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Musicals

Review: Godspell

[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]

Without having seen Jesus Christ Superstar yet, I’m hardly in a position to state definitively how the Savior is doing with and being done by the moneychangers and popcorn vendors this Year of Our Lord. Of Godspell in particular the main thing to be said is that, while the movie of “the smash off-Broadway musical” confirms all but the direst expectations engendered by the trailer and flower-power photo spreads, it’s not quite as cloying as it threatened to be. The opening five minutes or so—the gathering of eight young urban Apostles in answer to a neo–John the Baptist’s joyous call—has been conceived and executed by director-adapter David Greene most adroitly and, more to the point, with a beguiling yet unprecious ingenuity that arouses genuine excitement and anticipation in any viewer agreeably disposed to make a leap of faith in the interest of having a good cocklewarming time. Regrettably, the saucy, freshly scrubbed faces of the troupe are soon a-daub with kindergarten cosmetics, and their playground-theater antics, however genial, shortly wear out their collective welcome through sheer sameness. They’re nice kids and all that, and a few of the updated, acted-out parables are amusing, and Greene’s direction does manage the difficult feat of remaining ingenious without tipping too frequently into frippery or flippancy.

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Review: Beauty and the Beast

The pre-publicity for Disney’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast might have revolved around any number of subjects: Why make a live-action redo of a classic animated film? How would Emma Watson fare outside her Harry Potter world? Had Disney spent too much money (a rumored $300 million, including marketing costs)? As it happens, the actual conversation has mostly been about director Bill Condon’s recent comment that a character in the movie might perhaps be seen as gay. This idea, that something about an American musical had gay coloring, apparently came as a great shock to—whom, exactly? After a minute of fuss about whether or not Russian film censors would allow the movie to be shown in their country (they will, but only to people over 16), the issue seems to have died down.

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Review: La La Land

It aspires to gossamer and moonbeams, to bygone eras of jazz and black-and-white movies, to Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. It has scenes of people breaking into song and dance in the middle of dialogue. They used to call these musicals.

How can any movie lover, or any civilized person really, be against La La Land?? Let me try to explain. The idea is swell, and the spirited efforts of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone—neither known primarily for song-and-dance prowess, though both have experience in those departments—are, for sure, spirited. There are even moments where the musical-drama format (this isn’t exactly musical-comedy) slips into blissful gear, especially when a rambling nighttime conversation above the lights of Los Angeles morphs into a dance duet that feels truly earned, playing out in a single unbroken take that carries us into the old-fashioned movie paradise that the film is aiming at.

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Yes, We Have No Bananas: ‘The Gang’s All Here’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley Footlight Parade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!

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Review: That’s Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

I have never counted myself among the musical buffs. It’s mainly been the arousal of interest in a director—Donen, Lester, Minnelli, Cukor, et al.—that enticed me into a theater or in front of a TV screen where a musical was playing. Conversely, taking Groucho’s advice in Horse Feathers, I have more often than not seized on the unwelcome musical interludes in essentially nonmusical films to go make a sandwich or flip over to another channel to check out the credits of the movie starting there. So if I tell you That’s Entertainment is just utterly swell, I’m telling you. And it is. Utterly. There’s nary a ringer among the numbers selected—except for episodes like Jimmy Stewart c. 1936 singing “You’d Be So Easy to Love” without benefit of redubbing, or Clark Gable doing a semi-improvisatory vaudeville song and dance number in the salon of a resort hotel (Idiot’s Delight), and of course those too become marvelous in their very unexpectedness and forgotten-biographical-footnote splendor (Gable is having such an outrageously good time, Stewart an outrageously uncomfortable time). When a sequence has been compressed or otherwise excerpted, it’s been excerpted sensitively and intelligently. And “director” Jack Haley Jr. has exercised impeccable judgment in deciding when to stay with the original 1.33:1 format, when to go with the full 70mm aspect ratio, and when to let the image grow from one to the other. The color has been faithfully transferred (if it hurts your eyes it would have hurt them in 1948, or whenever), and the black-and-white looks more like black-and-white than in any other color movie in my experience. Some of the newly stereophonicked sound is a trifle distracting, the mobility of the voices occasionally getting away from the less agile figures onscreen; but mostly the great care taken with every facet of the technological renovation has paid off many times over.

