LA LA LAND (2016)

December 10, 2016

la-la-land Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.

While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.

As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).

Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.

Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.

Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Cause viewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.

The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL (Theatre Review, 2016)

June 9, 2016

beautiful A piano sits center stage under a low beam spotlight. No other set decorations are present. The simplicity is symbolic of the public image of Carole King – a grounded artist whose prolific songwriting skills weave a tapestry of hit songs that began in the late 1950’s. In a somewhat awkward opening, Abby Mueller takes the stage as Ms. King and sheepishly admits that, as a Brooklyn girl, she feels like she is ‘home’ and breaks into her mega-hit “So Far Away”. The song sets the feel good tone for the audience, and by the end of the evening, we learn that’s her on stage at Carnegie Hall, and the rest of the story is in flashback form.

This is opening night at the Dallas Winspear Opera House as the national tour continues for the production of the 2014 Broadway hit … one that ended with Abby’s sister Jessie Mueller winning a Tony Award. The house is full, and the audience is as friendly as they come – ready to be reminded of the happy life times when Ms. King’s songs spoke for their emotions. The sound glitch present in that opening number is quickly resolved, and for the rest of the evening there is no shortage of toe-tapping and lip-synching.

Playwright and filmmaker (Emma, Bullets over Broadway, Nicholas Nickelby) Douglas McGrath follows the familiar path of another recent jukebox musical and mega Broadway hit “Jersey Boys”. He keeps the steady rain of hit songs coming, while mixing in just enough backstory for us to appreciate the artistic struggles and understand the times. We see the humble beginnings of a very smart teenage Carole Klein (later King) and her festering dream of becoming a professional songwriter – conflicting with the wishes of her mother who deemed teaching to be the profession of choice. Her early meetings at 1650 Broadway (not the Brill Building!) with music producer Don Kirshner (played by Curt Kouril) make it clear that female composers were mostly non-existent during the late 1950’s, and that Carole was a somewhat below-the-radar groundbreaker.

Rather than skim through Ms. King’s now more than 50 year career, the focus remains mostly on those early years writing with her wordsmith husband Gerry Goffin (played by Liam Tobin). The challenges of marrying young, having a daughter, and working multiple jobs are all touched upon, but it’s Carole’s long fight to keep her marriage to Goffin together that takes up most of the non-song time … this in despite of his drugs, philandering, and extreme mood swings. Goffin is portrayed as the tortured artist, while Ms. King is presented as a dowdy do-gooder who also happens to be an immensely talented composer. For much of the production, she looks similar to Elisabeth Moss during the first couple of seasons of “Mad Men”.

Between Goffin/King and their friendly rivalry with Barry Mann (a terrific Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), the hit songs just keep coming. Many are performed by the writers themselves, while others evolve into full production numbers featuring numerous talented ensemble performers in the role of such acts as Neil Sedaka, The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers. The latter group has one of the audience-favorite moments as they sing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” (John Michael Dias is a standout vocalist as Bobby Hatfield).

The emotional sincerity of the times is captured by these writers and their songs, but Mr. McGrath does toss in plenty of cornball comedy to make sure everyone is paying attention between musical numbers. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil could be considered comic relief were it not for their own prodigious writing talent: “On Broadway”, “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”, “Walking in the Rain”, and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

The Goffin/King numbers included here are numerous and impressive: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Up on the Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Take Good Care of my Baby”, “Loco-Motion”.

The real story here is the blossoming of a shy woman into an artist who trusts her talent and believes she has something to sing about. Once her marriage to Goffin finally ended, Ms. King moved to Los Angeles and worked with super producer Lou Adler (known today as Jack Nicholson’s Lakers buddy). Her 1971 solo album Tapestry featured such hits as “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got a Friend” (a huge hit for James Taylor), “It’s Too Late”, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”, and this show’s title track and finale, “Beautiful”.

Unlike many musicals, this show doesn’t have a true “showstopper”, but the sheer number of hit songs familiar to the crowd provide the feel-good atmosphere that leaves those attending feeling joyous and well entertained. A very nice performance from Abby Mueller allows us to take in the music, while also respecting the long road and accomplishments of the great Carole King … winner of Grammy awards, and inductee into both the Songwriter Hall of Fame, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The production is also a reminder that nice people can succeed in an industry that thrives on ‘bad boys’ and artists with an edge.

 


SING STREET (2016)

April 20, 2016

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2016

sing street Greetings again from the darkness. The vast majority of 1980’s music usually inspires nothing but groans and an immediate change of the radio channel from me. Yet writer/director John Carney masterfully captured and held my attention with this crowd-pleasing story that leans heavily on the tunes from that era.

