THE BEATLES: GET BACK (2021, doc)

November 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a lot of Beatles. The three episodes total more than 7 hours of run time. It will be likely be too much for most folks. Not for me. In fact, I envy Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson, who got to go through every minute of 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio from the 1969 sessions that led to the “Let it Be” album and documentary, as well as the band’s infamous rooftop live performance atop Apple Studios. The 1970 film won the band an Oscar for best original music, but unfortunately, that 42 minutes on the rooftop would be their final public live performance as The Beatles.

For those who have seen the 1970 documentary LET IT BE, you are aware of the discord amongst the band members during the sessions, but Peter Jackson’s project shows us there was much more to the story: pressure, expectations, creative forces, doubt, friendship, young men changing, and plenty of laughter and joking. And cigarettes. An incredible number of cigarettes. Keep in mind that even though they were the biggest band in the world, these lads from Liverpool still only ranged in age from the youngest, George at 25, to the oldest, John at 28.

One thing we notice is that there was a very small group involved with the daily activities. Outside of the band members, the faces we see most are Music Producer George Martin, the band’s long-time assistant Mal Evans, and renowned Sound Engineer Glyn Johns. It’s not really discussed here, but despite all the work we see Mr. Johns perform over the 22 days, it was Phil Spector who ended up with the production credit on the album. The director of the LET IT BE documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is seen quite a bit in the first two episodes, although he’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. Film Producer Denis O’Dell initially sets the band up at Twickenham Film Studios, which he rented as the location for his upcoming zany comedy THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN starting Peter Sellers and, yes, Ringo Starr. It’s this movie that has the Beatles on such a tight schedule, and it’s at Twickenham where Peter Jackson’s film kicks off.

PART 1 (2 hours, 34 minutes) provides a quick history of the band, dating back to 1956 when John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed The Quarrymen and invited George Harrison to join as a guitarist. There is a clip of the band performing at The Cavern, and a note on how Brian Epstein became the band’s manager. It was 1963 when George Martin began producing the band and that’s they year they hit #1 in Britain, kicking off Beatlemania. The following year took them to the United States for the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was 1966 when the band faced the backlash over John’s comment about “being more popular than Jesus.” That was also the year when the band decided against future tours, choosing instead to focus on studio work and albums. 1968 brought the death of Brian Epstein at age 32, and the infamous trip to India, where they spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So here they are in January 1969, with the goal of writing, rehearsing, and recording 14 songs, and then performing live over about a three week period.

Director Jackson uses the 22 days as a framing structure, going day-by-day to track the progress. Day 1 is kind of a feeling-out day as the band checks out the studio. Day 2 finds Paul in business mode, as the other band members poke fun at the Fan Club publication. Day 3 delivers the familiar setting of George being “annoyed” by Paul, but it’s Day 4 where “Get Back” is born, “Across the Universe” is introduced, and a terrific then-and-now montage of “Rock and Roll Music”. Day 5 gives us “I Me Mine”, as the band discusses ideas for the live show, and we learn code names for Ringo (Russian) and George (France). Day 6 finds Linda Eastman (not yet married to Paul) snapping photos in the studio while the band works on “The Long and Winding Road”, and “Let it Be.”. Day 7 is critical, as we get more “Get Back”, numerous mentions of Eric Clapton, and George leaving the band with “See ya’ in the clubs.” This is when we are subjected to our first Yoko Ono banshee screams. She has been attached to John’s hip for most every minute.

This first episode provides us our first look as the band works out songs on the fly. Ringo keeps amazing rhythm, while remaining mostly quiet. George’s insecurity and annoyance with his role (and Paul’s bossing) is beyond obvious (resulting in his leaving), and the band’s uncertainty about the best direction for the live performance is a bit unsettling. Despite all of that, it’s truly fascinating and humbling to watch and listen as they create the rough early versions of songs that we now know so well.

PART 2 (2 hours, 12 minutes) is probably my favorite episode of the three. For Day 8, with George having quit the band, Ringo is the first to show up as flowers are delivered for George from the Hare Krishnas. We eavesdrop as Paul (with Linda in tow) analyze the John and Yoko relationship, and we are privy to a secret conversation between John and Paul regarding George and the band. The rest of the day is spent rehearsing 3 songs, including Paul and John brainstorming fine-tuning “Get Back” lyrics. Day 9 has Peter Sellers stopping by – and likely wondering what the heck kind of mess he’s wandered into. This is Paul’s day to be irritated and stating they can’t go on like this. Day 10 reports on the band’s meeting at George’s house, which results in his return to the band and a shift from Twickenham studios to the Apple Studios on Savile Row, This throws a delay into things, and makes Day 11 a lost day.

