Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2000). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Coco (2017)

Coco_(2017_film)_poster.jpgIt only serves to show where my mind goes when I watch a movie. I couldn’t help but think of Harry Chapin’s elegiac and stirringly heart-wrenching tune “Mr. Tanner” as I was ambushed with some of the most revelatory notes of Coco. The most meaningful line out of that song relates how music made our eponymous hero “whole.” I feel the same guttural satisfaction blooming out of this picture.

Coco proves to be a film about many things. This is a film about music melded with family. The wholeness that comes out of music when you do it for sheer love and passion. Because you couldn’t live without picking up a guitar or throwing back your head to sing. Serenading family or penning a love song is just an extension of who you are. If you know anyone like that you can thoroughly appreciate what we have here.

In the best ways, it’s also about when families and our passions and the traditions that we’re taught to live by and that are passed down to us seem to collide — wholly impervious to any type of reconciliation on first glance — yet still somehow capable of fitting together.

Our hero Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a precocious boy who lives with his family in Mexico as part of a shoe-making matriarchy where they have long been taught to despise music because their no-good great-great-grandfather left his family behind to pursue his dreams as a musician. The conflict is created right there.

Visually it’s another inventive landscape for Pixar to play with under the helmsmanship of Lee Unkrich because though the setting and storyline are planted in the present world of Miguel’s family, it’s infused with rich undertones of Mexican tradition. Not least among those is “Dia De Los Muertos” or “The Day of The Dead.”

Except instead of taking that as a mere tradition or a cultural practice the film translates that into a fully animated reality as Miguel experiences the “afterlife.” There the spirits of his ancestors exist in skeletal form making a yearly pilgrimage to commune with their still-living relatives. Family is still of the utmost importance to their lives and the most tragic reality is to have no one left to champion your legacy.

The hero’s journey laid out before Miguel is direct and compelling so we know what he is up against. He must receive the blessing of one of his blood ancestors before sunrise or else spend his days forever in the land of the dead. Even now he’s slowly losing more of his definition a la Back to the Future (1985). The stakes are obvious and his inner conflict stressed by the very fact that his relatives will only provide their blessing if he gives up his true love: music.

There’s so much else that could be lauded in the film for how it dares to explore its setting much in the way Inside Out (2015) did. It boasts some clever reversals akin to those found in something like Toy Story 3 (2010) and plays on the themes of hero worship in a similar fashion to UP (2009) with Miguel being charmed by mythical singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). It’s also a bit of a Ratatouille (2007) tale of someone pressing against the currents around them to realize their individual gifts. But far from being to the detriment of the film, every one of these similarities is a genuine compliment. Could there be too many themes even? I’m not sure.

However, the idea I was most taken with deserves a bit more explanation. I’ve purposefully refrained from talking about Coco until now. If you were like me you probably assumed that our hero was named Coco or something like that, without giving it much forethought. However, we soon find out that she’s the fairly senile great-grandmother of our main character.

Because a major aspect of this film has to do with this idea that can best be described as transgenerational memory — where we pass down our recollections of the people that came before us to the younger generations. It’s no small coincidence that the lynchpin track is called “Remember Me.” Because in digging into his family’s personal narrative Miguel develops a deeper bond with his great-grandmother. It’s striking how even as we grow forgetful our long-term memory, the entrenched recollections of childhood or even muscle memory, often stay with us. That’s precisely how it is with Coco and Miguel aids in keeping her memories alive.

In these moments I could not help but reminisce about one of my favorite musicians Glen Campbell who passed away just this past year. He was a high profile casualty of Alzheimer’s and yet during his last tour though he could hardly remember the words anymore to his most famous songs, his fingers were just as nimble on the guitar frets as they were as a young man. Amazing. One of his final tunes was the brutally honest admission “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”

And I mention it in passing only to suggest that if the idea is that you will only be remembered if other human beings remember you then that’s a terrifying world to be subjected to. As a writer that means that I will fade away unless someone actually unearths some of the mindless drivel I penned and shares it. If I’m single it means I better find someone quick and start a family so my children can not only pass on my gene pool but keep my name.

Even the pervasive theme that two people’s love for each other will live on forever, though a nice sentiment, still rings slightly hollow. Not to be a nitpicker but eternity is a long time. Even a blazing meteor burns out at some point. So if you’re like me maybe Coco will get you to think long and hard about your mortality. I’m not sure the answers are that easy to come by but they’re necessary to consider nonetheless.

