A Star is Born (2018)

When Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball concert tour first hit amphitheaters in late 2009, it was hailed as transcending the traditional live music experience. While formally a rock concert, her breakout tour had equal components of underground dance rave (first-pumping fury with pulsating trance beats), experimental avant-garde filmmaking (projected as thought-provoking interludes between sets), and musical theater (complete with a story, characters, and recurring thematic elements). It expanded so far beyond the definition of a typical concert, it grew into a bedazzled, indescribable gem beyond classification.

The same, astoundingly, can be said for A Star is Born. Yes, it is a movie, and within the frame displays raw, adrenaline-fueled concert footage, behind the camera some excellent directorial finesse by first-timer Bradley Cooper, and on the soundtrack is some of the finest music Lady Gaga has ever recorded. This is more than a film triumph, but also a musical breakout (having flown to the top of the album charts and six of the top ten songs on iTunes), and showcases incredibly talented artists working at the top of their crafts.

The editing is both powerful and purposeful: coasting through plot formalities and allowing breathing room so intimate moments can play out organically. The acting is natural and authentic, with uncomfortably long beats as the characters struggle to articulate themselves, or swallow their tongues in the midst of an emotional exchange. The cinematography is inspired, often keeping us medium length from the action but always focused on a character; we are on this road tour with them and see the world through their eyes.

And what a journey it is. It doesn’t take long for rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) to discover Ally (Lady Gaga) as the lone female singer in a drag bar. From then on, she becomes his muse, collaborator, and even eclipses his fame as his star beings to fade. Through all its ups and downs, Cooper and Gaga are equals for the entire ride. It is an exciting meta journey to watch these two work together, as fictional characters, knowing (in real life) how both are stretching their creative chops into new territory: Cooper as a first-time director, and not known for being a singer, and Gaga in her first starring role in a feature film.


Though even more than seeing two exceptionally talented people command the screen (and what happens behind the camera), A Star is Born is an emotionally involving, wonderfully intimate love story. As painful and trying as love can be, this is a film that asks us how much we can put up with, and how far we will go, to defend the honor of those we care for. Two individuals who share one heart are together for the ride, no matter where the road might take them. That’s the challenge, the threat, and the exciting possibility of love. A Star is Born shows us all the bumps in the road, but reminds us how worthwhile the journey still is.

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

Purple Rain: A Traditional Musical with an Anti-Traditional Score

West Side Story. Singin’ in the Rain. My Fair Lady. Ask any film fan for a classic example of the Hollywood musical, and these are the ideas that first come to mind. And they’d be absolutely correct; each of these classics, and more, helped define and refine the genre. The electrifying 1984 film Purple Rain thrust the movie musical into the 1980s with a spectacular dossier of rock, pop, and funk songs, all framed within the traditional Broadway musical structure.

hqdefaultThe opening number “Let’s Go Crazy” functions as a perfect musical introduction: establishing the time, the place, and the main players all embedded in one song. Our hero Prince (playing The Kid) performs onstage with his band The Revolution, as his flashy rival Morris Day and future love interest Apollonia each arrive at the First Avenue nightclub. Small but character-defining vignettes catch us up to speed as to who they are in the Minneapolis universe, and instantly set the foundation for the drama to unfold.

The “I Want” song, a staple of Broadway musicals, appears in the same setting, sung by Prince only, but can apply to all members of the neon love triangle. He wails “The Beautiful Ones,” an unstoppable power ballad demanding, “Do you want him, or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you.”Prince sings this directly to Apollonia, and it certainly applies the other way around, as well as from Morris Day to Apollonia. Even beyond the romance itself, the potential jealousy and obsession puts Prince’s career at stake. Prince and Morris have a deep-seeded feud, and the sudden appearance of Apollonia into town might just be enough to push them over the edge. They are enemies both in their careers and in their love lives, raising the stakes to dangerously personal levels.

