“The role of third-wave feminism certainly took its hold in the cinema of the 2010s. Women in the 21st century are allowed, more than ever, to be imperfectly perfect creatures: kind and compassionate, cold and calculating, badass…or just plain bad.”
Nowhere has this been more evident than in film and television of the past decade—from the Hunger Games trilogy to Orphan Black, and everything in between. As we head into a new, uncertain one, it is at least comforting to know that women are still getting their due (and then some) on screens both big and small. This trio of Netflix selections I’ve had the pleasure to watch the past couple of months are but just a few indications that the badassery is only just getting started.
Enola Holmes (2020, Netflix)
A very fun and entertaining adaptation of Nancy Springer’s series about the fictional younger sister of one Sherlock Holmes (yes, that Sherlock Holmes). I’m not familiar with Springer’s novels, but as someone who has seen similar attempts at creating a teen Holmesian sleuth elsewhere in the Young Adult universe and been more than a little disappointed at what I found, I am happy to report that this particular rendition did not leave me feeling at all bereft. Quite the opposite: screenwriter and playwright Jack Thorne’s characterization, along with actress Millie Bobbie Brown’s shining, charismatic performance in the titular role, finally brings to the screen a satisfyingly formidable (in both brains and brawn) female lead worthy of the Holmes name.
Equally satisfying is Adam Bosman’s masterful editing under the direction of Harry Bradbeer—rife with clever jump-cuts and wonderful animation, punctuating the film with both humor and heart. The only qualms I really have is that I would have liked more on the themes of progressive change of the time period (particularly the suffrage movement), and more on Henry Cavill’s er…much buffier take on the legendary detective. (Though, as someone else on Letterboxd already said: this movie wasn’t about him, anyway.)
And as it should be. Best to leave it to the girls, Sherl.
The Queen’s Gambit(2020, Netflix)
Much like the game around which the series itself is centered, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is a compelling dive into the insular world of competitive chess. All of the show’s moving parts—from its production and costume design to its stellar ensemble cast—each intricately act in accordance with one another, never competing for attention but instead creating the perfect sequence of events that will keep even those least interested in the game in its thrall.
With the character Beth Harmon, Anya Taylor-Joy (as well as young Isla Johnston, who plays her nine-year-old counterpart) showcases some prodigious talent of her own. Some of the most intelligent actors on screen, I’ve observed, always have that “certain something” going on behind the eyes that no amount of cleverly-worded dialogue could ever express or communicate, and which Taylor-Joy displays here in multitudes.
If there is any strategy to her performance, it appears as effortless as one of her character’s moves on the board—one blink, and you might just miss it. Supporting her is a round of equally strong players, including actress-director Marielle Heller and the great character actor Bill Camp. (Other standout performances include Moses Ingram as Beth’s childhood friend, Jolene; and Harry Melling as fellow competitor Harry Beltik.)
All in all, The Queen’s Gambit is one series you’ll not want to resign yourself from.
Blackpink: Light Up the Sky(2020, Netflix)
Since their début in 2016, Korean girl group Blackpink’s collective star has gradually risen to meteoric heights, hitting its international apex when they were invited as the first K-Pop act ever to perform at Coachella last April. Since then, they’ve gone on a world tour; filmed a new ‘reality’-based web series, dubbed 24/365 (in addition to their previous Blackpink Diaries and Blackpink House, all of which made easily accessible on Youtube to Blinks and non-Blinks alike); as well as filmed for this, their very own documentary (presumably, in secret), exclusively for Netflix.
Light Up the Sky not only chronicles the group’s stratospheric trajectory as pop stars but also delves a little deeper into the mystery often surrounding the training circuit within the K-Pop industry. Under Caroline Suh’s direction, the film shows the four girls in a new light, and often in unexpected ways. (Another nice bonus here is perhaps the group’s most unsung hero, Teddy Park, who humbly relegates his own contribution to the girls’ success by instead shining the spotlight on each girl’s own strengths.)
Definitely worth a watch for even the most casual of K-Pop stans.
