Friday, December 30, 2016

a postscript

I've been remiss. I forgot to mention among the references to Jacques Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochfort" in my essay on Damien Chazelle's ”La La Land” that there is a wonderful documentary made by Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25").  The film, which I saw back in 1993 at the Mill Valley Film Festival, details the return of some of the film's stars, including Catherine Deneuve, and crew to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later. It's an especially poignant documentary, given that three principals involved in the film - Demy, Gene Kelly and Deneuve's sister, Françoise Dorléac - were all long gone by the time of the tribute.

Monday, December 26, 2016

an "occasional musical" and its clueless admirers

Credit: Dale Robinette/Lionsgate ©
 Stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling perform for Damien Chazelle's camera

Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" is an odd film of significant charm and flashes of brilliance. It is being sold, rather bravely, as a musical and I reference its courage because the musical genre hasn't been appreciated, understood or desired, for several decades now, by the moviegoing public or even critics (who one would expect to have open, adventurous minds).

Actually, it should be noted that "La La Land" is a musical occasionally.  Sometimes, it remembers that it's a song-and-dance film and, at other times, it seems to forget.  That's part of its laid-back, unrushed, fizzy charm. And this curious quality - seemingly both deliberate and dreamy - is what makes it uncommon among modern films, musical or otherwise.

Chazelle works with only six songs here - which seems like barely enough to carry a self-promoted "musical" - but he's creative with them, playfully extending two or three into lengthy productions while limiting others with a scratch-pad casualness and brevity. Sometimes, only a few bars are sung.

His film has been embraced almost unanimously by the critics, deservedly so, but for reasons that have little to do with the movie itself.  It's been compared by more than one reviewer to "Singin' in the Rain," which is odd given that the two films have little in common apart from the fact that they both contain song and dance performed against a movietown backdrop.

"Singin' in the Rain," co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and released by MGM in 1952, has become the easy, rather convenient go-to musical for contemporary critics, even though one suspects that these same critics probably would have dismissed it as inconsequential in '52.

Also: "La La Land" can't be realistically compared to any American musical because, well, it isn't really American.  It's French (although spoken and sung in English, of course).  It's inspiration is the work of the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, its specific template clearly being Demy's 1967 creamy sundae-of-a-musical, "The Young Girls of Rochefort" ("Les demoiselles de Rochefort"), featuring songs by Michel Legrand. Both move to a light, lilting jazz score, and "La La Land" also pays homage to Legrand with orchestrations that are lush with violins, flutes, accordians, concertinas and xzylophones.

The music (even the background mood music) in Chazelle's film swirls, unlike that of any other American movie musical within memory. Justin Hurwitz composed the Legrand-like music for "La La Land" and Ben Pasek and Justin Paul contributed the film's quick, clever conversational lyrics.

The French musical is something of an acquired taste, not always easy to consume and enjoy. "The Young Girls of Rochfort," a rare exception, goes down relatively easy, but I always found Demy's much-admired 1964 film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" ("Les parapluies de Cherbourg"), a challenge to sit through.  Although "La La Land" follows the contours of its inspirations, it has none of the archness of its French counterparts.

Somehow, Chazelle manages to surmount that problem (although certain moviegoers, especially non-fans of the musical, may still be annoyed). 

His sprawling opening number, "Another Day of Sun," choreographed by Mandy Moore on the Los Angeles I-405 Freeway and performed by an ensemble of 100 singers and dancers, seems gratuitous and unrelated to the film that follows, but it is absolutely crucial to setting its tone:

We're not in Los Angeles anymore, Toto.  We're in Rochfort.

The plot that kicks in is about two show-business careerists who meet cute (well, sort of) on the 405, and the film then seesaws back and forth between the ambitions of the girl, a hopeful actress named Mia (Emma Stone), and those of the boy, a frustrated musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), while also fooling around with chronology as it also goes back and forth in time.

To make ends meet, Mia works as a barista in the café on the Warner Bros. backlot, where one the buildings has the word "Parapluies" written on it, a reference of course to "Les parapluies de Cherbourg," whose plot is echoed in Mia and Sebastian's knotty relationship.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling complement each other perfectly, with Stone playing it hyper with raw nerves showing and Gosling shielding his character's insecurities with self-aware cool. And so, given these character dynamics, it makes sense musically that Mia nervously flirts with a song or belts it out, as in her showstopper "Audition" ("The Fools Who Dream"), while Sebastian simply croons, lightly and quietly, flirting with his songs in a different way, as he does with "City of Stars," the reprise of which is sort of a musical doodle. Both songs are sung live; others are lip-synced.

