Category: Musical


Searching For Sugarman

July 10th, 2014 — 5:27pm

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Searching For Sugarman nf -In the 1970s there was a rock singer by the name “Rodriquez” much in the style of Bob Dylan who by many accounts was as good if not better than Dylan. His lyrics were right on for the times and his voice as clear (not like BD) as a bell. He was out of Detroit and a few of the music impresarios who produced many stars of Mo-town thought he was fantastic. His story is the subject of this movie directed by Malik Bendjelloul which won the 2013 Academy Award Oscar for the best Documentary Film. Rodriquez’s music which is played throughout the film will catch your attention Take a quick listen here. For some reason he didn’t catch on and his records didn’t sell. He had played in some dives in Detroit for a while and there were rumors of his death or attempted suicide on stage. (Spoiler Alert!) He didn’t die and in fact he just faded away and for the next 25 years or so, Rodriquez lived in a modest house and worked in construction and demolition. He was a quiet hard working man who had three wonderful daughters. He still enjoyed playing on the guitar now and then but he basically melted into the woodwork as a working guy living in a depressed difficult city. However on the other side of the world in South Africa unbeknownst to him and the record producers who dumped him when he didn’t sell, his records were picked up by other labels and for many years he was “Bigger than Elvis.” His words and music became the voice of the young generation of mostly whites who felt apartheid was wrong but were suppressed by the oppressive government of South Africa. 100.000s, if not perhaps millions, of his records were sold. He received no royalties and hadn’t the slightest idea that his name was a household name there. Every young person including many of the popular musicians who became of age in the 80s and early 90s in South Africa knew his music and so many felt they were greatly influenced by it. There were a handful of people in South Africa, writers and music people, who wondered why they didn’t know more about him. Two guys tried to find out what happened and how did he die – was it really on stage? Somebody set up a website reflecting the curiosity of whatever happened to him. Lo and behold one of his daughters living in the U.S. saw the website. The story of how the people in South Africa found him and how he found South Africa will be a touching moment that you will not forget. The reunion concert with thousands of fans in ecstasy singing along with him was an amazing piece of cinema. This was a great subject for a documentary film as it allowed the viewers to share this unforgettable moment and this amazing story. (2012)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Jersey Boys

June 29th, 2014 — 6:31am

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Jersey Boys- rm
- If you are of a certain age and when you hear the high pitched voice of Frankie Valli singing “Sherry” in full harmony with the rest of the Four Seasons, you want move around and do some dancing, then this film will be a most enjoyable experience for you. We suspect many other generations will also enjoy the musical re-creation of this 50s group. Director and Producer Clint Eastwood has chosen to take this story and the music to the silver screen after a version of it was a successful Broadway Show. This is certainly more of a musical accomplishment than dramatic achievement. Each member of the group was quite distinctive in their personality and story. Frankie Castellucio alias Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) was shown to evolve from a naïve young man to the star he became. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) was originally the brains behind the group and the one who first recognized Valli’s star potential but didn’t have the know how or the integrity to financially help them thrive and survive as a group. Nick Mass (Michael Lomenda) by dropping out prematurely allowed Valli to complete his career without the intact Four Season. Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) was the last to join the group and was the talented songwriter who probably provided the key ingredient, which allowed Valli and the group to shine so bright. Not only is the music captivating but also there is excellent choreography. There is also some very well done subtle aging of these guys as they grow into mature men. Gangsters and the mob were an important part of the scene in the upbringing of these young men and in their rise to the top. The leading gangster kingpin is well played by Christopher Walken. This is a story about boys growing into men and ultimately loyalty among men is a theme which Director and Producer Eastwood knows well and has brought to the screen many times. The women in their lives are downplayed and almost presented as incidental characters. However there is some attempt to show the meaning of a lost family life. But what will not be lost will be the history of this legendary early rock and roll band and a most enjoyable musical experience.(2014)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Musical