Day 12 has the four band members back recording, despite technological challenges and a scathing article on the band in local publications. It’s this day when we hear an amazing version of “I Dig a Pony”, followed by “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “Don’t Let Me Down”, and “She came in through the Bathroom Window” (which would end up on Abbey Road). On Day 13, John recalls the Martin Luther King Jr speech, and the band gets a jolt of energy from keyboardist Billy Preston. Watching them perform “I’ve Got a Feeling” is pure musical joy. Day 14 stars strangely with more Yoko banshee screams, and Maxwell’s anvil is in the middle of the room, while the band solidifies the “Get Back” single. Day 15 offers discussions of Billy Preston as the 5th Beatle, while we get a Pattie Harrison sighting, and performances of “Two of Us” and “Polythene Pam.” Day 16 includes flashbacks to the trip to India, George working on “For You Blue”, the band’s first look at the rooftop, and early work on “Let it Be”. Once again, watching the creativity in action is simply mesmerizing.

PART 3 (2 hours, 19 minutes) begins on Day 17, which is only 3 days until the rooftop performance. George is assisting Ringo with writing “Octopus’s Garden”, which will end up on the Abbey Road album. Linda’s young daughter Heather bounces around the studio, and we can all relate to her cringing at Yoko’s latest banshee scream. We see John go hard on “Dig it”, while the band spends a great deal of time jamming to their favorite classics. These are musicians collaborating on the music they love – and enjoying every bit. Day 18 has George running through “Old Brown Shoe”, and John and Yoko celebrate her divorce being final. With Alan Parsons in the booth, the band goes through many takes of “Get Back”. On Day 19, George begins early work on “Something”, which would be featured on the Abbey Road album, and they wrap up the “Don’t Let Me Down” recording. With the live performance scheduled for tomorrow, Paul and John have a serious discussion about the payoff for all of this work. Is an album and one live show enough, if there is no TV special? As Paul’s brother Michael watches, we can’t help but think Paul was really hoping for another tour – one that would never happen.

Day 21, January 30, is when the rooftop performance actually happens. There are 10 cameras in place, 5 of which are on the roof with the band. Most of us have seen these performances, but director Jackson includes some of the ‘second takes’. The band opens with two takes of “Get Back”, followed by “Don’t Let Me Down”, “I’ve Got a Feeling”, “One After 909”, “Dig a Pony”, and second takes of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Don’t Let Me Down”. Included here are some of the interviews from folks on the street, and we see the cops who are unsure how to handle the noise complaints. What’s obvious and thrilling is that John’s and Paul’s voices are in prime form, and the band is truly enjoying doing what they do better than any other band … despite the cold London weather. You can sense their pride as they head to the booth for the playback. Day 22 is the Final Day, and the band finishes the mostly acoustic recordings for the album.

Over the three episodes, we hear bits and pieces of more than 100 songs, and we witness the collaboration and tribulations of a band that reached heights of popularity previously unimaginable (remember Elvis never performed in the UK). It’s quite a privilege to witness artists at work during the creative process. Tension and disagreements are to be expected, and yes, they did occur. Perhaps those tensions drove the individuals to be even more creative and better at their craft. Regardless of your thoughts on this, one thing is certain … The Beatles “passed the audition”.

Now streaming on Disney+

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TICK, TICK … BOOM! (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson’s name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, “Rent”, but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”).

Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson’s “30/90” song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It’s important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene – people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical “Superbia”, which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.

Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon’s writer’s block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren’t sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it’s the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it’s clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.

Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon’s dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against ‘selling out’ that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write “Rent”, but this film doesn’t cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.

Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon’s agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda … with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It’s an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.

Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19, 2021

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BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND: THE LEGENDARY 1979 NO NUKES CONCERTS (2021, doc)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness (on the edge of town). The old adage goes, “Music soothes the savage beast”. But what if it’s the savage beast playing the music? Let’s go back more than 40 years to 1979. In March, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident occurred, sending shockwaves through the U.S. An activist group of musicians led by Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and others founded MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) and scheduled concerts for awareness. The concerts were better known as “No Nukes”, and were followed up by a best-selling album and videos. Performing at two of the Madison Square Garden concerts in September were Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band. All these years later, Springsteen has re-mastered the original footage and packaged it as a remarkable and breathtaking 90 minute concert film that is a must-see for any Bruce fans of yesterday or today.

