Tag Archives: movie musicals

TIFF20: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is undoubtedly brilliant. Eccentric. Thoughtful. Electrifying. It would be incredible to crack that skull open and have a poke around inside. And amazingly, without quite comprehending what we’ve done to deserve it, we’ve somehow been allowed to just that, thanks to his 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia. And for those of us who didn’t catch it live, in what I can only assume is divine intervention, Byrne has collaborated with Mr. Spike Lee.

Yeah. This is a Spike Lee Joint.

Based on a recent tour and album of the same name, David Byrne mounts what I can only describe as a fantastic beast, a hybrid part performance, part performance art. It’s a concert, a reflection, a celebration. It starts off thoughtful, contemplative, an intellectual exercise that just happens to be sung. But then he’s joined on stage by a small group of dizzying dancers and intoxicating musicians that inject the stage with a punch of vibrancy and energy that I will take the time to name them all since Byrne did much the same: Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III. All dressed in the same uniform, an unremarkable grey suit, their bare feet pounding the stage, a visceral representation of their grounded exuberance.

Stripped down to just humans and instruments, Spike Lee gives us all the angles – the up highs and the down lows, his camera becoming part of the mesmerizing choreography, part of the show.

It often feels like Spike Lee films are prescient in some way; they always hit the exact right note for today despite having been made yesterday. Byrne manages to strike the same vein with American Utopia, urging us to reevaluate our connections before anyone had seen a global pandemic heading our way. And the way he nudges us toward reckoning with the company we keep, the views we fail to challenge, and the work we still need to do is brought to a head when he borrows from Janelle Monáe for a dynamic, blistering rendition of Hell You Talmbout which asks the audience to say their names – the names of people dead at the hands of racial injustice – which becomes a chant, a memorial, and a plea for change.

Byrne’s show, at times angry, or impassioned, is not a passive experience. Audience members are on their feet, responding to his energy, creating a living, breathing reflection of the moment that Spike Lee seamlessly absorbs and becomes. Fans of David Byrne will no doubt be pleased by the show, but the real testament to its power is that it remains accessible to even complete novices. American Utopia is no mere concert documentary; Spike Lee has managed to take something beautiful and alive and mount it, pinned with loving precision, practically still breathing, for all to admire.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

I will give it this: it is the funniest comedy of 2020. Is it (so far) the only comedy of 2020? Basically yes. But as this movie teaches us: sometimes you win just by showing up.

Lars (Will Farrell) has been obsessed with Eurovision since he was a little boy.

[For us non-Europeans, a crash course in Eurovision Song Contest, which is a real thing: it’s an annual international song competition, held every year since 1956, with participants from many of the 50 eligible countries (confusingly, some eligible countries are not European, and one, Scotland, is not even a country). Like the Olympics, each country holds internal trials and sends their best delegation to the competition, where an original song is to be performed on live TV and radio. Then people vote on their favourite. Countries cannot vote for themselves; each country awards two sets of points, one set decided by a panel of music industry experts, and the second decided by viewers voting by phone and text. Occasionally the winner achieves success outside of the broadcast area; Abba won for Sweden and Celine Dion won for Switzerland *record scratch* wait, what? That’s right: for some reason you don’t have to be from the country you’re representing. Some people compete multiple times by singing for different countries. Dion, who is ours (Canadian), was a good horse to bet on, but it does smack of cheating. Although, to be fair, so does every other thing about the contest. Russia won’t vote for queer performers and China won’t even show them. Jordan won’t show Israeli entries because they don’t recognize it as a country, and neither does Lebanon. And it seems that neighbouring countries tend to vote for each other; geographical and even political alliances pop up, and reciprocal votes are exchanged. You could even allocate points to an unpopular performance in order to boost your own relative success. 2020 was to be the show’s 65th anniversary, with this film’s release set to coincide with it. Alas, COVID has other plans, and for the first time, the contest was cancelled)]

Back to Lars (Will Ferrell), a little Icelandic boy who fell in love with Eurovision the day he first heard Abba sing Waterloo, much to his father’s disapproval. Many, many years later, Lars is now a middle-aged man but his dream is the same. His father’s (Pierce Brosnan) stance hasn’t changed, if anything, he’s more critical of his son’s “wasted life.” But his Fire Saga bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) has more than enough enthusiasm and encouragement to go around, and in their own heads, they’re already stars (the local pub tells an entirely different story, interrupting their original music to request Ja Ja Ding Dong, a silly but exceedingly catchy piece of shit – think of it as Iceland’s Chicken Dance). They’ll never get sent to compete on Eurovision on their own merits, but luckily the elves are on their side and something happens to tie up literally every other singer-songwriter in the country.

