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Posts Tagged ‘musical’

Cultural hegemony operating in the way that it does, the American remake of a successful non-English movie is a well-established phenomenon – there’s a very long list, including films as diverse as True Lies, Vanilla Sky, and The Magnificent Seven. Foreign-language takes on Hollywood are a little thinner on the ground, but they are still what is technically known as ‘a thing’, especially if you include somewhat unofficial versions of popular hits – we’ve already talked about Turkish Superman, for instance. (Just as an example of something completely different and rather curious, at some point this year we will hopefully get to see the French-language remake of the Japanese meta-comedy One Cut of the Dead.)

Mohammed Hussain’s 1973 film Khoon Khoon doesn’t seem to be one of those knock-offs – for a long time it was available to view on a major streamer, rather than in the depths of YouTube, and it does has a vague patina of quality about it: signs of a respectable budget and established actors. Should you be wondering, Khoon Khoon – so far as I’ve been able to work out – means Bloody Murder in Hindi. (Or possibly Bloody Blood. Or indeed Murder Murder. Bloody Murder isn’t exactly a brilliant title, but it’s better than the other two.)

A psychopathic killer is on the loose in a major city, picking off targets at random from the rooftops, and taunting the police commissioner with his demands for money – so it falls to one tough police detective to lead the hunt for the killer, and yes, you’re right, this is the plot of the classic 1970 Don Siegel movie Dirty Harry, one of the films which established Clint Eastwood as a major star. Start talking about ‘the Bollywood version of Dirty Harry‘ and people are likely to start trying to have you sectioned, but this film exists and it’s a lot better than you might expect.

The weird thing is the extent to which this seems to be a genuine fusion of American genre moviemaking and what most westerners would recognise as the classic Bollywood sensibility. I should point out that this isn’t just a film which is vaguely inspired by or derived from Dirty Harry: it really is a genuine remake, including most of the same plot beats, and with some scenes – even individual shots and camera moves – replicated in detail. The resemblance is compounded by the fact that Khoon Khoon, in a move more commonly associated with unlicensed knock-offs like Turkish Superman, reuses significant elements of the soundtrack from its progenitor. (I should also mention the appearance of pieces of music from Bullitt, at least two Bond films – Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, if my ears don’t fail me – and the original Planet of the Apes.)

The most obvious sign of the Bollywoodisation of Dirty Harry is also musical – or, to put it another way, Khoon Khoon itself is a musical. Initially the movie is relatively restrained about this element – the Clint-analogue, Anand (Mahendra Sandhu), and his comedy sidekick Pancham (Jagdeep), are working the case, and Anand pauses to sigh about the strain this is placing on his marriage and other family relationships (needless to say, Anand is not an unorthodox loner like Harry Callaghan, but a relatable family man). Before you know it we are into a flashback/dream sequence between him and his wife, complete with verses and choruses. ‘A cold rain is falling,’ trills Mrs Anand, alluringly. (The rain machine, always a sign of something raunchy on the cards, is going at nearly full blast.) ‘The weather is very pleasant. You are very pleasant too,’ croons Anand in response. Whether it’s a sultry interlude or a weather forecast with music is not always clear, but it’s definitely not the sort of thing you find in a Don Siegel movie.

Having thus taken the plunge, the movie goes off at a bit of a tangent for the next musical number, which is delivered by one of the Scorpio-analogue’s targets, a wise old holy man. He delivers a rather nice song – diegetically, this time – about the inescapable truth of mortality and the iron hand of fate, even as Raghav, the killer, is lining up his rifle to kill him. Needless to say, the musical wisdom leads Raghav to question his life choices and not shoot the holy man – presumably it was unacceptable to show a senior cleric being gunned down, although Khoon Khoon has no problems with small children and innocent young women being offed, sometimes on-camera.

Of course, as any fule kno, it’s not as if Dirty Harry itself is entirely bereft of musical accompaniment – there is of course the scene in which a busful of school children sing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ while being held hostage by Andy Robinson. Clearly recognising this as a fundamental element of the film, the makers of Khoon Khoon double down – Raghav (Danny Denzongpa) and the hostage children get their own production number (still on the bus), singing about what good friends they’re all going to become – at least until the children sing some rather rude lyrics about him and he starts slapping them about mid-song. I wonder if I am managing to communicate to you just what an extremely strange experience watching Khoon Khoon is?

Songs aside, Khoon Khoon is a less obviously challenging movie than its forebear – it certainly works hard to stay accessible, including lengthy scenes of slapstick comedy centred around Anand’s egg-loving sidekick Pancham, and some borderline soap-opera storylines concerning Anand’s slightly strained relations with his in-laws. Anand’s an establishment figure in a way Callaghan isn’t – not so much a man on the edge as one in the very middle of the road.

And, of course, something completely absent from Khoon Khoon is the whole subtext to Dirty Harry, which for me is a film about conservative America recoiling in alarm and disgust from the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The reference points just aren’t there, of course – Raghav isn’t the ambiguous character that Scorpio is, he’s just a greedy nutter who was thrown out by his parents as a child after trying to knife his baby sibling (Scorpio has no background, almost like Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker; Raghav gets his own flashback to establish his character). The vaguely fascist politics and ambiguous ending of the Siegel film are likewise notably absent – Anand may disobey orders and trick Raghav into attacking him, so he can gun him down like a dog, but the moment where Clint Eastwood throws away his badge is gone: the police commissioner turns up and makes a point of telling Anand what a good job he’s done, and that he’s probably going to be promoted.

