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A venture into a wholly strange and slightly baffling world now, as we launch a new, probably fairly irregular feature, entitled NCJG Goes To Bollywood. Your ability to find proper Bollywood films in the UK is really a bit of a postcode lottery – if you live in a region with a sizeable Asian community, the chances are there will be at least one or two screens at the local multiplex doing a roaring trade in the latest releases (hence their regular presence on the UK box office top ten), but elsewhere the pickings are much slimmer (where I live, you’re more likely to find a Polish movie – Pollywood? – than anything from the subcontinent). I suppose there is always Get Clicks (until they start paying me to endorse them, I’m not using their actual name), but my cursory research suggests most of the Bollywood films available to stream come from the ‘pilloried by the critics’ category.

Let us be thankful, then, for the BFI’s India on Film initiative, which last week brought us Ray’s The Chess Players and this week offers, in a similar vein of cultural outreach, Mani Ratnam’s 1995 film Bombay. My research – once again, pretty cursory – suggests this is considered a bit of a modern classic as far as Indian movies go, with nothing more recent ahead of it in the lists of the best of Bollywood.

Things get underway in rural India as the chunkily moustached Shekhar (Arvind Swamy) returns to visit his family after being away studying journalism in Bombay. His father (Nassar) is a respected man around the village and is on at Shekhar to marry a nice local Hindu girl, so it is a bit awkward when he falls head over heels in love with a local Muslim, Shaila (Manisha Koirala), whose father makes bricks for a living. A couple of banging musical numbers inevitably follow, along with many significant looks between the two, before Shaila gives in to her own heart and the two launch a passionate but also almost entirely chaste love affair.

Naturally, a Hindu-Muslim romance is bound to cause trouble, and when Shekhar approaches Shaila’s dad Bashir (Kitty) to inform her of his marital intentions, Bashir grabs a scimitar and tries to hack him to pieces, which is not the response he was hoping for. Despite the disapproval of both families, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay to begin a new life together. For a while everything seems to be improving, with the two families gradually brought closer together, but as sectarian tensions rise in Bombay, it seems that not even Shekhar and Shaila’s love is safe…

There are obviously many things about a film like Bombay which seem rather strange and alien to a western viewer – cultural things, of course, but also some cinematic conventions. (And the fact that while the film is theoretically subtitled in English, it is a variety of English that seems to have been written with minimal knowledge of the language.) One might even rashly suggest that making a musical romantic drama set against the backdrop of bloody sectarian violence is a bizarre tonal choice, the product of a wholly different perspective. But then if you think about films like West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and (if we really must) Absolute Beginners, you can see that they use music and dance to address challenging topics in exactly the same way.

To be perfectly honest, there were rather fewer big musical numbers in Bombay than I was hoping for, and I got the impression the film-makers would like to have included more too: at one point the story just stops and everyone launches into a fairly lavish routine on the thinnest of pretexts, with minimal relevance to the plot, presumably just because that’s what they fancied doing. Elsewhere the songs are incorporated into the story a little more subtly. Before watching this film I was unfamiliar with the Bollywood concept of the ‘item number’, which is a musical interlude featuring stars not appearing elsewhere in the movie, usually included for promotional purposes only. There’s one of those here, a suggestive pop song featuring some belly dancing and MC Hammer-style moves, but it does serve the plot rather neatly – having arrived in Bombay and got wed, Shekhar and Shaila find themselves unable to, ahem, consummate their relationship for several days. When the time comes, proceedings are alluded to by various shots of Shekhar taking off his vest, intercut with the aforementioned suggestive song. The overall effect is rather pleasingly subtle and genuinely mildly erotic.

This is for a given value of subtlety, of course. Bombay is essentially a sentimental melodrama with all of its emotions dialled up to 11 from the start – when Shekhar first catches sight of Shaila (her veil blows out of the way), we get the full slo-mo effect and Indian yodelling on the soundtrack. But you can’t fault the actors’ charisma or commitment – they are an undeniably sweet couple, with Koirala an almost irresistibly winsome screen presence – and, in its early stages at least, the film mixes some genuinely funny lines and business in with the romance subplot. (Shekhar can only speak to Shaila by dressing up as a Muslim woman – fortunately his niqab hides his moustache.)