Off to Scotland they go: cue some fish out of water humour, some anti-American jabs, an oversexed Russian (Dan Stevens), and some pretty bizarre on-stage theatrics (which apparently are also a real thing – it’s a visual medium, and performers do their utmost to stand out). Iceland is basically the laughing stock of Eurovision.

This is the movie Will Ferrell was born to write. Scratch that: it’s the movie his wife was born for him to write (She’s Swedish – her family introduced him to the contest and he’s followed it rather ardently since 1999). That’s a pretty serious investment. He planted those comedy crops last century – does he harvest the rewards in this movie? Well, not exactly. His family won’t starve to death, but it’s a meager little crop, and a little mealy to boot. Sean thought it was pretty fun, and I won’t deny the film does have its merits. Will Ferrell is a larger than life comedian. His bits are always big so they either fail big or they win big, and with a 2 hour run time, the premise doesn’t quite have enough steam to keep paying out. Still, considering it’s on Netflix, your risk is small. If you’d paid to see this in a theatre, you’d probably leave feeling disappointed, but it’s just good enough for a Netflix view.

This is the second collaboration between director David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. They had no scenes together in Wedding Crashers, in fact Ferrell had a pretty small part, but it was a wildly and unexpectedly successful movie. Perhaps Will Ferrell in small doses is the key here, and it’s one that’s definitely lacking in this prohibitively-long-titled movie. As troubling is his character is, we’re doomed to follow him around through all his lows and lowers. Rachel McAdams is basically inoffensive. She’s not exactly known for her comedic chops, so she provides an earnest counterpoint to Ferrell’s hammy, over-the-top antics. It’s not a match made in heaven. It’s not even a great match for Iceland, whose couplings tend to be a touch inbred. But like the proud and wonderful Icelandic people, this movie is unabashedly, embracingly weird. And like Iceland’s relationship with Europe, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not the best that Netflix has to offer, but occasionally it surprises you.

Valley Girl (2020)

First: a word about Logan Paul. Logan Paul is a Youtube star. “Star.” I know his name but not his content; he’s the brand of entitled-obnoxious that my life doesn’t need so I’ve never seen a single thing he’s done. I do know he’s been controversial, though. The first I heard of him, he’d gone to the suicide forest in Japan in late 2017 and posted a video of the corpse of a recently deceased (hanged) man. Cue uproar, cue “apology.” Youtube gave him a slap on the wrist (with 25M subscribers, their partnership is extremely lucrative to both) but he was back at it just a few weeks later. He’s sexist, he’s homophobic, he’s racist. Basically, he’s a giant douche. Valley Girl director Rachel Lee Goldenberg had the misfortune of casting him in her movie to play…well, a giant douche as it happens. This was in the spring of 2017, before the big controversies started to add up. The film was scheduled for a 2018 release by they scrapped it due to his involvement. This poor movie has languished on some shelf in Hollywood, serving a sentence for crimes committed by a single cast member. So yes, I acknowledge that Logan Paul is a problematic douche nozzle and we all wish he wasn’t in this movie even though he’s actually perfectly cast. With that said, onto the movie.

Yes, this is a remake of the 1983 film of the same name, starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. Foreman played Julie, a perfect, preppie valley girl who falls for a punk (Cage) from the wrong side of the hills. In the 2020 version, Julie is a proper grown up. She (Alicia Silverstone) is a mom now, and she recounts this teenage romance to her daughter.

Cue: the 1980s. Cue the leg warmers, the big hair, the jazzercize, the popped collars. A young Julie (Jessica Rothe) frolics on the beach with her gal pals and then hits up the mall. She’s dating arrogant jock Mickey (Logan Paul) but an edgier guy has grabbed her eye. Randy (Josh Whitehouse) is not a punk, because punk is dead, but if she’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock n roll. Her friends think she’s having a nervous breakdown but as far as rebellious streaks go it’s actually pretty tame – just dreaming of leaving the suburbs and maybe prioritizing a career instead of marriage and motherhood.