As someone once said: you can’t go home again—but with a new adaptation of Rebecca, now streaming on Netflix, it seems that once again finds itself within our cinematic purview in the form of Manderley. And if the walls of this modern take on the grand manor could talk, one might find them in agreement. In some ways, one wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim the gothic romance dead. On the one hand, director Ben Wheatley’s take on the genre is at once sleek and lusciously rendered, bringing the grandeur of author Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel into a fully technicolor world. However, in appealing to 21st-century tastes, this re-telling falls short in truly showing Manderley and its titular mistress, flaws and all, in a truly new light.
Du Maurier’s story, now considered a classic of the genre, is chock-full of all the familiar trappings found in other gothic romances of its ilk (such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Northanger Abbey, and the like): a young ingénue, usually a woman; an imposing, stately manse; and a family with a dark secret. This Rebecca is no different, telling once again the tale of a young woman working as a lady’s companion (Lily James), who is suddenly whisked into a whirlwind romance with a dashing aristocrat by the name of Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), only to subsequently find herself navigating the world of England’s landed gentry. It is at Manderley—Maxim’s ancestral home—where the new Mrs. de Winter becomes increasingly haunted by the seemingly ever-constant memory of her predecessor, the first Mrs. de Winter, who mysteriously perished at sea.
Naturally, because of this, oceanic imagery pervades throughout the film; and much like those mercurial waters, the looming specter of both Manderley and its beloved former mistress first make their presence known with an almost calm, if unsettling, stillness. A delicate piece of diaphanous lingerie. The faint mist of perfume. The heavily blotted ink of a single initial. The rustle of a curtain. The creaking of a decrepit boathouse. But, most of all, it is the house’s omnipresent housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Dame Kristin Scott Thomas) through whom the late Mrs. de Winter’s spirit truly lingers, creeping around every corner with an ever-watchful eye. “Still waters run deep,” as one character from Alfred Hitchcock’s own 1940 adaptation of the novel famously observes—and soon enough, Manderley reveals its own tempestuous temperaments bubbling just beneath its gilded surface.
Just like its protagonist, Rebecca strives to set itself apart from its own cinematic predecessor, albeit to mixed effect. From the outset, we can see that this isn’t, as they say, your grandmother’s Rebecca—but rather, one intended for a new generation. It can’t be easy to follow in the Master of Suspense’s footsteps, and director Wheatley (whose past work has comprised those within the horror genre) attempts to imbue his Rebecca with all the aesthetic sensibilities of a modern psychological thriller: from the inclusion of a sensual love scene in its early Monte Carlo sequence to the interesting juxtaposition of Pentangle’s 1968 recording of traditional folk ballad “The Sprig o’ Thyme”/ “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”; to the grand-scale detail found in its production design and costumes, all the way to the film’s casting. Yet, for all its pretty dressing, the film’s disparate elements never seem to quite coalesce in order to serve its story. Though Wheatley does his best to carefully build tension throughout the first two acts, much of the expectant payoff is lost by the film’s denouement.
The true revelation, instead, lies in Scott Thomas’ Mrs. Danvers—who cuts a more stylish and domineering figure in comparison to that of Judith Anderson’s mousy, more reticent servant in Hitchcock’s 1940 version. Whereas Anderson is unassuming at first glance, radiating a sense of unease in just a single look or gesture, Scott Thomas brilliantly chooses to go the opposite direction; the latter slowly revealing the stirrings of a maddened mind behind a steely exterior, with a deftness that only a veteran actress could effortlessly bring to a role. With just one devious, upturned curlique of her burgundy lips, she could bring down the whole house—literally.
Images courtesy of Netflix.‘Rebecca’ is now streaming on Netflix.
There are star-making turns, and then there are star-making turns. And as much as I loved Lady Gaga in that other movie, nothing beats Jessie Buckley’s unforgettable, BAFTA Scotland-winning performance as Rose-Lynn Harlan in the Tom Harper-helmed Wild Rose (2018). A decade into a post-Millennial boom in movie-musicals (one which arguably started with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and peaked with John Carney’s Once in 2007, both Oscar-winners), the 2010s saw a more varied approach to merging music with film.