Lest you think I am an objective reviewer on this one, you should know that I caught Bruce and the E Street Band on December 7, 1978, near the end of their last tour prior to the No Nukes shows. That night in Austin remains the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience – musically speaking. Those special memories came flooding back as I watched this 90 minute film. The raw power, sheer energy, and pure joy emanating from the stage is truly something to behold … oh, and the music was incredible.

This is much less a documentary than a concert film, but it’s certainly a different level than what we typically see in a concert film. The cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, had already won two Oscars for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) and BOUND FOR GLORY (1976) and had been nominated for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). I counted six cameras, but it’s possible fewer cameras were used and instead moved around between the two nights of shows that are blended here.

Keep in mind this was filmed two years before MTV was founded, so even his biggest fans hadn’t seen much film or video of Springsteen to this point. His reputation was built on legendary live performances, and his two most recent albums “Born To Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. This was also pre-Patty Scialfa and pre-Nils Lofgren. The music is straight-ahead, driving rock ‘n roll – five years before Bruce lapsed into “Dancing in the Dark” and became a global superstar, rather than a cult phenomenon. To this point, he had not been viewed as an activist, so his participation in the No Nukes concerts was a jackpot for the organizers, but also a turning point for Springsteen as a spokesperson on social issues (and politics).

Below is the 13 song playlist, and since this is a blend of the two nights, the easiest way to spot the difference is by Clarence’s outfit: one night he’s wearing a red suit, and the other night he’s wearing a white one. What you also notice is the athleticism and stamina of Bruce and Clarence as they bound around the stage – including the back amps to occasionally play for those seated behind the stage.

  1. Prove it All Night – (hard rock opener, setting the tone)
  2. Badlands – breakneck tempo (dedication to No Nukes volunteers)
  3. Promised Land – the third straight song from “Darkness”
  4. The River – (Bruce’s sister in the audience, written for her)
  5. Sherry Darling – (second song from “The River”, released a year later)
  6. Thunder Road – (this kicks off a string of fan favorites)
  7. Jungleland – (Roy, Steve, Clarence shine)
  8. Rosalita – (Bruce introduces the band)
  9. Born to Run – (the anthem)
  10. Stay – (Jackson Brown, Tom Petty, Rosemary Butler on stage)
  11. Detroit Medley – Devil with a Blue Dress, Good Golly Miss Molly, CC Rider, Jenny Jenny
  12. Quarter to 3 – (the Gary US Bonds hit)
  13. Rave On – the Buddy Holly cover plays over the credits

It was May of 1974 when music critic Jon Landau wrote, “I saw Rock and Roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Landau’s words proved prophetic (and he went on to become Bruce’s longtime manager). Very few performers have ever connected to a live audience the way Springsteen did in those days. Sure, there’s some comedic shtick on stage: “That’s all I can stand …”, before he screams, “I’m just a prisoner … of Rock n Roll”. The fact is, many of us were prisoners of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band, and this film is the best opportunity for others to understand.  

AVAILABLE FOR DIGITAL PURCHASE ON NOVEMBER 16 AND DIGITAL RENTAL ON NOVEMBER 23


FALLING FOR FIGARO (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many Opera singer-Romantic Comedies, so that alone made this one worth checking out. Writer-director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) co-wrote the script with Allen Palmer (his first feature film) and cast the film perfectly, while also gifting us an inordinate amount of beautiful singing voices, as well as a uniquely picturesque setting in the Scottish Highlands.

Danielle Macdonald (PATTI CAKE$, 2017) stars as Millie, an American who has been living in London, and establishing herself as a highly successful fund manager. After an evening at the opera with her boyfriend (and co-worker) Charlie (Shazad Latif, “Penny Dreadful”), Millie makes a life-altering decision. Rather than accept a big promotion at work, she’s going to sacrifice her career and follow her dream of becoming an opera singer. Of course, as with most rom-coms, none of this really makes much sense. Rather than compare this to reality, it’s best to enjoy the fun parts (and there are plenty) and disregard the rest.

Those fun parts begin once Millie leaves London and lands in the Scottish Highlands. Her first comical interaction is with the proprietor of The Filthy Pig played by Gary Lewis (GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002). This only pub in the village also serves as its only restaurant and motel. More zaniness ensues as Millie auditions for Megan Geoffrey-Bishop (a terrific Joanna Lumley, “Absolutely Fabulous”), a “retired” singing teacher who once made her own mark on the stage. Her only current pupil is Max (Hugh Skinner, LES MISERABLES, 2002), a local who has been training for years. Max and Millie have the same goal – qualify for the ‘Singer of Renowned’ competition. So we immediately know where this is headed … and sure enough, it does.

