Weekly Round-Up: January 03-09, 2016

Happy New Year! Now that we’re post-holidays, we get back to “ordinary time” and a more regular cadence of movie-watching. 🙂

Last week, I saw:

  • In Cold Blood (1967) – Genuinely creepy, though occasionally slow crime drama. This was especially fun to watch as I’d just finished the In Cold Blood novel days earlier. RECOMMENDED.
  • Inside Out (2015) – First time watching this with audio commentary by Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen. Really enjoyable, with lots of tidbits and occasional meanderings (like calling up Bill Hader and Michael Giacchino mid-way). REQUIRED.
  • Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991) – Love her or hate her (I fall into the camp of the former), Madonna is a true tour de force of entertainment and this documentary is a terrific look into her insane lifestyle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Music of the Heart (1940) – My first film viewing from the Rita Hayworth set I was gifted over the holidays, this is a charming musical comedy (with unexpected racism) about a talented singer on the verge of deportation, who finds refuge among the immigrants of the Lower East Side. RECOMMENDED.
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012) – One of my favorite contemporary films. Genuinely moving and tremendously uplifting romantic comedy-drama. REQUIRED.
  • The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) – I hadn’t gotten around to finishing this (despite several attempts) until this viewing – glad I had, as this musical comedy is a menagerie of satirical characters, particularly an evangelical “consumer rights advocate” and the indecisive Texas governor. I’m surprised this hasn’t become a cult classic a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, as this film similarly blends raunchy comedy with sweet, earnest characters. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mentions for Mad Max (the original) and Capote, both of which I started but couldn’t finish.

What did you see last week?

Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)

Madonna: Truth or Dare follows the Queen of Pop on an artistically groundbreaking tour at arguably the height of her popularity. But this film is not only a glimpse at one of the biggest stars in music, at possibly her most important moment; it is the ultimate rock documentary.

The film opens in media res: the Blond Ambition Tour is coming to a close, and Madonna feels mostly numb. She’s too emotionally drained to feel really anything. As the documentary goes back, it’s not hard to see why: between battling the rainy season in Japan for weeks on end, losing her voice, juggling family & friends both beloved & estranged, her relationship with Warren Beatty, plus the threat of criminal charges.

She comes under fire from the Toronto police department, the Vatican, and even her father for a her racy performance. Her updated take on “Like a Virgin” was a genuine controversy back in 1990, and it’s not hard to see why. (Even Miley Cyrus hasn’t pulled something like this!)

In one of the film’s best scenes, Madonna addresses these concerns head-on. She defends herself to the press:

My show is not a conventional rock show, but a theatrical presentation of my music. And, like theater, it asks questions, provokes thoughts, and takes you on an emotional journey: portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation. I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one – and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.

This nugget is an important one: “I do not endorse a way of life, but describe one.” Many artists, back in 1990 and certainly today, present everything as part of their own brand. Their songs, performances, concerts, are representative and autobiographical of them in some way. Not to say that the Blond Ambition Tour doesn’t have autobiographical elements, but she clarifies that it describes a lifestyle rather than endorsing one, functioning as “a theatrical presentation of [her] music.”

It is often taken for granted that what a pop artist does and says represents them, rather than some persona or character; we do not allow them the artistic license we do a fictional author, a film director, even a traditional musical theater songwriter. This is likely where much of the controversy comes into play: we don’t see Madonna, onstage, as a fictional being within the constructs of her Blond Ambition universe; she is she, herself, which may be why the content is so nerve-rattling for some.

Of course, this is the central conflict of Truth or Dare. At times it is less a concert tour documentary and more an existentialist assessment of Madonna, or any rock star. Her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty comments “she doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk.” This isn’t hard to believe, given her numerous onstage & on-screen antics, though doesn’t quite fit with whispers about her later in the film: “Madonna does feel more in control when she doesn’t extend her personal emotion, her love, her exposure to sensitivity, too much.” “Madonna’s very difficult to reach. She’s put up many barriers.”

This disconnect is what makes Madonna: Truth or Dare so exciting. Not only do we play witness to two worlds – the grainy, black-and-white labyrinth of hotel rooms and backstage arenas, foiled with the electrifying technicolor concert footage – but multiple, conflicting personalities of Madonna. Like the Blond Ambition Tour, this film makes no clear statement. You don’t walk away feeling one way or the other, but are left with a series of impressions forming a complex image of a supremely talented yet deeply fractured individual.