I have no idea if Khoon Khoon would seem as strange to an Indian audience as it does to me: but I suspect not, because they’ve clearly worked very hard at the Bollywoodisation of it. I really like Dirty Harry – but the weird thing is that I rather enjoyed Khoon Khoon too, partly because it is so similar, but also because it is so very, very different. To me at least, it seemed like a genuine oddity, a somewhat primitive and certainly dated film, but also one with real energy and colour to it. It’s very entertaining, in all sorts of ways, and most of them are intentional.

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Let us go down the rabbit hole and consider the fact that there really was a poet and swordsman known as Cyrano de Bergerac: yes, I sort of had a vague idea he was fictitious too, but apparently not. It seems that not much is known about the historical Cyrano, best known as he is for inspiring Edmond Rostand’s play about him. It even seems to be the case that no-one is entirely sure whether or not Cyrano actually had the gigantic conk which his fictional counterpart is most noted for, although it does seem to have been the case that he was ‘not conventionally handsome’, as the euphemism has it.

This puts a new perspective on Joe Wright’s new film based on Rostand’s work, which I would imagine may have caused some purists to instinctively clench up for the liberties it takes with the classically accepted version of the tale (although perhaps not as much as the version set in America with the firemen). The new Cyrano had its origins as a stage show mounted as, essentially, a star vehicle for Peter Dinklage to demonstrate his undoubted talents.

Given that Dinklage is undeniably famous and celebrated, appeared in one of the most successful films of all time (admittedly in what was essentially a cameo), and also starred in possibly the most talked-about TV show of the last ten years, you would expect his hallway to be blocked with scripts every day. But, and I mention this because I feel I have to, the fact that Peter Dinklage has a form of dwarfism probably impacts on the kinds of roles he gets offered – basically, if he wants to play the romantic lead or the action hero, he has to organise that for himself. And so he has.

The film is strong on period atmosphere but a bit vague when it comes to historical detail. The setting to begin with is distinctly Mediterranean, as a small seaside town basks in the sun. Here we meet Roxanne (Haley Bennett), a slightly impecunious young woman from a good family – she is all ringlets, rosy cheeks and exuberant embonpoint. Roxanne is off to the theatre, but decides she doesn’t have to put on that red dress she’s just been sent by her slightly unwelcome suitor the Duke de Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), despite the fact she risks offending this powerful man.

Well, what should happen but that she falls head over heels in love at first sight just before the play gets underway – with a young soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). It proves to be an eventful evening in all sorts of ways, as the performance has to be abandoned when a famous actor is driven from the stage by the cutting words of famed local poet and swordsman Cyrano (Dinklage). For an encore Cyrano wins a duel against one of de Guiche’s followers, definitely putting himself on the wrong side of the Duke.

But behind the fierce façade he presents to the world, Cyrano has a secret of his own – he has long been in love with Roxanne himself, and her request that he takes Christian under his wing – they serve in the same regiment – causes him some angst. But she also wants Christian to write passionate love letters to her, something he proves very ill-suited for. Cyrano takes up this task on Christian’s behalf, and finds he is finally able to express his feelings, although the object of his affections naturally remains oblivious…

I feel I should stress that I did have a good time watching Cyrano; there is much to enjoy about this film. The costuming, sets, and cinematography are all excellent, creating a memorable and very attractive world full of life and movement. It’s also a notably well-acted film, by the principals at least. I was rather cruel about Haley Bennett in a review a few years ago, but she is quite winning here; Kelvin Harrison has perhaps the least showy part but finds a way to make an impression. Ben Mendelsohn isn’t immediately very recognisable, but eventually that vocal delivery gives him away and he turns in what’s basically another live-action Disney villain performance (which is to some extent his stock-in-trade).

Nevertheless, the film exists as a venue for Peter Dinklage to do his stuff, and he meets the challenge superbly. One of the many sources of my habitual air of smugness is the fact that I was on the Dinklage train well before Game of Thrones ever got started; I saw him in The Station Agent nearly twenty years ago and was hugely impressed by his talent and presence. Those get free rein here – no-one does brooding, wounded nobility quite like Dinklage does, but also gets to show his vulnerability, and his facility for underplayed comedy, along with much else – including sword-fighting and singing.

Yes, Cyrano is a musical, which – regular visitors will recall – is always a genre I’m willing to give a fair hearing to. However, the thing about musicals is that they have songs in them; this is really a defining feature of the form (I hope I’m not being too provocative when I say this). It’s a general rule that, the better the songs, the better the musical. The songs in Cyrano are not bad songs. They are very pleasant to listen to. They slide very agreeably into your ear. And then they slide equally easily out of the other one. Which is to say, they are not memorable or catchy at all. We were walking home after seeing the film, agreeing we had enjoyed it, when I asked my co-spousal unit if she could hum or sing any of the tunes from it. Less than ten minutes after the film finished, they had completely faded from her memory. Whatever the opposite of an earworm is, the songs in Cyrano are that.

This becomes a particular problem at the end of the film, which honestly has a slightly odd structure to it – it almost feels like it skips the third act entirely and goes straight from the middle section to the epilogue. You can tell all involved are going for a heart-rending tragedy of profound emotions, but it all falls a bit flat – possibly because the audience hasn’t had a chance to get used to the characters being in a changed situation, but also, I suspect, because the songs aren’t quite up to plucking at the heartstrings to the required extent.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy here in every other department, although to me the ending still feels a little bit mishandled. This is an odd example of a musical which might well have worked better without the songs – but it’s still a very easy film to like.