(Moulin Rouge! has since been adapted for the stage and is now enjoying a Broadway run in New York; while a staged production of Carney’s heart-warming 2016 film Sing Street, is currently seeing an off-Broadway run of at the New York Theatre Workshop and heading to Broadway this coming spring.*)
A new wave of movie-musicals from the UK and elsewhere have since popped onto the scene, and most notably dancing (and singing) to the beat of their own drum are those hailing from Scotland, such as the offbeat God Help the Girl (2014) and Anna and the Apocalypse (2017). While perhaps not as lushly produced as a Luhrmann extravaganza, nor as unabashedly romantic as a Carney piece, Harper’s film still very much earns its place in the wider canon of movie-musicals. In comparison, Wild Rose achieves a storytelling aesthetic that falls somewhere down the middle, though the film itself is anything but middle-of-the-road.
One might even venture to call it a rare flower among films of the genre, in that—much like the main character herself—it unapologetically delights in its own rags-to-riches tropes. This might have something to do with the film’s excellent country-inflected soundtrack (featuring the likes of Wynonna Judd, Emmylou Harris, Chris Stapleton, Patty Griffin, and the late John Prine; as well as original songs co-written by actress Mary Steenburgen), which not only helps buoy Rose-Lynn’s story throughout without the use of the usual sung-through elements of a traditional musical but also keeps it grounded in the working-class roots of its own musical traditions.
With additional standout performances by the always excellent Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo (in supporting roles as Rose-Lynn’s mother and employer, respectively), this is one Rose everyone should stop and pay attention to.
Images courtesy of Neon.
*Portions of this review were written before the shutdown of Broadway as a result of COVID-19/Coronavirus measures. The shutdown of all Broadway shows has since been extended to early June.
What gave Black Swan its most enduring legacy (aside from the seemingly endless font of memes it inspired that year) was its unique twist on the psychological thriller. A nod to the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic, The Red Shoes, Darren Aronofsky’s film tells the story of Nina Sayres, a corps dancer who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. As Nina, Natalie Portman skillfully displayed a range of emotions not before seen in previous roles: vacillating between fear and elation, anger and obsession — all in the time it takes to flutter one’s imaginary wings. What results is a mesmerizing psychological breakdown that has Nina sacrificing the most important thing of all: herself.
In great contrast to fellow best-of entrant Inception and others of its ilk released the same year, Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go, his adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s eponymous novel, subverts the usual expectations of a science-fiction narrative, taking the dystopian plot from its usual dreamscape futurama and placing it into a time more familiar to us (in the book, early- to mid-1990s; the film, late-1980s to early-1990s). The alternate universe in question is a world where disease and illness have decreased and life expectancy has increased, all made possible through advances in clone technology. Here, clones are groomed to donate their vital organs once they reach a certain age — until, ultimately, they achieve “completion.”
As the clones themselves, the film introduced then still-rising stars Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, with beautifully-pitched performances as Cathy H and Tommy, two clones who have known and loved one another since childhood. Alongside them, the already well-established Keira Knightley also delivers a memorable, performance as their morally ambiguous childhood friend, Ruth, who reunites them later on in life. With Alex Garland’s adapted screenplay, combined with Alex Kimmel’s artful cinematography, all under Romanek’s sensitive direction, Never Let Me Go deftly straddles the thematic elements Ishiguro put into play in the original source material: mainly, the ethics of cloning technology — as well as the intricacies of humanity, and the tenuous grasp we humans have at understanding it.
At the risk of subsequently praising nearly every film released that year (and sounding like a cheap imitation of a sommelier), it must be said that, yes, 2010 was a very good year for film. Kicking off the decade in a major way was none other than David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). The film marked the first collaboration between Fincher and another titan of screen and stage, writer Aaron Sorkin, merging the former’s unique visual storytelling with the latter’s signature rapid-fire dialogue. The result is akin to what many of my fellow Letterboxd mates would term as a “chef’s kiss” of a film. Along with the excellent direction and writing are the dynamic cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth, expert editing by both Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, and remarkable performances by the young, star-studded cast; each element of Social Network — visually, sonically, and otherwise — all perfectly coalescing into one, albeit fast-paced, cohesive unit.
