Category: Music/Musicals


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In the many years that I’ve closely followed the Academy Awards (starting in 2004 when Return of the King took home a record-tying 11 Oscars), I’ve only cared twice about who won Best Original Song. The most recent time was in 2012 when I desperately wanted to see Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie win an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” from The Muppets. The first time was in 2006 where I would have likely started a riot if Three 6 Mafia hadn’t picked up the Oscar for their instant hip-hop classic “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from 2005’s Hustle & Flow. No matter what your other thoughts are about the film, there’s no denying that song’s place in the canon of great original movie tunes. Now, if only the rest of the film were as great as that song and the performances from Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson (Baby Boy).

There are few things more upsetting as a socially conscious film-goer than when you watch an obviously well-constructed and well-performed film but are also forced to recognize that there are some thematic… missteps in the work. And more than any of us would like to admit, there are a lot of great films that simply do not know how to handle their female characters. And Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow is one such film. As a portrait of desperation and the lengths we’ll go to achieve a dream even when our backs are against the wall, it’s a soaring success, and its social realism and gritty approach are greatly appreciated. But when every single woman in this film is simply a literal sex object and simultaneously used to massage the ego and self-esteem of the male star, that’s a problem of our male-centric film industry.

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2005’s Hustle & Flow is an underdog story in the mold of Rocky or Brassed Off! although without the cheesy triumphalism of the first or the social criticism of the second. Djay (Iron Man‘s Terrence Howard) is a philosophical and hardscrabble pimp who gets by tricking his snow bunny prostitute Nola (Taryn Manning) under Memphis underpasses. He’s got a stripper, Lex (Paula Jai Parker), with a major attitude problem and a son she doesn’t care for, and he’s got a pregnant “bottom bitch,” Shug (Taraji P. Henson), that can’t trick at the moment, but she loves and supports her pimp. Djay’s life is going nowhere fast, but he finds a chance to be somebody when he hears that rap superstar Skinny Black (Ludacris) will be visiting the bar Djay sells weed to for the Fourth of July.

Djay has one dream in life, beyond scrounging up the money he and his girls need to get buy, and that’s to be a hip-hop emcee. And after a chance meeting with an old high school friend, Key (Anthony Anderson), who pays the rent as a sound engineer for local church recordings, Djay thinks he finally has a shot at making his dreams come true and to get his mixtape into the hands of Skinny Black before his time runs out. And with a help from a local pianist and MPC machine enthusiast Shelby (DJ Qualls), Djay sets up a small recording studio in his house as he deals with the toils of keeping three different prostitutes happy under his roof. Will Djay find the muse he needs to make a genuine rap banger, and more importantly, will Skinny Black listen to it even if he does?

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Terrence Howard gives the performance his career in this film. Had Howard now turned down the supporting role of Rhodes in Iron Man 2 (because of salary disputes) and subsequently piss off all of the big producers in Hollywood, I suspect he could and should have been a big star. The 2005 Academy Awards was absurdly competitive for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote and he was also competing against Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain), but Howard’s Academy Award-nominated turn in this film is one of the best of the aughts. Few performers have ever conveyed the feeling of having your back up against the wall and watching your life race past you as well as Howard does in this film. There’s a haunting intensity to the performance, and it’s a shame that he’s more or less disappeared from interesting projects in the 2010s.

And Baby Boy‘s Taraji P. Henson also gives her all to the thankless role of Shug. As I said, the women in this film are flat creations that are literal sex objects in that they’re all strippers/prostitutes (except for Anthony Anderson’s wife who has minimum screen time) and they have seemingly no real desires or character arcs of their own other than to support Djay in his journey. But despite that, Taraji P. Henson brings a wrenching emotional context to the character that certainly wasn’t in the script. She certainly at least deserved an Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars that year. It’s a sign of a great performer when they are able to wrest an astounding performance from a mediocre character, and Taraji P. Henson does just that.

