“Making a playlist is a delicate art. It’s like writing a love letter, but better, in a way. You get to say what you wanna say without actually saying it. You get to use someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. And then there are the rules: It’s gotta be entertaining. You gotta tell a story. You can’t be too obvious, but you can’t be too obscure, either. Anyway, a good compilation, like all things in life, is hard to do.”
As stated above, any good playlist has to be able to tell a story — and just like a good playlist, High Fidelity (based upon the eponymously-titled novel and film, both written and adapted by author Nick Hornby), is one story that steadily and satisfyingly builds over time. While the series continues to cover the familiar rom-com territory its earlier iterations were built upon (it does display “fidelity” in its title, after all), it also works to further expand and update the mid-90s, early-2000s worlds of its source material with references to our post-Millennial present — all while told mainly through the point-of-view of record shop proprietor Robyn “Rob” Brooks, now in the form of a woman on the cusp of her thirties (Zoë Kravitz).
Still nursing a broken heart after having split from her former fiancé, Russell “Mac” McCormack (Kingsley Ben-Adir) just the year before, Rob soothes her sorrows the only way she knows how: through flashbacks and awkward reunions over the course of ten half-hour episodes, she takes us down the list of her Desert Island Top Five Heartbreaks. Her personal “tracklist” becomes the embodiment of music’s inextricable link with one’s memory: the way it could take you back to a time and place when a song or mixtape seemed to define a moment or alter the course of your life. A great example of this is a bottle episode — and mid-season highlight — in which Rob’s former-lover, current-best-friend Simon (David H. Holmes) rehashes his own Desert Island Top Five.
Bumping up the nostalgia factor in Fidelity is its production value — shot in a dreamy, hazy Brooklyn replete with neon-lit old-timey hipster dive bars and specialty shops clash with the sterile, Millennial-Pink we associate with Crown Heights these days. The show’s own tracklist, which ranges from vintage bonafides like Prince and Blondie to modern indie favorites such as Hot Chip and TV on the Radio, proves just as satisfyingly genre-bending and nostalgia-inducing as the show itself — resultant of the collaborative efforts of music supervisors Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe, and Alison Rosenfeld; as well as executive producer Kravitz and special consultant Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. (Yes, that Questlove).
Fidelity‘s famously signature thesis (that it’s not what we are like, but what we like, that ultimately matters) is put to the test throughout the season. As Rob says at one point: “Half of the neighborhood thinks we’re washed-up relics. The other half think we’re nostalgic hipsters. They’re both kind of right.” Championship Vinyl is, after all, the very embodiment of all things once culturally cherished, the last bastion of a time when things were good — where the influencers were the people standing on the other side of the register. Indeed, in one telling scene features Championship employee — and Rob’s other bestie — Cherise (scene-stealer Da’Vine Joy Randolph) confronts a customer mindlessly Shazaam-ing a song playing in the store, while completely ignoring the fact that she’s standing right in front of him.
It’s this very confrontation of our current latte-guzzling, Instagram-Selfie culture that makes High Fidelity an interesting remix of the original — one you’ll want to replay over and over again.
Images courtesy of Phillip Caruso/Hulu. High Fidelity is now streaming on Hulu.
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.
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.
“..none [of the songs] get us there quite like its eleven o’clock number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” does. It is La La Land’s most character-driven piece and undeniably its best song (despite being passed over by “City of Stars” for Best Song nominee at that year’s Oscars).”
Featuring wonderfully-penned lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman hitmakers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” called to mind another song from yet another movie-musical: that of Cabaret’s eponymously-titled show-ender, penned in a similar vein by lyricist Fred Ebb, and performed by the inimitable Liza Minelli.
As noted in this post from Danny Ashkenazi’s Notes from a Composer blog, the similarities here are pretty obvious to savvy movie-musical fans, but perhaps subtler to more casual viewers of the genre. Both songs speak of living without regret, with each protagonist speaking of an inspirational, larger-than-life figure in their lives; Emma Stone’s Mia talks of a Francophile aunt, while Minelli’s Sally Bowles sings about her friend Elsie. Other similarities abound, particularly as each character begins to sing of their respective inspirations’ demises. Watching La La Land, I was tickled to hear the similarity of the lyric “She lived in her liquor/and died with a flicker” to Cabaret’s “The day she died the neighbors came to snicker/Well, that’s what comes with too much pills and liquor”.