Over the last decade or so, singer-songwriter-actress Kate Nash has developed a reputation (and obvious penchant) for defying others’ expectations. Filmed over five years as the British singer moved to Los Angeles and began writing and recording new music, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl (which had its Stateside premiere last week at the DOC NYC Festival), chronicles a crucial turning-point in that very career. Told in a non-linear jumble — with Nash’s music providing commentary along the way, accompanied by brilliantly animated sequences — Underestimate the Girl is a far cry from the uplifting, carefree, punk-rock comeback story filmmaker Amy Goldstein and her subject originally intended, turning instead into a cautionary tale.
When Kate Nash came out with her iconic track “Foundations”over a decade ago, she was one of many that were creating something different within the then-current musical climate. The mid- to late-2000s and into the early-2010s saw the debuts of what many dubbed the next-gen British Invasion, which featured, as Nash herself once described as “lots of British artists being British”. Armed with distinctive voices and honest, incisive lyrics set against sounds that were at once experimental and nostalgic, artists such as Adele, Lily Allen, Paloma Faith, Florence and the Machine, Marina and the Diamonds, and even the late Amy Winehouse were all changing the game, despite their seemingly similar female-ness (Nash would later famously state at the Brit Awards: “Female isn’t a genre”).
Indeed, it was an interesting time for music, and with this new generation of artists also came the advent of the Internet and its intangible power and reach. Nowadays, in an era where digitally-native artists transitioning onto the Billboard Top 100 and shattering records with what seems the greatest of ease are increasingly becoming the norm, it’s amazing to think that just a decade ago, posting one’s music onto MySpace as many of the above did (Nash included), was considered quite a revolutionary act.
Revolutionary and revelatory it was — particularly for Nash, whose critically-acclaimed 2007 debut album Made of Bricks went to #1 on the UK charts. She went on to tour the record, and later released her second album, 2010’s My Best Friend is You. Using money she earned from her initial success, Nash founded a School of Rock-style program for girls (aptly called Kate Nash’s Rock ‘n’ Roll for Girls After-School Music Club), as well as funded a tour for her third release, 2013’s Girl Talk. For a while, things were going great.
There is, however, a high price to pay for such success — one which does not always benefit those so selfless with their talents, as artists often are. With Best Friend‘s poor sales performance, as well as a change to a punkier, more riot grrrl sound on Girl Talk, Nash would eventually be dropped from her label (via text message, no less). To add further insult to injury, she would also learn that her then-manager had stolen money from her. All of this, combined with her self-funded endeavors, would leave the singer bankrupt.
(In some of her lowest points depicted in the film, we see Nash selling some of her most iconic tour costumes to charity shops and working side gigs for famed, now-shuttered Meltdown Comics’ wonderfully geekier version of QVC — Han “Cholo” jewelry, anyone? — just to make the rent.)
To her credit, Kate Nash was never an artist that set out for worldwide domination; for her, it was always about the music. “This is a matter of life and death for me,” Nash states in the documentary, “because making music keeps me alive.” But the landscape of music had changed since 2007, and in the years she fell off the radar, Nash had to find other ways to eke out a living. As an A&R executive friend of Nash states in the film: “What worked ten years ago isn’t relevant now.”
Or, at least, not in the same way it used to.
Back then, the music went directly to the fans; this time, it would be the fans that would give back to the musician who always selflessly did. In addition to signing a publishing deal to write songs for fellow artists, (as well as for commercial properties and other similar opportunities), Nash began a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017, where she asked fans to “be [her] record label” and help fund her next album. With this, other things began to come together, most notably, a SAG-supported role in Netflix’s GLOW — the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for the former theatre student and seemingly the well-deserved culmination of her journey into self-defiance and, perhaps most importantly, self-reliance.
