Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La BohÃ¨me on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.
Australia’s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).
She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters, so extraordinarily androgynous that I had to keep reminding myself he was not a girl). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.
Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging (most especially by Kidman, of whom I am swiftly tiring, although I was never really a hater) and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).
Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).
All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.
The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.
I always find it interesting to ponder my preconceived notions of a movie after I’ve actually seen it. The marketing and buzz on I’m Not There mostly centered on two talking points: the quirky device of multiple actors all playing incarnations of Bob Dylan, and Cate Blanchett being just plain amazing as usual (what else is new?). The first point is what gave me pause: how much sense would this film make to someone who is not a Dylan fan and scholar?
All I really know about Dylan comes from the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, and even that paints a sketchy picture of the man. Dylan has been an enigma throughout his long history in the public eye, often speaking in riddles, and (at least in his early years) inventing a fictional backstory. The press and even his own paying audiences were often openly antagonistic, so it’s no wonder he was so famously combative and evasive. Prefiguring the modern-day chameleons David Bowie and Madonna, Dylan presented a series of personas: American roots folkie, political agitator, rock ‘n’ roller, born-again Christian, Hollywood actor, and so on. The question being: how much of this evolution was sincere growth and change, and how much was performance art? Who is “Bob Dylan”?
Director and co-screenwriter Todd Haynes, having already deconstructed David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, tackles the many aspects of Dylan perhaps the only way possible: fracture his key facets into multiple characters. As with the Bowie analogue Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, none of the Dylan figures are actually named Dylan, but then again neither is Dylan himself, whose actual surname is Zimmerman. Christian Bale plays Jack Rollins, interpreting Dylan’s Christian period, and Richard Gere plays Billy the Kid, a pretty literal interpretation of Dylan’s years in the wilderness after his fame peaked for the first time. Adding an extra layer of postmodern complexity, the late Heath Ledger plays Robbie Clark, a film actor famous for playing one of the fictional Dylans in a biopic. And of course, Cate Blanchett is amazing. As Jude Quinn, a reluctant celebrity fending off the attacks of the press, she triumphs by avoiding mere impression. Sure, she’s wearing a fright wig and shades, but her expressions and body language capture Dylan’s paradoxically wordy elusiveness.
The result is part faux documentary, part fiction, but provides a truer overall picture of Dylan’s complicated character than a mere biopic ever could. Perhaps at some point after his death (may that be a long time from now), we will see a conventional musical biopic made of his life story (a la Bird, Ray, or Walk the Line), but I certainly hope critics and audiences will remember I’m Not There.
The DVD edition is the only I can think of that incorporates long on-screen text introductions (more than one, in fact). Does this reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmakers or distributors in the home viewers being able to comprehend the film, or is it more in the vein of the scholarly introductions that preface Penguin Classics volumes? Either way, it only reinforces the impression that you have to be a Dylan scholar to appreciate the film (which, incidentally, turned out to not be the case).
And finally, I detected a few references to director Richard Lester: Robbie Clark (Ledger) walks through the set of the 1968 film Petulia, during an early scene in which women in neck braces leave a freight elevator before a party to promote highway safety (attended by the likes of George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and the Grateful Dead, so it’s not at all unlikely Dylan could have been there too). But even better is the best Beatles tribute I’ve ever seen: the Fab Four breeze through as the epitome of carefree fun, literally speaking and moving in fast-motion. They tempt Jude Quinn’s (Blanchett) desire to escape, until they are chased away by A Hard Day’s Night’s screaming sycophants.
Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of a conversation about movies with this blogger is no doubt aware that I like musicals about as much as I like biopics. That is to say, not very much. I do, however, love Tim Burton, and count Ed Wood among my personal favorite films. So if he could make a biopic I can love, I didn’t think it unrealistic to hope that he might melt my cranky moviewatcher’s heart with a musical. But it’s been a long time since Burton has directed a personal project, instead working on existing franchises and remakes like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He did add a healthy dose of the trademark Burton flavor to each, not to mention key members of his troupe (Helena Bonham Carter in Apes and Johnny Depp in Charlie), but fans like myself are still waiting for the next burst of pure Burton madness in the spirit of Edward Scissorhands.
The Sweeny Todd tale originated in a prose serial form in 1846, and after several permutations, eventually became a stage musical by Stephen Sondheim in 1979. Burton’s 2007 film adaptation doesn’t quite manage to break free of its stagebound, er, staging. Despite the opportunity a film has to expand a play’s world, the action is limited to just a few locations. The rich art direction doesn’t defeat the impression that the whole thing was shot on a small soundstage. Speaking of art direction, Burton’s vision of late 19th century London is very colorful, provided that that color is blue. That said, it isn’t long before a few generous gallons of red are splashed about the place.
Timothy Spall, once of Mike Leigh’s British kitchen sink dramas, continues to indulge in the new scenery-chewing persona he developed as Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. Helena Bonham Carter looks like she just stepped out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Sascha Baron Cohen sports no less than two outrageous accents.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street joined Waitress in the most unlikely mini genre of 2007: movies about pie shops. But while Waitress was a largely cutesy concoction, Sweeney Todd adds to the recipe a preoccupation with vengeful cannibalism a la The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover.
And finally, a technical note: the DVD edition suffers from an unusually uneven audio mix. The music is far, far louder than dialogue sequences, so be prepared to drive your remote control volume switch throughout.