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Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone turns up at the front desk of Universal Pictures with the idea for a gripping new thriller: the tale of a small coastal town gripped by fear and institutional inertia, while one of the world’s deadliest killers lurks in the waters just offshore. The name of this new movie? Well, Jaws, obviously. It’s not a remake, before you say anything, it’s an entirely new thing, a brand new adaptation of the original novel by Peter Benchley. How far do you think this project would get?

Not far, you might think, but then again I’ve got quite used to seeing once-unthinkable remakes get to the screen, seldom making much of an impression: The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur, The Wicker Man, and so on. Nevertheless, I was genuinely baffled at the news (quite a while ago now) that Steven Spielberg was in the process of doing a new version of West Side Story. For the benefit of new visitors (hello, thanks for dropping by; there’s a link to the A to Z list of reviews at the top, and no, I’m not going to ask you to support me on Patreon or anything), the original Robert Wise version of West Side Story is amongst my absolute favourites – it seems to me to be one of those films it would be impossible to change without diminishing it, somehow, so the prospects of a whole new version… well, this is a big movie made by the world’s most famous director, so it’s bound to make a profit [It turns out maybe not – A], but apart from that, what’s the point of it? What’s it for?

A possible solution eventually emerges. The film is set on the west side of Manhattan in the late 1950s, at a point when many of the slum neighbourhoods were being cleared and redeveloped as more upmarket districts. The area looks like a bomb site, but this doesn’t keep it from being the turf of the local street gang, the Jets, and their leader Riff (Mike Faist). The main target of the Jets’ aggression is the incoming Puerto Rican immigrant community. Tensions between the two sides, and Riff and the other side’s leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) in particular, are growing.

Riff sets out to resolve the matter in the time-honoured manner (by having a big fight), calling on his friend Tony (Ansel Elgort) for help. Recently out of prison and trying to turn over a new leaf, Tony is reluctant – but things change when he meets Bernardo’s little sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the pair are instantly smitten, despite the racial and cultural chasm between them. Then again, if love can bloom in such circumstances, perhaps there is hope for peace in the community…

It is quite difficult to write about the new West Side Story objectively: the 1961 version doesn’t so much cast a long shadow as cause a total solar eclipse. Even the new film itself tacitly acknowledges this, as the original story has been amended to provide a role for Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the first film) – Moreno gets very little screen time opposite Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita this time, which must have been a relief. Not surprisingly, Spielberg seems to have realised there is not much of a percentage in attempting to copy the original, and it often feels like the new film is deliberately trying to be as different as possible, regardless of how well this serves either the story or the music.

Certainly Spielberg takes every opportunity to make use of modern film-making technology and capabilities: sequences which were originally mounted on slightly stylised sound-stages now occur in the street, in broad daylight, with a full cast of extras in the background. The film feels more grounded and less theatrical as a result. As you may perhaps have noticed, the details of the story have also been amended – the general through-line remains the same, and the songs are largely identical, but a lot of the dialogue has been changed, some characters expanded and deepened, others less prominent. Even more radically, the order of the songs has been changed (sometimes significantly), along with who performs them – although my understanding is that this actually means the new film is closer to the stage show in some ways.

One of the key differences between the 1961 film and the new one is, obviously, that for Spielberg and his collaborators this is a period piece, a story about a specific time and place in the past. The film works hard to establish the historical and social realities involved – again, making it more grounded and naturalistic. One key but subtle difference is that while they may be credited as the Sharks, the Puerto Rican characters aren’t referred to as such on screen – they don’t really form a street gang like the Jets, being depicted as defending their community rather than acting like delinquents. The Jets, it is suggested, are the real no-hopers, the heirs of prior generations too lazy or short-sighted to move out of the west side before it became a slum.

It’s an interesting new approach and I would have thought the film was unlikely to encounter much trouble for its depiction of the various ethnic and minority groups involved – but apparently the fact that this is a production about but not written by Puerto Ricans means it will always be problematic. Even so, you can’t fault everyone’s intentions – the Puerto Rican characters speak so much Spanish to one another that the lack of subtitles is keenly felt, but apparently this was a deliberate choice, so as not to give English some kind of privileged status.

One way or another this version of West Side Story feels like a very different beast from the Robert Wise film – a period piece, but also very modern in its earnestness and occasional lack of subtlety. The film is so determined to be grounded and naturalistic that it feels conflicted about its identity as a musical: the breath-taking, transcendentally cinematic moment from the 1961 film when the strutting street-gang suddenly start ballet-dancing doesn’t have anything like the same effect here; the same is true for most of the choreography. This version is much more about the songs than the dancing.

But, you know, it’s still the same songs and music, and no matter what the context there is a certain minimum level of quality they are not going to dip below. I’ll be honest and say that hearing them in this new setting was a bit disconcerting, so closely do I associate them with the Robert Wise film, while some of them don’t really seem to fit the style Spielberg is going for – ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ is a cynical vaudeville comedy number, which feels a bit at odds with the film’s determined naturalism. But many of them sound as good as ever, even if the staging sometimes feels a little lacking.