While there are times when its chronology becomes hard to keep track of and therefore slightly distracting (quick-cuts of Nash and her enviably chameleonic hair as she narrates at various sit-downs with the camera certainly don’t help in this regard), Underestimate the Girl still remains a hugely important watch. At a time where others in the industry are currently struggling for their own voice and artistic rights (Taylor Swift and adultmom, just in the past week alone), this film’s message, much like its subject, is loud and clear, simultaneously unabashed and unrelenting.
Images courtesy of Span Productions.
If you’re in the UK, you can watch Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl on BBC3 iPlayer (available for only five more weeks!). Follow the film’s journey along the festival circuit; the next stop is the St. Louis International Film Festival in St. Louis, Missouri! The filmmakers are also actively on the search for US distribution, so if it’s playing at a theatre or festival near you, let them know how you enjoyed it. More opportunities for this movie to be screened means more opportunities for this story to be told to a wider audience.
For nearly the past twenty years or so, movie-musicals have seen a resurgence in the public consciousness. One such film that has done so, and with as much fanfare (or perhaps even more so), is none other than Damien Chazelle’s own ambitious take, La La Land (2016). Chazelle’s second attempt at a musical (after his debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench ) and the third in an informal trilogy centered around jazz (along with Guy and Madeline and the Oscar-winning Whiplash ), La La Land is perhaps best known for its controversial and precedent-setting tie for Best Picture with fellow nominee Moonlight at the 2017 Oscars (the honor would eventually go to the latter film). Despite this, the film garnered a record-tying fourteen nominations (alongside classics Titanic and All About Eve) and five Oscar wins that year, and seemed universally hailed as the ode to the grand movie-musical productions of yesteryear.
La La Land follows two young Angelenos as they struggle to follow their respective dreams: Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who, between auditions, makes ends meet as a barista at a café in the Warner Bros. lot; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz purist musician who moonlights as both a jukebox pianist at a restaurant and as part of an eighties tribute band (the latter much to his chagrin). After they meet not-so-cutely at a traffic jam (that most quintessential of Quintessential Los Angeles Locales), Mia encounters Seb again at the restaurant, and yet again at a party Seb’s band plays at. Over the course of the first act, they start to get to know another, each sharing their individual hopes and dreams. Snippets of their brief but heady summer romance are heightened through sweeping instrumental sequences and montages (this one taking place at the Griffith Observatory is particularly breathtaking), and when they — spoiler alert! — eventually part ways, we as the audience are heartbroken. Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-falls-in-love-with-Girl, Boy-eventually-loses-Girl.
Admittedly, the film lives up to (some) of its hype. As the title suggests, La La Land is as dreamy a confection as could possibly be whipped up onscreen: a dizzying whirl of large-scale chorus numbers packed with nostalgic old-school romance (and even old-schoolier, if problematic, notions of jazz). Just in case you didn’t get the hint already, the film shows you the first of many cinematic vestiges it’ll pay homage to over the next two hours: that of a widescreen title card touting the old Cinemascope logo, setting the tone for what’s to come. From then on, it’s a flurry of visual allusions to the cinema of olde, with nods to Hollywood’s Golden Age of musicals on film: An American in Paris(1951), Funny Face(1957), A Star is Born (1954), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), West Side Story(1961), Sound of Music(1965), and Cabaret (1972)all get their due here; not to mention the offbeat musicals of the French New Wave, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est Un Femme/A Woman is a Woman (1961), and Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort(1967).
Of these, it is perhaps Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (along with Vincente Minelli’s An American in Paris), which proves to be the strongest influence on La La Land; not only in its storyline but in its music, as well. Most of the cues taken from Umbrellas are, obviously, the influences of jazz within an operatic structure: Demy’s film (the score for which was composed by the late, great Michel Legrand) is entirely sung-through, punctuated by throaty brass riffs and off-kilter drum beats during moments of high emotion. It’s this juxtaposition between the old and the new which Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz (previous collaborators on both Guy and Madeline and Whiplash) clearly try to replicate in La La Land, if in a much different way.