It’s yet another great example of director Damien Chazelle’s homage to musical theatre at work.
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.
According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the word pulchritude (one of my personal favorites) is defined simply as ‘physical comeliness’ — and if there is anything that fits that description, it’s director-choreographer-auteur Bob Fosse and his distinctive choreography. Known now for its emphasis on rounded shoulders and isolated movements, Fosse’s choreography was inspired by what he felt were his own physical shortcomings, which he later spotlighted in his always alluring and always provocative signature style. Little did he know that as a result, this slight re-contextualization of his supposed imperfections would not only go on to challenge notions of sexuality, conformity, and art but also inspire a bevy of devotees decades later.
In an essay which appeared in the accompanying booklet for the Criterion Collection edition of Fosse’s penultimate and most ambitious work, All That Jazz (1979), New Yorker writer and critic Hilton Als wrote the following:
In any case, Fosse’s imitators are legion; that’s what happens when you give your life to learning something about your own ultimately unexplainable genius. It must have seemed as if no time had passed, as he lay dying, between that moment and being a boy in Chicago, a born choreographer who worked so hard to articulate, through all those bodies that passed before his discerning, worried eyes, what a shrug meant, what a slide meant, how to contract and then extend in a world that was constantly contracting and extending past the point — seemingly — of human endurance, all the while holding up your gloved hands, those famous Fosse hands, ten digits that, more often than not, the choreographer made look like the instruments that committed original sin, hands that were always grasping for something more dangerous than love, even though there is nothing more dangerous than love, maybe an attitude, one that said, “I don’t care, fuck it.”
It is this exact talent for turning expectations on their head which Fosse later extended into his film-making. From his artful displays of a group of flirtatious taxi dancers in his directorial debut, Sweet Charity (1969); to seemingly cheery vaudevillian numbers satirizing the Nazi regime’s rise to power in Cabaret (1972)’s Weimar-era Berlin; culminating in the harrowing image of a body bag zipped up to Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in All That Jazz — Fosse found how to make the camera dance, in ways that still very much resonate today.
In fact, one can still see remnants of his influence in modern pop culture — from musical theatre (1996’s Rent, the 2002 Oscar-winning film version of Chicago) to film (2000’s Center Stage, 2006’s Marie Antoinette) to even the realms of pop music (Beyoncé, Christine and the Queens), many are still paying their homage to the late director-choreographer, who died suddenly in 1987. Most recently, Fosse’s legacy has continued on with the Lin-Manuel Miranda-produced FX limited seriesFosse/Verdon, the season finale of which aired just this week. Centered around Fosse and his wife and muse, dancer-actress Gwen Verdon and stars Academy Award-winner Sam Rockwell and Academy Award-nominee Michelle Williams as Fosse and Verdon, respectively, the show chronicles the couple over the course of their rocky-but-passionate fifty-year marriage.
I haven’t gotten to check out the show during its original airing, so I’ll definitely be spending the next couple of weeks binging it — and then re-visiting Fosse again with the clips below! Like Roy Scheider famously said in All That Jazz: “It’s Showtime, folks.”
“Who’s Got the Pain?” (ft. Gwen Verdon), Damn Yankees (1958)
“Big Spender”, Sweet Charity (1969)
“Mein Herr”, Cabaret (1972)
“Everything Old is New Again”, All That Jazz (1979)
“Take Off With Us”, All That Jazz (1979)
“All That Jazz” (ft. Carly Hughes, Jennifer Nettles and Company), Chicago on Broadway (2015)
“All That Jazz” (ft. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger), Chicago on film (2002)
“It’s Showtime, folks” triptych, All That Jazz (1979)
“Dressing Ceremony” triptych, Marie Antoinette (2006)
“5 Dollars” by Christine and the Queens, Chris (2018)
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.
There’s no question about it: I am a very visual person. As this blog will certainly attest to, it’s perhaps no surprise that the films I gravitate towards are ones that not only strike the viewer emotionally, but also aesthetically. In this edition of #FilmStrips, we’ll be looking at two films that do just that — and memorably so: Wong Kar-wai’sIn the Mood for Love (2000) and Luca Guadagnino’sI Am Love (2009). Through the use of strong audio-visual cues – intertitles, vibrant images that seem to spill off the screen, and sweeping music — all set against the lush backdrops of Hong Kong and Milan, In the Mood for Love and I Am Love both provide a breathtaking view at love’s potent power.
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