As I say, comparisons with the 1961 film are inevitable, and it would be wrong to criticise Spielberg just for doing something different; he hardly had a choice. But I do think the conflict between the naturalism of the staging and the theatricality of the original show creates a tension which is jarring and awkward rather than energising, while the lavish virtuosity of the film sometimes just isn’t as effective as the brilliant clarity Wise managed to achieve. This isn’t a bad film by any means, but I think in years to come, when people casually refer to West Side Story, this isn’t the movie they’re going to be talking about.

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One of the things that frequently surprises even people who know me fairly well is the fact that I do love a good musical: as recently noted, the original West Side Story is one of my favourite films, and any musical aimed at a grown-up audience (as opposed to a Disney movie) will get a fairly sympathetic hearing from me.

I think this is because a really successful musical does that thing of transporting you to a wholly different world and state of being better than virtually any other genre of cinema; I go to the movies in the hope of experiencing that kind of moment. I think the natural home of virtually all movies is on the big screen (I would make an exception for something like Downton Abbey, obviously), but especially for musicals.

Nevertheless, the streamers are muscling in on this genre in the same way as virtually all the others – the big N released the slightly mercenary Sunday-school musical A Week Away earlier in the year, and now they have followed this up with a new project directed by no less an eminence than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself – a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!

Larson is probably best-known as the creator of the game-changing late-90s musical Rent, and one rather suspects that the rights can’t have been available or they’d have made a new version of that instead (I didn’t even know they’d made a movie of Rent; I’m pretty sure it never got a wide release in the UK). This is based on an earlier work, or perhaps a couple of earlier works.

The story behind the film is that Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who I have to say is a bit of a revelation in terms of his singing and dancing ability if nothing else) spent most of the late 1980s trying to drum up interest in a musical he’d written called Superbia – which, given what we see of it in the movie, sounds rather like an episode of Black Mirror with soft rock songs. The film opens in late 1990 with Larson about to turn thirty, still the definition of a struggling artist, seeing his friends doing well in more mainstream careers, and trying to manage a strained relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Pretty much all that keeps him plugging away in a field swamped with mega-musicals and ‘safe’ productions is the fact that Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford but also by Sondheim himself at one point) once said something nice about his work.

But there is a glimmer of hope when Superbia is chosen for a workshop presentation, something Larson is hopeful will lead to the show actually being produced and his talent being recognised. But staging the workshop puts even more pressure on his shoulders, adding to the fact that he is chronically short of money, one of his friends is in hospital with an HIV-related condition, and things in his love life are likewise at a crisis point.

I’d never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! until very recently; I’d certainly never heard of Superbia. I suspect most people have never heard of Superbia, outside of the world of musical-theatre wonkery anyway, as (spoiler alert) the show has never actually been produced. But the story of how that didn’t happen was used by Larson as material for a one-man show (or ‘rock monologue’), which is how Tick, Tick… Boom! got started (the title alludes to the sense of time running out and the accompanying pressure to succeed that Larson was feeling).

Does this seem a bit convoluted and self-referential? I should say that the film itself is much more straightforward than I’m probably making it sound: it takes the form of a performance of a slightly expanded version of the show (Garfield is supported by Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, and a band), with extended flashbacks to the events involved.

As a musical, then, it is partially diegetic – many of the songs are performed either at Larson’s live show or the workshop presentation – and I always feel this is a bit of a shame. The ‘an invisible orchestra strikes up’ moment takes a lot of stick, as do various scenes of people breaking out into song and dance in the street, but this is the heart of what musicals about – doing it all diegetically means you’re only a step away from cutting all the songs out entirely, all in the name of realism. In any case, while the movie never quite goes for a full massed dance routine, there are a few more imaginative sequences – the one grabbing all the critical attention comes when Larson is working at his diner one Sunday morning, and the various patrons all start bursting into song.

The gag, if you will, is that everyone in the joint bears a suspicious resemblance to a bona fide Broadway legend – faces in the sequence include Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Phylicia Rashad, while Miranda himself plays the chef – while other scenes are equally stuffed with big-name cameos if you know your stuff.

The danger here is that the film will just come across as a piece of musical theatre exclusively about the history of musical theatre. Parallels have been drawn between the careers of Larson and Miranda, both immense talents who created huge hits while still very young (Miranda’s music has an obvious hip hop influence, whereas Larson came from more of a rock background); the appearance of Sondheim as a character also gives a sense of a lineage going back into the golden age of the musical. There is also a sense of deep concern over the health and prospects of the form – one song, ‘Play Game’, features staging which is bitterly satirical about just how difficult it is to mount an original new musical today. It almost feels strange to have made a movie about something which is so fundamentally about a different form of art.

However, the movie remains accessible and effective, mainly because it proves to be about something more basic and human than any particular art-form: Larson’s struggle to succeed and doubts about his own talent. Lots of films pay lip service to the idea of the struggling artist (usually those about the early life of someone who ends up very successful); few of them put meat on the bones of this idea quite as successfully. At what point do you stop banging your head against the wall and give up? Why suffer in poverty trying to make art when you could put your talent to commercial use and make a comfortable living? You come away from the film with a renewed respect for people who labour under these conditions and eventually get their break.

This is still perhaps a bit more arty than most mainstream musicals, and I didn’t really come away whistling any of the tunes. But the backdrop to the film is convincing, the performances are good – very, very good in the case of Andrew Garfield – and Miranda directs with elegance and style. This isn’t the traditional musical blockbuster, but then I don’t suppose it was meant to be. Nevertheless, a well-made and effective movie.