Looking Back at 2015 in Music

  • Favorite 2015 albums (in no order):

    • Ryan Adams – 1989. I’m not a Taylor Swift fan, at all, but this alternative country cover album of her entire 1989 smash hit record is a double-edged triumph: (1) showcasing the strength and versatility of Miss Swift’s songwriting, and (2) the musical finesse of Ryan Adams for adapting electronic pop music into thoughtful, heartfelt alternative rock. Highlights: “Welcome to New York,” “Style,” “Out of the Woods,” “All You Had to Do was Stay,” & “This Love.”
    • Miley Cyrus – Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Genuinely artistic experimental psychedelic album by pop’s most button & boundary-pushing young startlet. It also features some of her best and most mature music. Highlights: “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” “Space Boots,” “BB Talk,” “I Get So Scared,” “Lighter,” & “The Twinkle Song.”
    • Delta Rae – After It All. This genre-bending swirl of country, Americana, and stadium anthems by a North Carolina sextet is an exhilarating work rich with complex instrumentation and soul-piercing melodies. Highlights: “Anthem,” “Outlaws,” “You’re the One For Me,” & “After It All.”
    • Michael Giacchino – Inside Out (Original Soundtrack). It’s almost laughable to think how this score took a couple listens to grow on me. This sweeping, ethereal soundtrack is what gives this tremendous movie its soul. Certainly one of the best wholly instrumental musical scores in recent years (and endlessly listenable), the highlight tracks “Bundle of Joy,” “Nomanisone Island / National Movers,” & “Tears of Joy” will reignite all the feels you probably had watching the film.
    • Madonna – Rebel Heart. The Queen of Pop’s longest album to date, and her most personal work in years. Highlights: “Unapologetic Bitch,” “Joan of Arc,” “Wash All Over Me,” “Rebel Heart,” & “Graffiti Heart.”
    • The Tallest Man on Earth – Dark Bird is Home. Very fortunate to have stumbled upon this one. Early this year, I was way into iTunes’s featured free songs, and one week “Timothy” from this album was featured. I had never heard of the artist The Tallest Man on Earth, but the song struck a cord and I couldn’t stop listening. Once Apple Music became a Thing, I started exploring more into the albums featuring individual songs I loved, and was stoked to find an entire album of rich, folky goodness. Highlights: “Darkness of the Dream,” “Sagres,” “Timothy,” & “Dark Bird is Home.”
  • Noteworthy albums new to me in 2015 (but not from this year – in no order):

    • Erasure – The Innocents  (1988). Erasure wasn’t even on my radar pre-Looking (which featured the excellent “A Little Respect” in an early episode), and thanks to Apple Music I finally dove deeper into this album to find a treasure trove of 80s pop glory. Pulsating keyboards and stellar, emotional chord progressions make this the kind of record you’ll revisit again… and again… and again. Highlights: “A Little Respect,” “Phantom Bride,” “Yahoo!,” “Imagination,” “Weight of the World,” & “When I Needed You Most (Melancholic Mix).”
    • Girls – Album (2009).  Another Looking influence (remember the Girls songs in Season 2?), Girls’s Album is the ultimate California indie rock piece – muffled production, catchy tunes, and unique instrumentation all contribute to a consistently entertaining, San Francisco surf-ready musical experience. Highlights: “Lust for Life,” “Hellhole Ratrace,” “Summertime,” & “Curls.”
    • Amy Grant – Heart in Motion (1991). This is the stuff that synthpop dreams are made of. Solid songwriting and terrific production leave little question why this Christian/pop crossover exploded onto the scene back in 1991.  Highlights: “Baby Baby,” “Every Heartbeat,” “Ask Me,” “Galileo,” & “I Will Remember You.”

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz (2015)

“Yeah, I smoke pot. Yeah, I love peace. But I don’t give a f***, I ain’t no hippie.”

Miley Cyrus snarls out this introduction in the first, A Capella, lyrics to her latest musical experiment, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Completely separate from her record label, Miley collaborated with The Flaming Lips for arguably her most ambitious record to date: a sprawling 23 song, over 90-minute psychedelic pop epic.

And what an epic journey it is. Contemporary artists, especially younger ones, coming to fruition in the era of iTunes, often build albums founded on a handful of strong singles or album tracks, without being one cohesive whole. Dead Petz is anything but, however; like a drug-induced opera (which this very well may have been), this album is one complete, layered work. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

From the angst-ridden declaration of the opening song “Dooo It!”, Miley takes us through heartbreaking lows, uneasy hesitation, frustrated emotions, tongue-in-cheek sensuality, tripped-out drug clouds, then finally to soft, subdued piano.

While her previous albums like Can’t Be Tamed and the excellent BANGERZ fit more cleanly within single genres, Dead Petz is uneven, arguably unpolished; yet reflects so many different experiences of Miley’s, that so many of us have surely gone through. This album is extraordinary in how richly it conveys complicated emotions in such an authentic, moving way.