2020’s Valley Girl is somehow even more 80s than the original: it’s an homage, a love letter, a glossy, hair sprayed tribute, and in doing so, it’s rounded out the edges and presents a sanitized pop version for your nostalgia cravings. This Valley Girl is a jukebox musical which means every song sung will be one you know; the retro soundtrack includes We Got the Beat, Bad Reputation, Hey Mickey, Call Me, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Kids in America, Just Can’t Get Enough, Material Girl, Safety Dance, Take On Me, Under Pressure, I Melt With You…well, you get the picture. The 80s vibes are strong in this one.

Is this a life-changing movie? No. Is this a great piece of cinema? Still no. But if you’re willing to embrace the cheese, it’s actually quite a bit of fun. And the great thing about the 80s is that you don’t actually have to have lived through them to be nostalgic for them. It feels like the nostalgia was baked right into the decade (and quite possibly Tang flavoured). Play I-Spy during the carefully curated costume party: can you spot Boy George – George Michael – Michael Jackson?

This movie is Grease meets Trolls World Tour meets Romeo and Juliet, but feels like it’s a 90 minute version of those Tiffany videos she used to shoot at the mall. Valley Girl knows what it is and isn’t afraid to lean right in. This is the 80s, turned up to 11.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

Is it fair to say that the best use of the Muppet Movie (1979) may be as palate cleanser?  We found it on Disney+ while in need of something easy, after slogging through The Platform.  Instead of three Care Bears seasons, as recommended by Dr. Jay, we opted for one dose of classic Muppets silliness. The medicine worked well enough; it just tasted a little stale.2004_WC_TheMuppets

The Muppet Movie (1979) tells the origin story of the Muppets, though Kermit the Frog readily admits at the outset that some liberties have been taken. Kermit is discovered singing in a swamp (The Rainbow Connection, naturally) by a big Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise) who has rowed the wrong way.  Turns out, Hollywood is in dire need of frog talent. After a few seconds of deep thought, Kermit decides to move right along to the West Coast to try his luck at stardom, but Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a local purveyor of frog legs, is set on having Kermit be the face of his restaurant chain, dead or alive. As he tries to stay one step ahead of Hopper, Kermit happens upon all your favourite Muppets, who join up with Kermit on his journey, and ultimately make it big enough in Hollywood to star in the very biopic you’re watching.

I am sure the long list of celebrity cameos was top-notch in 1979, as the Muppets have always excelled at drawing other stars into their orbit, and any movie that includes Bob Hope, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin is doing something right. But most of the faces were not familiar to me, and I know they were expected to be (I certainly recognized most of the names once the credits rolled). Admittedly, I am only a few years older than this film, so your mileage may vary, but the Muppets Movie (1979) felt dated for me because so many of the cameos went over my head.

Still, the Muppets have lots to offer on their own, sight gags, silly banter, and especially a great soundtrack that literally propels them on their journey (I dare you to find me a more aptly titled song than Movin’ Right Along). The Muppets Movie (1979) remains an entertaining kids’ movie, but it has lost some of its lustre with age.

Yesterday

The inconceivable has happened. Struggling singer-songwriter Jack (Himesh Patel) has a terrific fan and manager in Ellie (Lily James), but nothing else. His dismal track record and the complete lack of interest from absolutely everyone else on earth has inspired his recent retirement from the scene. He’s done. Ellie isn’t totally keen on his giving up, but there you have it.

And then a bus hits him. And when he wakes up, the world is a slightly (enormously) different place: The Beatles never existed. They’ve been completely erased from history, and it seems Jack is the only one who remembers them. So he gets down to the business of recalling as many of the songs and lyrics as he can, and starts performing them as his own. And he’s lauded as a hero! Even poor Ed Sheeran feels inadequate in his presence.

He blows up. Turns out, some of those songs still hold up, can still impress our jaded 2019 ears. Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let It Be, Here Comes the Sun. Director Danny Boyle secured the rights to so many Beatles songs that it was easier for Sean and I to name the ones that weren’t included than were – you could make a pretty comprehensive Bingo game out of this if you were so inclined.

But the movie doesn’t touch on other important aspects. Wiping out The Beatles would do much more than negate their own catalogue. They’ve had a profound and immeasurable impact on all the music that’s come after them; pop music simply would not have evolved as it has without their contribution. And yet the movie features Ed Sheeran as himself, a singer-songwriter who names The Beatles as his own primary influence.

