Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Fred Astaire

In our ongoing series of Classic Movie Beginner’s Guides, we focus on a single person from Classic Hollywood for those who want an overview.

This week let’s look at one of the preeminent film dancers of all-time: Fred Astaire! After starting out on the stage with his sister Adele, during the 1930s Astaire tapped his way toward cinematic immortality thanks to his coruscating partnership with Ginger Rogers.

They were paired in a number of screwball-infused musicals that still rank among the best pictures the Hollywood dream factory put out during the 1940s. What set Astaire apart was his tireless choreography, the graceful elegance of his figure, and his often underrated singing voice introducing the world to a bevy of classics.

Top Hat (1935)

The Movie Projector: Top Hat (1935)

The romantic rebuttals are only a pretense for this glorious extravaganza replete with Art Deco stylings and a stupendous screwball cast loaded with the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Astaire introduced a pair of Irving Berlin classics in “Cheek-to-Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” as he and Ginger dance away off toward perfection.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens • Reviews, film + ...

A worthy successor to Top Hat, Swing Time assembled the talents of George Stevens and Jerome Kerns offering Astaire yet another immortal classic, “The Way You Look Tonight.” However, the splendor of Fred & Ginger together is magic with number after number feeling like an absolute knockout including the likes of “Pick Yourself Up” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” They balance charm with elegance divinely.

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948) directed by Charles Walters • Reviews, film + ...

Fred Astaire finally got paired with Judy Garland in this Holiday-themed looker blooming with glorious Springtime Technicolor and luscious costuming. “Happy Easter” and “Drum Crazy” start him off on a particularly jovial note, and he never looks back. The compositions of Irving Berlin are swell as is the easy-going rapport of Astaire and Garland carrying the picture away into loveliness.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Howard Hampton on Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953 ...

As his finest late-period work and an impeccable companion to Singin’ in The Rain, Fred is partnered with the always elegant Cyd Charisse as they dance their way through the sartorial splendor of Vincent Minnelli’s picture. Astaire gets one of his peppiest numbers with “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The real showstoppers are “That’s Entertainment as well as an epic film noir finale.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, Three Little Words,  Royal Wedding, Funny Face, Silk Stockings, On The Beach, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc.

AFI Corner 100 Songs: #4 Moon River

In this column, I go back to my roots with The American Film Institute’s Top 100 Lists, a good place to start for those interested in Classic Hollywood films. It’s in concurrence with #AFIMovieClub and the 10th anniversary of becoming a classic movie fan myself.  Thanks for reading.

Let me be clear about this. “Moon River” was love at first sight. The genesis is a bit unclear. Certainly, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s first. That must be it. Although my Grandparents had Andy Williams on record. That could have been it. I’m not sure.

The bottom line is the mellifluous tune, with its wafting nostalgic melancholy and quietly evocative tune is beautiful in all its many forms. Mancini’s composition, tailored to Audrey’s own voice, is perfectly understated for her. The lyrics of Johnny Mercer are beyond compare. Simple yet perfectly measured.

I often jest that it’s the kind of song I would want to play at my wedding, but there’s some truth to that as it touches on something that I think is wonderful. For me, it’s the embodiment of love and longing indicative of both the past and future. Huckleberry friends we’ve left behind and those at the rainbow’s end we’ve still yet to meet.

What’s more, it a melody plucked out of time. Yes, it’s the track in the opening scenes of the movie. Yes, Audrey Hepburn sings it so tenderly. But it has a life of its own.

This is part of what makes it one of the most memorable tracks on The American Film Institute’s Top 100 songs. There might be better songs, but nothing can fill the same void in me like “Moon River.” It warms the cockles of my heart.

 

Yellow Submarine (1968): The Beatles Vs. The Blue Meanies

yellow submarine 1.png

Like all the great fantasy stories, this one begins with “Once upon a time…” The world is Pepperland, 80,000 leagues under the sea, where people live in harmony frolicking across the hills with music wafting through the air.

But there must be villains and there are no cartoonish baddies more nefarious and reviled than the Blue Meanies. They come from the outskirts of Pepperland with an arsenal of dastardly weapons at their disposal, among them Projectile Gloves, Three-Headed Hounds, and Anti-Music Fishbowls.

Soon the melodious world is overrun by their chaotic cacophony of blueness. One can only guess what they would have thought of the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howling Wolf. But as this is a Beatles adventure, the intrepid Young Fred (with graying hair) escapes on the Yellow Submarine as the refrains of Ringo’s iconic tune overtake the screen. It’s our first sense that this is a picture about the Fab Four. Beatlemania, as a zeitgeist of screeching girls, might have cooled but their music and personas still made them rock royalty of the late 60s.