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My last memory of the director Ken Russell, prior to hearing of his death, was of his making some very ungenerous comments about Shaun of the Dead in the year’s end review issue of The Guardian, in what was supposedly a feature where the great and the good talked about their favourite films and books and so on of the year just ending. This struck me as a rather mean thing to do, especially coming from someone whose own films – the ones I’d seen, anyway – often seemed inclined to be tacky and filled with a tendency towards look-at-me provocativeness.

Then again, I’d mostly seen late period Russell – The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic, in particular, though the BBC ran a weekend of programming about censorship in which The Devils got shown, and I watched that then (along with Beat Girl and a few other things, not that it matters). People whose opinions I usually respect like Mark Kermode do have a lot of time for Russell and his films, so I probably need to give him another chance.

Spurring me on in this is the fact I watched his 1975 film Tommy the other day, mainly because it was on Netflix and I fancied a break from horror movies. The number of older films on Netflix seems to have declined in recent years (boo), replaced by those usually-dull bits of product marked with a red N on the choice screen, so one should make the most of them while they’re still there.

I’d actually seen bit of Tommy before, round about the same time as The Devils (Channel 4 did a weekend of programming about glam rock – themed weekends were a bit of a thing back in the mid 1990s) – but my main memories were of two other utterly dreadful movies that also got rolled out, Side by Side and Never Too Old to Rock. (If I ever feel in the need for a spot of psychic self-flagellation I’ll go back and watch some of these films again.) Whether the Who, who made the album the film was based on, actually count as a glam rock band I’m a bit uncertain about, but there is definitely a touch of the theatrical and operatic about the film (not least in the way it is sung-through).

Not being all that familiar with Tommy, as noted, I was a bit surprised by how star-studded it turned out to be. For instance, after the faintly confusing opening credits (A Film by Ken Russell – Tommy – by the Who) we initially meet Captain Walker, a heroic RAF bomber pilot, on his honeymoon in the north of England. He and his lovely wife Norah are pictured frolicking energetically in a mountain stream together (to which my reaction was primarily ‘that must have been bloody cold’ – it wouldn’t have left me in the mood, certainly). They are played by Robert Powell and Ann-Margret.

However, tragedy strikes when Walker’s plane is shot down, and his son is seemingly born fatherless (on VE Day no less). But Norah does the best for young Tommy, and while on a trip to a holiday camp she falls in with Frank (Oliver Reed under a resplendent DA hairstyle – come to think of it, he’s in Beat Girl, too), who’s clearly a bit of a dodgy character. Well, Frank and Nora get hitched, and things seem to be looking up for the family.

Until, one night, Captain Walker returns, badly scarred, having survived the plane crash after all. He is understandably put out, firstly to find his wife shacked up with Oliver Reed, and secondly when the couple panic and murder him. Tommy witnesses this, and his mother and stepfather scream at him telling he didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything, and can’t say anything.

Well, obviously, the shock of this sends Tommy into a sort of catatonic trance where he is almost completely oblivious to the outside world. Various attempts at a cure, including faith healing and psychedelic drugs administered by scary prostitutes, come to nothing, and the grown Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has a generally terrible time with the highly unsuitable babysitters (mostly sadists and child molesters from the look of things) he is left with. But a chance of salvation comes when he discovers an unlikely gift for playing pinball machines…

As you can perhaps already tell, studied naturalism and an entirely coherent plot are not amongst Tommy’s strengths as a film. Much of the story you kind of have to accept, and in the case of some of the closing scenes of the film, actually decide for yourself what’s actually going on. This is not normally the hallmark of a particularly good cinematic experience.

However, Tommy really does work as a film, mainly because of the tag-team combination of Russell’s images and Pete Townshend’s music, which come together to remarkable effect. There’s a pop-art surrealism to the best sequences of the film which is immensely striking and memorable – perhaps the most famous of these is the ‘Pinball Wizard’ scene, in which Elton John’s tremendous performance of a belting song is enhanced by the fact he’s wearing six-foot-tall boots. Even when the music isn’t quite so memorable, Russell can be relied upon to keep things visually interesting. The climax of the film, in which Daltrey swims oceans, scrambles up streams, and finally climbs a mountain, singing most of the way as the almost-devotional anthem ‘Listening to You’ builds around him (and, incidentally, demonstrating that he possesses one of the great rock voices) is another remarkably intense and powerful piece of work.

Set against this I suppose we must acknowledge the film’s occasional excesses and excursions into actual silliness – I’m thinking of the scene in which Ann-Margret rolls around on the floor covered in baked beans and melted chocolate, and the general unravelling of the narrative once Tommy regains his senses and voice: Daltrey takes every opportunity to get his shirt off, while travelling the country by hang-glider preaching his message of enlightenment through sensory deprivation and pinball.

It also does not appear to be the case that the words ‘Good, but take it down a notch or two’ were in Russell’s vocabulary while directing some of the performers. Some of them do indeed turn up and do good, restrained work – Eric Clapton seems rather lugubrious during his solo, while Jack Nicholson turns up and gives an impressive demonstration of how to steal a scene from Oliver Reed – but others, frankly, have all the dials turned up well past 10.  Tina Turner spends most of her screen-time maniacally screeching straight down the camera lens, which is a bit unsettling if you’re not expecting it (and maybe even if you are – it kind of put me in mind of Jennifer Hudson in Cats).

