of the darker aspects of their lives. I don’t know if it is a weakness in this film that we never really see into that dark mirror clearly or a strength that it can be acknowledged and skipped over. You can infer a lot, but it does feel like you hear the story and, on reflection, realize you’re missing big chunks of information. If you want some nice intersections with their tale, watch CBGB and Velvet Goldmine within proximity to this docu; Iggy and The Stooges show up in both.

Jarmusch starts the story at the end of the band’s original career and then rebuilds your respect for and understanding of them. It is an intriguing way to attack such a seminal group; understanding how they dropped off the cliff is as much a part of how they climbed the mountain. Their collaborations, particularly in the UK, are mentioned, but a lot of that is also left to your own memory and/or researching.

There is a ton of archival footage and, of course, music. I would have liked a bit more of the latter, but it is just as interesting to hear how the band viewed their music and their approach to creating it; the structure under the chaos. This is a compelling film if you have any interest in rock music, particularly of the late 60s into the 70s and beyond.

Gimme Danger

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

As a documentary, writer/director Nancy Buirski’s (The Loving Story) efforts are mixed in this film. She builds up an interesting story, but often has weak visual support and has some challenge with the through-line of the piece. It is still fascinating, but not as crisp as it could have been. As her second documentary, however, it certainly shows promise.

Faun is filled with interviews, archival footage, and photos that provide intriguing insights into American dance. Tanaquil Le Clercq (Tanny), the focus of the tale, was muse and influence to two of the most impactful choreographers in modern ballet and Broadway: George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Her life is a study in perseverance, drive, and not a little luck.

The title is an interesting choice as well, and telling, though not really ever discussed. Afternoon of a Faun is both one of the most recognizable and one of the most notorious pieces in dance. Typically the first performance it elicits in memory is that of Nijinski’s for the tumult it caused when first performed (view a version here). It even came back into culture with a notorious version in Queen’s I Want to Break Free.

But in the case of Tanny, it is a more contemplative reference to the trajectory and pace of her life. It opens and closes with a ground breaking interpretation by Robbins of the title music danced by Tanny. It is charged with all the same aspects of Nijinski, but in a more intriguing venue and approach. But the intent is to consider the moment in time, its perfection and its brevity.

This is far from a brilliant documentary, but as a piece of history, told often from first person accounts, it is interesting. If you have any interest in dance, particularly modern dance, it is a great education. It is also a nice complement to Pina, if you’re looking for some of the impact and overlap of influence that Le Clercq had.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

 

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kôfuku)

After being pleasantly surprised by The Bird People in China, I was curious to see this other Takashi Miike directed tale. Described as “Sound of Music meets Dawn of the Dead,” how could I resist? The result, however, did not leave me intrigued me enough to continuing digging much more into his more offbeat opus. To be clear, it has nothing in common with either of those seminal films on any level, it was just empty marketing hype.

So to the movie itself. Bizarre is a kind word for this odd musical. It starts off amusingly enough, strangely, but amusingly with a claymation sequence that attempts to set the theme of what is to come. And then… well, imagine an amateur musical production of a black comedy with a cast that can neither sing nor dance. Add to this that the entire plot is really about this family coming together, except there is no sense of connectedness between them at all. It is a broad black comedy, which probably isn’t helping on that count, but neither does it succeed. On an individual level, it is supposed to be about finding happiness by, for lack of a better way to put it, playing through the pain and not getting lost in the past.

The first two thirds of the film is essentially episodic, but with little more plot than an escalating sense of the absurd. There is one truly effective sequence, also on theme, in a toxic dump that sends up echos of WWII in a funny but scathing way. I’m not entirely sure it belonged in this tale, but I think I understand why it was there.

Claymation plays into the action a few more times, usually to keep costs for f/x down (this according to Miike), and they are strangely effective. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t all come together. The film and tale just spin off into a final statement that is, again, on point, but baffling from a story point of view. None of the frames, from beginning to end, come back together; neither the opening sequence, nor the voice-over purpose of the youngest Katakuri who narrates.

I will say that the disc appears to have an excellent dubbed translation of the commentary by director Miike… though there isn’t nearly enough substance to it to make it the sole reason you watch. I turned it on to see if, maybe, perhaps, I could get some insights that would help me understand what I’d just seen. There were definitely a few clarifications, but the rest was meandering and, frankly, stuff I’d already sussed.

Miike is prolific, with over 100 films to his name. At this point, I’ll wait for explicit recommendations before I pick up others. When he delivers, he really delivers, but with that kind of output, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that at least some of them are duds. Personally, I’d skip this unless you area  Miike freak or know and like the source Korean film that it is loosely based on.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Best Worst Thing is the true story of the multi-year journey of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Prince musical; the long life it has had, and how it affected all those involved.