The Commitments remains a favorite, even some 17 years after first seeing it in the theater. I’ve owned the soundtrack since then, but for whatever reason, had not revisited one of my favorite films. But having recently seen and loved Once, costarring Commitments alum Glen Hansard, I was inspired to check it out one more time and see if I still loved it after all these years. If The Commitments (the band) are the World’s Hardest Working Band, then The Commitments (the movie) may be the World’s Most Unashamedly Crowd-Pleasing Movie. There’s not a single scene that doesn’t charm, amuse, or get me rocking to the sweet sounds of soul music.
Where are they now? Original members Dick Massey and Kenneth McCluskey still tour as The Commitments. Director Alan Parker (look for VHS copies of one of his previous films Birdy in one scene) built on his success with musicals Fame, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and The Commitments by directing the mammoth production Evita. Andrew Strong (Deco Cuffe), a wee 16 at the time, still has his golden voice and is now a solo artist. Maria Doyle Kennedy (Natalie) is now a star of the television series The Tudors. And Glen Hansard just won some kind of award or another…
Two bits of fun trivia gleaned from the IMDB entry: the actual kid from U2’s Boy and War album covers cameos in the film, and the script racks up a spectacular 145 f-bombs.
This blogger may have to burn his Rock Snob card, for I just watched and enjoyed the Blue Man Group concert film The Complex Rock Tour Live. I’d long assumed that the Blue Man Group’s seemingly permanent residency on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan was some kind of tourist trap like Mars 2112 or Jekyll and Hyde, but now I’m wishing I had looked closer.
For any others that may also have prematurely dismissed them, the Blue Man Group is equal parts performance art collective, percussion ensemble, and, well, blue. The Complex Rock Tour DVD captures the group live in 2002, with a show that is at once both an actual rock concert and an ironic commentary upon one.
I had to fight the suspicion throughout that a blue-clad trio of catburglars had slipped into my apartment and raided my cd collection. As I watched, I started to compile in my head a list of artists that must have been influences:
Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave concert film (1986). All the ingredients are here, albeit in artier form: film, performance art, mime, masks, dance, etc.
Peter Gabriel and Robert LePage’s Secret World Live and Growing Up Live tours were as much theater as rock concerts, utilizing simple yet hugely symbolic shapes and props: a tree, an egg, the moon, etc.
Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film (1983), for all the same reasons as Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel above.
King Crimson. Some of the Blue Man music bears more than a passing resemblance to the polyrhythmic tuned percussion King Crimson employed in the early 1980s with tracks like “Waiting Man” and “Neil and Jack and Me.” Not only that, one of the members of the Blue Man band can be spotted played the Chapman Stick, popularized by Tony Levin.
Rock Snobs might be surprised to hear traces of even more modern music in the Blue Man Group repertoire. I caught snippets of the instrumental so-called “post-rock” of UNKLE, Battles, and Explosions in the Sky.
And finally, the one influence the Blue Men actually namecheck with a (brief) cover version in their show is Devo, but I don’t own any of their music! Maybe I should take this as a recommendation.
As humorous and toe-tapping as the Complex Rock show is, the Manhattan-based Blue Man Group end the proceedings with “Exhibit 13”, a haunting piece incorporating footage of actual World Trade Center debris that showered over Brooklyn only a few months prior. The piece is available online at Exhibit13.com
Now this is a musical (of sorts) I can get behind. The unnamed “Guy” (Glen Hansard, already a rock star in The Frames and a movie star from The Commitments) is a street busker, playing popular songs for pennies during the day, and saving his own passionate compositions for the empty streets at night. “Girl” (Markéta Irglová) is an immigrant from the Czech Republic, looking at an unhappy future as a single mother, in servile jobs, with no outlet for her own musical talent. Each has become stuck, but their meeting jostles each other into motion.
What a fucking great movie. That’s it; that’s my entire review. See it, and get the soundtrack.
I believe I’m in the minority opinion here, but I really liked Across the Universe. Already loving the songs of the Beatles and the films of Julie Taymor, perhaps I’m predisposed. Taymor rounds up all the usual suspects from the Lennon & McCartney oeuvre: Lucy, Jude, Maxwell (as in “Silver Hammer”), Jo Jo (from “Get Back”), Sadie, Prudence… even the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine kick up their heels as Mr. Kite’s Rockettes. But unless I missed them in the crush, Rocky and Rita didn’t make the cut.
At two plus hours, Across the Universe may in fact be too much of a good thing. The Beatles wrote a great many wonderful love songs, but even these canonical classics can seem a little redundant when strung together in a series, illustrated by Jena Malone & Jim Sturgess swooning over each other over and over.
The best sequences are the weirdest, especially the “She’s So Heavy” number which resembles something out of Alan Parker’s cracked Pink Floyd The Wall. But sometimes the interpretations are ruined by being a little too literal; the “Revolution” sequence starts out great with Jude trying to sway a radical revolutionary group away from violent protest (“But when you talk about destruction / Brother you know that you can count me out”), but he predictably points at a portrait of Chairman Mao right on cue.
Topped off with cameos by Salma Hayak (times five) and Bono in a rare dramatic role as a sort of Timothy Leary figure (sporting an entertainingly loony American accent modeled, at least to my ears, after Dennis Hoppper), this rumored-to-be-troubled production can be a little overwhelming and redundant, but it’s really something to see.