While much of the story focuses on the ‘will they or won’t they’ connection between Millie and Max, it’s Ms. Lumley who steals every scene she’s in. Her theory that opera singers must suffer is part of her curriculum for both of her students. At first we aren’t sure whether she’s just taking Millie’s money because she needs it, but that answer comes soon enough. The actual competition is packed with amazing singing voices, and the three-way love story follows many of the rom-com clichés – though we don’t seem to care because Millie and Max are so torn between their dream and each other, and Ms. Lumley just keeps cracking wise.

Of course we know that opera singers train most of their lives for competitions and stage roles, so it’s absurd to think that a fund manager can take a year off work and reach this level. But again, this isn’t about reality. No, this is about Millie singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” like you’ve never heard it before. It’s about “fish and chips without the vinegar”. It’s about not wanting to rent a room because the floor would need to be mopped. It’s about opening your heart and chasing a passion – following a dream. And we can all use a little of that right now.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning October 1, 2021

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THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch and Fred Armisen collaborated on a contemporary reimagining of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)? Well, me neither, and that has not happened. But it’s the closest I can come to giving you some idea of this meta-comedy concept film from director Bill Benz and co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and St Vincent.

We are told that initially singer-songwriter-musician St Vincent has asked her friend Carrie Brownstein to direct a documentary on the singer and her tour. Brownstein envisions a blend of concert and offstage footage so that fans get to know the “real” St Vincent. It turns out the real St Vincent is Annie Clark, a woman who plays Scrabble and video games, and loves to shop for radishes at local Farmers Markets. The contrast between St Vincent’s onstage red guitar riffs, giant video screen, leather outfits and her offstage calm personality is not just stark, but actually a bit boring.

Boring is not what Brownstein has in mind and it creates a rift between the two women, and flips a switch for St Vincent. The musician goes overboard in trying to manufacture the typical rock star image of cool and aloof. Brownstein is frustrated not just with the artificiality of the new approach, but also in the expanding distance between the two friends. Some of the vignettes are quite humorous – in a surreal way. St Vincent stages an intimate scene in her bedroom with a scantily clad Dakota Johnson, and then another sequence features St Vincent’s “family” in a scene right out of “Hee-Haw”.

The satire on public vs private life is a topic worthy of discussion. Often it’s the fans who feel entitled to know more about their icons, while other times it’s the celebrities who are trying to cultivate a public image and garner some extra publicity. In this era of social media, the bigger the personality – the more outlandish – the more publicity and the more followers.

Director Benz’s film drags a bit in the middle, and the final act turns somewhat surreal as Brownstein and St Vincent both have their lapses from reality. Both seem to be confused about their public persona vs real life, so it begins to mimic what’s happened with the original documentary concept. There is a terrific scene involving St Vincent singing on stage and working her way through red velvet stage curtains, but for the most part this isn’t a biting satire – it’s more like a soft-touch. The “Portlandia” connection is clear throughout (Benz, Brownstein, St Vincent) but I’m not sure the film is cohesive enough (mockumentary? wry comedy? satire?) for a mass audience … it might work best as midnight madness.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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ANNETTE (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected … experiencing something we’ve never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive – beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all – the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that’s quite a different topic.

A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it’s probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it’s confoundingly difficult to define or describe.

The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs “So May We Start?” Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, “Breathing will not be tolerated”, which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.

Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as ‘The Ape of God’ and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that’s best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he ‘moons’ his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.

Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He’s a tortured soul – the kind that doesn’t believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet “We Love Each Other So Much” has the most unusual timing that you’ll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard’s talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film’s weight is carried by Mr. Driver.

After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and “Baby Annette”. To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg’s role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character’s past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let’s use ‘fantastical’ instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it’s all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax’s daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don’t want to end. And that’s about all that should be said to preserve the experience.

This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021

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THE SPARKS BROTHERS (2021, doc)

June 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Over the past 5 decades, the number of bands that have broken up is, well, almost all of them. For two brothers to write songs and perform together over that span, and still be at it in their 70’s is remarkable. Sparks is made up of Ron Mael and younger brother Russell. They’ve published 25 albums with 300 songs, and performed thousands of concerts. Somehow they still like each other, respect each other, and work well together. As unusual as their music is and as strange as their stage show can be, it seems only fitting that their cinematic profile would be directed by Edgar Wright, who is best known for SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2002) and BABY DRIVER (2017). This is his first documentary.