‘I didn’t come here to be sentimental,’ says one of the characters later on in the film, which is possibly one of the most disingenuous lines in the history of cinema, for you could argue that everyone in Bombay has turned up to be sentimental, most of the time. As long as the film stays light on its feet, though, you kind of indulge it in this. However, the mood grows darker as the film progresses, and real-life events start to impact the narrative. The last third of the film concerns the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, in which clashes between Hindus and Muslims led to hundreds of deaths. The religious tension which at the start of the film is almost played for laughs – the two fathers can’t have a conversation without one of them reaching for a meat cleaver – becomes deadly serious, and the film basically turns into a deeply heartfelt plea for religious tolerance.

You can’t fault that as a message, I suppose, and given the nature of Bollywood, you shouldn’t be surprised when the film lays it all on a bit thick. But I have to say I found myself shifting in my seat and wanting to glance at my watch as the film approached its end, with many an impassioned speech about all blood being the same colour, and so on (you know, that may have been a song lyric – yes, they have songs in the middle of the rioting).

Bombay is not especially smart, nor is it especially subtle, but I don’t think it was ever intended to be – but I suspect it will stir your emotions and tug at your heartstrings, whatever your background, assuming you surrender to its considerable charms. It’s not as if sentimental melodramas don’t frequently do very well in Anglophone cinema, is it? Anyway: this is a thoroughly enjoyable film for most of its duration, with a worthy message passionately delivered. Probably a very good choice of sampler for the whole Bollywood experience.

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It is with some relief that I turn away from the rise of Nazism, the horrors of the trenches, and anti-semitic pogroms in the last days of Tsarist Russia, and instead apply my attention to musical which is – everyone agrees – almost completely charming and lovely, provided you overlook a few minor elements of the story, such as widescale exploitation of children, violent crime, and an abusive relationship ending in someone being battered to death. At least the anti-semitism this time around is fairly low-key, probably because the gentleman who wrote all the music and lyrics was himself Jewish.

I speak of course of Carol Reed’s 1968 film Oliver!, the last musical for nearly 35 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the last British film to do so until Chariots of Fire in 1981. Despite this, and the fact it has a British cast and director, it still feels like an oddly Americanised version of Charles Dickens, on whose novel Oliver Twist it is obviously based.

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The film admits to being a ‘free adaptation’ of Dickens, but most of the bits you probably know from the book are still here (yes, both of them). Oliver Twist (Mark Lester, consistently moist throughout and frequently downright wet) has grown up in a workhouse in Dunstable, but is thrown out when he dares to ask for second helpings after dinner one day. After a brief interval working for an undertaker, he hitch-hikes down to London.

Here he falls into arguably very bad company, primarily that of Fagin (Ron Moody) and his gang of child pickpockets, including the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Amongst Fagin’s connections is the rather more brutal criminal Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), whose devoted girlfriend Nancy (Shani Wallis) nevertheless takes a shine to the small damp waif. When Oliver falls back into the hands of the authorities, Sikes and Fagin are deeply concerned he may be about to snitch on the lot of them, and their scheme to get him back results in tragedy, as well as a few top-rate song and dance numbers…

Mmm, yes, about those song and dance numbers – there is surely the argument to be made that when it comes to musical films, the overall quality of the actual piece is fundamentally linked to how good the songs are – the tunes are, essentially, the sine qua non of a musical, right? If this is the case, then Oliver! is surely one of the greatest musicals of all time, for the killer-to-filler ratio is so good as to lend credence to the suggestion that Lionel Bart (writer of same) was some kind of musical genius. The problem, such as it is, is really that the film-makers know how good the songs are and possibly milk them just a bit too much. The film’s huge set-piece numbers, primarily ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’, seem to go on forever, with more and more dancers turning up as the choruses repeat. And I find it just a bit draining, not to mention the fact that it’s a Disney-picture-book-ish portrait of Victorian London (I can’t quite shake the suspicion everyone involved was sneakily looking at Mary Poppins and working out how to go one bigger and better).