20 Feet From Stardom

June 6th, 2013 — 8:06pm

20 Feet from Stardom*** 

20 Feet From Stardom sp- This is a great title for this documentary about the often unsung backup singers who could really sing! Starting in the late 50s into the 60s up to contemporary times so many great pop artists brought in usually black back up singers to highlight their music. Many got the training doing gospel singing in their churches and quite a few were daughters of preachers. The late Gil Frisen, a long time Chairman of A&M records, originated the idea for this documentary film and he worked with filmmaker Morgan Neville who directed this unique project which covered a subject which has had very little media exposure. This reminds us of another excellent  film we saw a couple of years ago titled The Wrecking Crew which told the story of usually anonymous session musicians. The stars of this current  film will probably also be be unknown to most viewers but they clearly articulated their lives and there was lots of their great music in it. Of particular note are Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Gloria Jones, Judith Hill, Tata Vega along with some  others. In addition there were  up close and personal interviews with musical icons such  Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bette Midler and Stevie Wonder who unequivocally expressed their admiration of the talent of these singers and how important they were to the success of the well known stars. So often     “ the hook” or the main theme which we remember was put across by these talented performers. In the personal interviews with the backup singers we felt a mixed message of how they loved singing and were usually quite content to blend and be part of musical history of the last 50 years, yet they  contemplated and some tried to breakout while  most never made an individual name for themselves with the public. We learned how the notorious music producer Phil Spector in his original famous Christmas Album unfairly  attributed the work of Darlene Love to the Crystals and how Ms. Love felt about this.  We also learned about how supportive veteran music producer Lou Adler was to many of these performers. Credit has to be given to Director Morgan Neville for digging up so many great video clips which featured the performances of the backup singers doing their best work 20 feet from stardom with Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, David Bowie and one outstanding video which featured a young Ray Charles grooving at the piano  with his famous Raelettes backup group. While the film has to be enlightening for even the most informed pop music afficianado, it is the great music throughout this  90 minute documentary which makes it so enjoyable and something that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who digs pop music. (2013)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Les Miserables

December 21st, 2012 — 2:31am

*****

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During the first few minutes of this epic film we were somewhat uncomfortable in that there was almost no talking and it was all singing. Of course this is based on the well known musical show by the same name  but we just were not used to the constant singing of just about every piece of dialogue. Well, for the next two and half hours, we not only were comfortable with this style, but were completely caught up with the story, characters, drama and especially the emotion  which was fueled by the wonderful music. Tom Hooper was chosen to direct this adaptation of  this well known  theatrical musical classic to the screen shortly after he won an Academy Award for The Kings Speech . He had a team of writers and producers who had worked on the original show in both London and on Broadway. In fact the original actor who played Jean Valjean, the thief who turns his life around, more than 25 years ago, Colin Wilkerson, played  a smaller role in this movie as a Bishop ( we are sure as a tribute to the great history of this production.} Hugh Jackman carried this role in the modern film and was in fine voice and in character, as was Russell Crowe as Javert, the inspector who is mostly shown as the villain. Ann Hathway played Fantine a tragic heroine, a role originally played by her mother on the stage  many years previously. She poured her heart into her major song which was an acting and singing triumph. Amanda Seyfried was excellent as Cossette as was Eddie Redmayne who played Marius the object of her love and  one of the young heros. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provided some comic relief but also demonstrated that they could sing.  Interestingly, Hooper did full continuous takes of all the singing and did not have the performers mouthing to their previously perfectly recorded  renditions of the songs. This is quite an unusual approach in a musical but it appeared to work quite well allowing many close ups of the actors during these pieces. There were also some great long views of the Paris setting and the barricades which were manned for action.  The setting of the story is 1832 in Paris, post French Revolution but at the time of an  uprising known as the June Rebellion. This is really a morality play which shows how some people have a deep sense of fairness and justice and how one will not forget what has happened in the past . It is also a great love story. Finally it is a story about death. We are reminded what it means to die for the causes which you believe in and also the sadness when a parent has to die and say goodbye to the next generation. When you deal with such themes with characters you have come to know, add poignant and at times powerful music, you end up with a truly emotional experience and a great movie.  (2012)

1 comment » | 5 Stars, Musical

A Late Quartet

November 18th, 2012 — 9:37pm

***

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 A famous successful string quartet makes great music together for twenty five years but their individual lives are now on the verge of producing some very bad notes. We are introduced to this group as we learn that Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) the older, most mature and stable member of the group learns that he has  the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and will probably have to step down from the group. The possibility of change and perhaps a new member of the group creates a window for Writer /Director Yaron Zilberman to show the audience the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the other 3 characters. Robert (played magnificently as usual by Phiilip Seymore Hoffman) decides he doesn’t want to play 2nd fiddle anymore and wants to in the future alternate first violin with  Daniel (Mark Ivenir) who now has that role. Robert is devastated when his wife Juliette (Catherine Keener) also a member of the quartet doesn’t agree and has actually talked it over with Daniel. He of course, doesn’t want to share the role of top banana with Robert. In fact Daniel who probably has been a repressed musical genius has an affair with Robert and Catherine’s daughter Alexandra (Imogene Potts) to whom he has been giving violin lessons and who had been flirting with him. He seems devastated when she ultimately rejects him.  In the course of this situation her mother comes down hard on Alexandra’s poor judgment which leads Alexandra to vehemently respond what a failure Juliette has been as a mother especially since she and her father were  not around 7 months of the year, always being on tour. We are led to believe if they can really get into the music especially Beethoven’s opus 131, all be ok. It almost works because the music really carries the movie. When you see them play together (the actors were taught to move their fingers in the correct manner) you believe that everything is going to be back in balance with a new equilibrium. That is the power of music and some very good acting. (2012)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Musical

Pitch Perfect

October 1st, 2012 — 2:09am

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It is hard to believe that the script for this film was written and the deal signed for the movie before the TV Series Glee showed it’s first episode. This is the Glee kids go to college and join an a cappella  singing group, compete in the regional finals and ultimately in the big finals at Lincoln Center. (It has nothing to do with that popular TV series). But, it still  has  various types (or stereotypes) of kids in the group and the singing and dancing are great. The story line is as you would expect with no big surprises but you still root for your favorites and you are moved by their determination and energy. The humor is clever and effective and there is lots of it. The photography of the singing and dancing (all without musical accompaniment since it is a cappella) is really done well. Think of those musicals with Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers with camera work from all angles and everyone looks great. Although we were not familiar with most of the songs, the energy and moods were easily conveyed. Much of the credit for the successful translation of this musical event to the screen goes to Jason Moore who makes his movie-directing debut. Why did the powers that be trust a first time movie director with a musical extravaganza? Well, he directed the wildly successful Broadway musical Avenue Q and clearly knew what he was doing. Anna Kendrick who received an Academy Award nomination as supporting actress in Up in the Air  now shows she can dance and sing. So do a large group of young actors and actresses including Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, Brittany Snow , Anna Camp and Rebel Wilson all who we are sure we will hear more about in the future. (2012)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Musical

Paul Williams Still Alive

June 15th, 2012 — 1:51am

***

Paul Williams Still Alive- sp Filmmaker Stephen Kessler grew up and came of age in the 1970s and 80s and was a big fan of the music and of the personality of Paul Williams. He had thought that Williams had faded from the scene. Therefore he was quite surprised when a few years ago he found out that his music hero was alive and well.  He read that Williams was still writing and performing music. He tracked down 65-year-old Williams at a concert in Winnipeg, Canada where he was playing to an enthusiastic but older crowd. Kessler proposed that he would make a documentary film about the career of Williams. His proposal was politely turned down but Kessler persisted and ultimately made the film with William’s agreement. In an unorthodox documentary style, the film chronicles how Kessler gradually won over Williams to allow him to make this loving tribute. He used flashbacks, mainly in the form of film clips and videotapes of Williams and many others performing his songs. Early music such as the Carpenters singing We have Just Begun and Rainy Days and Mondays as well as many others such as Cried Like a Baby and Talk It Over In the Morning. He co wrote many songs including the music sung by Jim Hensen as Kermet the Frog. He wrote for TV shows such as Happy Days and wrote and sang the music for the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble that starred John Travolta. Williams was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for writing the best music in a motion picture and won the Oscar for Evergreen in the movie A Star is Born which was co-written and performed by Barbra Streisand. Williams’ status as a pop icon was confirmed by the fact that he was a guest 50 times on the Johnny Carson show. Although 5’2” he was giant in the music industry. Williams himself admits that his fame went to his head and he seemed embarrassed when Kessler showed him some of his old tapes. He came across in them as a self-centered person who was caught up with his own fame and success. Drugs and alcohol became a mainstay of his life. He subsequently had treatment and now has been sober for over 20 years. His wife Marianna is frequently shown at his side in the movie and it is obvious that she and his two children are very meaningful to him. He has evolved to where he clearly cares about people and is deeply passionate about music, not only his own but the music of other composers. He is now President of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, which is a very powerful organization fighting for the rights of all songwriters. Paul Williams has come a long way and as the title states is “still alive” in every sense of the word.(2012)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Documentary, Musical

