Tag Archives: Musical

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.

Climax

[1 star]

This is one of those odd situations where you can appreciate the artist but hate the art. At least I did. Gaspar Noé (Love) puts a lot of technical joy into Climax, with interesting camera work, edits, and choreography. He even managed to attack the structure of film in service to his goals. I can’t say I could tell you what those goals were, but the opening of the movie and the first 20 minutes are designed to make you pay attention and to put your expectations off-balance.

But none of the characters he provides us are particularly likable. Even Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis) is more repulsive than magnetic. Without a connection to the characters what happens to them is empty, however real they are being portrayed.

Ultimately, I fast-forwarded a large part of the second half of the movie in hopes of finding a purpose or at least a moment of interest. I never did. And the final reveal just didn’t matter to me. There is some commentary on the nature of people in the story, but nothing you haven’t seen before done better. Noé doesn’t even manage to portray the bending of reality for the characters in any kind of new or unique way (like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote managed). So, my recommendation? Skip this and never wonder what you missed. You’ll have missed nothing. But check out Noé’s other work at some point. He is talented and willing to buck convention and expectation to achieve his purpose. When you play in that arena, you’re allowed a failure or two in pursuit of your art…even if that means you more often fail than succeed.

Yesterday

[5 stars]

Yesterday delivers one of the best films of the summer so far. It embraces the kind of sweet magic that Mamma Mia delivered (if not its sequel), but with a more adult and wry edge. It is funny, romantic, honest, and not a little subversive in its way, offered up with care and love by two of the best story tellers out there behind the camera: director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting 2) and writer Richard Curtis (About Time).

Boyle (Trainspotting 2) is one of the most diverse directors out there, often slipping between genre without missing a step (Sunshine aside). And with Curtis (About Time) laying the trail, the two take us on a journey that is both nostalgic, current, and toe-tappingly hypnotic.

Himesh Patel, basically an unknown in the US though a constant on Eastenders for 11 years, carries this story solidly. Opposite him, Lily James (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) is the sweet embodiment of missed chances. There are a slew of other players, too many to mention, but Joel Fry (Requiem) and Kate McKinnon (Leap!) are among them. And watch for several credited and uncredited appearances throughout the film, most notably one by Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting 2).

As a side note, I have to say that McKinnon surprised me. While talented, she usually goes way to far with her comedy, destroying reality for the laugh. Boyle kept her very restrained, making it one of her best and most believable performances…edgy and out there, but within the bounds of the story till near the end.

This is must see film for the summer for anyone who enjoys music, comedy, and romance… and it’s the cure for CGI and action-laden madness that crowds the screen through the hot months. That kind of film can certainly be fun, but Yesterday proves it isn’t the only reason to catch a film on the big screen. And, for all its silly fantasy and sweet romance, there is a point to Yesterday. It starts to crystallize near the end, with a hint in the credits if you miss it. Honestly, it turns the whole idea on its head and gives you one last smile as you leave the theater. But even if that slips by, the journey and the resolution are worth your time. Don’t miss this one.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.

Rocketman

[4.5 stars]

Are you more interested in the truth or the lie? What sets this biopic apart from other musical tales is that Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) wrote a fantasy that tells the truth rather than a fantasy that replaces it. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, fun as it was, it was a fantasy that obscured the truth and was empty of message. Rocketman is a soaringly beautiful but honest account, in idea if not specifics, about John’s life growing up and, finally, accepting himself and getting sober. And, of course, there is the music.

Taron Egerton (Robin Hood)delivers an Elton John that is charismatic, warts and all, showing yet again his ability and range. And, unlike Malik’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton actually sings the role (though admittedly John’s voice is much easier to replicate than Mercury’s).

Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) reteamed with Egerton for this musical. He took Hall’s script and made it sing, literally and figuratively. It is a non-stop reimagining of John’s catalog of songs, giving many of them new life. Just to see John’s debut at the Troubadour as conceived by Fletcher, Hall, and Egerton is worth the price of admission. It is a perfect example of fantasy making reality more real. If I have any gripe about how the story was told, it is that chronology is challenging…to be fair, it isn’t clear if John knew what year it was at that point either, so perhaps it was more a disorienting choice rather than a gap.

While Egerton is certainly at the center of all that is Rocketman, he is surrounded by talent that completes the story. Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his mother, Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords) as his father, Jamie Bell (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as lyracist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (The Bodyguard) as John’s manager and lover, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) as his grandmother all add important aspects and deliver great performances. Howard, in particular, walks a terribly difficult line to bring John’s mother to the screen in a consistent and believable way.

The story is exhilarating and will have you rethinking the pop phenomena and music that is Elton John. His songs may be pap, most of the time, but it is pap that wrote a good part of the score for world over the last several decades. And his story, as cautionary or exemplar is worth seeing. This is the honesty I wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody which had no sense of truth to it, even if it was entertaining. I’m glad Fletcher got a second bite at the apple, after finishing Bohemian for screen, to do this kind of story right. Rocketman is triumphant in the right ways, even if its underbelly is quite a bit more scuffed by life.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.