"La La Land" doesn't completely ignore the American film musical, memorably quoting two. Sebastian's scenes performing in various small, dimly-lighted, smokey clubs subtly evoke the moment when Judy Garland sings "The Man That Got Away" in George Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (Warner Bros., 1955), while an elaborate, painterly fantasy sequence late in the movie reimagines what can only be the dream ballet in the Vincente Minnelli-Gene Kelly collaboration, "An American in Paris" (MGM, 1951).

All of the film, but especially the fantasy sequence, has been given a luscious glow by cinematographer Linus Sandgrew. In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane commented, "It looks so delicious that I genuinely couldn’t decide whether to watch it or lick it." Sandgrew employed the old CinemaScope process for this oaccasion and Los Angeles has never looked more inviting. I feel precisely the same way about the movie itself.

FYI: Catherine Deneuve stars in three of Jacques Demy's musicals.  In addition to the aforementioned  "Les parapluies de Cherbourg" and "Les demoiselles de Rochefort" (which also starred Deneuve's late sister, Françoise Dorléac, and Gene Kelly), there's 1970's "Donkey Skin" ("Peau d'âne").  Demy also directed Yves Montand in 1988's marvelously titled backstage musical, "Three Tickets for the 26th" ("Trois places pour le 26").

Notes in Passing: Given the role that Warner Bros. plays in the film (Nicholas Ray's 1955 "Rebel Without a Cause" is also referenced), it's a bit of a surprise that Warners didn't snap up the film's distribution rights.

Lionsgate is releasing "La La Land."

Also, two - count 'em - two soundtrack albums from "La La Land" have been released - one devoted to the film's song score and one to its background music.  This isn't a first, however. David Byrne's new-style film musical from three decades ago, ”True Stories” (Warner Bros., 1986), also had an album of mood music and another with songs.

The latter, however, was not from the soundtrack. All the songs on it are performed by Byrne and The Talking Heads. The actor-singers in the film included John Goodman and Annie McEnroe. Byrne's film remains new-style even 30 years later.  It's terrific and worth seeking out.  That said,  I'm still waiting for an authentic soundtrack album from it.

Well, one can hope, right?

Finally, a delayed added postscript: I've been remiss. I forgot to mention the wonderful documentary made by Jacques Demy's widow, filmmaker Agnès Varda - "Les demoiselles ont eu 25 ans" ("The Young Girls Turn 25") - which details the remaining cast (including Deneuve) and crew of "The Young Girls of Rochfort" returning to the town of Rochfort to celebrate their movie 25 years later.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

indelible moment: "Scrooge" (1970)

One of the most delightfully perverse moments in movie-musical history is performed early on in "Scrooge," Ronald Neame's 1970 adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," with songs by Leslie Bricusse.

In it, Albert Finney, so obviously relishing the role of Ebenezer, lurches through the streets of London, scowling at passersby and declaring in rhyme (courtesy of Bricusse's intricate, socially incorrect wordplay): 

"Scavengers and sycophants and flatterers and fools
Pharisees and parasites and hypocrites and ghouls
Calculating swindlers, prevaricating frauds
Perpetrating evil as they roam the earth in hordes
Feeding on their fellow men
Reaping rich rewards
Contaminating everything they see
Corrupting honest men like me!"

"Humbug! Poppycock! Balderdash! Bah!," Finney/Scrooge declares before breaking into Bricusse's marvelously demented song, "I Hate People," whose lyric sounds even more deranged when seen on paper. Or in this case, on computer screen.  Happy Holidays?  Indeed. Here goes...

"I hate people!
I hate people!
People are despicable creatures
Loathesome, inexplicable creatures
Good-for-nothing, kickable creatures
I hate people!
I abhor them!
When I see the indolent classes
Sitting on their indolent asses
Gulping ale from indolent glasses
I hate people!
I detest them!
I deplore them!
Fools who have no money but spend it
Get in debt, then try to end it
Beg me on their knees to befriend them
Knowing I have cash to lend them
Soft-hearted me! Hard-working me!
Clean-living, thrifty and kind as can be!
Situations like this are of no interest to me
I hate people!
I loathe people!
I despise and abominate people!
Life is full of cretinous wretches
Earning what their sweatiness fetches
Empty minds whose pettiness stretches
Further than I can see
Little wonder I hate people
And I don't care if they hate ... me!"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Philly's Own!

Did you know that Bradley Cooper was born in Philadelphia and grew up nearby in Jenkintown and Rydal?  Or that Tina Fey is from Upper Darby? Or that Kevin Bacon's name should always be prefaced by ... Philly's Own?