In the context of this life at present, Coco fittingly rewrites the negative admonition to never play music with a more positive call to never forget family. Taking the restrictive and making it ripe with promise. That’s something most of us can probably get behind and share with our kids and grandkids as the years go by because we won’t be on this earth forever. The question remains, what do we do if we aren’t so lucky?

4/5 Stars

 

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost_famous_poster1Almost Famous is almost so many things. There are truly wonderful moments that channel certain aspects of our culture’s infatuation with rock n roll.

It’s easy to become entranced with the opening moments, not necessarily because we are introduced to William, his protective mother (Frances McDormand), or even his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) who looks to leave the nest behind to go off and find herself. To steal a line from Simon & Garfunkel, she goes off, “To look for America” and we can ride the wistful waves of Paul Simon’s lyrics to understand exactly what she means.  But she also leaves behind a gift for her little brother under his bed. It’s easy to surmise that it’s drugs, something to “expand his horizons” but instead it’s so much more. It’s what this entire film hinges on: Music.

And when he opens the treasure trove of records his sister bequeathed him this is an initial kairos moment that also manages to be one of the most magical in the film–one that leaves goosebumps from sheer recognition. He flips through the albums. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and on and on. Enough said. Each of these bands means so much to so many people as do some of these albums.

Almost Famous is at its best when it’s channeling those very things. Its soundtrack has the propitious fortune to include some authorized tracks from Led Zeppelin as well as Neil Young, David Bowie, and of course Elton John, his “Tiny Dancer” filling up the band’s bus with a chorus of voices in one of the most remembered sequences.

The film’s story is intriguing for the very fact that it has the potential to feel so personal in nature. It functions as a fictionalized autobiography of Cameron Crowe’s foray into rock journalism as a bit of a teenage prodigy from sunny San Diego who first wrote for Creem and then in the big leagues for Rolling Stone Magazine circa 1973.

That’s a narrative ripe with possibilities and anecdotes sure to pique the interest of anyone who loves music and there are certainly some of those moments. People jumping off rooftops into swimming pools their heads spinning on acid, tour buses crashing through gates to make a quick getaway from a horrible gig, and plane flights on the edge of death that elicit a long line of last-minute confessions.

But we are also reminded that life on the road is a grind, it can be dangerous too but more often than not it’s surprisingly dull. What happens to William (Patrick Fugit) is that he gets subjected to this life and far from changing, it simply changes how he sees these people. Ultimately, there’s a bit of disillusionment and alienation with getting that close to people you idolize. In many respects, he looks ridiculously out of place in this lifestyle of groupies, tour buses, backstage antics, sleazy hotel rooms, and sex, drugs, and rock n roll.  He’s too clean cut. Too much of a straight arrow. And that’s part of what’s interesting.

But while it’s easy to latch onto the trajectory of our character and care about his growth and maturity, the themes of Almost Famous feel muddled and not in a way that’s  enigmatic and mysterious. It just drops off at a certain point.

It’s almost transcendent, almost a masterstroke, almost captures our heart but it’s not quite there. Despite its best efforts it somehow still feels slightly removed from the moment it comes out of–a moment that now is easy to eulogize about as both electric and exciting in a way that the band Stillwater never is. Maybe that’s the point.

We can reiterate again and again that the music is phenomenal and while the situations had potential to be gripping they never quite reached that apex. Everything is quite satisfactory, it’s enjoyable watching this wide-eyed lad follow around this rock band, but there are moments when the film drags. Take the rock and roll out of these people and they aren’t altogether compelling. That might be an unfortunately cruel thing to say too.

But Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) the famed rock critic repeatedly notes that rock is on the way out and this film seems to surmise as much. At times it doesn’t feel completely caught up in the throes of its time, it’s not caught up in the moment as if there’s this subconscious feeling that it will all come to an end.

On the reverse side, William lives life alongside some of these figures who are never truly all that magnetic or memorable whether Russell (Billy Crudup) or even the iconically named Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). The name dropping and connections to others make them the most intriguing. Dinner with Dylan here, something from David Crosby there. Led Zeppelin fanboys, David Bowie’s manager, and so on and so forth. Those connections have cultural clout still but once again the fictional Stillwater were only almost famous. Their name whether in fiction or reality has been lost to time and there’s no aura to them. Because we have nothing to sink our teeth into.

Maybe it’s the very fact that the film does this so well that it feels unremarkable. It takes time on those who really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of rock ‘n roll when the critics and pundits got together to write the narrative that would be accepted for a historical fact from that point forward.