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The film’s problems with women can be summed up in one visual from the film. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to spoil something major about the film, but the movie’s nearly 10 years old now, so get over it. Djay is in prison for assaulting Skinny Black after he rejects him. Nola has slept with a radio DJ and gotten Djay’s single played on the radio. The song is called “Whoop That Trick” and a new mother Shug is singing along in full head-banging mode to a song that’s about beating on a hooker which is what she is. It’s like the movie isn’t even aware of the irony of the moment although at times I suspect it is because like Black Snake Moan, there’s a certain element of blaxploitation revivalism to Hustle & Flow. Regardless, the film’s usage of a prostitute singing along triumphantly to a song about beating on her own kind is the worst kind of male tunnel vision.

And those glaring oversights make for a frustrating viewing experience because Hustle & Flow is the kind of underdog film I can actually enjoy (because most are total garbage excepting the documentary Undefeated which manages to be a masterpiece). I sort of actively hate most non-Outkast/non-Killer Mike Southern hip-hop, but this film’s A-Town via Tennessee soundtrack is fantastic, and the film’s got that grainy 1970s cinematography that seamlessly matches the film’s storytelling style. And, as I’ve said, Terrence Howard’s firebrand performance holds the whole film together when it threatens to fall apart. Hustle & Flow falls just short of being a great film, but if you can look past its casual misogyny, it’s a superbly performed tale worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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One evening in New York City, after a wonderful romantic evening with a girl I was seeing, I walked her to the subway, and on my walk back to my apartment in the primarily Caribbean Crown Heights, I softly sang and subtly danced to “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. As one of the few Caucasians in the mostly Caribbean neighborhood, I didn’t have to do much to stand out, and singing a show-tune as I walked down the street didn’t help matters. But, I was so happy and so content that I didn’t care who saw or who laughed. When people in old musicals are so overcome with happiness or sorrow that they simply burst into song, I get it. It happens to me in real life. I just don’t have an array of back-up singers (or actual musical talent) and lavish dance routines.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog the special place that musicals hold in my heart and the complicated feelings I’ve developed for them as I’ve gotten older and my tastes have gotten more sophisticated (and my critical skills grew sharper). Grease was one of the first non-children’s movies that I can remember watching, and there’s always been something about theatrical song and dance numbers that have appealed to me on a deep and personal level ever since. Unfortunately, I also recognize that a lot of these “classic” musicals are also sort of hilariously bad in the actual storytelling department. 1954’s There’s No Business Like Show Business is no exception to that rule. It’s gorgeous production and sublime Irving Berlin score make it worth every musical lover’s time, but it’s story borders on non-existent.

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The Donahue clan, led by matriarch Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terry (Dan Dailey), are a struggling vaudeville family act. Though the group finds great success when the parents are joined by their children, Tim (Singing in the Rain‘s Donald O’Connor), Katie (Mitzi Gaynor), and Steve (Johnnie Ray), it isn’t long before the family act starts to fall apart. Steve wants to become a priest, and Tim falls head over heels in love with coat-check girl (and aspiring singer), Vicky Parker (How to Marry a Millionaire‘s Marilyn Monroe). And when Vicky’s career begins to take off, and she brings Tim and Katie along to be part of her new Broadway revue, it spells the beginning of the end of the Five Donahues as a performing act. Throw in Tim’s suspicion that Vicky is having an affair with her manager, and the family is set on a path towards disaster.

I love Donald O’Connor. I doubt that’s a controversial statement. He’s clearly the best part of Singing in the Rain. The title track of that film is great, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the best number of that whole film. And he does not disappoint in There’s No Business Like Show Business. The man can dance and he can sing, and he delivers a snappy one-liner with the best of them, and it’s always puzzled me that he wasn’t a bigger star (though I get it. He didn’t have leading man looks). Although I suspect the film would have been enjoyable without him, I also know for a fact that I wouldn’t have liked There’s No Business Like Show Business nearly as much without O’Connor’s presence. There’s a number after Tim kisses Vicky for the first time that has quickly become one of my favorite set pieces from a classic musical.