It’s all a bit at odds with the main thrust of the tale, which (as noted) is an essentially dark one (the climactic chase puts me rather in mind of how some Hammer movies conclude, although this may be down to Reed’s long-standing connection to the House of Horror). The most engaging characters in the film, Fagin and the Dodger, are at best amoral rogues, and the scenes in the criminal netherworld are a good deal more interesting than the ones in ‘respectable’ London. But the songs aren’t really about this world, apart from perhaps ‘You Got To Pick A Pocket or Two’, and even this is another cheery little number. Cut from the film, quite possibly because Oliver Reed couldn’t sing, was Bill Sikes’ song ‘My Name’, and as a result Reed has to rely on sheer charisma to make an impression (needless to say, he manages it effortlessly).

The odd tension at the heart of Oliver! is that the theme of what’s quite a dark story is one of belonging and camaraderie – most of the songs are either about the pleasure and comfort of being part of a gang, or part of a world (most obviously ‘Consider Yourself’), or the other side of the coin, feeling lonely and abandoned (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’). Even the utterly brilliant comic character song, ‘Reviewing the Situation’ (which, as performed by Moody, is just about as perfect a marriage of actor and material as anything in the history of musical cinema) has a brief moment of pathos as Fagin contemplates his own mortality and lonely old age.

In the end, though, this is ultimately cinema as grand entertainment, mounted on a lavish scale (complete with overture, entr’acte, and exit music on its original release), and the songs from the original much more intimate stage version of the show thrive here surprisingly well, helped by a very strong cast and great performances (even if, these days, you can’t really watch Jack Wild here without being reminded of everything else that came later in his life). For me there just a bit too much emphasis on jolly spectacle at the expense of the story for Oliver! to qualify as a movie absolutely of the first rank, but it’s still a great piece of entertainment.

 

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There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.

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The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

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I almost feel the need to apologise for the recent tendency of the writing here or hereabouts to dwell on some fairly repugnant topics: there has been quite a lot about prejudice and particularly anti-semitism, of one form or another, in the last couple of weeks. Weirdly enough, I think this may be linked to the fact that I have been looking at a lot of film musicals recently. As I have said in the past, while you might automatically assume that musicals are the most frivolous and escapist of forms, the fact is that it’s often these films that allow us to consider the most serious ideas and darkest material in an accessible way.

So, on to some more anti-semitism set to a catchy tune, in the form of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, which I am tempted to describe as coming at the tail end of the era of the classic Hollywood musical (even though this film was made in Germany with a largely local cast). This seems to me to be a slightly peculiar film in many different ways – it was, for example, the first musical to receive an X certificate from the censor (hard to believe these days), and, in terms of the Oscars, the most honoured film not to receive the award for Best Picture.

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The film is set in Germany in 1931, towards the end of the Weimar Republic. Arriving in the city is the diffident and reserved English academic Brian Roberts (Michael York), studying for his PhD and teaching English to make ends meet (well, it can’t be a vocation for everyone, I suppose). Lodging in the same house is another expat, the American Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), who dreams of stardom while performing as a singer and dancer at the decadent and sleazy Kit Kat Klub. After a few false starts, the two embark upon a relationship, but Sally’s ambitions, unrealistic though they perhaps are, continue to be an issue. Meanwhile, in the background, German society becomes harsher and darker as the Nazi movement grows in strength and influence.

The thing you first notice, watching Cabaret, is that it is practically the antithesis of the sung-through musical (a production like Evita or Les Miserables featuring no spoken dialogue whatsoever) – I might even go so far as to describe this as a drama with occasional songs, rather than full-blown musical in its own right. The second thing is connected to this, and it’s that Cabaret is, for want of a better expression, a diegetic musical. Virtually every other famous musical is non-diegetic (they are, to quote my mum, ‘where’s the orchestra?’ musicals) – characters spontaneously burst into song as they go about their lives, and no-one seems especially surprised by this (indeed, the supporting artists often join in the choruses and dance routines). Cabaret has a different approach and a different structure, for – with the exception of the chilling ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – all the songs are staged as musical performances at the Kit Kat Klub, and are mostly either character songs by Minelli, or reflections of or commentaries on the plot by the Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (a remarkable performance by Joel Grey). As a result, Cabaret is surely the only musical where the leading man doesn’t sing a word (although Michael York’s brand of fresh-faced, impeccably-cheekboned earnestness is effectively deployed), while the main male singer (Grey) doesn’t really participate in the main plot at all.