However, Almost Famous also takes a particular care to show what it was and still is to be a rock star in this kind of volatile lifestyle always on the road. The fame and applause are amplified but so in many ways are the heartbreaks and ultimately the scrutiny that can either make or break you.  There’s no privacy in the general sense. But that’s the point, as a rock star you give much of that up. The question is, what happens when you’re in the middle ground? You’re not quite there but the journalists are still looking for their story, digging through your music, life, and affairs. No one has ever desired to be Almost Famous because, in some cases, you get the worst of both worlds.

4/5 Stars

 

The Commitments (1991)

The_Commitments_posterThe Commitments is a very coarse film, extremely rough around the edges, and yet to its credit, the real appeal of this crowd-pleaser from Alan Curtis is the way that music is able to bring so much good into a dire situation. Because in some ways The Commitments are not just the christened “Saviors of Soul” but for one brief shining moment, they’re the “Saviors of Dublin” too.

It feels almost unfair to call The Commitments a cover band because although their debt is to soul and they cover soul tunes from the likes of the late great Wilson Pickett, from those tunes we begin to see the individuals coming into their own as together they create a sound that has the local crowds cheering in the bars and pool halls.

Their visionary leader is Jimmy Rabbitte a young man with ambitions to create a successful band that will play real music and in his humble opinion soul is where it’s at. Not the Beatles. Not the Stones. Not even U2. But the likes of “The Godfather of Soul” himself James Brown.

Far from being mere cultural appropriation, taking a very much African-American inspired music and imitating it, with The Commitments, their allegiance to soul seems to suggest mimicry is the highest form of flattery. And it seems like Jimmy as manager and the main ringleader sees this clearer than anyone else.

Soul represents something so simple and powerful and moving. A sound that speaks to the working class Dubliners in a way other strains of music simply cannot muster. So yes, Irish Soul sounds like an oxymoron but The Commitments prove that far from being incongruous, Irish Soul is capable of quite the following.

Part of the enjoyment is getting to know all the figures who play a part in the band’s journey and there are quite a few. Deco is the lead singer, a slobbish jerk who also has an impressive pair of pipes. Lead guitarist Outspan (Glen Hansard of Once fame) with other local lads filling in on saxophone, bass, and drums. The backing vocals are provided by a trio of gals including the fawned over beauty Imelda.

But the oldest member of the band Joey “The Lips” Fagan is a rather mythical figure with a laid back almost spiritual streak. It’s also no joke that he’s played trumpet with some of the biggest soul brothers out there. He too provides guidance to the band’s vision but sometimes he’s not as zen as he lets on. Getting so many different people together is bound to cause friction — namely shouting matches, fistfights, and more than a few hurt feelings. Strangely enough, these are some of the very places the story finds its comic inspirations. People constantly bickering and getting on each other’s nerves in this way or that.

Equally enjoyable are the actual rehearsals and jam sessions which in truth are the heart and soul of this film. No pun intended. The music is what matters in the community from street corner performances of Cathy’s Clown, a father belting out his best rendition of Elvis, and the most wholesome member of the Commitments, Steven, playing a rather soothing version of Whiter Side of Pale on a grand church organ. That’s the stuff that makes the movie buzz.

We see the energy that gets people to notice. Sure, it’s not the type of coverage that will make them into international sensations but with this film much like its progeny like Sing Street, you see the pure ability of music and song to enrich the world. They not only give the musicians a powerful avenue of expression and joy but those performances can evoke an equally gripping reaction from their audiences.

In the end, The Commitments as a group begin to split at the seams after a number of promising gigs, even a bit of cash for their efforts and a spot in the local paper. But in the end they implode and it’s probably for the best as everyone goes their separate ways. Maybe they never quite got around to jamming with Wilson Pickett, but they did play with him in spirit every time they put all their passion into one of his songs. It didn’t turn into some profound watershed moment in musical history, but like this film, it was a recurrently lively ride.

3.5/5 Stars

Panic in the Streets (1950)

panic_in_the_streets_1950It disappoints me that I was not more taken with the material than I was but despite not being wholly engaged, there are still some fascinating aspects to Panic in the Streets. Though a somewhat simple picture, it seems possible that I might just need to give it a second viewing soon. Let’s begin with the reality.

This noir docudrama is somehow not as tense as some of Elia Kazan’s other works. In fact, it’s port locale anticipate the memorable atmosphere of On The Waterfront, although it’s hard to stand up to such a revered classic. Still, the film does have its own appeals.