Traditionally, musical theatre utilizes music either as a tool to help push the story along, or to propel the fullest expression of a character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, when mere action simply cannot. There are a couple of pieces that do follow this important tenet, as in the case of ‘A Lovely Night’, a flirty tune that hearkens back to the old “I-Like-Ya-But-I-Ain’t-Tellin’-Ya” musical theatre trope. However, if we’re talking about expression through song, none get us there quite like the film’s excellent eleven o’clock number, ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’. Featuring wonderfully-penned lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman hitmakers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it is La La Land’s most character-driven piece, calling to mind Cabaret’s own passionate, eponymously-titled closer, and undeniably its best song, despite ‘City of Stars’ lamentably chosen as the film’s Best Song nominee.
Other musical moments worthy of mention in La La Land (and which duly pay further homage to the movie-musical traditions it pulls from) include: ‘Summer Montage/Madeline’, which bears hints of the ‘A Basal Metabolism’ scene in Funny Face; as well as ‘Epilogue’, a hazy dream sequence which not only makes further blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual references to Funny Face, but also wonderfully evokes the famous dream sequences from both An American in Paris and A Star is Born,‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Born in a Trunk’, respectively.
Mostly, the music in La La Land works to softly underscore the overall feeling of romance blossoming between the two lovers. Many of its instrumental pieces, performed by Hurwitz on the piano, do so to great effect. In particular, ‘Mia and Sebastian’s Theme’, an elliptical, beautifully lilting piece which memorably accompanies the characters’ journey in following their dreams and, hopefully, each other. Its melody, just like their relationship, seems it might go on forever — that is, until it doesn’t. Just as with the instrumentals, songs like ‘City of Stars’ — a melancholy duet between Mia and Seb about the heartbreak of ambition in Los Angeles — attempt at some reflective moments, while other songs seem to merely be there to help to establish a time and place or to convey a mood, as in the case of opener ‘Another Day of Sun’.
The John Legend-led track ‘Start a Fire’ is a straggler, both in terms of its obvious “jazz-pop-fusion” style and in its ability to highlight the characters’ evolving relationship, if deceptively so. By this point in the film, Seb has accepted an offer by his old friend Keith (played by Legend) to join his band on tour as keyboardist, if a bit reluctantly. Not only does he have the defense of his purist principles to think about (to which Keith says: “Jazz is about the future”), but there’s also the question of Mia, with whom Seb has now progressed into a live-in relationship. Still, with Mia’s encouragement, he takes the gig, and it is when the band are back in town that our scene takes place. In the song’s chorus, Keith proclaims:
We can start a fire
Come on, let it burn, baby
We can start a fire
Let the tables turn, baby
We can start a fire
It is as typical a pop chorus as any like it: repetitive lyrics rife with trite metaphorical content. But as pointed out in an episode of the Switched on Pop podcast, the above lyrics — despite the upbeat rhythm with which they are presented — provide the perfect foreshadowing for the following scene in the film, wherein Mia and Seb have an argument. Home for the first time in months, Seb surprises Mia with dinner at the apartment they share. They catch up over dinner, and all is well — or so it seems. When Seb nonchalantly mentions he’ll have to go back on tour again soon, now beholden to the album cycle of contemporary mainstream artists, Mia counters with the question of Seb’s own satisfaction with his work, asking him if he even likes the music he’s playing. As the argument reaches its apex, the food Seb is still cooking in the oven burns. Let the tables turn. Let it burn.
A pretty straightforward reading of a not-so-straightforward song, to be sure, but it marks a turning point in the film’s main thematic arc — and gets to the heart of what makes this movie musical slightly different than its canonic predecessors. By all appearances, Mia and Seb’s relationship seem poised to follow the fate of the Star-crossed-Lovers trope found in practically every love story since time immemorial. That they do — however, what makes this story interesting for today’s audience is that the conflict over which the relationship ultimately deteriorates is not that of love for someone else, but rather the love of something else.
The real tension in “La La Land” is between ambition and love, and perhaps the most up-to-date thing about it is the way it explores that ancient conflict. A cynical but not inaccurate way to put this would be to describe it as a careerist movie about careerism. But that would be to slight Mr. Chazelle’s real and uncomfortable insight, which is that the drive for professional success is, for young people at the present time, both more realistic and more romantic than the pursuit of boy-meets-girl happily-ever-after. Love is contingent. Art is commitment.”