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Film Review: ‘Lambert & Stamp’

Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert

You could be forgiven for assuming that Lambert and Stamp are some forgotten folk-rock duo of the Peter & Gordon variety. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were part of London’s ’60s rock scene, though not as performers but as managers, promoters, producers, and mentors. They helped transform a mod-favorite club band called The High Numbers into The Who, nurtured the songwriting talents of Pete Townsend, and supported the band until its breakthrough.

They are a colorful pair with an interesting story. Lambert, the posh, Oxford-educated son of a classical-music conductor, and Stamp, a working-class bloke and younger brother of Terence Stamp, were aspiring filmmakers when they met as assistants at Shepperton Studios.

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Film Review: ‘Into the Woods’

James Corden and Meryl Streep

The crucial masterstroke of Into the Woods is that the fairy-tale happy ending comes halfway through the action. What exactly becomes of Cinderella after she settles in with her Prince? Does Jack miss the adventure of climbing up the beanstalk? Does Little Red Riding Hood ever dream about the Wolf? Such questions fuel the wickedly amusing 1987 Broadway musical, with songs by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.

Cue the irony, then, that Sondheim’s sly modern classic has been taken up by Disney, history’s busiest purveyors of the happy ending. Sondheim and Lapine were both involved in the film, and if many things have been cut or altered, a bit of a subversive message still peeks through (and some key characters die along the way). Into the Woods presents a crowded roster, with Meryl Streep earning top billing as the Witch, the blue-haired crank who sets things in motion. Streep’s opening scene is pretty glorious, as the actress stalks around the Baker’s shop, spitting out the backstory and laying down a curse.

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Chet Baker, Choppy Waters: ‘Let’s Get Lost’

Chet Baker

1987, Santa Monica. Chet Baker is weathered and worn. Filmed in black and white in the back of a convertible at night, framed by a pair of lovely young models, with street lights and headlights catching his features in a slash or a flash, his once smooth cheeks are leathery with age beyond his years and his face is sinking in to his skull as if his youth was eaten away from within.

1953, Los Angeles. The contact sheets of William Claxton’s photos from a recording session picks Chet Baker out of the ensemble. Holding his trumpet with an easy nonchalance, hanging with a laid-back presence of knowing he belongs, with eyes as soulful as James Dean and hair like Elvis Presley and cheekbones that look carved by Michelangelo, Baker is the young Adonis of cool jazz.

“He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful,” remarks a former lover, one of many tossed overboard to the choppy waters of his life. In the lens of Bruce Weber’s documentary, however, he’s still beautiful, a survivor wearing the scars of a turbulent life to a fashion shoot, the stark black and white picking out every scuff and wrinkle like it was earned. What we first see as a “seamy looking drugstore cowboy-cum-derelict,” in the words of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, takes on a ravaged grace through the course of Let’s Get Lost. In part that’s due to the hushed spell of his singing voice on ballads from the American songbook but mostly it’s because of Weber’s gaze.

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Film Review: ‘Annie’

Cameron Diaz, Quvenzhané Wallis, and Nicolette Pierini

Musical-theater purists can be almost as fussy as Star Wars fanatics, so expect a certain amount of kvetching over the new adaptation of Annie (previously filmed in ’82). The beloved 1977 Broadway show gets a thorough reworking, with rewritten lyrics, funked-up music, and a time-shift to the present day. (The comic-inspired original was a Depression-era fable, complete with cameo by Franklin Roosevelt.) Though it’s going to get lambasted, this new Annie is actually kind of fun on its own terms, with a rapid-fire pace and actors who aren’t afraid to be silly.

The role of Annie usually goes to girls who sound as though they’ve swallowed Ethel Merman’s trumpet, but here the part is played by soft-voiced Quvenzhané Wallis, the kid from Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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Film Review: ‘20,000 Days on Earth’

Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Given his distinctive and ultra-dramatic stage presence, it makes sense that a documentary portrait of Nick Cave would not be the usual thing. And 20,000 Days on Earth is not the usual thing.

At first this film appears to be a rumination on where the Australian-born rock star is these days: 20,000 days of life puts him in his mid-fifties, and we meet him in his home in Brighton, England, where he lives with wife Susie and two sons. The movie then winds from one random stop to the next. Cave is seen sitting in what appears to be a therapy session with real-life psychoanalyst Darian Leader, musing on his former life as an addict and his relationship to his father.