It begins with a gritty setting full of grungy character and New Orleans charm that continues the trend of post-war films taking the movie cameras to the streets and to the people who actually dwell there. In this way, the film shares some similarities to The Naked City.

The acting talent is also a wonderful strength with Richard Widmark playing our lead, Lt. Commander Clint Reed, this time on the right side of the law as a Naval Doctor trying to contain an outbreak of pneumonic plague before it spreads exponentially. His compatriot is played by the always enjoyable Paul Douglas a world-wearied police captain who must grin and bear joining forces with Reed.

The film is full of seedy undesirables and the most important and memorable one is Jack Palance (in his screen debut) showing off his tough as nails personality that was certainly no fluke. His right hand blubbering crony is the equally conniving Zero Mostel and together they make a slimy pair for the police to close in on. Because it’s one of their associates who ends up murdered but it’s only in the coroner’s office where they find out he was infected with something fierce.

This sets the sirens going off in Reed’s head and while not an alarmist, he wants everyone to consider the gravity of the situation. He has some trouble working with the police but he also seems to understand that this is not an isolated issue but it can affect his family — his wife Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes) and his precocious boy (Tommy Rettig). But not just his immediate circle, but his entire community. And so he and Captain Warren race against the clock to not only to prevent an epidemic but solve a crime and apprehend the perpetrators. So this is undoubtedly your typical police procedural enlivened by New Orleans but there are also different layers to what is going on that have broader implications.

For instance, what do you tell the press? Do you keep it under wraps or let them shout it from the rooftops so the criminals get away scotch free – like rats fleeing the scene of the crime? Are you just looking for the murderers or are you considering the entire community at large? These questions deserve to be parsed through more thoroughly than I possibly can. So while Panic in the Streets is more methodical than a tense drama there are some very good things to it. Namely its location, its cast, and the universal nature of its central conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

A Hard Day's Night 2.pngAre you a mod or a rocker? ~ reporter

Um, no, I’m a mocker ~ Ringo

As a 4 or 5-year-old, I didn’t know who the Marx Brothers were and no one had told me yet about Cinema Verite and what that meant. But I loved the Beatles. Also, I didn’t find out until years later that Richard Lester was an American director who caught the eyes of the Fab Four and predicted the MTV age with its frenetic editing style. But if you actually watch A Hard Days Night with the eyes of an unabashed fan — like I was as a boy — none of that matters. So let’s leave that on the drawing room floor and look at what makes this film pop with vitality all these years later.

Any conversation must begin with the music. The film bursts onto the screen with the iconic riff of A Hard Day’s Night as the Beatles scramble down a street corner fleeing frantically from a screaming mob of fans. It perfectly encapsulates this rash of Beatlemania that was exploding onto the world stage and making its way across the pond.

And what the film does so well is create this fun aura around the four lads from Liverpool. There silly, fun, a bit cheeky too but there’s something so endearing about them still. It struck me this time around that these are four men are hardly over 20 years of age and yet they had fame and stardom thrust upon them. And they are superstars but they don’t act quite like superstars.

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The filming style and handheld camera work lend themselves not only to Lester’s frantic style but there’s also an indication that this is a day in the life type of musical comedy (no pun intended). It’s the perfect combination of quotable one-liners and zingers paired with a certain British humor (I now declare this bridge open!) and some of the early classics from the Beatles canon (Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You, etc).

Paul’s Grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) is very clean but that’s only a veneer for a searing personality that looks to manipulate others and stir up trouble. On Paul’s own account he’s a real mixer.  Norm is their road manager and general killjoy while Shake is his gangly hapless sidekick good for a few laughs of his own.  If you want a “plot” in the conventional sense you probably won’t get it but it’s enough to watch the boys run out on their obligations by sneaking off to dance parties or abandoned fields to do their own renditions of Monty Pythons silly Olympics.

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We watch them in their idle moments as John messes around in the tub and George exhibits his shaving prowess on Shake’s mirror image.In another moment George takes a wrong turn and finds himself in some new age advertising agency where he unwittingly tears their campaign to shreds by calling their merchandise “grotty.” Meanwhile, the boys are herded from press junkets to tapings, from makeup to answering fan mail (a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room). That’s about their life at this stage.