The creation of this film was possible thanks to it being incredibly well documented by the cast, crew, and even ABC, who had planned on a documentary but never completed it for reasons that will become obvious. But what makes it riveting is that the cast was all young actors (aged 14-25); there was a true innocence and unbridled joy from which to tell the tale and then follow it all into present day 36 years later.

The resulting documentary is a gift to lovers of Sondheim and Prince, but it is also a brilliant exposure and discussion of the actor’s life. And in a trick of fate, it makes a great companion piece to No Pay, Nudity which I recently saw as well.

We’ve seen the scenarios in this docu acted out in fiction, but rarely, if ever, have we seen the truth of it all across an entire cast. It was the launch of many of their careers. Being able to see them now, in their current circumstances and hear their feelings about it all both in the past and present is a rare opportunity. It ends up a fascinating master-class in theatre as well as an incredible historical treatise on a particular show which punctuated one of the most successful collaborations in theatrical history. And, in truth, it is even broader than that, going beyond this wonderful bit of history to highlighting insights into career and choices generally.

Anyone can get something from this story, regardless of your personal path. It is about drive and choices and learning how to live with both success and failure… aspects everyone has navigate through their lives. This is a film almost everyone should see. In fact, you probably should see it now and see it again in a few years to remind yourself of what you learned and see how you hear it differently or the same.

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened

Pina

This is a rare film that is two (or even three) in one.

The presentation, as intended, is a farewell and commemoration of Pina Bausch and her work by her company. She was an icon in dance, though not well known outside the boundaries of her audience and discipline. This film captures some of the most famous and influential of her works, as well as notes from the troop. It is done almost entirely without words, by Pina’s design. Her language is movement.

In addition to the purely artistic viewing, there is a brilliant commentary track by director Wim Wenders (Salt of the Earth) who had spent years working with Pina on how to film her efforts. This film is the result. This version wasn’t either of their intentions, but Wenders covers the ‘whys’ of that in his commentary. The conversation spans much more than just the creation of the movie, it discusses Pina’s work, the dancers themselves, and the impact of their efforts. Unless you know Pina’s work, this is the experience to have first. It isn’t a dry lecture by any means and it will whet your appetite for the other two opportunities.

Thirdly, there is a 3D version of the documentary, if you have the equipment and are fortunate enough to own the full Criterion set. Wenders spent years working toward this version and I am actually anxious to see it now. Sadly, that wasn’t part of my evening, but it certainly primed me for it.

There are few artistic divides more contentious than classic ballet v modern dance. Those that love the precision and sonnet-like constraints of classical ballet often eschew the free-form feeling blank verse of modern dance. I have always leaned toward the modern, myself. But until this documentary/commemoration, I didn’t truly appreciate the precision of the effort. There are sequences of editing that jump between performances separated by decades that unequivocally show that the apparent chaos and random nature of the movements is nothing of the sort; from cut to cut performers are in the exact same positions regardless of the performance. It is an extraordinary awakening as an audience member and not one I’ve seen in film before. Certainly it isn’t an experience you can see on live stage easily.

Much like Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which looked at performance art, this documentary is a great introduction to its form of dance and an opportunity for context. In the end you many still not like the approach, but you will understand both it and your assessment of it better. In between you will be amazed, if nothing else, by the visual language, production values, and physicality of the dancers.

Pina

Trolls

Sometimes an absurd premise can work. Trolls, those silly long-haired toys from the 60s, have been given an entertaining world and story that evokes the stop-action holiday specials of the same era, but with a bit of a nod and a wink.

Sure there is humor, often slapstick and non-organic to the story. Sure there is music, forced in by design and well executed, but you had better hope you love dance music. Anna Kendrick (The Hollars) and Justin Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis) do work well together. Though, I have to say, the story could have and should have made Kendrick a lot stronger. This story really fails the Bechdel test, sadly.

But as a bit of distraction and humor, it is perfectly entertaining and with a number of surprising voice talents lending their chords. It isn’t a film I need to see again, but parents roped into an endless loop won’t necessarily want to poke out their eyes if forced to hear and see it again. Faint and damning praise, I know, but what I’m trying to say is that there is more meat and adult humors in this than you’d expect.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, this was part of a self-made double feature in my household with Nocturnal Animals. There were no young eyes to protect from the first film, but this certainly helped raise the mood and return some sunshine to the room after the darkness of the first. And, interestingly, it turns out they are thematically compatible. Both films are about finding and defining happiness. It was a mentally bruising pairing, but it was interesting to feel them play off one another in my head afterwards.

Trolls