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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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Retentive masochists who’ve been hanging around this blog for a number of years may recall that a while back I looked at a number of famous musicals, mainly ones that I really liked: Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, and so on. I have to say that I did tend to find myself in a sixties and early seventies sweet spot, mostly containing films which used the soothing and appealing nature of the non-diegetic musical as a way of addressing challenging real-world issues such as racism and political extremism. On the other hand, I didn’t really care much for Guys and Dolls, which is really just a whimsical romantic comedy.

Perhaps there is a place for the musical purely as a piece of escapist entertainment, though. On a whim I sat down and watched On the Town the other night – I’d sort-of watched it before (this is code for ‘had it on TV in the background while I did something else’) and clearly it made some sort of impression on me. This is a film that was originally released at the back end of 1949, based on a stage show from a few years earlier (with many of composer Leonard Bernstein’s songs cut and replaced by new ones, which caused a few ructions). The film is directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (his first time in this particular role).

This is one of those films which is really a love letter to New York City: it’s not just that practically the whole thing is set there, some of it is even filmed there, which I would suggest is a lot less common. It opens at 6am at the docks, with excited sailors on leave spilling off their ship, much to the amusement of the passing workers. Amongst their number are the trio we will follow: Gabe (Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin). The three of them have never been to the Big Apple before, and have only twenty-four hours to avail themselves of its various distractions.

A somewhat improbable whistle-stop tour of various sites ensue, as the trio belt out ‘New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town’ – a sentiment I would certainly agree with myself, although my Significant Other might be a bit less generous in her praise. However, the three guys just rattling around tourist sites wouldn’t be much of a movie, and so we get to an inciting incident: while travelling on the metro, Gabe spies the poster of ‘Miss Turnstiles’ (Vera-Ellen), a promotion which he assumes is a big deal but means nothing to most Manhattanites. Needless to say he is instantly smitten and resolves to find her so he can take her out dancing that night. This being a musical, however, he and the others actually bump into her having her photo taken, but she gets away before he can ask her out (her real name is Ivy Green).

With the help of a passing lady cab driver, Hildy (Betty Garrett), the sailors set off in pursuit of Ivy, based on the personal bio on her poster. Hildy seems rather taken with Chip, hence her willingness to help out. They end up visiting a museum, where Ozzie is bagged by a passing anthropologist (Ann Miller) allured by his resemblance to a prehistoric man and a dinosaur skeleton falls down, before they decide to split up and help Gabe find Ivy again (some of them take rather idiosyncratic approaches to this task). Is Gabe going to be stuck without a date on his one and only night in New York?

As I say, there’s a time and a place for dealing with serious themes in a musical entertainment, but New York City in 1949 is clearly not it: the Second World War is not long over, America is bursting with confidence and energy, and anything is possible if you put your mind to it. This is one of those quite rare movies without a single really unsympathetic character in it: certainly people have their problems, but these are just issues of circumstance and misunderstanding – when it really comes down to it, everyone turns out to be decent and sympathetic. Films like this have the knack of completely bypassing the shell of cynicism I habitually operate within: I find it very hard to be genuinely critical of them.

Not that there is much here to be critical of, anyway. Perhaps the least positive thing I can say is that it comes close to breaching my usual guideline that a great musical should have (mostly) great songs. You can perhaps detect the difference between the small number of original Bernstein songs that have survived and the new ones added from other composers (Bernstein’s seem to be more ambitious musically); most of them are certainly agreeable to listen to, but I don’t think you really go home whistling selections from the film. Instead, I would suggest this is an example of a musical where the dancing is probably more distinguished than the vocal work – Ann Miller’s performance of ‘Prehistoric Man’ gets better and better as it goes on, mainly because it turns into a dance number: she’s a good singer, but a sensational mover. The same is also true of Gene Kelly, of course, and you remember the footwork from a number like ‘Main Street’ more than the vocal.

Just as charming as the musical numbers is the general tenor of the piece, which I suspect may have been slightly daring back in the 1940s. You might expect a story about three sailors looking for fun in New York City to get fairly raucous and suggestive (cue jokes about the fleet being in, and so on), but the film very sweetly flips this on its head: the three guys are all basically hicks, and very innocently so. Gabe is the only one who actually chases a girl, but does so entirely honourably (this being Gene Kelly, you completely buy into it) – the other two sailors are basically picked up by women who are, to put it mildly, romantically pro-active (Garrett and Sinatra perform ‘Come Up to My Place’, which she sings to him, and she’s not looking to show him her stamp collection).

Despite the fact the film is basically about young (or fairly young: Kelly was 37, Sinatra 35, and so on) people looking to hook up on a night out, On the Town retains that sweetness, innocence and optimism I was talking about earlier. It’s not about anything more serious than being excited and hopeful in one of the world’s great cities. You can possibly dig deeper for a more substantial subtext, but I doubt you’ll get anywhere with it. A great piece of escapist entertainment.

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I have a pretty good memory when it comes to films: I can probably tell you which cinema I first saw every film of the last twenty years in, and in some cases which screen within that cinema. When it comes to things I have only seen on TV, well, then I can probably have a good guess at when and where. So – Dawn of the Dead would have been on videotape, on a long Monday afternoon just before Christmas 1997, The Legend of Boggy Creek would have been on a Thursday evening in the autumn of 1981, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed would have been on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988 (again, videotaped).