It’s odd to think that the name The Beatles is never spoken in the film. It just is. It’s part of the world consciousness. It brings to mind a chance encounter John has with a woman who while she doesn’t utter his name notes his striking resemblance to one of the boys. In the end, she’s mistaken and he walks away muttering that she looks more like “him” than I do. So A Hard Days Night is a film that while boasting great music and wonderful comic mayhem still is a slight commentary on the Beatles stardom.

They have become beholden to their rigid tour schedule. Prisoners in a sense. But they still find time for personal expression and a bit of playful rebellion despite those very restraints. Of course, the backbone of this comic-laden rock musical is the pinnacle of their artistic expression — their music. By now all these songs are like old friends to me that it hardly seems necessary to list them off one by one. You just have to hear them.

In the final moments before their climactic show, Grandad stirs up Ringo to go out and live a little and so the boys must track him down before time runs out. What follows is an inane ruckus involving the majority of the local bobby population. But all four make it back and put on a lively showing for their adolescent admirers screaming their heads off the entire set.

As quick as they arrived they get whisked off by a helicopter to their next destination ready to rock another day. I’m not sure if this is based on the film or my own wishful dreaming, but I like to think that they’re heading across the ocean blue as the flagship of the British Invasion. When you watch this film it all comes into clearer focus what all the hoopla was about. They had a genuine charisma, a certain presence, and their music speaks for itself after all these years. Still sincere, catchy, and enduring even in its pure simplicity. Billions of screaming girls can’t all be wrong.

5/5 Stars

La La Land (2016)

La_La_Land_Poster.jpgAfter watching this film two things become astoundingly obvious. Damien Chazelle has an equally unquenchable passion for film and for jazz. He’s also extremely bold, going all the way when it comes to choices as a director with everything from camera set-ups, lighting, staging, even casting. In fact, let’s start right there.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do not initially pop as performers. They’re not song and dance entertainers equal to the likes of Astaire & Rogers or Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. There’s no contest. But the brilliance of this decision is the very fact that these two beloved stars are one of the few remnants of the bygone Hollywood era where romantic stars were paired up together for more than one movie. Bogey & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn, Loy & Powell, yes even Fred & Ginger.

And in a generation that’s often lacking that kind of history, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still have a bit of that cinematic romance tying them together not just in one film but in multiple allowing the audience an even greater connection with them.

It makes the musical thoroughly modern and yet most certainly takes cues from the past and the rich tradition that it was born out of. The film’s knockout opening sequence is a far grander more audacious riff off of The Young Girls of Rochefort’ while the film’s ending reflects Chazelle’s deep affection for Umbrellas of Cherbourg wedded with the fantasy scapes of An American in Paris.

But sandwiched in between those obvious touchstones is a film that’s at moments mesmerizing, beautiful, and engaging on its own merits. Chazelle’s sheer boldness behind the camera is thoroughly impressive because he commits to telling his story in the most extraordinary way possible. It dares to dream, succumbing to the glories of the movie musical, taking risks that generally pay off in a big way. Like Jacque Demy he plants his film in the real world, in this case, contemporary Los Angeles, but he also stylizes it through elements such as production design, color, and lighting.

Beginning with the extended artistry of the initial traffic number, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera is about as fluid as they come, even overtly so, bringing such attention to itself that in many respects it becomes another figure, shaping how we view every one of these environments. Its conspicuous ways generally help to turn dance sequences and musical numbers into dynamic spectacles but there are individual moments where we might still question if a more static perspective is in order.

Still, it’s easy enough to disregard this as the camera is constantly casting its gaze on the world painted with the vibrant tones that brighten Los Angeles and allow it to enter a stylized awe-evoking state of eye-popping energy. Likewise, the storyline mixes and matches real-life locales with the artistic and the magical. It succeeds in becoming a diverse patchwork of lights and staging that sets the tone for every moment our stars are on the screen as everything from the backdrops to the very clothing that the actors wear is an extension of their current state.

Emma Stone is a real winner, genuinely hilarious and cute while still being overwhelmingly compelling as she struggles through her acting career balancing her “real job” as a barista with her true aspirations as an actress. And to his credit, although I wasn’t all that sure about Ryan Gosling in this film, with Stone by his side somehow it works rather magically superseding any other objection we might have about his performance. Like Astaire & Rogers, the song and dance routines become the galvanizing moments in the film as they should be. True, they hardly have the same caliber but their chemistry is what it holds it all together.

The minor influences of The Band Wagon can also be seen when they dance together in the night air overlooking Los Angeles. Meanwhile there gravity-defying routine at Griffith Observatory leaves behind simple references to Rebel Without a Cause and becomes its own spectacle entirely.