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Film Review: ‘Take Me to the River’

Bobby (Blue) Bland and Li’l P-Nut

There’s been a steady drumbeat of music-history documentaries this century, paying proper homage to the great players of pop music. These movies are invariably tuneful and nostalgic. Actually, there have been so many of these — “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Muscle Shoals,” the recent Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Twenty Feet from Stardom” — that you might suspect the genre is a little played out.

But no. Even a wobbly offering like Take Me to the River contains irresistible moments of musical pleasure.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ on Blu-ray

BuddyHollyBuddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!

Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.

Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.

The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More rock and roll movies on Blu-ray at Cinephiled

Videophiled Classic: Brian DePalma’s ‘Phantom of the Paradise’

PhantomParadisePhantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) – Brian De Palma’s wild rock and roll remake of Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and The Count of Monte Cristo plays like a decadent glam inversion of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul Williams (who also wrote the dynamic, Oscar-nominated score and songs) stars as Swan, the evil record tycoon (in the opening scene he parodies Marlon Brando from The Godfather) who steals a rock and roll cantata from a sad sack singer / songwriter (William Finley), who transforms into vengeance-filled, hideously scarred monster in love with ingénue Jessica Harper. This outrageous, over-the-top fantasy, done up in real De Palma style (his love of split screen technique finds a new outlet in the video monitors of Swan’s voyeuristic headquarters), is a spirited satire with wild rock and roll numbers and his most sensitive love story.

Shout Factory’s transfer is from a new HD master and released under their Scream Factory imprint, and they do something novel with the Blu-ray+DVD Combo edition. There are so many supplements in this edition, most of them created for this edition by Shout and all of them new to American home video, that they are split between the two discs.

So you get the two exclusive commentary tracks – one with stars Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, and Archie Hahn, Jeffrey Comanor and Peter Elbling (aka the Juicy Fruits), the other with production designer Jack Fisk – on the Blu-ray along with generous new interviews with director Brian DePalma and star / composer Paul Williams and a short piece with make-up artist Tom Burman (focusing on the distinctive mask), plus 26 minutes of alternate takes (presented in split screen to compare to the footage used in the film) and seven minutes of outtakes (showing changes made to cover a post-production change in the name of the record company).

The DVD features the balance of the supplements. The 50-minute documentary “Paradise Regained,” which features interviews with De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, and stars Williams, Harper, Graham, and the last William Finley, and the 72-minute interview with Paul Williams conducted by Guillermo Del Toro were both featured on the British Blu-ray released by Arrow earlier this year and licensed for this disc, along with an archival interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton and a little 30-second clip with William Finley and the Phantom action figure. Also new to this release are interviews with producer Edward R. Pressman and drummer Gary Mallaber, a guide through the poster design by the artist’s widow, and Gerrit Graham reading a bio he wrote for the film’s press kit.

More classic and cult releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Review: ‘Donkey Skin’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

Jacques Demy’s best films—Lola, The Young Girls of Rochefort—wave the silk scarf of an absurd romanticism so expertly over the abrasive realities of The World We Live In—unwanted pregnancies, painful, irrational separations, grotesquely violent death—that our appreciation of both textures is deeply enhanced in the delirious cinematic process. Donkey Skin, his 1970 retelling of the Perreault fairy tale, almost entirely lacks this sense of imaginative play and stylistic chance-taking. As such, it makes for a pre-afternoon-nap children’s story more elaborately visualized than most, but serves little other purpose.

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Film Review: ‘Get On Up’

Chadwick Boseman is James Brown

No screenwriter or director could possibly tie together the unlikely, turbulent life of James Brown — Soul Brother No. 1, the Godfather of Soul, the hardest-working man in show business. But maybe an actor could.

As though to acknowledge Brown’s brilliant and bizarre life, the makers of Get on Up present their story in a fragmented, time-jumping fashion. The man is depicted as an enigma whose erratic adult behavior connects directly to his rough upbringing. This approach has its ups and downs, but at least it isn’t just the same old showbiz rise-and-fall musical biopic. By skipping back and forth in time, we get the idea that Brown never escaped the harshness of his Georgia youth.

Whatever the riddle at Brown’s core, Chadwick Boseman has his pulse. The actor played Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42, and he gives another committed physical performance here.

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