We feel her devastation in “The Floyd Song (Sunrise).” She sings, “Death, take me with you. I don’t want to live without my flower” as a piercing guitar licks down the scale.

We empathize with her ambivalence as she nervously chatters through her “BB Talk” hip-hop confessional, seamlessly blending her youthful indecisiveness with intuitive convictions. (Not to mention how we laugh out loud at the tongue-in-cheek lyrics: “F*** me so you stop baby talking.”)

We stop and reflect in the slow, deliberate rock ballad “I get so scared thinking I’ll never get over you.” Like in BANGERZ (particularly the song “Drive”), Miley demonstrates a genuine desperation and uncertainty regarding her love life. Even in her early 20s, she fears she has loved, lost, and won’t be whole again.

The true knockout of the saga is the closing track, “The Twinkle Song.” Miley drifts through simple chords, recalling “I had a dream David Bowie taught us how to skate board but he was shaped like Gumby.” She bounces through fantasies, some comic and others tragic, landing on one “When you said you loved me. But what does it mean? What does it all mean?”

The portrayal of Miley Cyrus by the media, and admittedly at times by herself, is a kaleidoscope of chaos. She has as many faces as genres she conquers in this ambitious, artistic triumph. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz begins with an assertion (“Yeah, I smoke pot”) and ends with a question. It subverts what we think we know about Miley, and maybe about ourselves, dismantling preconceived notions and opening up to introspection and wonder.

The Lion King (2012)

It’s amazing that even a huge spectacular, with a cast of dozens and lavishly expensive and profitable, can tell and effectively emote the most intimate human relationships.

The Lion King is the rock-solid beautiful (visually, artistically, musically) stage musical adaptation of the modern classic Disney film. Faithfully adapted from the script of the movie, the stage version is still consistently surprising and stunning to behold. From the very opening, with the baboon Rafiki represented as a female shaman, the audience is immersed into a new and exciting world, unlike anything that has ever been done on the Broadway stage.

Director Julie Taymour makes the brilliant decision to show the actor/puppeteers rather than hide them. Both the film and the musical are ultimately about us, and how we deal with loss, love, and living up to our responsibilities. The lions’ heads are placed on top of the actors’ heads, but by the end of the show you are no longer looking at the puppets – you are looking at the raw emotion portrayed by the human actors.

Another aspect I really appreciated, as a lifelong fan of the film, is how powerful and profound moments from the film were translated to stage. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Simba steps his small cub paw into the much larger pawprint of his father Mufasa. Rather than staging this specific POV shot, Taymour instead creates a heartbreakingly intimate moment, in which Mufasa takes off his mask/crown that he wears for the rest of the play. For this moment, he stops being a king and is just Simba’s father.

Subtleties like this make The Lion King so rewarding and engaging for the entirety of the performance. This was my second time seeing it, but I am already pinching my pennies to see it a third time while it is here in San Francisco. I am very happy to say this is a show that lives up to its hype.

Cabaret (2012)

Last Saturday I impulsively went to see the John Kander and Freb Ebb musical Cabaret. What a wonderful and arbitrary decision it turned out to be! The show was staged at Fort Mason, which as you might expect is a former military base. The space was essentially a big auditorium with a few permanent seats, with a handful of tables set up to establish the cabaret nightclub atmosphere. (I tried to sit at one of these tables but to no avail, the ticket taker was a grade-A tool.)

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. If you aren’t very familiar with the show Cabaret, it has been performed in many different incarnations; the original Broadway production is worlds apart from the film, as well as the well-known oversexed 1998 Broadway revival. This production brought together the best aspects of each, with songs and storylines exclusive to each previous version of the show.

What I was especially pleased with was how well this production handled the source material. Despite its immense popularity, Cabaret has always to me seemed a bit of an oddball show. As a product of 1960s Broadway tradition, it filled with lots of fun and bubbly jazz numbers, which it somehow manages to balance with the dark themes of Nazism and the inevitable tragedy facing the characters. Having never seen the original production (duh) I can’t say how well that managed it, but I am very happy to say that this independent version did so. It adds depth to seemingly carefree songs with heavy emotion and weight. When the show’s protagonist (or the closest thing to one, since the characters are practically amoral and cowardly) sings “Life is a cabaret, old chum” toward the show’s finale, her eyes are in tears; she knows what she is singing is false but she still forces herself to believe her own words.

The major fault with this production was with the orchestra; they were often overpowering the un-miked (and therefore very imrpessive) singers, making the lyrics hard to decipher if you are unfamiliar with the score. I knew the songs inside and out so for me it wasn’t a problem, but I imagine some of the clever lyrics were lost on greenhorns.

Despite this setback, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Cabaret. A Saturday night well spent!