To return now, functions as an all-expense paid nostalgia trip because Yellow Submarine as an animated movie is something I knew from a VHS that my dad brought home one day from work. I had no idea what LSD or an acid trip was, much less acid. Consequently, my 6th-grade school report on the Beatles was entirely lacking this information too. More so, I distinctly remember presenting about their music and how these lads from Liverpool were able to captivate the world. Because their music had always resonated with me from an early age.

Up to this point, the movie was the most whimsically inventive exploration in animation I had ever seen. Without fully comprehending the psychedelic overtones, I was taken with the utter fanciful nature of it all. The dividing line is thin between a drug trip and a childlike imagination simply accepting all things as fact. There need not be any deliberate explanation.

Collages of song and image become second nature. Eleanor Rigby playing over snippets of footage with little rhyme or reason — the submarine motors along — it’s penny-plain as the Brits might say (Not to be confused with Penny Lane). Meanwhile, the cartoonish anatomy of the figures is outrageous in not only their mechanics but general proportions. The world they reside in is even screwier.

Eventually, the yellow submarine follows Ringo home and Fred leaps from its hull ranting incessantly, barely cognizant, about explosions and BLUE MEANIES. So we go from Pepperland to an equally trippy mansion the Beatles reside in followed by a labyrinthian sea filled with the most curious creatures imaginable. It never stops with the wonkiest bits of invention. As a child it is brilliant. As an adult, it’s a bit bewildering.

But George, always the calming force, reassures with his ever available mantra, “It’s All in The Mind.” As they get a move on, the boys strengthen their camaraderie underwater with “All Together Now” one of the best new additions to the soundtrack. There’s a liberal amount of grace provided, as the plotline seems to evolve out of the songs. For instance, the ensuing “Sea of Time” makes an obligatory rendition of “When I’m 64” all but imperative.

Then, the “Sea of Science” births the organ-propelled new-age rhapsody of “Only a Northern Song.” Even an early Rubber Soul track like “Nowhere Man fits in a pinch to obliquely describe the rhyming, rolly polly alien furball Jeremy, going by any number of names (Jeremy, Hillary, Who?). The Sea of Holes (a nod to “A Day in the Life”) gets us closer to Pepperland and finds Ringo picking up a souvenir from their adventure (I’ve got a hole in me pocket). Really you could choose any of these tie-dyed realities as emblematic of the entire experience but for my money, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the film at its height of kaleidoscope psychedelia.

When we finally do return to the monotone Pepperland from The Sea of Green, the juxtaposition is stark. We see to what extent the Blue Meanies repression of song has drained the landscape. Without any musical expression, all color has gone out of life quite literally, and it’s the lad’s job to put it back where it belongs.

They don disguises, casting them as the spitting image of the members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, currently encased in a giant fishbowl. Not for long. It is this final assault that somehow captures the magic of all the great adventure stories childhood’s have thrived on. The boys go into the heart of the enemy territory only to come prepared for a showdown and take back what is theirs. The only difference is their weaponry is a killer soundtrack to bring the Meanies to their knees.

It really is a tour de force in the final stretch stacking tracks like “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “With a Little Help from Friends,” “All You Need is Love,” and “Hey Bulldog” one after another. It’s an agreeable onslaught of tunes exploding over the screen and revitalizing the world, flushing Pepperland with a cornucopia of colors as one might expect.

We reached the apex of the concept album, paying heavy dividends in this animated film with a world loaded up on background whimsy and filled out by content from the Beatles’ hit records. Much to the Meanies chagrin, the hills are alive (with the sound of music) and in battle, two pairs of Beatles are better than one. Three pairs really.

Because we hardly realize till the very end but the Beatles — John, Paul, George, and Ringo in human flesh — barely appear. It comes with a minute-long cameo tacked on for good measure. In other words, they didn’t actually voice their cartoon selves. As a kid, I didn’t care and now it doesn’t make much difference to me either. Because we still have the music exerting its presence over the story. As is, their moment of screen time is a final capstone on a doozy of a film.

Lifelong Beatles enthusiasts, lapsing hippies, and kids with fledgling imaginations can all wholeheartedly join in on the communal Yellow Submarine experience. Yes, the title song is the most overplayed of all the Beatles canon but who cares? This movie is ceaselessly entertaining with bad puns to boot. If quotability is any indication, this might be one of the most seminal movies of my childhood.

4/5 Stars

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

hearts beat loud 1.png

“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 more so 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 wistfulness in acknowledging this irrefutable 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 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.

hearts beat loud 2.png

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 scot-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.

A Hard Day's Night.png

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.

A Hard Day's Night 3.png

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