When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Shallow

It feels like only yesterday the world fell in love with Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, the third and most recent remake of the classic ill-fated romance between two lovers in showbiz whose career trajectories are trending in opposite directions. Maybe it doesn’t feel like the two years it has actually been considering how thirsty the internet still is for that Cooper-Gaga hook-up IRL. Their rendition of their hit single “Shallow” at the Oscars that year helped calm exactly no one down. In Cooper’s modern update, one that changes the discipline from acting to singing/songwriting, Gaga takes on the role originally portrayed by Janet Gaynor in 1937 while the writer/director mimics Fredric March.

While it is always going to be remembered more for the doomed romance (as it perhaps should, for Cooper and Gaga give us an on-screen couple for the ages), you just can’t sleep on A Star is Born‘s soundtrack. There is so much quality music in here — actual musicianship, not catchy ear-worms (even though those are good too!) — that you basically get two forms of entertainment for the price of one. I could probably have chosen other songs to highlight here. Cooper’s opening rock anthem “Black Eyes” is a real barn-burner that kicks the movie off with some good energy. And Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way,” with its really beautiful vocal inflections layered on top of a haunting melody, is maybe the next strongest candidate.

However no song blew up quite like the sentimental ballad “Shallow,” which you could hear playing on any given radio station throughout the rest of the year and well into 2019. Written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt and Anthony Rossomando, the lyrical content of “Shallow” is rooted at the very heart of the movie, with each character asking each other whether they feel comfortable being the person they are. The intimate duet received widespread acclaim from critics, landing at the top of many music charts across the globe and providing Gaga her first Oscar win when it took home Best Original Song at the 91st Academy Awards. It also snagged a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media and a Golden Globe Award. Of all the things the movie does well, it is the fact that a song ultimately secured A Star is Born‘s lone Oscar win (out of a total of eight nominations) that proves what a massive success “Shallow” turned out to be.


Shallow (lyrics by Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson)

Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself

Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?

I’m falling
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for a change
And in the bad times I fear myself

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh
Whoah

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
In the shallow, shallow
We’re far from the shallow now


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When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Stay Alive

This one is for all the daydreamers and travelers out there who want to be anywhere but stuck at home right now.

The song ‘Stay Alive’ is one of several the Argentinian-Swedish indie folk singer/songwriter José González contributed to the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a 2013 adventure drama/fantasy starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. The movie is an amazing journey, taking audiences on a globetrotting adventure when Life magazine photographer Walter (Stiller) embarks on a search for a famous photographer whose work is to be included in the final print edition of the mag, which is about to transition into digital form. While a lot of critics were divided on Stiller’s direction and the whimsical, disjointed narrative, few took issue with the visual composition.

What’s more amazing than the cinematography and scenery is that, even after all these years, it’s the music that stays with me. Few soundtracks move me in the way The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did. Put together by Theodore Shapiro, it features, among others, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and David Bowie, so there is no shortage of inspiring songs I could have used here.

But ‘Stay Alive’ — and I do stress the fact this is the one without the gerund, because f**k The Bee Gees — is just one of those songs that marks a moment in time for me. From the opening piano keys and the ticking clock, through to the drum-fed crescendo, the poetic lyrics written by Ryan Adams and Shapiro and vocalized by González, it’s a quietly profound song that swells with great hope. It’s a meditation on life and love; a journey toward fulfillment that both compliments the physical journey Stiller goes on and transcends it. Indeed, this song captures the spirit of the movie best.

Then again, I have a propensity for being dramatic and often suffer delusions of grandeur so, I don’t hold it against anyone for not being moved in the same way.


Stay Alive (lyrics by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro)

There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

Sometimes there’s things a man cannot know
Gears won’t turn and the leaves won’t grow
There’s no place to run and no gasoline
Engine won’t turn
And the train won’t leave

Engines won’t turn and the train won’t leave

I will stay with you tonight
Hold you close ’til the morning light
In the morning watch a new day rise
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Well the way I feel is the way I write
It isn’t like the thoughts of the man who lies
There is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Look into the sun as the new days rise

And I will wait for you tonight
You’re here forever and you’re by my side
I’ve been waiting all my life
To feel your heart as it’s keeping time
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes

Look into the sun as the new days rise
There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

But there is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming open your eyes
Look into the sun as a new days rise

Yesterday

Release: Friday, June 28, 2019

→HBO

Written by: Richard Curtis

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Imagine all the people living day to day without the music of the Beatles. Imagine John Lennon aging into his 70s, living a quiet life with an un-famous instead of infamous significant other. And imagine being Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), the only one in the world who still has a recollection of the band and their indelible influence. These are the things the very silly but undeniably charming romantic comedy Yesterday imagines and then makes real.

Jack is in a bit of a pickle. Well, first he’s in a hospital bed and missing some teeth after getting struck by a bus when a global blackout hits out of nowhere. Up to this point his pursuit of his musical passions has not been going well. He struggles to get gigs and when he does he plays to dwindling crowds, some of them so small his mates and his so-obviously-more-than-friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) are the crowd. When he plays a classic Beatles tune for them one afternoon and they’re none the wiser, Jack sees an opportunity. The blackout has seemingly wiped away the collective memory of the band that redefined music not just for a generation but forever. It’s not all bad though because apparently Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter no longer exist either.

Provided he can remember the lyrics, why not start passing off ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as his own? We don’t have to go crazy here and exhume ‘Yellow Submarine’ or anything like that but, really, who is he harming if he claims authorship of some of the most popular songs ever written? So he does, and with Ellie’s hand gently on his back, guiding him in the direction of his dreams yet unwilling to abandon her post as a schoolteacher, he embarks on the path to superstardom. He brings along his very socially awkward friend Rocky (Joel Fry) as his roadie.

Along the way Jack meets British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, for whom he opens at a big show in Moscow and later gets into a songwriting “battle” where the two are challenged to come up with a new song on-the-spot. I’ll let you guess as to how that works out. Jack’s situation becomes more complicated when he is introduced to American talent manager Debra Hammer (a deliciously nasty Kate McKinnon), who convinces him to dump bonny old England for the sunny coastlines of L.A.. Once there he faces increasing pressure to not only put together a collection of smash hits which will form “the greatest album of all time” but to overhaul his image into something that screams Success.

Yesterday is a fluffy bit of entertainment surprisingly directed by Danny Boyle. I say surprisingly because while it has the vibrant colors, fancy camerawork and busy mise en scène that make his movies so visually energetic and engaging, it is Richard “Love Actually” Curtis’s writing that ends up characterizing this movie. The fantastical premise is as littered with plot holes and contrivances as much as the soundtrack is with Beatles classics (the usage of which reportedly took up about 40% of the overall budget!). Yesterday is Boyle’s fourteenth directorial effort and it just may be his most formulaic.

Despite the flaws, none bigger than the fact the story never really delves below the surface of its complicated morality, it is hard to hate on a movie that is so amiable and so full of heart. That largely comes down to the efforts of the cast who make for great company at each and every step of the way. British-born actor Himesh Patel proves to be an impressive singer, and his genuine chemistry with Lily James had me smitten from pretty much minute one.

Recommendation: A bonafide cheesy, feel-good movie. I’m trying to decide if you’ll get more out of this thing if you’re a Beatles fan or a sucker for a good romantic comedy. As far as the music goes, Yesterday feels like a “Classic Hits” soundtrack. 2020 has been a rough year to say the least so far. Maybe “hunkering down” with a movie as familiar and ordinary as this is just what the doctor ordered. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Miracles happen all the time!” 

“Like what?”

“Like Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String

‘Walking on a String’ — a collaboration between The National frontman Matt Berninger and solo singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

This song is featured in the Zach Galifianakis comedy Between Two Ferns: The MovieIt plays during a short scene where Team Two Ferns gathers at a bar.

I have been a fan of The National for quite some time, since my friend turned me onto their third studio album Alligator (2005) back in college. If Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler were born in Ohio, you would get Matt Berninger. Their voices are uncannily similar. But then you add the ethereal beauty of Phoebe Bridgers to the soothing baritone of Berninger and . . . well, I’m sorry; I love Zach Galifianakis but this song is just so much bigger than the movie. It pretty much eclipses the movie by some measure, and to be clear I don’t mean that in the sense it became more popular but rather in terms of emotive power. But I prefer to think of it this way; I would have never heard this song if I never watched Between Two Ferns: The Movie.

Berninger: “[Zach] had an important scene in a honky-tonk bar in middle America and needed a band and a song and said I could do whatever I wanted. My wife Carin and I wrote the lyrics really quickly and I called Tony Berg to produce. I didn’t realize he was in the studio [with Phoebe] at the time but she graciously let me crash her sessions and that’s when we had the idea to turn it into a duet.”


Walking on a String (lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser)

The things you said are hanging in the middle of my mind tonight
I can’t turn them off
I try to worry for your soul but I forget to
All the time
I’m in a twisted web and I can’t pull my
Head from it

I think about you walking on a string
It always brings me back here
Into the garden
By the hand
You’ve always had me
Walking on a string

I knew that I was dead before you touched my lonesome skin
You’re never running out of ways to warm your way back in
I hang my head and feel the oxygen drain
I think about you walking on a string
And it always brings me back here

Into the garden by the hand
Anyone who knows what love is will understand
You’ve always had me
Walking on a string

In a web, I can’t escape it
You’ll always warm your way back in
To my lonesome soul and take it
You’ve always had me walking on a string

In a web
I can’t escape it
You’ll always warm your way back in
To my lonesome soul and take it
You’ve always had me walking on a string

Mock and Roll

Release: Friday, November 30, 2018 (watch now on Amazon Prime) 

→Vimeo 

Written by: Ben Bacharach-White; Mark Stewart

Directed by: Ben Bacharach-White

You don’t need to be a groupie to join in on the fun in Mock and Roll, a low-budget yet high-spirited independent film representing the Columbus, Ohio underground filmmaking scene and styled as a mockumentary that follows a broke, inexperienced but always optimistic parody cover band and their wacky attempts to secure the necessary funding and fanbase to earn a coveted spot at the South by Southwest Music Festival. At 84 minutes Mock and Roll is a breezy romp and features a creative use of limited locations and visual effects to give character to its small-town, big-dream ideas.

In an example of life imitating art, director Ben Bacharach-White has successfully steered his production into several film festivals nationwide, beginning with the Austin Revolution Film Festival where Mock and Roll was nominated in six categories including Best Comedy, Actor, Actress and Director. Along the circuit, which took the crew from Oklahoma to Florida to Michigan and back to their stomping grounds in Ohio, the film collected wins in Best Feature and Best Original Score.

Certainly, the more well-versed you are in the world of rock music the more primed you’re going to be for a geek out at the cameos made by British drummer Roger Earl (of Foghat), American singer/songwriter Michael Stanley, and the members of the Black Owls, a Cincinnati-based band once described as “David Byrne channeling Edgar Allen Poe fronting Steppenwolf,” and whose tunes these four friends are parodying.

The tricky part about the concept of a parody band is that their effectiveness tends to be predicated on having a working knowledge of lyrical content. If you know Cheap Trick, you’ll recognize their 1978 hit single ‘Surrender’ becoming ‘Bartender,’ but then it’s possible you might miss the references within those jokes — take for example ‘Tonight It’s You’ evolving into ‘Tonight It’s Who,’ a riff on a classic Abbott and Costello skit called ‘Who’s On First?’ And the comical rewrites of Black Owls lyrics are likely to go over the heads of anyone who doesn’t call Ohio home.

The band call themselves Liberty Mean, a pair of words lifted from a lyric from one of their idol’s songs that ends up taking on an amusing mystique when taken out of context. Liberty Mean are: Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), vocals/rhythm guitar; Rick (Chris Wolfe), lead guitar/backing vocals; Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), bass guitar and Bun (Andrew Yackel) on drums. The band’s antics and misadventures are captured by a documentarian, Sully (William Scarborough), while Comedy Central’s Alex Ortiz briefly appears as a whack-a-doodle doctor whose medical credentials may or may not be entirely legit. Additional supporting parts go to home-grown talent: KateLynn E. Newberry as Jan, Rick’s girlfriend/the band’s promoter; Melissa O’Brien as Bun’s scheming aunt Duckie and Michael Compton and Brian Bowman as two potential roadblocks to the band’s success, as “art collectors” Ray and Dante respectively.

The main cast form a lively bunch of well-meaning but utterly unprepared dreamers who first bomb out on a Kickstarter-like campaign when they ask for too much money. They visit a “friendly doctor” who promises cash rewards for their participation and things just get weird. Then it gets dangerous as they dip their toes into the world of shady art dealings at the behest of Bun and his aunt — a role originally drawn up to be played by a male but that which O’Brien successfully lobbied to have changed for a female, thus Aunt Duckie. Their lives and careers now in jeopardy, they must decide what they are willing and not willing to do to make the dream work.

Each of the performers brings a distinct personality to their parts, but I found two in particular really stood out. Between Yackel’s philosophizing and Wolfe’s brash confidence (culminating in a really awkward meet-and-greet with their heroes), these two are a lot of fun to watch. But Bhanja is also very likable as the unifying force and lead singer, while Jarernpone brings a cooler, more level-headed bass line to proceedings. The screenplay, a collaboration between Bacharach-White and Mark Stewart, isn’t without its own surprises, either. They find a clever way of reconciling the dream with reality, providing a denouement that is not only fitting of the circumstances but entertaining in its own right.

Mock and Roll is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Recommendation: Fans of rock music and independent filmmaking need to add to their playlist Mock and Roll, an inventive production that wears its passions on its sleeve. While I often found myself out of the loop in terms of the lyrics that were being parodied, there is plenty here to latch on to narratively and character-wise. But if you have indeed heard of the Black Owls, then surely this film will be a special treat. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 84 mins.

Quoted: “Privilege is EARNED!!!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; Mark Stewart 

A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Sing Street

sing-street-movie-poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: John Carney

Directed by: John Carney

John Carney returns to the emerald-green shores of his native Ireland for his latest quasi-musical/romantic comedy Sing Street, his third such feature after 2007’s Once and 2014’s Begin Again. Though it possesses many of the traits that made his higher-profile, New York-set dramedy an inspired blend of genre-blurring cinema and original sound, Sing Street is a woefully misguided venture that suggests people who form bands are really just in it for the notoriety and not the craft.

The film may be set in 1980s Dublin but the whole enterprise reeks of that part in Van Wilder where Ryan Reynolds professes his loneliness to some passing stranger — a college sophomore with a cute face — through the majesty of Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love.’ Far from being the only flick to feature a boy trying to win over the girl by strumming a few chords on a Gibson acoustic, even in the context of that particular lampoon the level of cheesiness was shameless. But at least it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. In Sing Street it is. This is a matter of love-and-death, a 14-year-old boy’s whole-hearted attempt to half-ass a band just enough to impress The Cool Chick fulfilling not only plot but thematic components.

Irish musician and singer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo makes his acting debut as Conor, the youngest of three in the Lalor clan, spearheaded by patriarch Robert (a criminally underused Aidan Gillen) and wife Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who all throughout are falling out of love. With his family also plagued by financial hardship Conor finds himself transferring into Synge Street CBS, an inner-city public school where he is met on a daily basis with ridicule and hostility, most notably from bullying archetype Barry (Ian Kenny) and school principal Dr. Baxter (Don Wycherley), a disciplinarian plucked straight out of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’

When Conor spots the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on her stoop just across the street from his school, he’s instantly smitten — so much so that he tells her that since she’s aspiring to become a model in London she should appear in a music video he and “his band” are about to shoot. What he doesn’t tell her is that he is yet to form a band. So he sets about recruiting fellow classmates who might have some musical talent. It’s not so much recruitment as it is serendipity. A drummer, a keyboardist/pianist and a bassist all fall right into his lap. Oh, and there’s also Eamon (Mark McKenna, a 19-year-old who simply “has that look”), whose multi-instrumental abilities instantly liberate the band from sonic stodginess.

Carney strings together a few fun musical sequences where we see the band starting to find their groove. They dub themselves ‘Sing Street’ in an ironic gesture to the miserable school they attend. What begins in a back alley as a cringe-inducing exercise in amateur cover-band antics soon develops into a more unified, distinctive and fashionable quintet playing original songs. Such change is encouraged by Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), a college drop-out who knows a thing or two about how this whole life thing works. Because music. Because records. Reynor is a wonderful presence, fully supportive of his brother’s decision to pursue music as a way to melt Raphina’s heart. Who knows, maybe Conor will end up finding success and breaking out of the depressing hole that is Dublin circa 1985.

Once more viewers will leave the theater with much of the soundtrack stuck in their head. And the way Carney infuses the work of real-life, established bands into the mix — Duran Duran, The Cure, The Clash, Genesis and others are called upon here — remains a strong draw. All the same, the very premise Sing Street runs with smacks of pretension. At its core Carney’s latest rings totally insincere. The music is good — often great — but the story is . . . well, it’s something else. Something kind of the opposite of good.

sing-street

Recommendation: Sing Street is bound to appeal to fans of John Carney’s previous outings as it stylistically shares a lot in common with Begin Again (this reviewer has yet to track down Once but I’d venture a guess that it’s more of the same) but the story is just god-awful. Unless you enjoy watching serendipitous little confections that make you roll your eyes so much they end up flipping backwards into your skull I gotta say give Sing Street the ole swerve. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “When you don’t know someone, they’re more interesting. They can be anything you want them to be. But when you know them, there’s limits to them.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Dream Theater’s The Astonishing — Live

On Wednesday, October 19, 2016 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark hosted Dream Theater for ‘An Evening With’ as the progressive-metal giants played in its entirety their brand new album, the sprawling odyssey that is The Astonishing — an epic tale of betrayal, loss, hope and redemption set in a dystopian future circa 2285 in an America not that dissimilar to the one you find in The Hunger Games.

emperors-palace

The Astonishing represents the band’s 13th studio release, and their third since the departure of original drummer and one of the band’s founding members Mike Portnoy in 2010. While the album certainly features all of the elements and ingredients that have helped maintain the band’s longevity (they’ve been rocking since 1989), The Astonishing is undoubtedly their most ambitious and most exhaustive undertaking to date, featuring 34 tracks and running over 2 hours in length over the course of two discs overflowing with virtuosic musicianship, deep emotional hooks and conceptual grandeur. It’s quite unlike anything the band has tried before and they have tried a lot of things in their 30 year history. Rumor has it that guitarist John Petrucci has ambitions of turning it into a Broadway play . . . although I’m not sure Broadway is ready for something like that. Or ever will be.

map_final

For those curious about what’s established here in The Astonishing:

The Great Northern Empire of the Americas would look eerily familiar yet terrifyingly primitive to the people who occupied roughly the same territory three centuries before. After a great calamity precipitated a gradual societal collapse, medieval-like feudalism reemerged alongside the relics of technology and “progress” from a now all but forgotten era. Safety in servitude replaced ambition. An aristocracy replaced nobility. The ever-watching omnipresent NOMACs (Noise Machines) broadcast an empty cacophony; all that remains of music and creativity in this dystopia. But in Ravenskill, a village situated on Endless Isleland, a lone voice heralds the arrival of a reawakening in human consciousness. Freedom of expression finds a way, in the purest of musical outpourings not heard in generations, to stir the hearts of the people and shake the very foundations of power.

For more, you should visit the band’s official website at dreamtheater.net.


So the Newark show was actually my fourth time seeing the band and while I can’t quite say it ranks amongst my favorite shows this experience reaffirmed the notion that Dream Theater is simply a band you have to see in the live setting. There’s something electrifying about seeing Petrucci take center stage when he dives into one of his incredibly complex solos, even if you are like me and don’t exactly count yourself amongst the elite musicians of the world (I can’t even hold a guitar the right way). The power of that musician is in itself astonishing. Every time I’ve seen the guy play — be it in Atlanta, Cleveland, Asheville or Newark — I’ve been amazed how effortlessly the guy manages to seduce his audience, holding thousands in the palm of his hand as he unleashes a maelstrom of sound through those ever-reliable Mesa Boogies.

Then of course there’s the lead singer, Canadian James LaBrie, who is a character unto himself. The number one complaint I’ve heard from people I have tried to recruit into Dream Theater Land is that they have an issue with the vocals. Why does the singer sound like that, they wonder. And I never have the right answer, other than the default “well, he’s sung opera before . . .” Come out to the live show and listen to him then. There’s a good chance he will persuade you. And last but absolutely not least the other musicians — bassist John Myung, keyboardist Jordan Rudess and drummer Mike Mangini — surround these guys with their own brand of face-melting awesomeness. It is such a complementary band, one fully attuned to its own idiosyncrasies. There’s no one quite like DT and they know it. That’s why they can get away with selling out major venues as a single act playing their new album from start to finish. How many other bands can get away with that these days? How many have albums that are long enough to sustain the length of a concert?

With all that in mind, I have to concede that The Astonishing represents my least favorite of the band’s thus far. In fact I hadn’t even listened to the entire album before seeing them reenact it on stage, a span of almost ten months. But that actually gave me a unique opportunity to treat the show as my proper introduction to the album and all that it entails. I don’t think I have ever had that experience before. Of course, that also meant not being able to sing along and anticipate some of the highs — those Petrucci solos seemingly came at random and largely caught me off-guard —  but in the end I don’t know if I would have had it any other way. This was such a different way to experience a concert, even if it ultimately hasn’t really had much of an impact on what I think of the new work. There are some good bits here and there but structurally I’m not a fan of it. And when I heard Petrucci comparing the album’s concept with that of something like Game of Thrones, I cringed. I mean, this has never been a band to float the mainstream. If anything has changed since the departure of Portnoy, it’s that they have flirted more with that line. It has gotten a little scary at times. I’m hoping with their next album we’ll revert back to stuff that’s a little more original.

The Astonishing — Live! also provided me a chance to share my love for this band with my dad, who had been getting into them ever since I introduced him to their 2005 album Octavarium some years ago. Getting him in to his first DT show was a bucket list item for me absolutely, and it feels great to be able to tick that off. There were a lot of nerves before the curtain went up for me, and I think that stemmed mostly from the fact that I was greatly anticipating how he would react. In the end, I needn’t have worried.

dream-theater

Florence Foster Jenkins

'Florence Foster Jenkins' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nicholas Martin

Directed by: Stephen Frears


This review is dedicated to my mother, who would have absolutely adored this movie.


Florence Foster Jenkins is a biopic you just have to see if you were swept up in the William Hung story in 2004. American Idol this is not, but it is a look into the life of one of the worst opera singers to ever live, a woman who many believed had no right being on stage driven by her own confidence and the politeness of those closest to her.

What could have been a painfully awkward, mean-spirited debacle instead matures into an entertaining and dignified exploration of a rather interesting woman. As steady-handed as it is predictable, this is a certifiable crowd-pleaser. Though his film had plenty of opportunity to do so, director Stephen Frears (The Program; Philomena) recognizes that humiliating and degrading his subject is a job best left to the Simon Cowells of the world. After all, this is a movie about the pursuit of a dream, not a game show in which contestants are regularly mocked just for having one.

Meryl Streep takes on the role of the titular New York heiress, officially proving there is no role in which she cannot excel. Arguably that debate has been settled for awhile, but here she gets to embrace an entirely unique challenge — trying to sound like a worse singer than she really is. Ricki and the Flash. Into the Woods. Heartburn. Death Becomes Her. Mamma Mia. Her career is littered with singing roles so the question was never going to be whether she would sound good. Actually it was the opposite. To genuinely sound like a cat slowly dying requires a level of confidence (and conscientiousness) few actors would be able to demonstrate. Jenkins was famous for her “oh-HO-HO-ho!” inflections, and recreating this quirk without descending into parody proves to be a fine line Streep is more than prepared to walk. Once again it’s strong work from the three-time Oscar winner.

The affair remains simple and treads in well worn shoes in its recounting of a period late in Jenkins’ life, when she became obsessed with putting on a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. Major characters are introduced one by one, starting with dear husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who has for years been her emotional backbone as she pursues her love of music, regularly helping her host performances at the ritzy music club she owns. There’s a lot of history between these two. Over time a presumably passionate love affair has been reduced to small acts of kindness that seem to be carried out more with obligation and professional courtesy than anything else.  In the early going we see St. Clair sleeping with another, much younger woman (Rebecca Ferguson) in his own apartment where parties are regularly thrown. He believes there are many different types of love and that Florence understands this too. (Here’s the unscrupulous Hugh Grant I never knew existed. Guess I should watch more Hugh Grant movies . . . wait, no. God, what am I saying!)

The film’s only other major player is aspiring pianist Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg), who finds himself swiftly drafted into the ranks after a brief audition. Unbeknownst to the bright-eyed, chipper youngster, he’ll be backing up a singer so dismal her husband has had to concoct a complex scheme to keep delusions of grandeur alive. For years he has been shielding the singer from nasty critics and gawking crowds, as well as filtering out the negative press from Jenkins’ regular news consumption. With concerns over his career mounting, McMoon tries to decline what he expects will be the Hindenburg of Carnegie Hall appearances. Bayfield, fearing the ramifications of a carefully constructed façade collapsing, insists he stick with it.

Indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins is as much about the singer living a dream as it is about the young talent overcoming preconceived notions and discovering fame and success of his own. The pianist never ventured away from his gig with the tone-deaf soprano, despite initial concerns that precisely this would happen. One of the more rewarding aspects of the film is experiencing the transformation that happens on the boy’s face: an initial cringe of disgust eventually yields a deep smile conveying genuine satisfaction. It’s the very same thing that happened to me as I watched this lightweight but ultimately wholesome drama unfold. In spite of her wretched singing voice, Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t help but win me over.

eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

Recommendation: Florence Foster Jenkins is a study in professional and personal dignity. Meryl Streep is the built-in reason to see it, but this is a great one to watch to get a better understanding of the situation surrounding the singer and the kind of life she lived. It is a tonally well-balanced piece, never reaching too far in one direction or the other. You get glimpses of some nastiness, but I am glad to say FFJ is a way more positive film than I was expecting, and funnier too. Strongly recommended for fans of Stephen Frears’ work as well. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Janis: Little Girl Blue

'Janis - Little Girl Blue' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy J. Berg

Directed by: Amy J. Berg

Janis: Little Girl Blue isn’t the whole puzzle but it offers up a lot of significant pieces in its exploration of the life of iconic blues rocker Janis Joplin. The account offers a celebration of a life cut tragically short, packing in as much fascinating archived footage and interviews with famous faces as a 100-minute treatment can afford. Driven by a narrative that entwines tour/concert/backstage footage with letters she wrote to her family about her experiences, the film earns an emotional heft that also makes an otherwise broad documentary feel more intimate.

It’s a travesty that Joplin’s story feels so familiar. Her succumbing to a powerful drug addiction becomes downright surreal when you consider the company she keeps. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Alan Wilson — all gone at 27. And that was just the ’70s. You would think a sense of inevitability would actually ruin the experience, and at times the knowledge of the tragedy and that this has happened so many times before (and since) does indeed loom larger than what’s taking place in front of you. Perhaps it is better, then, to think of the overdose in the motel room not so much as a destination but as just another terrible thing that happened to her. (Lest we forget her being voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in a local college paper before Janis Joplin became Janis Joplin.) Of course, it would be callous to write off her death as a footnote. The point is that this life, as writer-director Amy J. Berg thankfully recognizes, represents much more than a statistic.

Because it doesn’t focus on her passing or use the documentary format as yet another platform for stigmatizing drug abuse (though it certainly doesn’t support it), Little Girl Blue is more often than not upbeat. The singer is larger than life both in personality and reputation, her presence exuberant and ubiquitous. People surround her, if not fellow musicians and bandmates then strangers hoping some of her rubs off on them. Whenever there’s a chance for her to mug for the camera, she does. In frame she’s alluring, a rebellious spark of energy that betrays her small-town-Texas upbringing. Out of frame of course, she’s an entirely different story. When reflected upon, she’s a character in a Shakespearian tragedy.

We start by walking through her high school days where she became a target of vicious bullying not only for her physical appearance — Joplin never was the poster child for femininity but the antithetical nature of her image is partly why the world fell in love with her in the first place — but for her advocacy for racial integration in schools as well. Interviews with younger siblings provide some color to her home life and what motivated the future industrial icon to break free of her Port Arthur roots.

From there it’s a jump into Joplin’s first experiences in San Francisco. We head to North Beach and then to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a hippie hot spot, where she’d hook up with many likeminded individuals who took notice of her natural inclination to hang out with the guys rather than the pretty Californian women. Her first stint on the west coast wasn’t great. She became heavily involved with drugs and ended up on a bus back to Texas where she’d vow to overhaul her life and adopt a lifestyle more befitting of her parents’ expectations. As history would have it, that wasn’t meant to be either.

More anticipated chapters unfold soon hereafter. We chat with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic rock group on the rise (at least as far as the local counterculture of the mid-60s was concerned) and to whom Joplin fully committed herself having gained recognition for the power in her voice and the pain with which she expressed herself having endured a tortured and confusing adolescence. The story then tackles head-on the turbulence of the following years with grace and dignity: the post-BBHC fall-out, the press surrounding her decision to form a new back-up band (who remembers the Kozmic Blues Band?), flirtations with Dick Cavett, the Woodstock gig and fleeting female lovers. The ebb and flow of an infatuation with drugs and alcohol becomes more flow than ebb as romantic prospects similarly come and go.

Away from her personal troubles, mounting pressure within the industry generated by speculation over what Joplin should do with her career continued to drive the nail deeper. What is a girl to do when she becomes bigger than the band she is a part of? One might naturally assume cultural evolution would eventually create an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort. Someone with talent of this magnitude should never have to feel alone but time and again we are reminded of Joplin’s sense of isolation and helplessness as she, as some interviewees put it, grew into a caricature of herself. How much imitation is considered flattery? Was she trying too hard to be the next Aretha Franklin? Should she have stayed with BBHC?

If Joplin were any less interesting an individual Little Girl Blue would suffer from its cookie-cutter design. Along with her spunky personality it’s the little things that help set it apart. Contemporary American singer-songwriter Cat Power gives voice to Joplin’s telegrams. A view from the back of a train as it winds through California hills becomes a motif. And of course the interviews are (mostly) unique to this production. In truth, it just wouldn’t be a bonafide rock-and-roll documentary without a few well-worn edges. Almost obligatorily we have to explore beyond what’s captured on camera. Misery as a motivator. The irony and general strangeness of fame and popularity. Like with a great many acts, Joplin had a serious problem with the post-show comedown. Walking onstage is a totally different experience than walking off of it.

Berg’s efforts shouldn’t be taken as the definitive account of such a pioneering woman, but she has created mandatory viewing for anyone looking for a way to get to know the person behind the music a little bit better. The regular rhythms of a documentary based on the life of a famous person are always present but here they are as powerful as the subject is empowering.

janis-joplin-gq-17jul14_rex_b

Recommendation: Documentary takes viewers on a tour of the many ups and downs of the life and career of one Janis Joplin. While doubtful there’s anything here that long standing fans of the blues/folk rock singer haven’t already been exposed to but the film will be a good crash course for anyone who doesn’t have much history of her. Highlights: loads of archived footage including concert performances and awkward talk-show appearances; great interviews. Lowlights: very little about the overarching narrative comes as a shock. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this is a retrospective, not a fluff piece. Nor is it a hagiography.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.nerdgeist.com