Well, you would if you live in Philadelphia or anywhere close to the place because the paper of record, The Philadelphia Inquirer, has become obsessed with pointing out such information, ad infinitum, in reviews, interviews or any other pieces of scintillating journalism involving a celebrity with a local connection, even if the connection is tenuous. Aubrey Plaza is from Wilmington. Taylor Swift is from Wyomissing.  And Will Smith and Lee Daniels and David Lynch and Seth Green are all ... Philly's Own!

Why, I'm sure Meryl Streep even crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge once. That counts, right? I mean, she would qualify even though she's from, well, Summit, New Jersey. Jersey is a suburb of Philadelphia, isn't it?

I know, I know - I'm being snarky.  But I just don't understand this brand of unbridled pride. Do the paper's readers really care and do they have to be informed, over and over again, that Cooper was born in Philadelphia?

Lately, the Inky (as it is know locally) has been especially keen on promoting the local connection of "Ardmore's (and Friends Central's) own Benj Pasek" who penned the lyrics with his writing partner Justin Paul for the six songs in Damien Chazelle's "La La Land," yet the latest attempt to revive that eternally misunderstood genre, the movie musical.

Every piece - and there have been several of them - have referenced this.  The connection has been shoehorned even into wire stories written by non-Inquirer reporters. And exacerbating this rather tacky bit of hometown chauvinism is the fact that the person who wrote the music for "La La Land" is never mentioned.  That would be Justin Hurwitz who (no surprise) isn't from Philadelphia and who attended Harvard (with his friend Chazelle), rather than the University of Pennsylvania. Bad form.

For the sake of full disclosure, I hasten to note that my second newspaper job was in Philadelphia.  It is more than 30 years since I worked there but even then, there was this outsized pride in the place.  Case in point: When Grace Kelly died, it wasn't enough to run an obit or an appreciation.  No, there had to be a separate pullout - about a dozen pages celebrating a movie star who made only a handful of films, half of them negligible, and who was competent at best as an actress. But she was Philly royalty, see?

And then there's "Rocky," a solid little film that has been transformed locally into a work of art as significant as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

An editor - a carpetbagger brought in from out of town to tweak the features section - once theorized that the incessant bragging was probably the result of Philadelphia being situated between Washington, D.C. and New York in more ways than one - that there was this desperate need to either call attention to itself or forever live in the shadows of N.Y. and D.C.

So, is this kind of horn-blowing a part of New Journalism or is Philly unique?  I'm not sure.  It may be routine in other cities as well.  I don't regularly access the sites to papers in Boston or Chicago, for example.  However, I do know I've never seen "hometown references" in either The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post.  And when I worked in Northern California, I certainly was not expected to mention that Tom Hanks was a local boy in any of my reviews of his films.

But I am more than aware that Kat Dennings is from Bryn Mawr, and that Alan Goldberg (creator of TV's "The Goldbergs") is from Jenkintown and that, yes, Blythe Danner and Bob Saget are also two of  ... Philly's Own!

Compulsively so.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

reducing "hairspray" to a limp, joyless spritz

The bad timing and general pointlessness of NBC's unnecessary live production of the musical comedy "Hairspray" was exacerbated by arch, curiously lax staging.  More about the bad timing later.  More about the show's lethargy now.  This "Hairspray" was as middle-aged as the extras hired to play high-school students in the background and the dances.

It takes a lot of dubious, misguided decisions to level what should be a surefire show but NBC managed to check off just about all of them. Which is odd, given that the network got off to such a spectacular start with its 2013 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," a production which honored the show as originally written, restoring two fine numbers that were excised from the Disney-fied 1965 TODD-AO film.

But the success of "The Sound of Music" cornered the network into a rather rigid "family friendly" formula - musicals that appeal to kids, teens and their parents exclusively.  There's no place here for something like "Sweet Charity" or a Sondheim work.  Instead, we got the deadly "Peter Pan" in 2014 (a production that, seemingly, has impacted the career of its miscast star, Allison Williams) and a forgettable version of "The Wiz" in 2015.  What's next for the kids?  "Oliver!"? Yet another "Annie"?

Predictably, the announced production for 2017 will be "Bye Bye Birdie," a (teen-driven) show that has already been the basis of an inferior but wildly popular 1963 film version and an especially terrific 1995 TV version.

There's an expression for this - can you say creative bankruptcy?

In the meantime, the Fox network entered the picture earlier this year and raised the bar considerably with a jaw-droppingly excellent version of "Grease" performed before a live audience (a conceit that NBC appropriated for "Hairspray") and with a youthful enthusiasm that's been glaringly absent from the (again, middle-aged) NBC musicals.

If the consummate, immediate goal is to attract young audiences, a degree of youthfulness is an obvious necessity.  Instead, "Hairspray Live" (as it is officially titled) delivered about 2¼ hours of forced fun.