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Marilyn Monroe on the other hand… she really isn’t a great actress, but unlike How to Marry a Millionaire, this film shows off an area where Monroe is actually startlingly talented: burlesque-adjacent numbers. Whenever Monroe has to deliver actual dialogue, she’s more stiff and unnatural on screen than even the non-professional cast of Steven Soderbergh’s disastrous Bubble. But, when she’s performing her musical numbers in the film, which give her a chance to show off her sultry and simmering sexuality, it’s like watching an entirely different performer. The only other actresses from that era who seem to be as aware and in control of their sexuality were Liz Taylor and Lauren Bacall. And, Monroe’s confidence and presence sell every second of her musical numbers. For an actress that we’ve come to know (from historical records) as suffering from crippling self-esteem issues, it is surprising how well she carries herself in the film’s sizzling musical numbers from Miss Monroe.

And the rest of the cast is full of established musical talent. Ethel Merman is a Broadway legend, and although her performance is about as campy as they get, it fits the silly and fun mood of this film far better than a more serious take would have. Dan Dailey was appropriately lecherous but loveable as the beleaguered family patriarch although it was probably in the film’s best interest that he was involved in as few of the musical numbers as he was. Johnnie Ray shone during what little screen time he had, at least from a singing perspective (his acting wasn’t phenomenal), and I more or less immediately fell in love with the beautiful Mitzi Gaynor who played the sister. Looking at her IMDB page, she appears to have mostly done musicals and never had much of a career which is a shame because she was both gorgeous and talented.

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The costume work and set design and general composition of this film is a glorious exercise in excess. Early in the film, the Donahue’s perform a deliciously over-the-top take on the old Irving Berlin standard “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that is far more complex and expensive than they should be able to afford, but I loved every second of its multi-national ridiculousness. And, as mentioned earlier, there’s a glorious performance of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him)” performed with fountains and back-up dancers disguised as statues from Donald O’Connor. That was the moment when I surrendered myself to the silly fun of There’s No Business Like Show Business. As someone who’s danced down the streets of Brooklyn after a wonderful evening with a girl, it spoke to me.

There’s No Business Like Show Business isn’t ever going to stand in the pantheon of great movie musicals, and the performance of “Heat Wave,” which featured what I’ll refer to as blackface-adjacent backup dancers, was a little offensive, but like Babes in Arms before it, there’s something just undeniably fun about this film despite (actually probably because of) its ridiculous nature. The songs are great, and not even the sight of Ethel Merman with absurd mutton-chop sideburns during “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor (Until a Sailor’s Been Tattooed” should deter you from watching this film if you have a soft spot in your heart for old musicals. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, I can’t imagine that There’s No Business Like Show Business will convert you, but for those in the fold, it’s worth the two hours of your time.

Final Score: B

 

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The Forever 27 Club is an organization nobody wants to be part of. So many stupidly talented artists have thrown their lives away and died at young ages because they lost battles to addiction, depression, and their own inner demons. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and others that aren’t as well-known. Of course, another one of the most famous members of that particular club is classic rock/blues legend Janis Joplin who’s ferocious voice and pure, raw talent helped to define an era. Listening to Janis Joplin sing is the act of experiencing honest and overpowering emotion, and this is coming from someone who’s always found her to be one of the more over-rated stars of the classic rock era. 1974’s documentary tribute to the late icon, Janis, made me appreciate her talent more than I had in the past even if its structure is a little disjointed and unfocused.

Never incorporating typical documentary narration, Janis looks at the life of Port Arthur, Texas, born Janis Joplin through rare concert footage as well as archival interviews that no one has probably seen since they aired on TV forty years ago. You also get some more personal peeks into Janis’s life such as her 10th year high school reunion (she would be dead less than a year later) as well as some studio rehearsal. And, with the concerts, you see several wonderful performances in Canada. You see her truly legendary performance at the Monterrey Pop Music Festival as well as one of her songs from the original 1969 Woodstock (most of those performances have already been well-chronicled in the Woodstock concert film). And along the way, you get a picture of how sad Janis was beneath it all.