In all the other nooks and crannies you see the affection for film. The Killers poster on the wall, Ingrid Bergman’s face plastered up in the bedroom, and movie nights watching Bringing up Baby and Notorious with Grandma. But that’s only matched by the infatuation with jazz that similarly surges through the narrative. In this case, Sebastian is the vehicle for this passion. As far as criticisms the only one that I have heard voiced and I too can call into question is the very fact that a Caucasian male wants to resurrect jazz in its purest sense.

If nothing else it’s highly ironic because tradition says that this is an African-American art founded in those roots. That’s not to say that others cannot take the mantle necessarily but in some ways, Sebastian seems to think that people like Keith (John Legend) have sold out on their culture. I suppose that issue is still up for debate long after the credits roll.

Although “City of Stars” might be the most noted number developed by Justin Hurtwitz and Chazelle for this film, I must admit my personal favorite had to be “Audition” because Emma Stone delivers the song with such an earnestness that it’s mesmerizing to watch as all else disappears and we are left to watch her sing in empty space. Perhaps the film is often lacking the minimalistic moments and the juxtaposition of a scene such as this becomes especially striking. It’s so simple.

The final question to be asked is, what is La La Land or closer yet, what is Chazelle trying to say about fame and pursuing your dreams? Because in the end, it feels like a mixed message. The film is constantly a seesaw back and forth of following your passion, versus just making ends meet, to selling out or turning to alternative paths entirely. And when it’s all said and done and the movie has wrapped up we don’t know quite what we think.

We leave both characters in a place where they are undoubtedly better off than we found them in some respects. Still, there’s a wistfulness that hangs in the air, a bittersweet quality that lingers a moment longer and that gives La La Land a certain power that feels more complex than a simple musical fairy tale. That is yet another thing Chazelle borrows from Demy that works so well.

In some ways, it’s a very “un-Hollywood” ending and though the film does spend a lot of its time infatuated with that very industry, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be conflicted in the same breath.  In fact, that’s probably the most honest conclusion it could have arrived at. Dreams are good, the world can be a magical place if we let it be, but that does not mean for one instant that we will not be met with heartbreak or difficulties along the way.

I found myself unconsciously asking myself, What does the title La La Land even mean? I had not fully considered the implications of the phrase. Yes, it’s having your heads in the clouds, maybe even existing in an ethereal world of fanciful dreamscapes as much as it is a moniker for those who live the Hollywood lifestyle.  And it’s in both these places where the film dwells. Partially in the magical realms of dreams but also in those extremely human moments of confusion and failure. That is La La Land in a nutshell.

4.5/5 Stars

Model Shop (1969)

Model_Shop_FilmPoster.jpegAt face value, Model Shop is an ordinary film of little consequence but look a little deeper and it’s actually a fascinating portrait of the L.A. milieu in 1969. Part of that is due to the man behind it all.

Jacques Demy is among the foremost of French directors, most obviously for his work in musicals like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. And Model Shop, his first American production, functions in some capacity as a type musical (featuring a score from SoCal rock band Spirit), while also incorporating Anouk Aimee’s character from his earlier success Lola (1961).

It’s a musical in the way that American Graffiti is a musical except its soundtrack is a mixture of Spirit and classical music in equal measures emanating from car radios. But it also maintains Demy’s type of storytelling where he weaves characters together with acts of fate.

The film follows a typical day in the life of Gary Lockwood who is an architecture grad floundering in a general malaise as he lives in a shack with his girlfriend who is making a go of becoming an actress. He’s not ready for a long-term commitment and the fact that his car is about to be impounded pretty much sums up his life.

On a whim, he follows a beautiful woman up into the hills by car and nothing happens right away, although he is taken by the panoramic views of Los Angeles. The sequences that follow develop L.A. into a character on its own. One moment George stops for a girl who quickly rolls a joint and offers him one as KRLA hums over the radio waves, in another, he is making his way down the Sunset Strip. There’s a substantial cameo from Spirit keyboardist Jay Ferguson, who genially gives George a helping hand while trading a bit of small talk. It’s might seem a rather odd inclusion and yet from Demy’s point of view, this group evokes something of the L.A. ethos. It’s understandable.

The biggest reveal comes midway through the film when George learns he’s been drafted to go fight in Vietnam. It’s a bitter twist of fate that shakes up his existence in only a matter of minutes. His freedom has instantly been constrained to a matter of days. That’s all the time he has to get to know this mysterious woman who he professes love to. These are the last moments he will see his girlfriend as their relationship subsequently goes down the tube.