Mr. Wright establishes the necessary unconventional start by having Sparks perform the opening credits. Not a song to open the film, but rather they actually perform the opening credits. We are then introduced to Ron and Russell, and we get some childhood family photos and an explanation about how their artist father taking them to the movies would later influence their work. And other than learning that Ron has a massive snow globe collection, that’s the end of the insight into their personal lives. Normally that would be a mistake, but there is nothing normal about Sparks.

Instead of personal profiles, director Wright opts for a chronological discography – a walk through the band’s timeline of recordings. Each step is punctuated with insight from fellow musicians or celebrities, and clips of the band performing their music from each era. The interviews are filmed in black & white so that the color of the stage performances really pop on screen. Some of those interviewed include producer Todd Rundgren, Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Go’s), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Pamela Des Barres (a musician and, umm, certain other skills), and other musicians who played with Sparks over the years.

Often thought of as a novelty act, Sparks music and shows are filled with humor, but are not a joke. The two brothers have stayed committed to the music and the performances. To cover an extended gap in their career, director Wright utilizes 6 years of “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve”, but more impactful is finding out that they worked on the music every day during those 6 years. The Mael brothers define persistence. The brothers’ desire to break into film music fizzled a couple of times due to Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, but they do appear in the 1977 thriller ROLLERCOASTER.

Songwriter Ron is the brother with the Hitler/Chaplin mustache, while singer Russell was the matinee idol in the early years. They are referred to as the “Best British group to come out of America”, and their musical influence can be traced to many more popular bands. A collaboration with Franz Ferdinand pushed their creativity, but it’s an outlandish 21 shows in a row, each featuring a different album performed live that may best define their love of music and performance (and stamina). So while Mr. Wright offers zip in regards to their personal lives, the abundance of live performance clips and the quite funny Sparks “Facts” over the closing credits make this a documentary worth watching (even with its 140 minute run time).

In theaters June 18, 2021

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THE PROM (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story” has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it’s a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi’s, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what’s needed to revamp their careers is a ‘cause celebre’. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep’s campy “Not About Me” a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman’s Fosse-esque “Zazz”. Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren’t many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it’s likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps – complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It’s a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way.

Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020

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HAMILTON (movie, 2020)

July 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. You know what it’s like when people start talking about some great new restaurant that just opened (think back to pre-pandemic)? And then you start to hear your friends and co-workers raving about it … best ‘steamed broccoli’ (ok, insert your favorite entrée) I’ve ever tasted! Having been burned many times with high expectations, you remain skeptical, but make the reservation. Well, that’s been me with “Hamilton.” For almost 5 years, the hype was just too much. Surely folks were caught up in the frenzy, and peer pressure was such that no one would admit it wasn’t all that. So, now I’m here … throwing myself at the mercy of the Theater Gods. Thanks to Disney Plus, I only needed to invest a little (ok, a lot) of time, rather than a few hundred dollars for a ticket. This is me humbly admitting I was wrong. The show is fantastic, and I only wish my first viewing had been a live performance.

Unfortunately (because of what I mentioned above) this can’t be a comparison of a live stage performance and the film version. Instead, this will briefly outline what I noticed in the movie. First, and I believe this is key, the original stage director Thomas Kail is back to direct the film. It should be noted that the film version is a blend of a couple of recorded live shows, plus some recorded songs seamlessly edited in. This is the original cast doing what they do best, and the edits are imperceptible. Second, the main cast is filled with dynamic performers. In many stage shows, one or two actors are head and shoulders above the others. Not so here. At a minimum the top seven actors are as skilled and fun to watch as any you’ve seen. Third, this is a true musical in that the songs drive the story. Some of the early songs require serious concentration to catch the lines, but even if you miss some lyrics, the gist of what’s happening is pretty clear. These aren’t so much catchy sing-along types, but you’ll easily recall the scenes when you hear the songs again at a later date. We see a perfect melding of music-performance-story.

