Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Musicals

SIFF 2010: PV Dispatch 2 – A Tale of Two Rock Bio-pics, plus quick notes

How to do a rock and roll film is intertwined with why to do a rock and roll film. Two biopics of rock icons (one more iconic than the other) play at SIFF this weekend, but genre aside, there isn’t much in common with the two.

Nowhere Boy (dir: Sam Taylor Wood, UK) is the early life of John Lennon, the man who would put together the Beatles as a teenage boy. As fellow critic Tom Keogh observed in a post-screening conversation, this may be the first film to imagine the meeting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on the screen (read Tom’s capsule review at the Seattle Times here). What’s so marvelous about the film (including that meeting) is that it isn’t elevated into some mythological status: none of those clichéd lines where someone in the group or some prescient member of their early audience predicting their greatness or prophesying how they will “change the future of music.” These are British boys brought together by a restless, emotionally knotted teenage Lennon, a teenager whose artistic impulses and rebellious tendencies serve him poorly in high school but drive him to create a skiffle band. All they have in common is a love of American rock and roll and the charge of playing in front of an audience. Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass) is utterly convincing as the “Goon Show”-loving John, raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George, whose smoldering issues of abandonment by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), are fanned into flames when George dies and Julia suddenly reappears (“the one with red hair,” is how John refers to her at the funeral) and becomes a part of his increasingly emotionally turbulent life. Nowhere Boy shines a light on details from a part of Lennon’s life that few beyond the most passionate fans know—John’s reconnection with his mother and the first shows of his proto-Beatles band, the Quarrymen—but it’s rewarding because the story is not about the formative life of a star, but the emotional life of a boy who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother (it’s not that simple, of course, but to a teenage boy it sure feels that way). It’s also the story of sisters—both mothers to the artistically inclined and reflexively rebellious schoolboy—and the choices of the past that continue to haunt and divide them.

When Paul McCartney saw the film, he reportedly had one criticism: Mimi wasn’t as severe and strict and emotionally inexpressive as shown in the film (credit where it is due: Seattle music writer and authority on all things Beatles Gillian Gaar passed that info on to me; read her review at the Examiner here). A fair point, and surely a dramatic choice to contrast the reserved, guarded Mimi and the borderline manic-depressive Julia. Mimi seems unable to show affection, but Scott Thomas is marvelous at showing pain and love and anxiety behind the vulnerable eyes of a hard face, while Duff offers a portrait of a woman who lets the charge of excitement and joy sweep her into giddy excess, a problem that her protective husband (David Morrissey) is all to aware of. It’s not hostility he harbors for John, merely a wariness that her renewed affections will push her back into “illness” (as her condition is vaguely termed). There are minor historical liberties taken with the story, but the details and textures are lovingly crafted, from fifteen-year-old Paul’s (Thomas Sangster) audition, playing Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock” on a left-handed guitar, to the authentic skiffle sounds of the perfectly recreated debut show of the Quarrymen, playing on the back of a flatbed truck. Most importantly, the film offers a very human story. We may go because it’s the story of John Lennon, but we care because it’s an emotionally honest and human story.

By contrast, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (dir: Mat Whitecross, UK) hides an utterly conventional biopic behind a narrative chopped up into flashbacks, fantasies, animated interludes, music videos and carnivalesque stage shows. Most famous for performances behind the CGI-created Gollum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, Andy Serkis looks like a mad troll and embraces the look in his incarnation of Ian Dury, the music-hall showman of the British punk scene who hit it big with the song immortalized in the film’s title and embraced fame with the same excess with which he embraced booze and drugs. Serkis is great but the film is a familiar freak show of hardship and ego run amok: a mad man of a singer-songwriter who, physically crippled by childhood polio that left an arm and a leg emaciated and nearly useless, blasts his way to stardom with cheeky lyrics and a stage act heavy on theater, while off stage fails as a husband (to artist Olivia Williams, tired of his self-involved existence), father (to impressionable son Bill Milner) and boyfriend (to adoring Naomie Harris). Like the Dury presented on screen, the film plays at provoking a response from the audience but doesn’t give us any reason to care about Dury other than his reputation and excess. Bill Milner (the sweet, quiet kid from the SIFF 2007 opening night film Son of Rambow) plays Ian’s son Baxter, an angry, bullied little kid desperate for paternal attention who absorbs the excess of dad’s lifestyle and spirals into insolence and arrogance, a potential tragedy that is dropped without any satisfactory resolution; Whitecross makes Baxter exhibit A in Ian’s personal failures, and then fails to give him the same consideration the film offers its fucked-up rock and roll hero. It’s got energy, but it doesn’t give us much of a portrait of the man behind the public persona.