But on the whole it is hugely entertaining, thrilling, visually-interesting stuff. Apparently Russell made a few changes to the storyline implied by the original album, most of which seem quite wise to me, and found a way to make a film about a topic he’d been interested in for a while – spiritual leaders who turn out to be deeply flawed individuals. The film is provocative about religion, to say the least, from very early on – remembrance day crosses are juxtaposed with the cruciform shape of bomber planes and Robert Powell in a crucified pose (which must have been useful practice for him), while there’s another extraordinary sequence (the film is not short of them) set in a church devoted to the worship of Marilyn Monroe.

You couldn’t really say that Tommy doesn’t look a bit dated; it almost seems to have become one of those time capsules of pop culture from a past era – the music is classic rock, and in small ways it did remind me of lots of other films from the mid-seventies like A Clockwork Orange (although the extravagant visual sense also put me in mind of Hellraiser II if I’m honest, and that’s a film from much later). Even some of the costumes are re-used from other films (Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers). But it really does hang together as a whole, as a film with its own distinct identity: grandiose, extravagant and surreal, rather like a feature-length music video, and immensely watchable, witty, and entertaining.

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The musical biography has been around as a movie genre for ages: it’s one of those things that will likely never completely go away, as doing a film about someone famous and popular is at least as good a bet when it comes to luring in an audience as making an adaptation of a well-known book or TV show. Nevertheless, in recent years it does seem to have been enjoying a moment in the sun – the Queen biopic turned out to be quite astonishingly popular, while Rocketman also did rather well (in addition to arguably being a more interesting and creative film).

Actually, Rocketman was a bit of an outlier in a number of ways, not least because Elton John is still alive and well (some might say despite his own best efforts) – most music bios deal with someone who is dead, or at least extremely doddery, presumably because this cuts down on the number of awkward moments when the subject is first shown the movie. The other difference is formal: the key creative decision in what’s settled down as the classic music bio structure is when to start the thing in earnest, and when to finish it. These films usually conclude with the subject experiencing the zenith of their success – for example, the Live Aid moment making up the climax of Bohemian Rhapsody – but, the only comparable performance in Elton John’s career taking place at a royal funeral, they reasonably elected to skip it.

Liesl Tommy’s Respect doesn’t take any chances when sorting out its start and end points. The film, I should make clear, concerns the life – or a relatively brief period in the life – of Aretha Franklin, and opens with some scenes of a very young Franklin being made to sing at parties by her father Clarence (Forest Whitaker). Not much encouragement is needed, of course. The film zips through some other establishing material until it reaches the point at which the child actress can withdraw and Franklin can be played by Jennifer Hudson (I’m going to be a bit ungallant and point out that Hudson is considerably older than Franklin is at the end of the period covered by the movie, let alone the beginning, not that this is especially obvious).

Off she goes to New York as a teenage prodigy to launch her career, but experiences little success until a falling out with her domineering father leads to her taking up with her domineering manager and future spouse Ted White (Marlon Wayans). Given a modicum of control over her own career, Franklin suddenly breaks through with a string of hits, but must contend with various tumultuous personal relationships, not to mention her own demons. Can she bounce back when it matters?

One of the odd things about Respect, considered as an actual bio-pic, is that it almost completely skips the last 46 years of its subject’s life. Did Aretha Franklin really do nothing of particular interest after the age of 30? Even the film suggests not, but it nevertheless wraps up with the gospel concert at New Temple in Los Angeles in 1972 (already the subject of a feature documentary), filling in the rest with the usual slightly gushy captions about Franklin’s achievements (for the film she is always Ms Franklin, of course).

There’s not much actively wrong with Respect that I can actually put my finger on – it looks okay, the acting is fine (apart from those already mentioned, there’s a decent turn from Marc Maron as one of Aretha’s record company bosses), and of course there is a completely banging soundtrack, mostly courtesy of Hudson herself. Now, let’s be honest here: Jennifer Hudson is a very fine singer, especially when she eschews the attention-all-shipping vocal style she deployed in Cats, and which made me want to hide under the seat. But she’s not Aretha Franklin, who was an utterly unique and breath-taking talent. The film closes with footage of the real Aretha performing, close to the end of her career, and its inclusion is possibly a mistake – you suddenly realise just why the various Hudson covers filling the movie have been just a bit unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, while you may well learn something about Aretha Franklin’s life (or maybe a lot about Aretha Franklin’s life), the movie never quite takes flight and becomes as entertaining as one of her records. I think this is probably due to the stifling sense of reverent solemnity which permeates the film pretty much from beginning to end. It does that bit where the origins of a particular, well-known song are delved into at considerable length (Good Vibrations did this with the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, Love and Mercy did it with Good Vibrations, and Bohemian Rhapsody did it with – er – Bohemian Rhapsody), and when the title track is finally unleashed in full, it is as irresistibly funky and vibrant and sassy as ever.

But away from the performances, the rest of the film is staid and rather stolid stuff. The director herself comes on in a cameo as a fan who basically tells Aretha what an important and inspirational figure she is – which is fair enough, but we’re told more about Franklin’s importance than actually shown it. Of course, there’s a lot going on here which the film-makers clearly feel obligated to touch on in some way, but duck out of featuring in the film in any detail – the circumstances by which Franklin ended up the mother of two children by the age of fifteen almost feel like they’re skipped over, presumably because they would just send the film off into quite dark and uncomfortable territory. Her early relationship with Martin Luther King is likewise only really mentioned in passing.