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I would say that somewhere around 75% of the film is concert footage so if they chose bad performances, the whole movie would crumble. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. While the performances in this film don’t quite match the level of classic concert movies like Stop Making Sense or Woodstock, it’s still an awesome showcase for Janis Joplin’s goose-bumps inducing voice. In fact, my only complaint about the performances of the film is that my favorite Janis Joplin song isn’t one of them (“Me and Bobby McGee” which is a studio version heard over a photo montage at the end of the film). When Janis sings and she’s really grooving on a number, it would give me chills. And, I was also pleasantly surprised by how good her backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, was at laying down a psychedelic groove. If you can’t tell, I miss psychedelic rock.

My only real complaint about the film (other than the fact that there was nothing absolutely perfect about it like Stop Making Sense) was a series of structural complaints. If the movie wanted to be a concert film, it should have been a concert film. If it wanted to be biographical, it should have been biographical. If it wanted to be both (which is clearly what it was trying to do), it should have done a better job of balancing things out. As I said, roughly 75% of the film is concert footage and it makes all of the interviews and found footage seem so awkward when it finally does show up. It certainly doesn’t help that none of the archival footage seems to add much to the audience’s understanding of Janis. Though there is one segment where she’s on a talk show talking to the host after an awesome performance where you find out that despite her clearly sad interior, Janis also had a wicked sense of humor.

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I’ll keep this review short cause I’m still really buzzed on cold medicine. And I have no idea when I’m going to feel any better. Hopefully tomorrow. I especially hope that I’m feeling at least somewhat better tomorrow because I have an Ingmar Bergman movie to watch from Netflix, Through a Glass Darkly, and clearly I want to be in my best frame of my mind to watch something from the great masterful Swede. Anyways, if you’re a fan of Janis Joplin, this will be a fun look at some footage of her performing that you may not have seen before. If you’re not a Janis fan, you probably won’t need to go out of your way to watch this particular film (which is currently available to watch instantly on Netflix), but for fans of classic rock and one of the great blues singers of the classic rock era, Janis is worth your time.

Final Score: B+

 

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It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

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For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

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Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. I have to do two movie reviews today. I watched this Oscar-winning documentary last night before I went to sleep and as soon as I woke up today, my family went to the mall to watch Star Trek Into Darkness. So, if this review for this excellent documentary seems short or rushed, I apologize. )

When I was writing about music in New York City, I found myself overwhelmed with the simple fact that there are an astounding number of talented musicians out there, but unless the cards play exactly right, most of them won’t get noticed in indie music circles let alone gain mainstream exposure. The bands that get famous are the ones that sell and that isn’t always a mark of talent; anyone who’s ever seen the sales numbers of a Nickelback album know that you can make awful, misogynistic music and still sell like hot-cakes. For artists (and I consider myself one as I’m an aspiring screenwriter), we may not make art for money or fame, but we at least appreciate recognition of our talents. When an astonishingly great talent goes totally unrecognized, it’s simply a crime, and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man chronicles a truly unsung American folk rock artist who spent most of his life in total obscurity not knowing that halfway around the world, he was a cultural icon.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strikingly voiced and notoriously shy folk singer by the name of Sixto Rodriguez (though her performed primarily under the mononym, Rodriguez) made waves in the Detroit bar music scene with his gritty lyrics of urban poverty and repression and his general anti-establishment atmosphere as well as from his more general talents as a musician and a songwriter. Rodriguez was offered a record deal from Sussex Records where he released not one but two albums. Both records, Cold Facts and Coming From Reality, were beloved by critics and musical insiders alike, but no one in America bought the album and it didn’t sell. Rodriguez was let go from his record label, and he quietly disappeared into obscurity and no one knew whether he was still alive and the rumor was that he had killed himself on stage.

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However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez or even his own record label, his albums became smash hits in apartheid-era South Africa. Some American girl brought the album to the country and before any one knew it, Rodriguez became an underground sensation. His message of personal liberation and recognition of the hardships that minorities and the impoverished faced resonated with a nation suffering under the boot heels of racial segregation and an oppressive regime. Rodriguez’s music was as popular in South Africa as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His music was considered by many to be a soundtrack to their generation’s struggles. And, in the 1990s, two fans of Rodriguez make it their goal to uncover the mystery behind their favorite musician, and that’s where the magic of the film really begins.