The Blues Brothers would have come my way in the early summer of 1989, I think, on the same VHS as a recording of Beverley Hills Cop, but in this case I have no idea why. I didn’t record it, a friend of mine did, and he ended up lending it to me. I don’t know why; I wasn’t particularly aware of the film and certainly wasn’t burning to see it.  At the time I don’t think it had quite the same cult status it has since acquired. But my friend was (and remains) someone of strong enthusiasms, particularly when it comes to comedy and music, and I can imagine him foisting it on me with his usual energy.

The film (directed and co-written by John Landis) is amiable and straightforward, anyway, opening with the reunion of the titular siblings when one of them (John Belushi) is collected from prison by the other (Dan Aykroyd), having just done time for robbery (the crime was necessitated by the need to pay the members of their band, for – as you might expect – the Blues brothers are musicians).

Well, the nun in charge at the orphanage where the duo grew up is unimpressed by their moral development after all these years, but a more serious problem is looming: the orphanage has a considerable outstanding tax bill and will be closed down unless it is settled in a matter of days. Nevertheless, this all seems a bit out of the brothers’ hands until Jake Blues (Belushi) has a religious experience at the local church and realises that God has given him the mission of redeeming himself by saving the orphanage. All the brothers have to do is get their old band back together and play a fundraiser to raise the money the nuns need! What could be simpler?

Quite a few things, to be honest, as circumstances conspire to put the Blues brothers and their associates on the wrong side of a large number of people, including the Chicago police department, the American branch of the Nazi party, a bad-tempered country and western band, and Jake’s ex-fiance (Carrie Fisher), who keeps popping up and trying to kill them with military-spec weapons. But they are on a mission from God…

The cult status of The Blues Brothers is not really surprising given it contains such an eclectic mixture of styles, genres, and people. It’s a knockabout, somewhat profane comedy; it contains some impressively spectacular stunts and chases; it’s a musical. It is also generally accepted to be the only movie derived from Saturday Night Live it’s worth bothering with. As well as Belushi and Aykroyd, the cast features names like John Candy, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin. It feels very much like a bizarre one-off in the annals of cinema.

Well – maybe, but I think there is something significant in one of the final scenes of the  film, in which the brothers foist their tax money onto a hapless clerk. The clerk is played by one S. Spielberg, before he grew his beard, only four films into his own directorial career at the time. At the time the most recent one was an only moderately-successful comedy entitled 1941, in which both Aykroyd and Belushi prominently appeared (without ever really sharing a scene).

The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the complex, multi-stranded structure of 1941, nor are most of its gags quite as sophisticated – but, on the other hand, it doesn’t have the relentless, breathless pace that can make 1941 an offputting experience for the uninitiated. But the two films do share a similar kind of freewheeling brashness, almost an interest in taking all the machinery and techniques of late 70s film-making and putting them to work in the name of comedy. The Blues Brothers has a kind of swagger and playfulness that seems to me to be very much like that of 1941 – but where the Spielberg movie often feels like it’s on the verge of turning into a cartoon, The Blues Brothers says goodbye to the real world early on (probably around the time Carrie Fisher attacks the duo with a rocket launcher and they blithely pick themselves up and go on about their business).

By the end of the movie, Landis’ more-is-better approach, while initially exhilarating – vast numbers of police cars being trashed, and so on – is beginning to have diminishing returns, but I would still probably say the film peaks about the right time. It does know when to go pedal to the metal with slapstick comedy and when to take a break and include a musical number.

It’s hard to shake the impression, with this kind of film, that it’s basically just the product of a deep-seated desire on the part of comedians to be proper rock stars. It’s probably to the film’s credit that Belushi and Aykroyd don’t do any real singing themselves until nearly halfway through, and when they do it’s in a comedy sequence (the band find themselves having to perform to a surly and unappreciative country and western crowd and have to make some unusual song choices). Before this all the heavy musical lifting is done by supremely qualified guest stars like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, in what are mostly diegetic song sequences.

Certainly it’s the music which helps to make the film as successful and entertaining as it is – and here again we find ourselves considering the film’s origins at the end of the seventies, a decade which had seen the beginnings of a new kind of Hollywood. Many great films from the seventies and early eighties indulge in homages to the golden age of American film-making – it’s there in the Casablanca-style trappings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Howard Hawks references in some early John Carpenter films. For all the profanity and occasional crassness of The Blues Brothers, there’s something similar going on here in the way it celebrates classic American music, up to the point of giving Cab Calloway his own number.

So maybe The Blues Brothers isn’t such a one-off as it first appears: it connects to a number of trends and movements in mainstream American cinema of the time – of young directors pushing the boundaries of genre, while still retaining a kind of reverence for the past. Now it feels like a bit of a period piece itself: Dan Aykroyd still looks young and thin, while John Belushi… well, whether or not it’s indeed better to burn out than fade away, Belushi seems to have lived as though he believed it. The Blues Brothers is possibly the best known of the films he left behind, and whatever its flaws as a movie, it’s an enormously likeable memorial.

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Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I’ve never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It’s true: didn’t see Aladdin, didn’t see Beauty and the Beast, didn’t see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch ‘A Whole New World’, one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.

Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney’s Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation’s latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It’s a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.

The fact that Guy Ritchie’s film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don’t even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when…

Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It’s from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There’s an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There’s a cave. There’s a lamp. There’s a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.

Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton’s baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.

Frankly, I found it rather hard going, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we normally go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.

I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie’s whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).

Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it’s presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What’s notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.

And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn’t be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d’etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.

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‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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