Mr. Carney was also responsible for two previous music-centric movies, Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). He is an exceptional story teller who puts music at the center, but avoids the label of “musical” by making it about people, rather than notes.

It’s 1985 in economically depressed Dublin, and a strong opening sequence introduces us to Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as his ever-arguing parents (Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy) inform him of the economic necessity of pulling him out of prep school and enrolling him into a much tougher environment … one that comes with bullies and hard-nosed teachers/clergy.

Soon enough Connor is hanging with the misfits and inviting an enchanting “older” girl to star in his band’s video. She agrees, and wide-eyed Connor quickly sets out to form a band that didn’t previously exist.

There are two interesting and fully realized relationships that make this movie click: Connor and the enchanting Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and Connor and his older brother Brendon (Jack Reynor). Brendan is Connor’s life mentor and music guru. They are quick to jump on the new world of music videos, and it’s a real hoot to watch Connor emulate the style and fashion of Duran, Duran, The Cure, etc.

It’s fascinating to note that Connor, while a pretty talented lyricist and singer, doesn’t really seem to be in love with the music except as a means to an end … a way to get the girl. That said, the real message here is that while teenagers often feel like they can’t fix the outside world (parents, teachers, bullies), they can fix themselves by finding a passion in life (the movie uses the term vocation).

It’s hard not to notice the influence of such filmmakers as John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, and Carney certainly brings his touch of romanticism. Plus, one must appreciate any movie that delivers an original song as catchy as “Drive it like you Stole it”, while also taking a shot at Phil Collins. It’s a funny and sweet movie that should really catch on through positive word of mouth.

watch the trailer:

 


THE WRECKING CREW (doc, 2008/2015)

March 15, 2015

wrecking crew Greetings again from the darkness. The music business has always been a bit of a mystery – not just to the average record buyer, but even to those within the industry. History is filled with singers, band members, and songwriters missing out on the pot of gold due to slick legal maneuvering from some less-than-upstanding agent, producer or label. This documentary details the prolific recordings from a core group of studio musicians responsible for the sounds heard as rock and roll music exploded on the scene … their stellar performances marketed to the public as the work of popular bands.

Lest you think this is limited to an obscure genre or style of music, the two dozen (or so) musicians known as The Wrecking Crew were responsible for the album music for such groups and performers as The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, and The Monkees. And we can’t leave out Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” which dominated the charts for years. Director Denny Tedesco set out to make a documentary short about his father, guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, but quickly realized the story was much bigger than just his dad.

In addition to the very talented (and funny) Tedesco, we get interviews with such talented musicians as Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Don Randi, Al Casey, Plas Johnson (The Pink Panther sax soloist), Carol Kaye, and Bill Pittman. There is also insight from producers Lou Adler and Snuff Garrett, American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, songwriter Jimmy Webb, plus icon Herb Alpert. Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork explain the business rationale in having the professionals take care of the recordings, while Roger McGuinn spills the beans that other members of The Byrds (including David Crosby) were pretty miffed at the process.

The personal importance of telling this story is quite obvious in the work of the director, and is especially clear in the segments featuring his father. In addition to the popular music he was involved with, the senior Tedesco’s work is heard in such well-known TV themes as “Bonanza“, “MASH“, “Batman“, and “The Twilight Zone” … plus many movie scores. Archival footage is available for Q&A roundtables and some of the seminar work Tedesco did in the later stages of his career (he passed away in 1997). There is also footage of Phil Spector working in the studio, and some audio from Frank Sinatra as he works on recording, and early Brian Wilson creating the magic of Pet Sounds with the Wrecking Crew.

Glen Campbell and Leon Russell are the two big breakout performers from this group of studio musicians and both speak so highly of these unpublicized artists. Their interviews, and that of Dick Clark, highlight the confusion of timeline in the making of the film. It began making festival rounds in 2008 before running the age old issue of “musical rights” brought distribution to a screeching halt. So now, in 2015, the film is finally getting some theatre time, and with it comes the recognition and appreciation that is long overdue for the members of this very secret club … few of whom seem to hold any type of grudge. They were just happy to make a living doing what they love.

This film instantly becomes one of four documentaries highly recommended for those who want to better understand the music biz. Group it with Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), Muscle Shoals (2013), and Oscar winner Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) to form an 8 hour education and history of popular music over the past three generations.