Of course most everyone knows that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creative force behind the show. He credits writer Ron Chernow’s book on Alexander Hamilton as the inspiration for the production, but it’s Mr. Miranda that appeared on every talk show for a couple of years, and he also performs as Alexander Hamilton. Daveed Diggs has dual roles as the flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette and the equally flamboyant (at least here) Thomas Jefferson. Renee Elise Goldsberry takes over the stage with her powerful voice as Angelica Schuyler, and Chris Jackson is a dominating physical presence as George Washington. Jonathan Groff (from “Mindhunter”) is absolutely hysterical and unforgettable as King George III, both through song and strut. Everyone will have their favorite performers, and truly they are all exceptional, and I’d like to point out the two that took my breath away. Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton has a pristine voice that will bring tears to many eyes. She may not be as involved with the political elements of the story, but in the most emotional moments, she is front and center. Lastly, the passion Leslie Odom Jr brings to his role as Adam Burr is beyond description. He may be the “villain”, but he makes Burr accessible and easy to understand … plus Odom is a terrific singer and performer, and he lights up the stage.

It’s easy to overlook the dance and stage choreography since it’s never over-the-top, but the dancers are terrific and the performers make great use of the single set – although props are regularly brought in and taken away. Perhaps what really makes this click as movie entertainment is the expert use of cameras and editing. We see the full stage when we should, and we are offered close-ups when it’s most effective. I do hope to catch the live show at some point, but if my Hamilton experience is limited to this cinematic version, well … “that would be enough.”

available on DISNEY PLUS

watch the trailer:

 


THE BAND’S VISIT (stage musical, 2020)

February 6, 2020

***NOTE: I don’t often post stage reviews, but since this one is adapted from a 2007 movie, I’m bending the rules

 “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.” This memorable line works not only for the story, but also holds true as a review of the stage production. When we think of Tony Award winning musicals, we tend to think big and loud, with elaborate and ostentatious set design. Full disclosure: In 2008, I became a fan of writer-director Eran Kolirin’s film version, and in 2017 the stage musical version, with a script Itamar Moses adapted (from Kolirin’s screenplay) and music from David Yazbek moved to Broadway. It won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and then won a Grammy for Best Theatre Musical Album. So yes, that’s one of the beautiful things we didn’t expect.

When the lights first come up, it’s 1996 and we see the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra waiting apprehensively at the bus station for a ride that is apparently not coming. They have arrived in Israel from Egypt, after being invited to play at the Grand Opening of the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka. Thanks to the language barrier, they instead find their way to Bet Hativka  … “with a B” instead of “with a P”. A tiny desert town in Israel offers up only confusing looks from the locals to go with welcome hospitality. Dina, the café owner, arranges a place for each of the band members to sleep that night, and her own personal guest is Tewfiq, the band’s dignified leader.

Janet Dacal has taken over the role of Dina from Katrina Lenk (Broadway) and Chilina Kennedy (first national tour). It’s a challenging character because Dina is a tough-talking local who still harbors hope of a fulfilling relationship. In other words, her hard shell protects the warm and open heart of a romantic. Additionally, Dina is responsible for bringing energy and spirit to the stage as most of her scenes are with Tewfiq, one of the more reserved stage characters you’ve seen. Sasson Gabay has reprised his excellent silver screen role as Tewfiq (played by Tony Shalhoub on Broadway), and he perfectly embodies a man weighted with an internal burden of grief, as well as the added responsibility of proudly representing his country.

Everything takes place over the course of one night. It’s not so much a story as it is a display of human connection. There is no real clash of cultures. No, these are simply people dealing with the situation. The mundane existence of the small town locals have varying reactions to the strangers wearing powder blue uniforms and toting instruments. Ah yes, the music. Rather than overblown showstoppers, the 12 songs and score coax us through the interactions. Dina’s “Omar Sharif” is not only a catchy tune, but one that bonds her with Tewfiq. “Papi Hears the Ocean” may be the most humorous of the songs, and it’s immediately followed by the touching “Haled’s Song About Love.” Themes of humor (including a running Chet Baker gag) and love run throughout, but keep in mind, this is mostly a subdued, intimate show featuring human moments between characters.

The circular, revolving stage works brilliantly for the simple sets of this simple town. The depth comes from the characters, and sometimes what is implied is more powerful than what is said. The production is from director David Cromer (also from the Broadway run), and the show runs a little more than 90 minutes with no intermission. We are informed twice that the band’s visit wasn’t important, and maybe they are right … this was “Something Different.” In contrast to the tone of the band’s overnight stay, it’s that finale concert that brings the crowd to their feet. We get to see the musicians do what they love. It’s quite a treat.

In Dallas at the Winspear Opera House, the show will have a two-week run with Dallas Summer Musicals (February 4-16, 2020), and then an additional week through AT&T Performing Arts Center (February 18-23, 2020)