So in some ways, Model Shop shares a bit of Demy’s earlier sensibilities but it by no means feels like he’s trying to transport his style flatly to an American audience. If I didn’t know any better, initially, I would say that this was a purely American production because it feels relevant and realistic to the degree that it can be. Except as he always does Demy is making a sort of fantasy, even if we don’t realize it at first. There’s the reverence of an outsider, someone who sees this City of Angels for its beauty and utopian qualities, while others have begun taking it for granted, seeing only the smog and the violence. That’s what Demy lends to this story, a hint of admiration. And in the moments the dialogue gets more introspective it hardly feels stale but really evokes a candidness.

It strikes me that George is mesmerized by the French woman, although his own girlfriend is very pretty. In my own mind, for me, it becomes a sort of an allegory for European versus Hollywood cinema. One perhaps is more glamorous, namely Hollywood, but other countries oftentimes have far more intriguing films. However, it’s important to note that Demy seems to have an appreciation for both. He more than some had a deep admiration for the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age especially.

Another fascinating caveat about this unassuming film is the fact that it could have featured a performance from a young unknown named Harrison Ford. Wouldn’t that have been interesting? But in the studio’s infinite wisdom they assumed Lockwood would be a bigger box office draw. It’s probably because he was in a little film called 2001 A Space Odyssey the year prior. For what it’s worth, Demy’s film didn’t do so well and it still resides in relative obscurity. However, it gives an image of Los Angeles that is rather like a time capsule, starkly different than Demy’s other work and still beautifully tied together with his previous films through a photo album showcasing faces that are very familiar. It’s a striking callback and in some strange way, it connects the director’s work together in a surprisingly satisfying way. Jacques Demy is still worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

Living_Is_Easy_with_Eyes_ClosedI still remember driving through the hills and dales of the English countryside listening to Hard Day’s Night in the family rental car. Back then I had a haircut that could best be described as a mop top. And then during my one visit to Liverpool, I was beyond ecstatic. I’m a fairly reserved person and yet standing in Paul McCartney’s kitchen at 20 Forthlin Road (his childhood residence) what else could I do but bend down and kiss the floor?

So you see, Living is Easy resonates with me a great deal. I’ve had similar feelings, similar joys and epiphanies listening to the Beatles. Even as I have matured and branched out in musical taste there’s no doubt that the Beatles will always be a part of my cultural heartbeat. When I was younger I would say that I idolized them and as I’ve grown older those feelings continually evolved.

That’s why sometimes our hopes are dashed and our heroes fall off their pedestals. We get so close to them — feel like me know them so well — without ever having met them or interacted with them. But they don’t know us and they can’t know us in the same way.

No superstar, musician, actor or athlete can hold up to the kind of scrutiny that we put to their lives. So maybe this is an utterly ludicrous fantasy, a dream wrapped up underneath the unassuming folds of a Spanish comedy-drama. But David Trueba’s film is the perfect summation of our pursuits in life. Going after the long shots just for the sheer invigorating fun of it. For Antonio (Javier Camara) that means meeting John Lennon. For others, probably someone else. It’s no different. I still wouldn’t mind meeting Paul McCartney someday. That’s the point. We can dream and pursue big things.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, especially the way Antonio goes about it. He practically is an enigma within the culture he lives in, repressed, fearful and stiff as it is. He breaks all those molds, teaching English with enthusiasm, using the Beatles’ lyrics (most memorably “Help”) as a didactic tool to get his little pupils to think beyond the nominal.

His journey, to find John Lennon in the rural town of Almeria during the filming of Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966, is an inspired heroes journey and the beauty of this story is that he doesn’t go it alone. In fact, being the personable, talkative and genuinely fun-loving man that he is, he welcomes others into his adventure. Belen is a woman struggling to figure her life out as she tries to hide the fact that she’s well along 3 months pregnant with nowhere to turn. Juanjo sports a mop top rather like the one I used to have, except in this case his father doesn’t approve. The familial tension is too much for him and he skips out, looking for something different.

These are the crossroads at which they end up riding down winding coastal roads as Antonio slowly puts them at ease with his charms — and an unfathomable enthusiasm for the Beatles. The following interludes of Living is Easy are better seen than explained because they generally unfold with the clarity and everyday delights of real life. And in this case, the Fifth Beatle gets his happy ending. He was rewarded for the disarmingly audacious way he chose to live.