For the grand finale, this purple package is all wrapped up by a one-two-three punch  of the songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star.” After scenes of high drama and disturbing violence, “Purple Rain” is the thoughtful, mature ballad to redeem Prince and all his mistakes. This deeply personal song pierces through the club crowd and they beg for more, so he returns to the stage for the rollicking pop songs “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” From the audience’s reaction, it is clear that the Revolution’s future at the club is guaranteed, and Prince even shares a charming smile with Apollonia, watching from the crowd; we know they’ll work out in the end. In one extended sequence, we go from mournful and introspective to celebratory, charming, and triumphant.

What Purple Rain is arguably missing is an Eleven O’Clock Number: a big, energy-driving Act Two song to propel us through the end of the show. The film takes an extended break from music, as romantic tensions rise between Prince and Apollonia, Prince grapples with his parents’ violent relationship, and he struggles to make amends with The Revolution. The energy deflates from the film, and Prince is forced to get his life back together.

This decision is an important one, as the third act is all about Prince rebuilding himself after he’s sunk so low. He cleans up his life, focuses on his music, and opens his mind to allow in others’ ideas. The reawakening comes not from some song pulsing through him, but an internal journey and choice that only he can make. The music literally stops until he has redeemed himself.

tumblr_m6khz1luin1qcvaxho1_500By working in a classical musical structure, Purple Rain introduced an incredibly niche culture to a wide audience. The smoky nightclubs and pop-funk stylings of the Minneapolis Sound were just at the brink of explosion across the airwaves, and it admittedly is a unique world. The enormous hair, outrageous styles, and dripping sexuality may have seemed otherworldly to moviegoing audiences of the 1980s. It becomes easier to digest and packs more of an emotional punch when framing this world bizarre into a familiar, traditional narrative structure. Our hero, villain, love interest, and outlining the foreign landscape within a standard musical theater context, allowing a mainstream audience who’d never step foot in the First Avenue nightclub to enjoy and partake in the wonders and beauty of Purple Rain. “It’s time we all reach out for the new, that means you too.”

This blog post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 hosted by Aurora’s Gin Joint, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Check out the full lineup here!

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

Christopher: I ain’t afraid of shit!

Tricky: You afraid of bats?

[Both look up]

Christopher & Tricky: BATS!

This is one of many bizarre moments in Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s follow-up to Purple Rain. We’re far away from the smoky Minneapolis nightclubs and wooded forests, to a dreamy French Riviera with wealthy heiresses, schmoozing gigolos, and people named Tricky.

The story is mostly predictable: a young hustler (Prince as Christopher Tracy) and his brother (Jerome Benton as Tricky) stumble upon a young woman (newcomer Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary) as she’s about to come of age and inherit millions. They both go after her for her money, but then love comes after and obviously a triangle ensues. Her wealthy parents disapprove of the match, then the truth comes out, yadda yadda yadda.

But you don’t go to Prince movies for the story. You go for the music, and to see how “Prince” things can get. Well you’ve come to the right place.


Similar to his role as The Kid in Purple Rain, Prince is kind of a jerk but still manages to win girls over. He doesn’t take no for an answer: he pesters Mary as she’s on the phone with her real boyfriend, kidnaps her as she’s about to board a plane to New York, and even continues liaisons with other women despite being supposedly smitten by Mary. Prince comes to us from another dimension altogether, but even in this idyllic French Riviera world I don’t get why Mary went for him.

Mary herself isn’t that great though, and is a total cliché as an “heiress gone wild.” Kristin Scott Thomas does the best she can given what she was asked to do, but the otherwise enjoyable song “Girls and Boys” has been permanently seared by the image of her goofy dancing. (Skip ahead to 0:18.)

But despite its cliches, flaws, and overall silliness – something about Under the Cherry Moon works. I like the bizarre world the action goes down in. A very interesting, and not obvious, decisions was made for this to be more of a straight romantic film, not a musical. Furthermore, Prince as first-time director makes some ambitious choices: in one shot at a café, the camera is set on a tripod in the middle of the room, and does a full 1 1/2 rotations around through one continuous shot, and each table of restaurant patrons is a two-step vignette. Without spoiling, the film ends on a bittersweet note – not the happy ending you’d expect from a romantic (mostly) comedy.