The result is that the musical routines have an unsettling, almost claustrophobic quality, tinged as they are by the atmosphere of the club: smoky, decadent, reeking of moral turpitude. If we’re going to look for a metaphor in this film (and why not?), it could be that the collapse in values on display in the club is intended to reflect that of wider German society at the time, thus creating a dangerous moral vacuum in which the Nazi ideology was able to establish itself.

Possibly somewhat at odds with this interpretation of the film is the fact that Sally herself is a fairly amoral character herself, and yet we are supposed to connect with and care for her as the story proceeds. If this happens at all, it’s because of Liza Minelli’s enormous vulnerability and heart as a performer, as well as her chops as a singer and dancer. It may just be that I’ve met a few too many real-life Sally Bowleses – vivacious, charming individuals, whose hedonism and self-centredness nevertheless mean they often leave emotional devastation in their wake – and this made me slightly wary of the character to begin with. Certainly, I found the personal drama of the relationship between Brian and Sally and the various other people they encounter – most prominently Helmut Griem as a wealthy playboy who initiates an odd love triangle with the couple – to be less compelling than the subplot about the gradual encroachment of Nazism.

Then again, I suppose that one of the points the film is trying to make is that the Nazis were able to seize power largely because people either didn’t pay them much attention or didn’t take them seriously if they did, being much too concerned with other things. The film is generally understated in this area, though still effective, and the moment when the increasingly-malevolent MC’s performance of a seemingly absurd comic song (‘If You Could See Her’) is revealed to be a repugnant piece of anti-semitic propaganda is genuinely shocking.

I’ve watched Cabaret a couple of times and while I think it’s a well-made and thoughtful film, I find it quite difficult to warm to. Perhaps this is because of its studied amorality and cynicism, in comparison to the genuine emotion and sympathetic characters to be found in most other musicals. As I say, I’m not sure it’s really a true musical, but the presence of the songs means it’s hardly a conventional drama either. Still, it’s an iconic movie with many effective moments in it.

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We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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Regular readers may be a little surprised to find a mainstream Disney family film popping up on a blog which is, more often than not, just a little bit more niche, if not actually obscure. Then again, sometimes you’re just out contemplating what film to see with a person of somewhat gentler tastes. ‘Okay, so there’s a political thriller about the ethical considerations of using drone strikes against terrorists, or a musical about talking animals,’ I said, leaving the choice up to them. So Jon Favreau’s new take on The Jungle Book it inevitably was.

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I suspect that the reason many people are so familiar with The Jungle Book – surely Rudyard Kipling’s best-known work to modern audiences – is the simple fact of the existence of Wolfgang Reitherman’s fully-animated 1967 adaptation. Certainly it has a very special place in my own memory, for all that I didn’t actually see it in its entirety until I was 19 – a fairly sumptuous storybook illustrated with pictures from the film was one of my fondest possessions as a small child, and I recall painstakingly copying out many of the backgrounds, let alone the main characters. So, as you might expect, I was even more dubious about this semi-remake than usual.

You probably know the story: Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a young lad who has been raised by wolves, so to speak… no, hang on, he’s literally been raised by wolves, in a reassuringly non-specific South Asian jungle of some kind (everyone calls it a jungle rather than a rainforest throughout). Mowgli hasn’t quite managed to fit in with the wolves, but soon he has more serious concerns as the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), undisputed apex predator of the area, learns of his existence and makes it very clear that man-cub is on his own personal menu. Mowgli’s mentor, the panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley), decides that the only thing to do is for him to go back to live amongst other humans – but along the way Mowgli encounters the extremely laid-back bear Baloo, who suggests there may be another, much less energy-intensive option. But Shere Khan is on his trail and has no intention of letting his prey escape…

The first thing I suppose one should say about the new Jungle Book is that, at its heart, it does seem to have a sincere desire to respect Rudyard Kipling and his original stories. These are rather darker and more serious than you might expect if all you know is the Reitherman movie – they read not entirely unlike a rather more erudite and polished precursor to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels (I feel compelled to share with you Kipling’s claim that Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan just to see ‘how bad a book he could write and get away with it’).

