FOOTNOTES (Sur qued piel danser, France, 2017)

July 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. On the heels of success experienced by LA LA Land, and “inspired by the films of Jacques Demy and Stanley Donen”, co-writers and co-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut find the right fit with this whimsical musical-comedy that puts coming-of-age and social commentary on equal footing.

Pauline Etienne stars as Julie, an eager, hardworking young lady who flip-flops between odd jobs (McJobs) just trying to make ends meet in a tough French economy. When she secures a job as a stocker in a high-profile shoe (not footwear) factory, Julie is determined to buckle down, not step on toes, win over her stern supervisor (Clementine Yelnik), and finally get her life in order. Unfortunately, there are rumors of an upgrade, which in the world of corporate management double-speak means downsizing, or even closing the factory. Julie then spends most of the movie treading lightly between romance, a gruff boss, and her activist co-workers.

This is not the kind of musical where the singing voices, original songs or dancing will knock your socks off, but it all relates to the story and nothing seems forced. Feeling threatened, the factory ladies step up their game by singing “Let’s Fight Back” with some creative choreography that makes good use of the warehouse space. One of the delivery drivers (Olivier Chantreau) takes a shine to Julie, even though the boss assumes she is behind the workers’ strike and tries to boot her from the job.

Luic Corbery plays the smarmy CEO whose polished misleading statements are laced with charm as he attempts to re-buff the angry protests from the factory workers; all the while scheming to move operations to lower-cost China. With female solidarity and empowerment around her, Julie must decide if she will be the sole outlier, or if this is her chance to find her true self. It’s in these scenes where Ms. Etienne’s real-person screen presence spikes the story with the well-meaning persona that makes us care.

The working class dream of a better life is a constant throughout, though the ending is a bit disappointing given what we have watched Julie trudge through. The choreography is not flashy or polished, but rather low key and meaningful. There is a touch of the classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (including a song/dance featuring multi-colored umbrellas), and although it’s not at that level, it nonetheless is an admirable and enjoyable film. It should be noted that the original title Julie and the Shoe Factory does not quite take advantage of the wordplay offered by the English title.

watch the trailer:

 


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


LET IT BE: A CELEBRATION OF THE MUSIC OF THE BEATLES

March 10, 2017

Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park

March 8, 2017

This is one of my rare forays from the big screen to the big stage. The touring production of this world famous musical came to Dallas, and will soon play Ft Worth before heading off to the next stop.

 The Beatles’ first big UK hit was in 1962 (“Love Me Do”) and their first U.S. tour occurred in 1964. The band’s final live performance was in 1969 on a rooftop in London, and they officially broke up in 1970. During this unprecedented run (and since), The Beatles sold more records than any band in history, and changed the face and sound of popular music at least a couple of times. Because of this unparalleled success and popularity, it’s not surprising that the band and its music have now generated THREE stage productions – Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles, Beatlemania, and most recently, Let it Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles.

Revamped after successful runs in London’s West End and on Broadway, this touring version is split into two parts: Act 1 hits some of the highlights of the band’s career, while Act 2 provides a look at what might have been – a reunion of the band in 1980. One could describe this as ‘What was’ versus ‘What if?’.

Kicking off with the first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, the familiar music immediately lights the warm fire of nostalgia in the audience. The other segments in this first Act include the Shea Stadium concert, the Sgt Pepper era, and finally Abbey Road – replete with a barefoot Paul. What is immediately apparent is that the four lads on stage may not closely resemble the original band in looks, but they certainly are talented musicians and singers. The banter with the audience is not especially a highlight as the exaggerated speaking voices meant to mimic Paul and John are at times cringe-inducing, but this in no way impacts the enjoyment and expert versions of the songs that are permanently imbedded in our DNA.

The difference maker in this show is the ‘What if?’ second Act, as the ultimate fan fantasy occurs – the four lads from Liverpool reunite for a concert on John’s 40th birthday, October 9, 1980. This is ten years after they disbanded, and there are some musical chills as they play a blend of their hits from “the good old days” and meld their talents on songs from their individual projects. Selections include George’s “What is Life”, John’s “Starting Over”, Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy”, and Paul’s “Band on the Run”. There is also “Blackbird” in the stage style of Crosby, Stills and Nash; while John’s “Imagine” truly hits the right note. Though the encore is predictable and necessary and crowd-pleasing, the musical highlight of the show is George’s searing version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

With an emphasis on the music, the stage props were minimal. Either side featured a retro dial radio and television. While the band played, the familiar clips of actual Beatles audiences were shown; during the costume changes, we were treated to music from the era, news clips, and the always good-for-a-laugh Carnation Instant Breakfast commercial. Complementing the fine music were the spot on costumes. Evolving from the early suits, mop-tops and Beatle boots to the spectacular Sgt Pepper psychedelic colors, and culminating in Lennon’s iconic New York City t-shirt, the clothes and facial hair leave no doubt as to the era. Neil Candelora plays Paul with the perfect amount of fake stage pep and constant need for audience feedback, and JT Curtis as George gets to flash his prolific musical expertise periodically while struggling to maintain the mostly still nature of the quiet one. Chris McBurney handles Ringo’s drums with relative ease, and Michael Gagliano adds the Lennon edge necessary to capture the band’s stage presence. It may not be a true “Revolution” but everything does “Come Together” for an extremely fun and crowd-pleasing time.


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: