Tag Archives: Musical

EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

The film was a very British Guignol called Hangover Square, the story of a composer with a tendency to commit murder when stressed. The climax of the film is a performance of the composer’s concerto (actually the work of the legendary Bernard Herrmann), which culminates in his death in a cataclysmic inferno, still banging away at the piano. It’s not subtle.

Stephen SondheimFor the adolescent watching this tale unfold, it was a formative experience. He was so captivated by the dark story and Herrmann’s score that he rushed back to the moviehouse to watch the whole thing again in hopes of memorizing the sheet music to the villain’s composition. He wrote Herrmann a fan letter, which the recipient acknowledged was an unusual treat for a film composer. And years later, that young man had the opportunity to pay homage to his inspiration by using a familiar Herrmann chord throughout the score of a musical he had written, which just so happened to be about a murderous barber whose victims become the main ingredient in meat pies.

Stephen Sondheim was a noted cinephile, so it makes sense that movies would have a prominent role in his career. He was, of course, primarily a figure of the stage; long before his passing at the age of 91, he had cemented his reputation as perhaps the most significant creator in the history of American-style musical theater. But he got to indulge his love of film directly more than once; he won an Oscar for the song he contributed to the mélange of color and makeup that was Dick Tracy, he co-wrote the all-star puzzle box The Last of Sheila, and six of his shows made the jump to the silver screen, albeit none entirely successfully. He also made an impression on other filmmakers; audiences were treated to surprise appearances recently in films as diverse as Lady Bird, Knives Out, and Marriage Story. So although not a creature of film, he certainly made his mark.

But what am I doing here, talking about a Broadway composer on a weird movie website? Well, I think Stephen Sondheim has something to teach us about the role that personal vision and committed interest play in making a thing weird. Because while his reputation as the giant of American musical theater may rest on a foundation of rich, adventurous melodies and breathtakingly gymnastic and insightful lyrics, the thing that always kept him apart from the establishment – that marked him as an iconoclast of the highest order and denied him a true blockbuster – was his taste in material. No light comedies or mindless spectacles for him. His most dance-heavy show features tragic murders to end both acts. In search of pure comedy, he adapts plays that are 2,000 years old. Ask him to bring a movie to the stage and he’ll turn to an Italian film about a soldier is ensnared by the obsessive love of an ugly, sickly woman. Welcome to Broadway!

Even by Sondheim standards, my first experience with one of his shows was a doozy: a college production of Merrily We Roll Along, a story of lost idealism and the cost of one’s soul that has the temerity to unspool its tale in reverse chronological order. This stylistic Continue reading EVERYBODY’S GOT THE RIGHT TO BE DIFFERENT: STEPHEN SONDHEIM (1930-2021)

CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Allan Arkush

FEATURING: P. J. Soles, Dey Young, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, The Ramones

PLOT: Riff Randell battles the punk-hating administration at her high school by invoking the musical powers of her favorite band, The Ramones.

Still from Rock 'n Roll High School (1979)

COMMENTS: The Ramones were icons of minimalism. Progenitors of punk, they pioneered a sound that was somehow both retro and revolutionary, delivering two-chord, two-minute landmarks that had none of the feel of craft and all of the sensation of having been spewed out of the most primal reaches of the band members’ autonomic nervous systems. Everything about them was reduced to its bare essentials: a basic guitar-bass-drum setup, fronted by a flat, nasal vocal that was tuneful while making no pretensions to being musical, presented by a group that spoke to punk’s fierce independence with a façade of careful uniformity, from the matching leather jackets and torn jeans to the identical messy face-obscuring Kate Jackson hairstyles, and even extending to their manufactured noms de théâtre. Everything about them was carefully engineered to celebrate everybody by being nobody.

So the notion that the Ramones would be the centerpiece of a bubbly teenager’s every waking moment is a little dissonant. And that they would somehow come to have an entire feature film devoted to them—one with a substantial cult following—is nothing short of bizarre. It’s the domain of old people to complain that the kids are making idols out of empty shells, but the emptiness of the Ramones is part of their very essence. They’re almost antithetical to the idea of teenybop worship. To watch P J. Soles’ Riff Randell—a veritable firehose of giddy hyperactivity—go gaga for this quartet of empty t-shirts is to plunge headlong through the looking glass. Try to imagine a Disney Channel original movie where a precocious 12-year old learns self-confidence through the power of her favorite band, and that band turns out to be GWAR. (Note to Disney: Please greenlight this. I will absolutely write the script for you.)

But for the purposes of the Roger Corman film factory, the Ramones hardly matter. They’re answer to a Mad Lib wherein [INSERT NAME OF BAND] inspires kids to overthrow those dullard grownups. (It’s telling that Corman’s original suggestion was center the film around disco music, an idea that would have been truly transgressive if it had been filmed two years earlier and dared to address the politics of race and sexual orientation endemic to the genre.) Rock ‘n’ Roll High School has one goal, and it’s to tell the kids how much cooler they are than those stick-in-the-mud adults. And if we have to put our thumb on the scale to make the old people especially dorky and uncool, well hey, that’s just Roger Corman being a smart businessman.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the kind of movie that Rock ‘n’ Continue reading CAPSULE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ANNETTE (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Leos Carax

FEATURING: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg

PLOT: After the birth of his daughter, Henry McHenry’s life slides irreversibly into the abyss.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No, not because the daughter is a puppet. That’s just a convenient, albeit perfect, metaphor for Annette, the character.  Annette the film is an example of distillation in the extreme. It condenses opera’s operaticness to its essence, stand-up comedy to its essence, and so on. Musicals, as a genre, have a lot of leeway that often keep us from considering them as “weird.” However, here the director and screenwriters kick the substance of style as substance into overdrive, making something that is as emotionally affecting as its trappings are meaningfully superfluous.

COMMENTS: “So, may we start?” asks the director in front of a studio mixing board. Cue the screen-/score-writers, Ron and Russ Mael. As the proem is sung, the leads enter the scene. The cast and crew proceed into the streets singing, continuing the opening number before kneeling in front of the camera and then dispersing into the actual action of the story. It’s a spectacle of choreographed artifice, laying bare the central conceit of Annette: this is a performance. There are plenty of musicals about musicals. There are meta-movies. Leos Carax is capturing both in this glorious two-for-one deal, which first shows you all its components before proceeding to confound you anyway. And while this is certainly a Carax picture, he is like the celebrity chef working from the ingredients gathered by the Maels (who record as “Sparks”) over their decades-long career.

The story is so Hollywood that it almost hurts. Stand-up comic and big-time celebrity Henry McHenry falls in love with Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved opera singer; they marry, have a child (more on that later), and tragedy ensues. Why? Because this is opera; this is opera so deep down to its pathos-impacted core that its plot arc is as predictable as it is fundamental. The tragedy of Annette is deeper than it is “large”; no gods, no epic events, just emotional deterioration speeding into spiritual collapse. So it’s Hollywood, and it’s opera. And it’s always playing footsie with the absurd. Annette‘s hook, at least its main one, is that the titular character is a wooden puppet who sings by the light of the moon.

Under normal circumstances, this is where the “uncanny valley” remarks would go. But seeing as this story is neck-deep in the very essence (bordering on apotheosis) of every other element—songs, performance, melodrama, lighting—Annette being a marionette makes perfect sense. As a character, she is controlled not by herself, but by her parents. This ding an sich-ing (she is literally a puppet) is in keeping with what Carax and the Maels are up to. Is there a “true love” duet-montage? You bet there is. And virtually all the lyrics are the words, “We’re so in love”. When Annette becomes a star, there’s a requisite travel montage which echoes the lyrically scant duet from before, with the lines “We’re traveling ’round the world” sung while they… travel around the world. At times the filmmakers beg forgiveness for having to interrupt their emotional archetypes with plot—an important character apologizes a number of times during his expositionary monologue for breaking his speech to perform his job of conducting an orchestra.

This makes him a perfect stand-in for the creators. And his ultimate fate also suggests the perils of the creative process, as characters take on a life of their own and throw a spanner in the works. There have been, and will be, superior movie musicals, but few others revel so fundamentally in the core of performance as a genre. This is a story that hides neither its nature nor its ambitions. And the skill level of its authors—writers, directors, and players—leaves the audience completely in their control.

An Amazon Studios production, Annette debuted for free on Amazon Prime after its 2021 Cannes premiere and brief theatrical run.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a thoroughly banana cakes musical romance… If you sometimes go to the movies to feel unsettled, perplexed, and amused—not to mention get a peek at an often-shirtless and always-brooding Adam Driver—Annette might be the weird one you’ve been waiting for.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Makoto Nagahisa

FEATURING: Keita Ninomiya, Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura

PLOT: After meeting at a funeral parlor, four emotionless orphaned children run away and form a pop band.

Still from We Are Little Zombies (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Carnivalesque pop-psychedelics enliven Nagahisa’s genre-bending tale of four emotion-deprived orphans wending their way through modern Japan. The final act, which sees the quartet piloting a stolen garbage truck into a black and white ocean of giant amoebas and pulsating anenomes before emerging for a (posthumous?) coda, gives it a chance of crashing our supplemental list of weird cinema.

COMMENTS: We Are Little Zombies takes its aesthetic inspiration from Nintendo NES video game systems: a chiptune-based theme song, 8-bit credits and bumpers. It’s structured as a series of challenges, with four orphans collecting four quest items (in four flashbacks), and with grief as the final boss. It wrings a surprising amount of depth from its short attention span style, and a surprising amount of empathy from its tale of children whose defining characteristic is that they have no emotions.