And, best of all, as you’re grappling with an antitraditional ending, the camera pans up to reveal Prince and the Revolution literally floating up in the sky performing the knockout “Mountains,” featuring a driving beat, catchy horns riff, and hypnotic dance moves by Tricky and the boys.

Like Prince himself, Under the Cherry Moon defies logic and the laws of physics – but this gloppy mess somehow fits together in a dreamy universe that is creatively defined and musically resonant.

Work, Work: Repetition and Circular Songwriting in “Hamilton”

Look at where you are. Look at where you started.

Most songs, whether on the radio, on stage, on film, follow the basic “Verse-Chorus” structure. If the Chorus is the “thesis,” or point of the piece, the Verse is the “body paragraph,” providing specifics, examples, additional color to flesh out the key message of the Chorus.

The music of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton shatters this convention. Its score can be described as less like a traditional book musical, and more like an opera, set to a hip-hop, R&B, and pop score. A few numbers fit within traditional song templates (there are nearly 50 songs), while the bulk of it is more on the operatic side, with musical moments and ideas presented, then swirling to another phrase, then back again.

Hamilton is almost the anti-musical, presenting what I consider “circular” songs: presenting one single instance, frozen in time and/or inviting us in media res, flooding us with context, then snapping back to the present. They have elements of the traditional “Verse-Chorus” template, but have a unique structure all to their own.

One example of this is the terrific introduction to The Schuyler Sisters. Three high-class ladies hit the New York scene, introducing themselves by name: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters.” Led by Angelica, the trio rebuffs men’s romantic advances for more intellectual pursuits: discussing Thomas Payne’s Common Sense, politics, and gender equality. They all agree that “History is happening in Manhattan, and [they] just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.” The song expands, as a hearty ensemble joins them for another chorus before we lock back into the opening refrain: “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy: the Schuyler Sisters!”

Not only is this song immensely entertaining, but it leaves a considerable impression for essentially starting and ending at the same place – the opening “Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy” introduction, rather than the song’s chorus. In the narrative proper for this show (excluding the opening number), literally the first words out of each sister’s mouth is her name – seemingly the basest level of introduction. The song turns out to be anything but, as we learn more about the different personalities, attitudes, and minds of these modern, well-rounded women. The reaffirmation at the song’s conclusion, their re-introduction, nails this home. They’re at the same place they were when the song started, but we’re not – three minutes later, we’ve been remarkably introduced to the Schuyler Sisters.

This songwriting in media res is even more profound for Angelica’s lead song Satisfied. She toasts the marriage of Eliza to Alexander Hamilton: “A toast to the groom, to the bride, from your sister who is always by your side. To your union and the hope that you provide, may you always be satisfied.” The number then literally “rewinds,” back to when Angelica first met Hamilton. She reflects (via rap) how quickly she judged him before passing him off to the instantly-smitten Eliza, regretting her choice now that the former has fallen for him herself. At the same time, however, she reminds herself that as the oldest sister, she has a responsibility to marry rich and look out for her sisters’ happiness. To have taken Hamilton for herself would have broken both 18th century codes.

The liquid piano line glides us back into the present, as she repeats her toast from the beginning – but now weighed down by the understanding and acceptance of her choice. Her tongue-twisting rap and rapid turn of phrase illustrates how quickly her mind works and all the thoughts and fears running through as she realizes, all in one instant, she will never be satisfied.

The traditional approach would have been each song concluding with the main Chorus, but instead, the songs wrap around back to their introductory phrases. The Schuyler Sisters and Satisfied are just two examples of how Hamilton turns the musical on its head, from classical “move-the-story-along” songs, to literally stopping the narrative action, working backwards to contextualize a key moment, then moving forward.