**NOTE: Kent Hartman released a book entitled “The Wrecking Crew” that provides additional detail; however, it is not affiliated with Denny Tedesco’s film.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAST FIVE YEARS (2015)

February 12, 2015

last 5 years Greetings again from the darkness. Adapting a hit stage production to the big screen is always a bit challenging. When it’s a full blown musical, the challenge grows exponentially. Throw in a highly unusual story-telling structure and limit 99% of the screen time to two characters and, well, a filmmaker is either off-the-charts ambitious or one who truly enjoys suffering for art.

Director Richard LaGravenese (P.S. I Love You) brings the hit off-Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown to the screen, and features Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as Cathy and Jamie, respectively. Ms. Kendrick has become the go-to actress for musicals with Into the Woods (as Cinderella) and the Pitch Perfect movies. She is a wonderful singer and a fine actress. Mr. Jordan is best known for TV’s “Smash” and for “Newsies” on Broadway.  He too is a talented singer.

Surprisingly, it’s not the talented leads that provide the most interest here … it’s the story structure. As per the title, the story follows the couple’s relationship over a five year period. The opening scene features Cathy reading and reacting to the break-up note left by Jamie. The second scene features Jamie describing his joy when he first falls for Cathy, as they romp in bed. See, Cathy’s story goes from the end to the beginning, while Jamie’s story goes from the beginning to the end … intersecting only at the marriage proposal in the park.  It’s a fascinating way to tell a story – not just two perspectives, but also in reverse order of each other!

The song lyrics act as the dialogue, and that’s where the transition from stage to screen falls a bit short. While the lyrics are clever and adequately describe each relationship change, those same lyrics and the non-stop singing, prevent the viewers from ever connecting to the characters … and more importantly, prevent us from understanding how these two characters ever connected to each other. Rather than a love story, it comes across as a moment of passion that turns into a relationship between two people who don’t have much in common and don’t particularly care for each other. And the real crux of the tension stems from Jamie’s skyrocketing novel writing career versus Cathy’s going-nowhere-but-Ohio acting career.

Cathy starts sad and ends happy, while Jamie starts happy (he found a Shiksa princess!) and finds a way to end his misery (writing a Dear Jane note). It’s Sunset to Sunrise, and Sunrise to Sunset. The “goodbye” finale is very creative and well done. This unusual story structure is quite interesting, and the lyrics are sharp … it’s the lack of spirit in the music, and the 90 minutes of the same two voices that prevent this from being something special.

watch the trailer:

 


INTO THE WOODS (2014)

December 23, 2014

 

into the woods Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a musical, but not a typical musical. It’s a fairy tale, but not a typical fairy tale. It’s funny, but not a typical comedy. It’s a bit frightening, but not a typical monster film. It’s filled with lessons of morality and responsibility, but certainly not a typical parable. In fact, there is nothing typical about director Rob Marshall’s (Oscar winner for Chicago) screen adaptation of the smash Broadway hit from Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine.

The story revolves around 4 classic Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, in a style much more similar in tone to the edgy Brothers Grimm, than the cuddly Walt Disney traditionals. These four are intertwined with the saga of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who discover they have been unable to have children due to a long ago spell cast by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep). With a secret agenda, the witch offers the couple a way to break the spell, and that’s what ties-in the four tales and provides a reason for adventure and song.

Filmed seamlessly between an elaborate sound stage and a couple of park locations, the film has a dark and eerie feel to it that’s probably too intense for younger children. And much of the dialogue and lyrics is aimed directly at adults and will be a blur to kids. Additionally, in typical Sondheim fashion, the songs aren’t catchy and melodic in the manner of most movie musicals … instead the lyrics propel the story and help shape the characters. Oh, and by the way, don’t expect any fancy dance sequences – this is pretty serious stuff with plenty of angst amongst the characters.

Ms. Streep is extraordinary as the witch (both nasty and beautiful) and does a terrific job with her three main songs. She is especially fun in her entrances and exits, and while wearing the most impactful of all the costumes. Emily Blunt also handles her vocals very well and offers up some of the film’s most witty dialogue. Chris Pine (as the Prince) is flat out hilarious, and with a twinkle in his eye, spouts lines such as “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”. He also shares the screen with Billy Magnussen (playing the younger brother) in the most audacious of the musical numbers, “Agony”. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick once again proves she is an exceptionally talented singer, and James Cordon anchors the production as the nice guy village baker we are rooting for.