I don’t want to say much more about the events that unfold in this film because for most Americans, Rodriguez will be a total mystery and much of the pleasure of the film is watching the truth slowly be unraveled. Because there isn’t much period footage for when the investigative aspects of the film took place (the late 90s) and there especially isn’t footage of Rodriguez in his 70s prime (because nobody cared who he was), Searching for Sugar Man plays out mostly through interviews as well as extensive use of Rodriguez’s catalog of music (to display how truly talented he is). The film may not have something grand to say about the human condition, but as a portrayal of the often unrewarding and often non-existent path to stardom, the documentary aptly explores the less glamorous side of an artist’s life in a manner akin to the spiritually similar In the Shadow of the Stars.

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The film wouldn’t have worked had Rodriguez’s music not been as powerful as the filmmakers and the various individuals interviewed made it seem. The whole movie is premised on the notion that Rodriguez was essentially as talented as Bob Dylan but simply couldn’t sell. And if he wasn’t that good, the movie would have seemed unnecessary. Thankfully, he is as good as advertised if not better. I was a rock journalist in New York City, and just like movies, I have a pretty prolific knowledge of music. I had never heard of Rodriguez outside of the context of the buzz surrounding this film. His music is phenomenal and reminds me of Van Morrison meets Bob Dylan. From a pure talent perspective, he should have been one of the biggest names of the 1970s, and hopefully, this Academy Award winning film should help make more Americans aware of his existence.

I still need to review Star Trek Into Darkness as well as do some work for Bonnaroo. I’m doing some coverage of the festival for the website that I wrote for in New York City and I have an article due on Friday. I need to work on it because I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m unsure what my schedule will look like for the rest of this week. I’ll leave on this note then. If you have even a passing interest in classic rock and 1960s/1970s folk music, you need to listen to Rodriguez right now. I will be buying the soundtrack to this movie as soon as I get my first paycheck at my new job. And if you enjoy the music and enjoy documentaries, check out Searching for Sugar Man which is a riveting look into a rock icon that never was.

Final Score: A-

 

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Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

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Long time readers know that I have a soft spot in my heart for musicals. I used to review Glee eery week (I’m ridiculously far behind on that show and need to catch up. Like, I’m probably around six or so episodes back if not more). Because my mother exposed me to the movie Grease at a young age (it’s honestly one of the first non-animated movies that I can remember really becoming attached to) and I just have a naturally theatrical disposition, I love musicals. I can’t help it. However, I’m also completely aware of most of the problems musicals face in terms of structure, story, character, etc., and this may seem shocking but I’m not really crazy about many of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals of the 40s through 60s. Heresy, I know. By no means is 1962’s Billy Rose’s Jumbo a great movie (and honestly it barely qualifies to be a good one), but there’s just something about the spectacle of the film that I couldn’t help but find charming.

The Wonder Circus, led by Pop Wonder (Jimmy Durante) and Kitty (Teacher’s Pet‘s Doris Day), is on the verge of going under. Pop Wonder has a bit of a gambling problem, and the performers haven’t been paid in weeks and many are quitting the show. To make matters worse, the circus is hounded by a legion of creditors that Pop Wonder and Kitty have to appease just to stay afloat. And a rival circus family is after the star attraction of the Wonder Circus, the trained elephant Jumbo. Kitty’s level-head is the only thing holding the traveling company together. When the circus lays its stakes in a new town, one of their star performers quits the show and he’s replaced by the mysterious Sam Rollins (Stephen Boyd). Sam and Kitty quickly hit it off, but Sam is hiding something, and that secret might tear the Wonder Circus down with it.

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Every musical is only as good as the music in it (I think I’ve used that exact sentence in other reviews. Ruh roh rooby.), and in that regard, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was just okay. It had a handful of memorable tunes. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” springs immediately to mind as well as “This Can’t Be Love.” But most of the tunes were sort of forgettable, and one of the songs, “My Romance,” which is one of Rodgers and Harts’s most well-known tunes just seemed kind of chintzy to me. So, while the book of the film (i.e. the music & lyrics for non-theatre types in the room) wasn’t spectacular, the movie saved itself with choreography and splendor that can only be described as magical. When the film captures the childlike innocence and majesty of the circus, it is a delight, and one wishes that the music was as memorable and charming as all of the action unfolding on screen.