The effect of each song is less from a “message” driven home through a Chorus, and more in the reaffirmation of the opening phrase. To hinge a song on the repeating of a single phrase once, rather than multiple times (as a Chorus would have been), is an admirable exercise in restraint and creates an even greater musical impact. Hamilton is a remarkably rich score with terrific numbers, but these “circular” songs stand out among the best for their uniqueness and memorable power.

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii is a romantic western Hawaiian dream come true: a rejection of traditional  western values and customs in favor of the (supposedly) carefree lifestyle of native Hawaiians. Elvis plays Chad, an heir to a pineapple company, who returns from two years overseas in the Army. His parents want him to take on the family business, but he wants to make his own way, working as a tour guide with his girlfriend Maile (sounds like “Miley”) and hanging out with his “beach boy” friends.

Glad to be home?

I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel this way, but Chad comes across like a bit of a jerk. When Maile first picks him up at the airport, he kisses the airline stewardess on his way out of the plane to make her jealous. To calm her down as they drive off, he assures her (through song) that he was almost always true to her. Even when he meets up with his friends, they ask him all about life overseas and what girls he met, but he doesn’t ask them any questions in return. They missed him, but he didn’t miss them?

But this is an Elvis movie, and Elvis movies are all about the music. The songs in Blue Hawaii are top-notch, with the highlight ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as well as “Rock-a-Hula Baby” (performed during his welcome-home party at his parents’ estate) and “Slicin’ Sand,” a bizarro song Elvis sings with his tour group.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Angela Lansbury as Chad’s mother. From the very first scene when she’s serving an unnamed cocktail to the countless Mai Tais she clutches, she simply can’t keep the drinks coming fast enough. Of all the non-native Hawaiians, she is the most unabashedly racist (calling her Asian servant “Ping Pong”) and classist, though she is nothing like the monster she portrays in The Manchurian Candidate. She is barely even a villain, her greatest fault being ignorance and not hatred or even evil.

One of the film’s Mai Tais in action

Blue Hawaii comes from a very different time and place, but is a delightful journey for anyone who revels in the romanticized vision of the islands so common in the 1950s & 60s. (I know I do!) Filmed on location, we get some great exterior shots of beaches, hotels, restaurants, and even the interior sets are gloriously mid-century modern. This is a vacation to a dream world you “can’t help falling in love” with.

Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians – “Voice of the Trade Winds”

Search the world over for enchanting and romantic music and you will find none to compare with that of the Hawaiian Islands. For here is the music of leisure, happy vacation times, and fond “Alohas”…music that is the memory of the blue Pacific.

Distinguished far and above the many who play and sing of this island paradise is the name of Harry Owens, leader of the famous Royal Hawaiians. An accomplished musician, conductor and composer of many famous Hawaiian songs, Owens is world-renowned for his interpretation of this lovely and ever-popular musical art.

This is the sentimental song of the tropics…the dreamy nod of the palms…the soft sound of gently-breaking waves on golden sands. This is the Voice of the Trade Winds – Hawaii!

21958656551_e4c83df750_bWho wouldn’t want to listen to that? Such is the description of Harry Owens’s album Voice of the Trade Winds, a dreamy, lush record of Hawaiian orchestral music.

Several of the tracks are well-known standards (“My Little Grass Shack,” “Blue Hawaii”) with five Owens originals, including the title track and “Sweet Leilani.”

This album first came on my radar from Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Polynesian Village Resort in Walt Disney World – it can be seen hanging on the wall above the bar.

Interestingly, Voice of the Trade Winds is not part of the instrumental area loop for Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, and cannot be heard anywhere on Disney property. However (and this is the Disney Parks music junkie/completionist in me), its placement in Trader Sam’s makes it an implicit part of the soundscape, if not an explicitly heard one.

Its lush orchestrations are a bit of a foil to the dark, rhythmic exotica of the Trader Sam’s area loop, but more cleanly fits in as part of Sam’s collection of his travels ’round the world. Harry Owens himself was the bandleader at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, one of the premiere Hawaiian resorts. It would not be a stretch that a typical Hawaiian tourist, either staying at the hotel or even visiting, would hear the sounds of the Royal Hawaiian orchestra or pick up one of Owens’s records. Voice of the Trade Winds, or any Harry Owens album, could be the keepsake of any Hawaiian visitor during that time.