In supporting roles, we have a devilish Johnny Depp whose screen time as the Big Bad Wolf is quite limited, and a perfectly cast Christine Baranski as the evil step-mother in cahoots with her non-Cinderella daughters played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard. Lilla Crawford is Little Red Riding Hood, and her young age snuffs out much of the innuendo that the Wolf scenes should have provided, and takes the edge off the song “I Know Things Now”. Daniel Huddlestone is an energetic Jack, and dependable Tracey Ullman plays his frustrated mom. MacKenzie Mauzy captures the awakening of Rapunzel, while Frances de la Tour frightens everyone involved as the agitated (for good reason) Lady Giant.

Unconventional is the best description of this production, and there is a group of viewers who will be totally captivated by it, while a much larger group will probably find it too dark and bleak, and lacking the easy charm we have come to expect from movie musicals. However, for those of us in the first group, we will be totally enchanted by the characters, story lines, wry humor, costumes, sets, and songs.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your fairy tales a bit on the dark side OR you want to see yet another incredible performance from Meryl.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a light-hearted holiday matinee for the little kiddies

watch the trailer:

 


A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL (Theater review, 2014)

December 9, 2014

** Theater review – this site is normally reserved for movies, but since the touring stage musical of one of my favorite movies is playing in Dallas, it seems like a good fit.

a christmas story musical Bob Clark’s 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd’s novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has become a precious Christmas tradition not just for my family, but also countless others. The Broadway musical received three Tony nominations in 2013 (including Best Musical) and when the touring production was announced as part of the Dallas Summer Musicals 75th season lineup, it was certain to become one of its most popular.

What a joy to watch the pre-show sea of smiling ticketholders jostling to have their picture taken with a glass case display in the theatre lobby. The featured attraction was one of three original “leg lamps” used in the movie … direct from the private collection of Dallas Summer Musicals President and Managing Director Michael Jenkins. This set the mood for a most delightful presentation of a familiar story presented in a manner most of us had not previously experienced.

A film-to-stage adaptation is made more challenging when transitioned into a musical format. The music and lyrics were written for Broadway by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the songs bring a nice, upbeat touch without disturbing the flow of the story. Chris Carsten plays the Jean Shepherd role, and instead of an unseen movie narrator, he is an active stage participant intertwined through many scenes. With a voice more reminiscent of Brian Doyle Murray than Jean Shepherd, it takes awhile for us to adjust, but Carsten’s animated descriptions are a real asset to the production.

Of course we all know what really matters … Ralphie Parker and the outrageous situations he and his family find themselves. For this show, Ralphie was played by Evan Gray (rotating shows with Coulten Maurer), and his slightly clumsy movements were effective for the comedy moments, and his singing voice was sufficient and consistent throughout the show. Christopher Swan as The Old Man sounded remarkably similar to Darren McGavin at times, while Cal Alexander was spot on as little Randy, especially when screaming “I can’t get up!” in a very popular scene. Susannah Jones was a real standout as The Mother, and her beautiful and soothing singing voice perfectly complemented the sweet demeanor necessary for the role.

The musical numbers benefited from a very talented group of youngsters, and the fact that the songs helped push along the story. The “A Major Award” song and dance sequence seemed to last a couple minutes longer than necessary, and that was probably because it was missing kids through most of it. Miss Shields (played wonderfully by Avital Asuleen) had an explosive and slightly seductive dance that was a bit uncomfortable to watch given the close proximity of the kids, but it was quickly forgiven as the “On Santa’s Lap” portion was colorful and lively and hilarious.

Somehow, most of the iconic moments were captured on stage: the pink bunny pj’s, the triple dog dare on the playground, Higbee’s display window, the furnace battle, Scut Farkus, and of course the leg lamp/major award. The Chinese restaurant scene is a bit awkward these days and probably should be re-written to avoid the racist tone, but we were treated to live bloodhounds romping across the stage as the Bumpus pups, and the presence of the Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200 shot Range Model with a compass in the stock kept Ralphie’s dream alive.

Matt Lenz takes over the direction from Broadway’s John Rando, and Jordan Sparks handles Warren Carlyle’s crisp choreography. The orchestra performed well throughout, and a couple of the kids were exceptional in their tap solos. At the core of the story, and what allows so many to connect, is the nostalgia associated with simpler times and life as a kid combined with the heartfelt emotions that go with being a parent. It seems we all dream of a major award, but what we really want is for our family to be happy … and that’s true whether on a movie screen or through singing on a theatrical stage. HO-HO-HO!!

If you want more information on Dallas Summer Musicals, visit: http://www.dallassummermusicals.org/