The virtually non-stop near-photorealistic CGI of the new Jungle Book allows the film to have moments of gravity and seriousness without simply coming across as weird – these are about as convincing as talking CGI animals get. Shere Khan, the main villain, is genuinely impressive and genuinely scary, on the very limit of what you can reasonably include in a family film without drawing accusations of actively seeking to traumatise small children.

So the film tones it all down a bit, and departs quite considerably from Kipling in the process, by turning the levels of cutesiness and sentimentality in many portions of the script up to tooth-rottingly high levels. Not to mention, of course, that most of the animals speak with American accents and using idiomatic American English. The results are, needless to say, a bit difficult to process at first.

If the new Jungle Book struggles to assimilate the competing demands of being faithful to Kipling while staying viable as a family blockbuster, this is before we even consider its somewhat confused relationship with the 1967 film. It goes without saying that this has obviously been a major influence – Mowgli closely resembles his animated counterpart, and the characterisations of Baloo and Bagheera, for instance, owe much more to the previous film’s script than to Kipling’s writing. The plot follows roughly the same sequence of events and there are numerous moments which I suspect will seem odd and incongruous unless you’re aware of the animated version.

Yes, I’m mostly thinking of the songs, which primarily seem to have been included because everyone knows the songs from The Jungle Book and would, presumably, feel cheated if they weren’t in this version. But the fact remains that it is very obvious that they have literally floated in from a different film entirely – Bill Murray’s crack at ‘The Bare Necessities’ seems rather perfunctory, Scarlett Johansson’s oddly tepid version of ‘Trust in Me’ has been banished to the closing credits, and then there’s…

Well, there’s one moment which defines just how mixed up this version of The Jungle Book is, but it’s also the moment which above all others justifies the price of the ticket. Mowgli gets kidnapped by the monkeys of the canopy and dragged off to their lair in a ruined temple. The script refers to them as ‘the Bandar-Log’, something drawn directly from Kipling, and yet they are still led by King Louie, which is pure Reitherman. This version of King Louie is a hulking, menacing anthropoid of colossal size (he claims to be a gigantopithecus rather than an orangutan, which is supposedly in the name of ‘realism’ – there are no orangs in India – but I suspect is more to help some of the revised lyrics scan better), played, rather in the manner of a mafia don, by Christopher Walken. The whole tone of this sequence is one of threat and jeopardy…

…and then Walken launches into a (it probably goes without saying) very idiosyncratic rendition of ‘I wanna be like you’, rather in the manner of William Shatner doing one of his dramatic recitations of a pop classic. It is just magnetically bizarre – the weird thing is, I know I would have felt it was a complete chiz if Walken hadn’t done the song, but at the same time it just felt horribly wrong to do it in quite this way. A few moments later the same wonderful song is, incomprehensibly, rearranged as a cue to accompany an action sequence. Kipling and the legacy of Reitherman and Jon Favreau’s own tendencies as a director of CGI-intensive action movies are engaged in a peculiar three-way battle for supremacy, and I’m still not sure who actually comes out on top.

Still, at least casting Walken as the ape removes any chance of the film being accused of open racism, by sensible reviewers at least: diversity quotas are also surely satisfied by Bagheera being Asian, Shere Khan being black, and Kaa having had a sex change. Modern sensibilities should also be assuaged by the virtually-obligatory insertion of a subtext about environmentalism and protecting the environment.

This finds its culmination in the climax of the film, which is where it comes a little unravelled: Kipling’s story is about growing up and taking on responsibility, but you get a strong sense that, thematically, this film would much rather be about the importance of family and friendship and not destroying the environment. I’m not saying the film entirely fails to resolve all of these themes, but it has to put itself through some fairly severe contortions to do so. I was also left very unimpressed with how the film ultimately resolves itself – the priority seems to have been keeping the option of doing a sequel well and truly open, rather than, say, concluding the story in a satisfying way.

This isn’t a bad film by any means: it looks sumptuous, the cast do good work with the roles that have been written for them, and when Favreau is allowed to do one of his big action sequences it is usually pretty good. But the various influences of Kipling, Reitherman, and action-movie doctrine never quite cohere. There are probably enough good bits in The Jungle Book to make it a worthwhile and entertaining watch, but I can’t imagine anyone already familiar with the story finding this completely satisfying.

 

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