Tag Archives: Musical

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[3 stars]

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.

Waves

[3 stars]

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.

The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Wild Rose

[3 stars]

It’s hard to cheer for a horribly flawed character who can’t get out of their own way, but Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl) manages to (eventually) get you behind her. It’s a strong and exposed performance. But, be warned, it is a long and frustrating journey getting to that ending.

For her first feature script, Nicole Taylor created a raw and uncompromising look at the life of Rose-Lynne. While that approach often makes it hard to watch, there is also a warmth and sense of hope buried in there to keep you engaged. A lot of that comes from from Julie Walters (Mary Poppins Returns) and Sophie Okonedo (Hellboy), who each support Rose-Lynne’s efforts in different ways.

Director Tom Harper (Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) also helps by keeping the tale rolling along. His hands are mostly invisible as he pulls the strings, allowing the story to tell itself. But when he wants to make a point, he’s more than willing to manipulate the frame or moment to drive it home. Time and space throughout the film are a little fungible; I never had a sense of distance, geography, or time throughout the film. That gap didn’t always matter, but there were moments when it would have enhanced the story and the lack was distracting. In addition, the ending and the message of Rose-Lynn’s journey, is less than clear. I know what both Harper and Taylor want you to think (there are plenty of interviews available to suss it out if it wasn’t intuitable), but I can’t say either I or my viewing partner felt the intended message.

The end result is something like a more hopeful cross between Broken Circle Breakdown and the more recent Vox Lux. Wild Rose is entertaining and angering and satisfying. Given the lack of clarity of vision, how it resonates with your own life and sensibilities isn’t something I think I can predict. But the performances are fantastic and even the music, whether or not you like Country (I don’t, typically), is well selected to engage all listeners.

Teen Spirit

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about Teen Spirit. It is a sweet film about a singer coming into her own, dealing with the challenges of family and the industry. There is also nothing particularly brilliant, though it works on its own level. Elle Fanning (I Think We’re Alone Now) is as impressive as ever in her abilities, and it turns out she has some vocal chops as well. She lacks presence on screen though, a problem this waif-like actor often has, which is a deficit in this story. Despite her one big number, she just never really commands attention the way you’d expect someone destined to be a star could do. But, then again, neither does her coach, Zlatko Buric, who was supposed to be a star in his past.

The real star of Teen Spririt is writer/director Max Minghella (Into the Forest) who, for his first directing gig and sophomore script, shows some real promise. His editing choices, in particular, make it clear he was in command of his vision. And he pulled solid performances out of his cast.

The sensibility of the story is more Worried About the Boy than it is Sing Street or Once. The energy is very personal and introspective with moments of song. But its moment of triumph isn’t intended to be on stage, though that is part of it. Accepting that aspect of the flow helps with embracing the intent.

Ugly Dolls

[2.5 stars]

Ugly Dolls suffers from a number of issues, but the main challenge was not understanding how to construct a musical. For example, the movie begins by introducing us to a character being created in a factory…but then we lose a bunch of time jumping to who will really be our main character… who gets a huge song and dance number… which is interrupted by the arrival of the first character and then continues… but then first character just sort of fades away as a bit part for the rest of the tale. I get the strong sense that something happened in the editing or the story breakdown that was just never fixed.

The truth is that Kelly Clarkson’s Moxy is infectious and sweet. And sure, like much of the cast, the woman has pipes. And while the songs are close to bubblegum pop, there is some nice effort on the lyrics to keep them from being too mind numbing.

For a young audience, say under 14, this flick will probably entertain, at least a little. Above that, it starts to wear thin in its relentless optimism and simplified view of the world, not to mention its generally unsurprising storyline.

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.