Whatever the source – a Hawaiian visitor of yesteryear, or a resident of the mainland yearning to experience the Islands, the record entered my collection just this past weekend at the Tiki Caliente 8 (as in, the 8th year) in Palm Springs, CA. This several-day tiki affair features art, collectibles, food, and of course drinks, celebrating Hawaiian & Polynesian culture, both authentic and kitschy. Voice was one of three albums I bought, and the instant I saw it I recognized it from its perch at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

This album is not available on CD, and only some of the songs are available as MP3. As Hawaiian music goes, it’s unique for its blend of better-known orchestral stylings with a big band feel. This does sound like a hotel jazz band, in the best way; there is an energetic and economical quality to this album that the sleepier records just can’t match. Mix yourself a Royal Mai Tai, sit back, and let yourself be transported by the Voice of the Trade Winds.


Selena (1997)

Selena is Jennifer Lopez’s greatest contribution to mankind.

In a revelatory, and ultimately star-making performance, Miss Lopez brings to vivid life the life and times of the late Selena Quintanilla, Tejano star on the brink of crossover success. This was filmed during her early acting days and inspired her to pursue a musical career – the dance moves and (lip) singing aren’t J. Lo as we know her today, but J. Lo the actress. How she pulls off the passion, enthusiasm, and poise of an extremely talented performer, as a young actress and (at the time) non-performer, is a testament to the acting chops of Miss Lopez.

Even beyond the lead performance, Selena is a top-notch musical drama. The song sequences are shot masterfully, including a believable recreation of her massive concert in the Astrodome and playing a chaotic music festival in Mexico. These scenes boast dizzying camerawork and electrifying editing as good as anything in The Rose. (The songs themselves are excellent, too: my favorites are “Como la Flor” and “Amor Prohibido.”)

Life stories are not easy to aggregate into filmic experiences, but Selena chugs through the singer’s life in broad detail. It covers the better-known and essential events of her life, such as moving homes, key performances, and awards shows, while taking the time to dive deeper issues of sexism, racism, and acceptance. In one of the best non-musical scenes, Selena’s father laments to her and her brother that, as Americans of Mexican descent, in order to fit in with either culture “[they] have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”

Selena is the story of a young, supremely talented woman upon whom tragedy befell so early in life. This film is not only her story, but a broader collective of experiences and attitudes of an America not-too-long ago, where not enough has changed. It’s not hard to see why Selena was and is so special for so many people, an innovator in her own time and continuing to inspire today.

The 1975 – “I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It”

Four days ago I had never heard of The 1975. I was skimming through my pile of Entertainment Weekly issues and stumbled upon a positive review for their new album “I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It.” The description sounded like music I might enjoy, so I gave it a try through Apple Music. I listened to it non-stop at work that day, and that evening I rushed to my nearest Target to buy the physical CD.

“I Like It When You Sleep…” is most often summarized as an ’80s pop throwback, but that takes a bit for granted. It almost feels like a collection of the best genres and sounds of that era, from the Prince-esque groove of “Love Me” and “UGH!”, plus “The Sound” and “This Must Be My Dream” as two of the best Erasure songs never performed by Erasure, not to mention the ethereal, wailing guitars of “Please Be Naked” and “Lostmyhead” that echo The Cure.

That’s not to say The 1975’s record is a series of imitations or even a mere compilations of quality songs – this is a true album, an emotionally guided journey of highs and lows, joys and sorrows. The “shuffle” experience has nothing on listening to “I Like It When You Sleep…” straight through, which transitions beautifully from the moody introspection of the title track into the burgeoning disco pulse of “The Sound,” and the optimism of “This Must Be My Dream” to the longing of “Paris” to the sorrow of “Nana.” This album is not a collection of songs, but an experience to partake in.

You can listen to The 1975’s album here on Apple Music.