The performances were also the film’s strong suit. Doris Day had a surprisingly strong and impressive voice and although I don’t remember many of the songs she sang (and I watched the film earlier today), I certainly enjoyed listening to her dulcet tones and though I knew this from Teacher’s Pet, she had decent comedic timing. Although, she seemed kind of old to be playing Kitty. She was 38… so yeah. The real scene-stealers though were Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye (who played Pop Wonder’s dim-witted fortune-telling fiancee). Jimmy Durante had great comedic chops, and he became the lovable loser at the heart of the film that I cared about even though he was destroying the business he’d spent his whole life building. And Martha Raye was arguably the only character that had me laughing out loud during moments where she volunteered to be shot out of a cannon or pined for Pop Wonder’s affection.

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If you like old-style 1960s/1950s musicals like Gypsy or Babes in Arms, you’ll find something to enjoy in Billy Rose’s Jumbo. It is undeniably charming, and if you have any bit of your childhood self left in you, it’s very easy to be entranced by the circus aspects of the film. But, if you’re not a musical fan or you only watch the more mature, nuanced musicals of the last twenty years or so, you should probably avoid this film. You aren’t going to find much to attach yourself to here. But, as someone who can shed my intellectual pretenses and just get lost in good music, impressive dancing, and flashy set pieces, Billy Rose’s Jumbo was a delight no matter how much my brain tried to tell me it shouldn’t be.

Final Score: B-

 

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Perhaps more than any other genre of film, documentary film-making has the chance to enthrall me with stories that would otherwise seem boring or out of my personal wheelhouse of what I define as “interesting.” From Day 1 of this blog’s existence (literally since the first film I reviewed was the wonderful opera documentary In the Shadow of the Stars), documentaries have proven their resilience over and over again. I had dreaded putting in this particular film, 1999’s Speaking in Strings: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for the two months I’d had it at home from Netflix because a documentary about the “bad girl” of classical concert violin seemed about as interesting as a trip to the orthodontist. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the film’s ceneter is gifted violin prodigy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. An Italian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of eight, Nadja showed an exceptional talent for the violin at the young age. And after studying at Julliard, Nadja won a prestigious violin competition which skyrocketed her to the forefront of the classical violin community. Nadja’s visceral and explosive style garnered her as much praise as it did harsh criticism from the classical music establishment. Like many geniuses, Nadja’s personal life is as explosive and passionate as her music and Nadja’s battles her inner demons of depression, alienation, and loneliness to create her haunting and powerful music.

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The film is almost devastatingly intimate. The film’s non-linear structure threw me off for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film but once I got a feel for how the film-maker (Paola di Floria) was dizzying the film’s audience much the same way that Nadja dizzied her concert hall audiences with her theatrics, I got into the flow of the film. By the film’s end, you feel as if you got an invasively personal look in Nadja’s life. With her suicide attempt, her disaffection with the majority of the world around her, the wounds from being lashed by much of the stiffer parts of the classical musical community, and her abandonment issues, you seem to know Nadja so well and how she turns that pain into such amazing music.

The filmmaker’s decision to make a movie about Nadja must be commended. Because I know how on paper, this film doesn’t sound like much. But whether it’s the regular use of absolutely gorgeous violin music (often performed live by Nadja herself) or interesting personality that takes center stage, Speaking in Strings never bores. It is a constantly engaging meditation on both the price of genius as well as the factors that might create a genius in the first place. As far as individuals that have taken center stage in a documentary that I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’m not sure if one has commanded the screen as much as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Final Score: A-

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Over a year and a half ago, when Hot Saas’s  Pop Culture Safari was still in its infancy, I reviewed the classic Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical comedy Swing Time. I loved the movie and it was this close to being an almost perfect classic musical when a last minute black face number in the film nearly derailed the whole production. I understood that minstrel shows were an acceptable part of that era’s entertainment but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable for this modern, ultra-liberal viewer. My first Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film for the blog, 1939’s Babes in Arms was proving to be an enjoyable (although not nearly as great as Swing Time) children’s musical when another climactic, ridiculously lavish black face number reared its ugly head to remind me yet again of our nation’s virulent racist past.