So with these key elements of her actual biography kept to a minimum, what kind of portrait of Franklin emerges? I’m sorry to say it’s not a particularly distinctive one. All the texture and possible ambiguity in her life story seems to have been smoothed away so that she can fit the template of the musical biography subject – early years, struggles, breakthrough, success, wobble, bounce-back, triumphant return to even greater success. You may learn stuff about Aretha Franklin’s life, but I doubt there’s much sense of what she was actually like as a person in this movie. It’s not a bad film, and indeed parts of it are very entertaining, but I strongly doubt it does its subject justice.

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Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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It’s a bit of a shock to realise that we still haven’t had any ‘new’ films for 2021 – not since the cinemas reopened, anyway. Virtually every major release has been something that was scheduled for early last summer: there’s a real sense in which we are still only catching up with the backlog, at least as far as the big studios go. One got to see the trailer, then the pandemic intervened, and now, sixteen or eighteen months later, we actually get to see the movie.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to remember what I saw the trailer for Jon M Chu’s In the Heights in front of. As we have established, films are trailed before other films of a vaguely similar kind, on the whole, but as there aren’t many hip-hop contemporary musical-comedy-dramas troubling the multiplexes it must have been something else. Was it in front of Parasite? I can’t actually recall.

That trailer made heavy reference to the fact that the guiding spirit behind the musical the film is based on – conceiver, producer, composer and lyricist – is Lin-Manuel Miranda, one of those people who you’d expect to be able to write their own ticket in terms of simply doing anything they feel like (and making a big song and dance out of it, ha ha, ho ho). This is mainly due to the success of the stage musical Hamilton; In the Heights is an earlier work which has taken a circuitous route to the big screen (casting issues, a change of studio, the Weinstein scandal, and then of course the delay due to the virus).

Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, owner of a convenience store in the Washington Heights district of New York (the issue of his somewhat unusual nomenclature is addressed in the course of the film). His family is from the Dominican Republic, and his ambition is to return there and re-open his father’s old bar. Most of his neighbours have some kind of Latino background as well, not to mention concerns over their own futures: beauty salon worker Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) wants to become a fashion designer with a downtown address, while her friend Nina (Leslie Grace) is struggling with the pressures placed on her as the first person from the neighbourhood to go to an elite university, not to mention the prejudices and provocations she encounters in the wider world.

And the neighbourhood seems under threat: quite apart from the fact that so many of the young people seem to be intent on leaving, the businesses are being bought out or forced to leave by rent increases. When Usnavi learns that someone in his shop has bought a lottery ticket worth nearly $100,000, it seems like a portent of things changing forever…

If you only go to see one musical set on the streets of Manhattan this year… aha, but that’s the thing: one of the films being trailed before In the Heights was Spielberg’s likewise-delayed new version of West Side Story (the trailer was almost good enough to make me reconsider my position that a remake of the Robert Wise version isn’t just necessarily redundant, but folly). Spielberg’s film is likely to crush Chu’s in terms of box office returns and critical profile, which is a shame – but that’s what brand loyalty is all about, I suppose.

This is quite a different animal, anyway, less centred around a single narrative line and more concerned with the lives and experiences of an entire neighbourhood: one of its great successes is in the presentation of a vibrant, realistic community, somewhere it might actually be quite nice to live.

Well, realistic up to a point, anyway: people keep bursting into song and performing massed dance routines. A touch of realism goes a long way, but one of the reasons that musicals never really completely disappear from the cinema landscape is that they have a special magic all of their own – by being so proudly and completely non-naturalistic, at their best they have a truthfulness and sincerity about them which no other genre can quite match.

So it is here: the big routines have a joyousness about them which is utterly captivating, and bring to mind the best musicals of the past. The whole movie is quite classical in its form and structure – the songs are a mixture of ‘I want’ and ‘I need’, you can track the structure of the acts as the story develops, and so on – even if the mixture of musical styles is quite innovative (Latino music and hip-hop make up most of the score).

As a celebration of Latino culture in New York, the film is a success – but it’s also notably politicised. Everyone is talking or singing about their dreams, but slowly this turns into a discussion of the fate of Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children. Viewed in this light, and bearing in mind it was intended to be a 2020 movie, it’s hard not to conclude that In the Heights was intended to be a challenge to Donald Trump and his views on immigrants and Latino and Hispanic culture. Well, if nothing else we should always be glad that this is a blow which no longer needs to be struck with quite such urgency.

On the other hand, as well as engaging with political issues – and it’s more than just bashing Trump, the complex realities of the immigrant experience are handled with intelligence and nuance – the film is also a romance of a very traditional kind, a comment on the fate of neighbourhood communities, and several other things besides. The sheer breadth of material and willingness of the film to try and do everything eventually becomes slightly exhausting, and results in a lengthy film that none of the plotlines are really strong enough to support.

Still, it’s often hugely enjoyable while you’re watching it, even if it does lack focus. The cast are mostly unknown (apparently Anthony Ramos was in the most recent A Star is Born, a Godzilla movie, and a Liam Neeson thriller), but put across their turns with charm and energy. Probably the most famous face in the main cast is Jimmy Smits, who as it turns out can sing quite well, while Lin-Manuel Miranda himself pops up from time to time as the neighbourhood slushy salesman.