In this regard, as pointed out by Genevieve Koski in an episode of her podcast The Next Picture Show, the film perhaps more closely owes its debt to American in Paris, wherein the titular American Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) finds himself having to choose between a life of literal security with patron with would-be paramour Milo (Nina Foch) — or go back to his old bohemian lifestyle in order to be with his true love, Lise (Leslie Caron). And unlike this past year’s hit remake, the Bradley Cooper- and Lady Gaga-led A Star is Born (wherein the two main characters choose both Love and Ambition, to ultimately tragic consequences), La La Land’s characters ultimately choose not each other, but their individual dreams.
This, for all its unabashed affection for the long-lost romanticism of Hollywood’s golden age, is how La La Land sets out to place itself among the 21st-century canon. Wherever its merits as a movie-musical stand, it is this emotional juxtaposition which at the very least has made much of the film’s surrounding attention just this side of justifiable. Call it, perhaps, the most Millenial movie-musical of the decade thus far (with the possible exception of Jason Robert Brown’s cult 2001 hit, The Last Five Years, adapted to film in 2014): where the hopes of today’s youth dwell in dreams more down-to-earth, rather than up high in the starry-eyed rapture of true love.
Some of you already know how much I love my movie-musicals — and recently, I’ve become very much obsessed with one in particular that I’ve been meaning to see for a while now:God Help the Girl (2014). The brainchild of Belle & Sebastian musician Stuart Murdoch, the film also happens to be the offshoot of an eponymous side project, also created by Murdoch. Over the years, as Murdoch began to write songs which were more suited for female voices and therefore didn’t quite have a place within the B&S ouevre, the idea of a concept album and accompanying film began to form.
It was then that he took out an ad for female singers (as captured in the four-part documentary, Girl Singer Needed) — after which vocalists Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia, Alexandra Klobouk, Brittany Stallings and Dina Bankole, among others. What resulted then was a string of beautifully composed retro, girl group-style songs spanning a variety of genres — all illustrating an abstract story surrounding a girl named Eve, the ‘Girl’ of the project’s title.
A few years after the album came out in 2009, a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter helped to finally, er, kickstart the film idea into motion. It was released in 2014, and centers around Eve, an Australian girl suffering from anorexia nervosa, who escapes the psychiatric ward and absconds to the city of Glasgow to pursue her love of music and songwriting. Along the way, she meets musician-slash-lifeguard James and his music student Cassie. The three, each at a different crossroads in their life, begin a friendship around a shared love of music and decide to form a pop group.
What results is a delightful flurry of quirky whimsy and bittersweet melancholy — with a huge dose of ear candy thrown in for good measure, of course. Every second on the screen seems filled to the brim with aesthetically pleasing cinematography, along with the equally pleasant (and surprisingly so) vocal stylings of the film’s three ineffably charming leads. As the titular character, Emily Browning embodies Eve with a depth of emotion evident in both her acting and her wispy lilt of a singing voice; while Olly Alexander (already a known musical talent in his own right with his band Years & Years) is perfectly awkward as James. Reprising yet another role onscreen as a girl named Cassie, Hannah Murray continues to extend the same kooky-yet-ethereal quality in this film as she did with her similarly-named character in the television drama Skins.
Serving as perfect accompaniment to its homage to mid-century pop, the film playfully nods to iconic images of the past — particularly that of films of the era. The most obvious of these is Browning herself, who is practically a modern-day dead ringer for Anna Karina— famed wife and muse to French New Wave director-auteur Jean-Luc Godard. (Other visual references at play refer to Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort and the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night.) Murdoch not only turns one’s eye toward the beauty of his characters but also his native Glasgow. While one might not immediately associate the city with particularly picturesque landscapes, the first-time director achieves just that with his portrayal of rivers, grassy hillsides, and moody city life. In the end, it is a film which portrays a Scotland that is just as beautiful and multi-dimensional as not only the characters inhabiting it, but also the music which underscores it.