When his down-on-his luck parents decide to take their once popular vaudeville show on the road in a hope to reclaim their glory days, Michael Z. Moran (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow stage children friends are left behind. With the help of his best friend Patsy (The Wizard of Oz‘s Judy Garland), Michael enlists the other kids to put on a lavish vaudeville revue to make it big time to prove that they’re just as talented as their washed up parents. With the threat of being taken away by the state hanging over their heads, Michael and Patsy have to raise the money to put on their show. Patsy is supposed to play the lead and Mickey wrote the songs just for her, but when former child-star Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) offers to pay the show’s expenses as long as she can play the show’s lead, Mickey has to choose between his feelings for Patsy and his desire to finally make it big.

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Mickey Rooney received an Academy Award nomination for this film and as weird as this may sound, I totally get it. When I first started watching the film, I thought he was around his character’s age (early teens), but nope. Mickey Rooney was 19 when he made this film. I was incredibly impressed when I thought he was 13 or 14. Still, even at 19, he already had the timing and comedic chops of a seasoned veteran and Rooney was easily the best part of the whole film. His presence controlled every scene and it’s easy to see why he was one of Hollywood’s biggest child stars of the era. His impressions were spot-on and hilarious. He had the manic but controlled energy of a pro like Donald O’Connor. In terms of how comedy worked back in the 1930s, he was as good as much of the established talent of the time.

Judy Garland on the other hand wasn’t as impressive. I can’t entirely blame her though. Her singing voice was as beautiful as ever and she had the girl-next-door appeal that made her such a beloved star. And it’s 1939. It’s the same year as The Wizard of Oz. She’s at the peak of her career. But, it was also terribly clear the entire film that she was stoned out of her gourd. The studio was feeding both her and Mickey Rooney amphetamines and barbiturates like candy to keep them going during their endless film production schedule, and it seems like Rooney got all of the amphetamines and Garland got all of the barbiturates. She just seemed dazed and completely out of it for the entire film. Perhaps, I’m reading something into her performance that isn’t actually there, but that was simply the impression I got the entire time.

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The musical numbers fluctuated between lovely and utterly forgettable. “Good Morning, Good Morning” would be performed to greater effect by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain but it made a great premier as one of the opening numbers of Babes in Arms. One can’t blame Garland’s lovely contralto. Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers almost always seem cookie-cutter to me (yes, I know that’s heresy to classic musical fans. I’m not a fan of that pairing though). But, there was something wonderful in the choreography and the spectacle of a film that was being performed by an almost all-child cast (even if the two leads were actually adults playing much, much younger than their characters). The film often managed to achieve an epic feel that made the material transcend into the charming side of “camp” that captures something innocent and hopeful about the era it was made (at the tail-end of the Great Depression).

Which makes the terribly racist, overly long blackface number at the end so incredibly uncomfortable. I had to get my computer out and look at Facebook and Twitter as that number ran on and on and on. I didn’t think it was ever going to end. But, much like Swing Time, if you can get past that awful relic of our nation’s vaudeville past, the film is ultimately enjoyable. The racism is a huge mark against it, but much like Gone With the Wind or the Tom Sawyer, it’s something you have to get past in order to understand our nation’s past historic outputs. It’s not pretty but it’s there and we can’t pretend like it never happened. So, if you enjoy these old school musicals, I wouldn’t rank Babes in Arms among the all time greats, but if you’re looking for something to pass the time, Mickey Rooney’s star turn is enough to justify a viewing.