Miranda’s appearances are one of the many small pleasures which pepper a hugely likeable film. It’s true that this is film which feels like its trying to do too much, possibly as a result of having been significantly altered from the stage incarnation (the central romance is more prominent, while the political elements have been amended to reflect the modern situation) – but it does package one of the most enduring pleasures of cinema very appealingly indeed. Worth the wait.

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Mel Brooks’ 1967 movie The Producers opens in the appropriately seedy offices of seedy theatrical impresario Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel): once a successful producer, his recent shows have all been flops and he has been reduced to romancing little old ladies into parting with their money in order to keep himself afloat (‘romancing’ may be putting too fine a point on it: for frail-looking little old ladies, they turn out to be improbably libidinous).

Stumbling into the midst of this geriatric carnality comes the hapless figure of drab accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder); this is apparently an intentional reference to Ulysses, unlikely as that sounds. Bloom has been sent to do Bialystock’s books, and discovers that an accidental bit of graft has occurred: the producer raised more money than he needed in order to mount his last show, and pocketed the excess. Normally this would be an offence, but as the show was a huge flop, none of the backers are expecting to get their money back anyway. Bloom idly observes that an unprincipled producer could probably make more money from a massive flop than a genuine hit, if the book-keeping were creative enough…

This seed of corruption falls into the fertile mulch of Max Bialystock’s brain and instantly takes root. Persuading Bloom to assist him, he sets about mounting the worst play it is in his power to stage, meanwhile raising a vastly excessive budget from private investors in return for selling the profits from the show two-and-a-half-thousand times over. But what kind of show could be the sure-fire disaster the scheme warrants?

They settle upon a script entitled Springtime for Hitler, a musical comedy written by a deranged Nazi immigrant named Franz (Kenneth Mars) which sets out to show the world ‘the real Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart’. Directorial duties are assigned to Roger de Bris (Christopher Hewitt), a gay transvestite, while the starring role is given to a drug-addled beatnik named Lorenzo St DuBois (aka LSD), played by Dick Shawn. The stage is (hopefully) set for a disaster of colossal proportions – what could possibly go right…?

There’s a relentless ferocity about the single-minded way in which The Producers goes about getting its laughs, something which is perhaps mirrored by Zero Mostel’s uninhibited performance as Max: you could describe the film as a black comedy, a farce, or a satire, but one suspects that Mel Brooks really wasn’t thinking in these terms: he just wanted to get the audience laughing.

There’s a kind of artlessness about some aspects of the film, which perhaps arises from this. It begins with a lengthy, and really quite talky sequence set just in the office, which (once all the old ladies have been satisfied) boils down to a two-hander between Mostel and Wilder (Wilder seems somewhat subdued, and is definitely playing second banana throughout the film). Eventually it opens out and becomes more cinematic, but the feel of something with its origins in vaudeville persists: there’s something inherently theatrical about the story, after all.

The heart of the film is the opening number of Springtime for Hitler, which in addition to being a brilliant piece of black comedy is a spot-on parody of Broadway excesses: dancing SS officers and goose-stepping showgirls, performing a genuinely funny show tune. The Producers deserves its reputation for this sequence alone, but it hits a standard which the rest of the film really struggles to meet.

Doing jokes about Nazis has probably lost most of its shock value for a modern audience, anyway; this is one of the things that dates the film. What is likely to make the film slightly uncomfortable viewing for anyone discovering it these days is the cheery way in which it treats gay men and transvestites as figures of fun, and the manner in which Max’s new Swedish secretary (Lee Meredith) is blatantly objectified. In this sense at least, The Producers is actually coming from somewhere quite reactionary – the film was made in the late 1960s, but elements of then-contemporary youth culture and counter-culture are only referenced in order to be mocked.

This doesn’t stop it being amusing throughout, and often unexpectedly clever: you could even read the film as a slightly oblique examination of what it means to produce ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art; the central joke of the film is that it’s about two men in search of a flop who accidentally end up producing an enormous hit. Good art is not produced by accident, or so everyone assumes; that it happens here is the driver of the plot and the source of the humour in the film’s third act.

The trap that Max and Leo seem to fall into is that rather than simply producing something bad, they end up staging a play which enters the mythical realm of being so-bad-it’s-good. Much debate has occurred over whether this is a genuine phenomenon, and if you need to possess the dreaded ironic sensibility to appreciate it. What I think is the case is that if you self-consciously set out to make something which is so-bad-it’s-good, you’re likely going to fail and just end up creating slightly tedious dross; the collected output of the Asylum and the makers of the Sharknado films constitute a considerable corpus of evidence supporting this notion. Or perhaps Max and Leo just fail to appreciate that a bad idea well executed is far less entertaining than one produced ineptly.

In any case, The Producers has earned its place in the canon of significant movies, helped, no doubt, by winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Arthur C Clarke said he never forgave Mel Brooks for beating 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same award – the fact that two such different films were in competition for the same prize, and that 2001 lost, really does make one reflect on what function the Academy Awards are supposed to be fulfilling), and the existence of a full-on stage musical (with its own subsequent film version) as well. The fact it effectively launched Mel Brooks’ movie career (which includes, as well as comedies, accomplished films from other genres like The Elephant Man and Cronenberg’s The Fly) is also obviously in its favour. So it’s an easy film to like even if it’s an inconsistent one which in many ways has not aged well.

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If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

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