Himesh Patel is quite exceptional and an excellent choice for Jack. His voice is velvety and buttery – not an imitation of John or Paul, but one that does them justice, allowing the songs to feel familiar while still letting us hear them again for the first time. Still, despite the film’s obvious charm, it doesn’t quite explore all the juiciest nooks and crannies, nor can it reasonably reach the expectations set by the world’s most important and significant band. The film is a strange mash-up of parallel universe and a rom-com. It makes some strange and distracting choices. But it’s still worth a watch, because let’s face it: it’s hard to go wrong with The Beatles.

Rocketman

Elton John has had a life full enough to fill many biopics, but Rocketman shines its spotlight on his most troubled years, as he shot to success and earned the world’s respect and adoration but struggled to know and love himself.

Little Reggie Dwight was a brilliant but shy piano player. His parents were by times abusive and neglectful in their own unique ways, and he retreated into the safe space created by music. As a young man, the self-styled Elton (Taron Egerton) could compose music easily but the lyrics came hard. So his meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) was a special gift from the universe – together, they wrote pop songs that would change and infect the world with catchy, raucous tunes.

Elton developed an on-stage persona that was larger than life: in costume he could be brave, and better still, he could be merry. He could play for thousands despite being torn up inside by grief and self-doubt. He was tormented by the possibility that he would never truly be loved – this, even as he continued to seek the approval from parents who could never give it to him, and affection from a man who would use and abuse him.

Rocketman chronicles both the highs and lows of Elton’s life, whether plumbing the depths of his despair in group therapy or lifting an entire audience off its feet – this latter shown quite literally through the magic of cinema. These fantastical elements really elevate the material beyond the standard biopic and help establish a sense of the unreal. In other parts, the film’s a little draggy, and though his unhappiness is obviously a recurrent theme in his life, I wish it was a little less returned to in the film.

The monstrously successful, deeply conflicted, young, gay addict Elton is brought to life on the big screen by Taron Egerton, doing all his own singing, dancing, wallowing, and dazzling. He may not be his physical twin, but he embodies his spirit and he nails his tight-lipped grin. He manages both the bravura and the pathos, and nails them both.

Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is a bedazzled piece of inventiveness and daring. The movie truly thrills when he embraces his creative vision, translating the highest of emotions into visual delights that pair amazingly well with songs we still want to sing along to. While it’s by no means an exhaustive list of his hits, the movie folds them into itself with purpose and delight. It’s easy to get swept along by this engaging, vulnerable, triumphant story.

The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience

The Lonely Island is a comedy trio consisting of childhood friends Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer. They became known for their popular digital shorts on SNL, many of which, like Lazy Sunday, went viral, for comedic songs like Jack Sparrow, featuring THE Michael Bolton, and for movies like Hot Rod and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. If you like them, you probably love them, and if you love them, you’re in for a treat. Especially if you also have a soft spot for late-1980s-era major league baseball.

The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience is a 30 minute short streaming now on Netflix that’s the supposed never before seen\heard rap collaboration between steroid bash brothers Jose Canseco (Samberg) and Mark McGwire (Schaffer) of the Oakland Athletics. I don’t give two shits about baseball (especially not historical baseball from another century), but Sean did and does and had an especially appreciative chuckle for all the references they got right.

The rap album consists of many memorable musical numbers, literally something for everyone, between such hits as Bikini Babe Workout, IHOP Parking Lot (featuring Maya Rudolph), Oakland Nights (featuring Sia, who looks an awful lot like Sterling K. Brown in a a wig unworthy of the real Sia), and my favourite, Daddy, which explores the mountainous daddy issues behind the Canseco-McGwire shenanigans.

Sean wondered how – not if, but how – high they were when they wrote this stuff. And the answer can only be: extremely. So high. And yet I was sober when I watched it and I still dissolved into fits of giggles (a credit cameo featuring “Joe Montana” had me gasping for breath). It’s light-hearted and doesn’t dare take itself serious for a single split second. The narrow theme of the “visual poem” (a la Beyonce’s Lemonade?) ensures that the songs are punchy and topical, if not always sensical. But you didn’t come for the sense. You came for the nonsense, and they’re flooding the diamond with it.

Samberg and Schaffer are both hilarious in their terrible mullet wigs, but it seems like everyone who pops up in these videos are having a riotously good time. The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience offers locker room injections of satire and parody, and they will PUMP YOU UP.

Guava Island

Donald Glover dropped a 55 minute short film this weekend – it streamed on Amazon Prime, and at Coachella. Music, TV, movies: there seems to be nothing he can’t do, and do extremely well, at that. His multi-facetedness might be annoying if he wasn’t so actually talented.