I can't readily comprehend the reason for NBC's "Hairspray," as the material was the basis of Adam Shankman's exceptionally good film version (the definitive "Hairspray") which played cineplexes as recently as 2007 - a production that benefited strongly from Leslie Dixon's textbook example of exactly how to adapt a cartoon-like play into a credible movie.

Adhering close to the stage book, "Hairspray Live" seemed rickety, devoid of the kind of solid foundation that supported the '07 film, something which affected its performances which were scattered all over the place.

On paper, the peerless Kristen Chenoweth (a musical comedy treasure) and the ever-reliable Martin Short (who can do anything) both seemed letter-perfect for their roles, but performances which should have worked with ease were undermind by either the TV script or simply bad direction.

Jennifer Hudson, strangely cast as the mother of a high-school student (she looked younger than her TV son), has a knockout singing voice but precious little "presence"in this production and even less of the kind of powerhouse personality that her role required.  She also has the disadvantage of being compared to Queen Latifah who nailed the role in the Shankman film. Whatever, her performance lacked a necessary heft.

Having seen Harvey Fierstein in the stage version of "Hairspray" - and having a rocking good time watching him - I anticipated the same fun.  But it became clear that the kind of broad playing that marked Fierstein's stage performance works well only in the artificial setting of a theater.  It can't hold up under the close, relentless scrutiny of a camera.

There's a reason why Carol Channing was never considered for the films of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and 'Hello, Dolly!" or Ethel Merman for the movie version of "Gypsy." It would have been too much.  (Full Disclosure: I'm seriously dating myself here, but as a kid, I saw Merman in the original production and, yes, even on stage, she was too much.)

Anyway, in retrospect, John Travolta's decision to eschew even a hint of camp in his performance in the theatrical film was an astute one.

Then there's Maddie Baillio, the newcomer selected for the lead role that was played with such effortless pluck and sincerity by Nikki Blonsky opposite Travolta.  Baillio has a fine voice but, as an actress, she is (how can I put this?) - well - fairly vacant.  And while Hudson seemed too young for her role, Baillio looked too old to play a teenager.  But then just about every teenager in this production looked too old.  I have to ask: Why not cast the show with real teenagers?  There are certainly plenty of them out there.

An unctous Darren Criss was brought in to serve as on-screen host, an assignment that Mario Lopez pulled off so handily for Fox's "Grease Live."  Despite his yelping and fawning, Criss was an unconvincing cheerleader.

On the plus side, there was Ariana Grande who exhibited impressive restraint, grace and a sense of team spirit in a good but frankly supporting role; Garrett Clayton, who brought a fascinating sexual ambiguity to the role of a high-school heart-throb, and best of all, Dove Cameron, who managed to make her mean girl both loathsome and button-cute.

Cameron is a naturally witty actress. Get this woman a lead role already!

On the production side, the choreography by the estimable Jerry Mitchell was a decided disappointment, surprisingly rigid and jerky, rather than what the show's breezy score would inspire - liberating and free-flowing.

As for NBC's timing in airing "Hairspray," that was unavoidable, since these shows are announced and go into pre-production a full year before airing. For all its frivolity, "Hairspray" is an ardent plea for diversity, with the dance floor used as a level playing field for people of all color.  It indicts the racism which has been revived in recent years and has become disturbingly rampant in the past few months.  Compared to the racist venom and bile that have become routine in society and regularly covered by the media (always in lip-smacking detail), the crucial message behind "Hairspray" now seems weak, facile and, sadly, a little futile.  It's like using a pretty little pink Band-Aid to try and cover an ugly, festering sore.

That said, I have to admit that I was amused by the ads for some vintage products (Nilla Wafers!) that are rarely advertised on TV these days. A very clever touch. Also, the telecast restored a familiar line borrowed from another show, "Gypsy," that wasn't used in the Shankman-Dixon film - "I'm a pretty girl, Momma," given a famously iconic reading by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film of "Gypsy" and spoken in this production by Ariana Grande. (There's another "Gypsy" line quoted in one of "Hairspray's" lyrics - "Momma's gotta let go!," from the rousing "Rose's Turn" finale).

Note in Passing: During the telecast, NBC promoted its next live musical - "Bye Bye Birdie," starring Jennifer Lopez (although it sounded like it used Ann-Margret's voice singing the title song written for the awful '63 movie).  This seemed way too premature.  Anything can happen in a year. It reminded me of the 2004 Tony Awards telecast.  Nicole Kidman was a presenter and the announcer introduced her as "the star of the upcoming film of 'The Producers'."  Well, when "The Producers" went into production a few months later, it was without Nicole Kidman.  She dropped out and Universal lost one of its big selling/marketing points.  Uma Thurman, almost as big a star as Kidman, came in and took over the role.