Final Score: B

I’ve got a page on this blog dedicated just to requests that people can make for movies/TV shows they want me to review. It doesn’t get used very often, and half of the requests have actually been made via my Facebook page instead of my actual blog. But because it happens so rarely, I do always make the effort to review the movies that have been requested (Cinema Paradiso, Moon, The Court Jester, Road to Rio, and The Place Promised In Our Early Days). For the last two months, one of the requested movies has been sitting in my living room in its Netflix envelope as I went an extended period without reviewing a single film from Netflix. Generally speaking, the quality of the films I’ve reviewed that others have told me to watch has been good (except for Road to Rio). However, the 1972 musical 1776 recounting the battle over America declaring its independence from Great Britain jumped back and forth over the line of being an unmitigated disaster or being simply unremarkable. It may have had its moments (that almost all seemed to involve Howard de Silva’s Ben Franklin), but I can’t recommend this film to even the most ardent history buffs.

In May of 1776, John Adams (William Daniels akaBoy Meets World’s Mr. Feeney aka the man whose voice will make me listen to everything he says like it’s the most important lesson in the world) is mourning the fact that no one in the Continental Congress will listen to his pleas to officially declare Independence from England. As Ben Franklin is fond of reminding him, he’s obnoxious and unliked, and generally no one gives a shit as to what he says. Honestly, any description of the plot of this film is going to devolve into me giving a history lesson that everybody else knows (f you paid any attention in school whatsoever). The entire Southern delegation is loyal to the crown because it’s more economically advantageous for them to remain friendly with England, and most of the middle states (especially Pennsylvania) don’t wish to rock the boat and commit treason (thereby opening themselves up to the very real risk of execution by the British if their revolution fails). When Franklin convinces Adams to let another delegate introduce the measure, the Continental Congress finally agrees to debate the measure and the film follows the blow-by-blow of 18th century legislative hearings with a never-ending stream of musical numbers.

Since the movie is a musical and it can’t go more than 15 minutes without a massive Stephen Sondheim-esque number (though without any of Sondheim’s inspiration), it’s only fair to judge the film heavily on the quality of its musical performances. Unfortunately, in that regard, it’s a total dud. Imagine all of the worst excess of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta without any of their wit, and you’ve got the never-ending songs from this film. I can’t remember a single melody from the songs nor the words to any song. They were all completely forgettable and outright boring. I don’t blame the performers. The movie’s cast was culled almost entirely from the original Broadway production and all of the tenors, baritones, and altos all sound great in that classical musical style, but the music and lyrics they’ve been given are terribly mediocre at best and simply terrible at worst. However, there was one moment during one of the film’s musical numbers where I began to laugh uncontrollably so there was one bright spot. John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and others are singing about who should write the Declaration of Independence and at one point there’s a chorus of Ben Franklin (and two other historical figures) singing the phrase “sexual combustibility” referring to how Jefferson hadn’t been intimate with his wife in six months. That was pretty great.

Not only were the musical numbers almost all unbearable, they would kill the momentum of the historical and political drama on display. I’m a history buff, and while I’ve seen plenty of the scenes in this film played out in documentaries or in text books, there were honestly moments when I found myself engrossed in the intellectual and philosophical debates that our heroes were engaged in. The film captured just how tedious and absurd the ratification process for the Declaration was (which ultimately hurt the film’s pacing on occasion), and for people who enjoy history, those moments were intriguing. But, when people are having an honest ethical debate about whether we as a nation could afford to compromise on the issue of slavery in order to pass the Declaration of Independence only to burst out into a song, it ruins the whole moment. The film runs for nearly three hours, and there was honestly at least 45 minutes of material that could have been cut out of the film that would have resulted in it being a much more enjoyable experience. Rather it became a test of wills to see how many dull songs you could sit through and how many filler scenes of flat comedy you could endure before you got a intriguing moment about the birth of our nation.

The film’s redeeming qualities (its ability to poke fun at the fallibility of our founders even when they’re presented in a heroic light [i.e. Franklin’s womanizing], its display of the philosophical debates that framed our founding, great performances from William Daniels, Howard de Silva, and Ken Howard) could not even come close to redeeming its mountain of problems. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to do a lavish Broadway revue of the Founding (and maybe in better hands, it could have been done well), but under Peter Stone’s source material (which somehow managed to win a Pulitzer Prize as a play), 1776 can only be recommended to the most die-hard musical fans simply because of its status as a classic of the American canon. Everyone else should stick to their text books.

Final Score: C