Nowhere Boy (Saturday, May 22, 7pm at Neptune; Sunday, May 23, 1:15pm at Neptune; Thursday, May 27, 7pm at Admiral)
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (Friday, May 21, 9:30pm at Neptune; Sunday, May 23, 3:45 at Neptune; Tuesday, May 25, 9:30pm at Egyptian)

Quick notes:

Rapt (dir: Lucas Belvaux, France) is a kidnap thriller more interesting than involving. Yvan Attal is a famous corporate bigwig whose secret private life of adultery, gambling addiction (with millions in IOUs) and jet-setting excess is revealed after he’s kidnapped and ransomed for more than, it turns out, he’s worth, at least in practical terms. It’s less a thriller than an intimate look at the ordeals suffered not just by Attal as he’s terrorized, threatened, kept in isolation and moved from one hiding place to another while terms are negotiated and money drops are disrupted by police surveillance, but his wife (Anne Consigny), trying to keep up a supportive public face while the revelations of his private life humiliate her every day in the press and on TV, and his children. It’s surprisingly lacking in tension or character drama for the most part, but the final act upends expectations with a defiantly impassive portrait of privilege and entitlement unbowed in the face of public disgrace. It’s a far cry from the classic tale of arrogance humbled on a journey of contrition, but it’s certainly honest.

If there is a message in The French Kissers (dir: Riad Sattouf), a tweener sex comedy centered on a couple of socially awkward best friends with zits, braces and bad haircuts who talk a big story when it comes to sex, it’s that boys are dumb, self-involved, insensitive and more obsessed with the idea of sex than the reality of it. A legitimate observation, but it doesn’t make them any more interesting to watch navigating the social minefield of dating and the emotional lives of girls (or retreating to the emotional safety of self-pleasure). They’re barely aware of their own emotional lives. Not that the adults are much more self-aware or sensitive. The portrait of French youth culture redefined by the growing Arab presence is interesting and the school rumor mill pushing gossip to absurd exaggeration is funny, but compared to such rich portraits of youth in the outskirts of Paris as The Class and SIFF 2008 drama Ain’t Scared, it’s pretty thin.

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (dir: Eli Craig, U.S.) is not so much a horror comedy as a comedy where most of the characters are convinced they’re in a horror film and act accordingly. Think of it as a comedy of errors with a body count: a group of frat boys and sorority girls, led by sneering alpha male Chad (Jesse Moss), hits the backwoods (Alberta, unconvincingly subbing for the Appalachians) and sees a potential psycho in every hillbilly cliché they see along the way. Enter the eponymous Dale (Tyler Labine), a sweetly stupid idiot savant, and his best friend Tucker (Alan Tudyk), the proud owner of a new “vacation home,” a real fixer upper that, apparently, once belonged to a disciple of Ed Gein. “Officer, do we look like a couple of psycho killers to you,” smiles a bloody, bee-stung Dale. Seen through the eyes of superior breeding and conceited presumption, they apparently do, especially after the kids keep killing themselves in ill-advised attacks and hysterical flights of panic. The gore is epic and the self-destruction all the funnier when it appears inevitable. Case in point: a college kid charging an oblivious Tucker as he feeds branches into a wood chipper. Labine and Tudyk manage to ground the outrageousness with great chemistry and their gob-smacked reaction to the unprovoked attacks. The film hasn’t secured an American distributor yet so the Midnight screening at the Egyptian is the ideal way to see it: with a rowdy crowd primed for fun.

Rapt (Saturday, May 22, 4pm at Neptune, Sunday, May 23, 6:30 at Neptune; Tuesday, May 25, 9:30pm at Admiral)
The French Kissers (Saturday, May 22, 9:45pm at Egyptian; Monday, May 24, 7pm at Admiral; Wednesday, May 26, 4:15 @ Neptune)
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (Saturday, May 22, Midnight at Egyptian)

Also see capsules of SIFF 2010 week one reviews at:
Queen Anne News (Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy)
Seattle Weekly (Brian Miller and others)
And don’t forget Parallax View’s guide to SIFF resources (with even more links to pages regularly updated with reviews, capsules and other notes)