MV5BYWVhMGViNzEtMjRiZC00ZmRlLWEzZTUtYTVlYjAwYzBlMDYxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAxMTcwMTEz._V1_The film, Guava Island, is hard to describe. It’s really more a parable than a traditional narrative, so don’t get hung up on that. And all praise to Childish Gambino: do not be surprised when a LOT of his music inevitably pops up.

He plays Deni, just a dude on this fictional island who is about to bring his music to an all-night music festival that’s super frowned upon by the island’s big boss, Red Cargo. Red can’t tolerate a music festival that might mean the island’s factory workers call in sick for the work the next day, a Sunday, including Deni’s girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna) and friend Yara (Letitia Wright).

It’s the perfect setting to talk about corruption, and the influence of art, its ability to unite a people. But it’s not the perfect medium. It’s not that the film is too short, it’s that the idea is both half-baked and heavy-handed. It made me wish it was less of a movie and more of a visual album, like Beyonce’s Lemonade, because that’s when the movie truly came live for me, when Glover lets his music take over and the reasons we love him and frequent collaborator/director Hiro Murai are allowed to shine down upon the island.

Rihanna and Wright are criminally underused; their main purpose is to smile admiringly at Glover. Rightly so, perhaps, but to have both of these women on hand and not give them something to do seems wasteful, and a tease. Maybe this concept works better for a Coachella audience. Few are likely to have stood in place to watch the film straight through, but maybe just standing under its shadow is enough.

Vox Lux

There are two acts to Vox Lux, and they’re both not great, but the first is at least sort of watchable.

13 year old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) barely survives a school shooting in 1999. Unable to translate her feelings into words for the memorial, she, accompanied by her sister El (Stacy Martin), instead perform a song, which launches a pop career. Somehow. Guided by The Manager (Jude Law), the girls grow up way too fast, but Celeste manages to translate the song into a video and the video into an album, which comes out more or less around 9/11 and manages to tap into a country’s, and in fact the world’s, collective grief. Celeste is a star, mostly because she was the one shot in the throat that fateful day, and her sister, the more talented of the two, had stayed home sick.

Fast forward to present day. Celeste is now 31 (and played by Natalie Portman), mother to a teenage daughter, Albertine (unfortunately played by Cassidy, again, in a performance not at all distinguished from the above). Celeste is as global a superstar as you can be, complete with a recent meltdown and nearly career-ending swerve. But she’s counting on this new album to get things on the right path again. She’s still drunk, though, and still perved on by the same greasy manager. And as luck would have it, just as she’s about to kick off her world tour, there’s another mass shooting wherein the terrorists wear masks from her first music video. And just like that she’s relevant again. But it’s a tragedy, right? Not a cancel the tour tragedy of course, because it happens overseas.

Anyway, the first bit reminded me a bit of Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique – by which I mean, it’s gritty and eerie and atmospheric. But it’s a copy, and not a great one. And that’s the absolute highlight of the film. It’s steeply downhill with rollerskates and a highly motivated dog from there.

Natalie Portman’s grown-up Celeste has no redeeming features whatsoever. She’s shrill and vacuous and we don’t see any of what happened to her in the interim to possibly explain away this complete and horrid transformation.

Clearly writer-director Brady Corbet means to say something about celebrity culture at the very least. But what is it? It’s tempting to say that the second half loses the MV5BMTkzNzAwOTYyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDY5MjQ4NjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_thread, but the truth is, the first half is boring enough that I don’t care about a lost thread because the whole damn sweater is garbage and a waste of good yarn. You know? Like, Sia worked hard on these songs. And the movie is slick looking, with cinematography just dripping its luridness all over the screen. But damn is it pretentious in a deflated, empty kind of way. And then the last 20 minutes or so are just concert footage, just full on Natalie Portman in a spandex body suit not quite nailing her choreography all over a stage full of unconvincing dancers. Was my jaw completely unhinged watching this or did it just feel that way? I can’t be sure. Sean tried to watch this with me, but it wouldn’t play when we rented it initially and he was gone off to work by the time I went back to it, and bully for him. I’m the one who watched it, aghast. This is Natalie Portman’s follow-up to what probably should have been an Oscar-winning performance in Jackie?

[I mean, to be fair, it’s not. She was also in Annihilation, and quite good in that, and Song to Song, which is not worth mentioning.]

Vox Lux is a derivative piece of junk. So, not unlike a pop song I suppose.