Little Zombies bursts with energy and ideas that vibrantly contrast with the enervated performances of its living dead heroes. Surreal touches sprout through the early reels, including a giant goldfish swimming outside an apartment window, a hobo orchestra, and a talk show hosted by a lime green centaur and co-hosted by an enthusiastic eyeball. The film features multiple, mostly upbeat musical numbers: not just the “Little Zombies” performances, but also improvised drunken karaoke lyrics about the comparative intellectual capacities of an octopus and a three-year-old. The luminous images and digressive fantasies imply a sense of wonder about life—one that the children are incapable of seeing and appreciating, even as it envelops them.

There is an open question of whether the kids are really emotional zombies, or whether they’re just temporarily numbed as a way to cope with tragedy. Before being accidentally emancipated, main character Hikari was a hōchigo, literally “left-alone child,” the Japanese analog to America’s “latchkey kid.” From his perspective, at least, mom and dad were more concerned with their careers and affairs than with raising their offspring. Brash kleptomaniac Ikuko was physically abused by his father and brother. Overweight Takemura, whose parents owned a restaurant, comes from a relatively normal background. Ishi, the only female in the quartet, has the most complex backstory: her mother calls her a femme fatale, and she draws creepy attention from older men. She’s victimized more by her sex than anything. There doesn’t appear to be much of a common thread generating the zombies’ juvenile anomie; and yet, it feels like Nagahisa is onto a real social issue, something he can diagnose but not cure. The only prescription he can offer is this rebellious declaration: “despair is uncool.”

We Are Little Zombies will be coming to select theaters (and online theaters) July 10. More details (and a Little Zombies digital coloring book) can be found at American distributor Oscilloscope’s official site. Seek it out when you have the chance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre quasi-existential adventure about loss and grieving… a visual funhouse, full of surrealistic images…”–Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com (festival screening)

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE BURT’S SERENADE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Ken Roht

FEATURING: Kevin Richardson, Brandon Heitkamp, Sharon Ferguson, Dylan Kenin, Diva Zappa

PLOT: Burlesque stars and drag queens team up to defeat a vampire, singing forgettable songs along the way.

Still from Vampire Burt's Serenade (2020)

COMMENTS: A horror-comedy-musical seems like an easy bet for a moviemaking team on a low budget; the only problem is, great musicals require great music. That isn’t easy to come by. If it lost the lame tunes and focused more on its own craziness, Vampire Burt’s Serenade might have been a better film, although it would distinguish itself less from the crowded camp-horror field.

Who would have guessed that someday Kevin Richardson would be working with even weaker material than he did when he was in the Backstreet Boys? True, he sings well, but given the generic pop-rock beats and uninspired lyrics he has to work with, it’s for naught. Most of the rest of the cast doesn’t even have Richardson’s chops going for them: Diva Zappa singing “Sex Toy” is actually painful to listen to. The lip-syncing is clumsy, too; it’s obvious when the soundtrack switches from live to studio recording, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that the characters are actually spontaneously singing about their desire to stake a vampire through the heart. Only a couple of numbers are memorable: one where a group of drugged ballerinas stagger around singing a nursery-rhyme track (the ladies all affect little girl voices so singing ability isn’t an issue), and a “sultry” number sung by two lovers rendezvousing in a toilet stall (“Here in this scuzzy little toilet/Having such a nice time in this wicked little john… in this crazy insanity/with its lack of any sanity…”) that sticks out because of its obscene absurdity and nonsensical lyrics.

The worldbuilding, too, is half-assed. The action centers around a burlesque cabaret where vampire Burt is well-known to everyone, for reasons never explained; without any real motivation, he bites three main characters in one night, setting his own undoing in motion. In a movie populated entirely by vampires, victims, zombies, strippers, and a drug-dealing snuff performance artist, all of whom sing and dance, it seems odd to complain about a lack of believably. But this universe just doesn’t feel like a place you could live in, and nor does it feel like a delirious dream; instead, it’s just a collection of movie cliches and vampire tropes thrown together as needed to advance the script.

This Rocky Horror wannabe earned a few mildly positive recommendations from the “good try, old chap” school of pat-on-the-back film criticism. If you’re looking for pluses, Richardson is believably douchey, having a ball pwning the haters as the titular coke-snorting bloodsucker; the comedy is sometimes effective (e.g. a running joke about bisexual vampires that’s well-executed, if  obvious); the idea of a vampire who later becomes a zombie is cute; and the finale, with the entire cast coming together in a battle to the death, is bloody and chaotic. I didn’t like Vampire Burt’s Serenade, but I can see someone else liking it as a fast-paced time-waster. Still, it’s nothing to sing about.

It turns out that Vampire Burt’s Serenade is actually a slightly re-edited version of a 2014 movie called Bloody Indulgent. Indulgent runs two minutes longer than Serenade and can still be found on the Amazon channel “Fear Factory,” though the DVDs have been removed from circulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unconventional and enjoyable little title.”–Bobby LePire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)