Admittedly, I probably don’t hold up nearly as well against the fandom of Antonio, but if nothing else, I admire the Beatles for their lyricism and the pure, revolutionary nature of their music. I never grow sick of it. And like a great many of us out in the audience, I hope to live out these kinds of adventures with the people I meet along the way. To badly paraphrase Tennyson, it’s better to say you tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Because you never know, you just might get lucky.

For all those who don’t know, the film’s title derives from Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a very personal song in its own right. However, as I scanned the backlogs of my mind, I thought to myself, of all the options, what an odd song to choose. But, in truth, it fits perfectly with the themes of this magical mystery tour. An evocative song for a deeply heartfelt film.

4/5 Stars

Sing Street (2016)

Sing_Street_posterA famed philosopher of the MTV age once sang “video killed the radio star,” and John Carney’s Sing Street is a tribute to that unequivocal truth. Certainly, it’s what some might call a return to form for the director, landing closer to his previous work in Once, and staging the way for some wonderfully organic musical numbers set against the backdrop of Dublin circa 1985. In this respect, it’s another highly personal entry, and Carney does well to grab hold of the coming-of-age narrative.

Our main point of interest is Conor, a lad thrown into a new school of hellish proportions and of course, there’s a girl, and he wants to get to know said girl. What follows soon thereafter is the inception of an entire band, the eponymous Sing Street. So in essence, the band forms so he can get the girl. It’s that simple and it works…sort of.

By all accounts, she’s an untouchable goddess, a year older than him, with a mature boyfriend and aspirations of modeling in England. And yet Raphina deigns to stoop to their level and take part in their first foray into music video-making. It’s in such moments that the film unabashedly hoists up its 80s sensibilities, suggesting Carney’s own personal affection for that day and age. Because amidst all the god-awful make-up, outrageous costumes and mimicry of the new wave scene, there’s a sense of amusement. Since every boy, at one time or another, has gone through these different phases and stages, like a sponge soaking up all conceivable inspirations. In this case, Conor’s older brother Brendan becomes his pontificating Buddha of rock n’ roll. His influences run the gamut from Duran Duran to the Cure and most definitely a little David Bowie.

But his band also develops into a wonderfully liberating beast to combat the furies of the world. Conor is consumed by grand dreams of Back to the Future themed prom nights at an American-style high school. Meanwhile, his parents are continually squabbling at home and his dream girl leaves for London without a word of goodbye. But he uses his newfound outlet paired with the guidance of his brother to turn his stray thoughts and accumulating angst into something of true substance. Namely, Conor and the versatile Eamon, have a bit of a Lennon-McCartney partnership going, as far as creative genius goes, proceeding to run with each spark of an idea that strikes. In fact, with all the boys, there’s a matter-of-fact gravity to it all, because forming a band is a serious business — it’s a concerted effort not to succumb to the grisly fate of yet another gutted cover band.

Like any formative tale about young men and women, Sing Street suggests the vital importance of personal identity and chasing after dreams in particular. You see it with Conor as he constantly dons new facades, not simply in a search for greater artistic expression, but personal freedom.

But where he breaks with his big brother, is what he actually does with the inspiration that has been passed down to him from the rock gods. He uses its whole potential as a gateway to the way of life that he desires — making the most of the opportunities that are afforded him — even if they are a long shot. As the movie progresses Raphina looks younger and younger, and it hardly seems by accident. Over time, she sheds layer after layer of makeup and manicuring to reveal a bit more of herself, until the tipping point where all her dreams come cascading down, and she has nowhere to hide. In fact, in these more fragile moments, Lucy Boynton is reminiscent of a young Felicity Jones.

Admittedly “Sing Street” has a ludicrous ending and there are moments that it tilts towards the plastic production values of  “Begin Again” rather than the sincerity of Once, but that’s a lot of what the 80s feels like. It’s fake. It’s this construction projected up on a screen. And that’s precisely what this film is saluting and celebrating, but that’s only the half of it. Raphina rightfully points out you can never do art half way. That’s what rock n’ roll is in a sense. It’s audacious exploration, risk-taking and a bit of foolishness in the name of chasing your dreams, usually involving a girl. Thus, the film is not wholly original, even for Carney, who has drawn from the same well three times over, but like any artist, he’s able to discover fresh inspiration from old cisterns. After all, every member of humanity is in one way another a broken work of art, beautifully complicated, and that’s worth returning to again and again.

4/5 Stars