The Harmonists

March 9th, 2012 — 12:54am

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The Harmonists – nf  This German film with English subtitles was originally titled the Comedic Harmonists which is the name of one of the most famous vocal groups to ever perform in Germany. This film is the story of  how Harry Frommermann, (Ulrich Noethen) originally pulled together this sextet in Germany during the depression from 4 other  talented singers and a piano player who were barely getting by in those hard times. They rehearsed for many months honing their style of syncopated but soothing harmony mostly choosing popular classics frequently with humorous lyrics. They became immensely popular in Germany. The story line shows how they came together as a group and also depicts some of their romantic connections. This is all based on a true story and the music that we hear is the actual music of the Comedic Harmonists of the 1930s.  However as we all know something else was going on in Germany during this period. Harry Frommermann and two other members of this group were Jewish. As we follow the now successful group  and perhaps identify with their joy in realizing their hopes and dreams, we also  begin to appreciate what was happening all around them. Some of the scenes  remind us  of the denial of so many proud older German Jews who couldn’t accept that they were slowly but surely being rejected by their beloved country. The Harmonists briefly perform in the United States and Harry has a conflict whether he should return to Germany. Each time we read a book or see a movie about this period of history we develop an iota more of insight into the plight of the Jewish people of that time and also of what can happen to any of us (Jews or not) when people are led to hate one group or another. The power of music to tap into our  emotions no doubt will help to embed this piece of history and this film into the viewers psyche. (1997)  

Comment » | 3 Stars, Drama, Foreign, Musical

Musical Chairs

March 1st, 2012 — 8:14am

 

*****

Musical Chairs- sp    This is a movie from which you will learn something about people and about the heart. It is about music and it is about dance . It is about what can happen when a person suddenly finds him or herself  in a wheel chair for the rest of their life.  Director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan ) takes a screenplay  by Marty Madden and somehow does a perfect casting job starting off with E.J Bonilla, a young actor who plays  Armando with a flair for music, dance and the ability to project his intensity and his sincerity when he encounters Mia (Leah Pipes) a beautiful young dancer before and after her tragic accident. The story flows as smoothly as the music and the dance of this film. Most of the rest of the engaging  cast is this  young man’s  New York Puerto Rican second generation family who owns a restaurant and especially his  mother (Pricilla Lopez) who has to struggle with her aspirations for her son and her realization of his love for his new girlfriend. The other group of extraordinary colorful players in this film are the people in wheelchairs who find that they can express themselves in dance. In reality only one of the actors, Auti Angel, who plays Nicky is actually confined to a wheel chair. She was a promising professional dancer who has a true story that is not too far from the plot of this movie. Behind the scenes we understand that she assisted and inspired the actors in wheelchairs to take on their personas. We view this movie as fairy tales where things happen and people say and do things not quite the way they may happen in real life. It reminds us of a musical where it can be convenient to suddenly find a place to sing (or in this case a hospital gym at night to dance in a special way). The characters and some of the dialogue are somewhat clichéd. This doesn’t seem to really matter because the emotion and the message of the movie is very real. We think everyone should be able to relate to this film and learn something about the human spirit. We also think that it has the potential to live on by teaching young people in schools and be an inspiration for the thousands of people every year who find themselves in a place they never thought they would be.  Part of the storyline of the movie is a dance contest being held in New York labeled “The First International Wheelchair Dance Competition” In reality, while wheelchair dancing is big in Europe it hasn’t quite caught on in the USA. It would not surprise us if after this film is released and gets around we will see this event in some major city. That is part of the great potential of this movie.(2012)

Comment » | 5 Stars, Drama, Musical

Still Bill

December 10th, 2011 — 11:10pm

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Still Bill- nf  It is very possible that you have never heard of  singer songwriter Bill Withers unless you are a big fan of rhythm and blues of the 1970s-1980s and thereabouts. But almost for sure  you have heard recordings of him singing his music , Lean on Me, Aint No Sunshine, Just the Two of Us and many other great hits of that time. Damani Baker and Alex Vlack as young filmmakers knew about his music and a little about the man and as is often the case with Independent films, it took them about 11 years to make this documentary. Needless to say , it has a great music track. It is a film not just about the man and his music but it is about the character of man who wasn’t out for the adulation and glory that easily descended upon him. He cared about expressing himself in the stories that he wanted to tell through his music. He led an unlikely career and then faded from the public music scene at the height of his fame. He was born the youngest of 6 children in the  coal mining town of Slab Folk  West Virgina . His grandfather was born a slave and he was greatly influenced by his grandmother whom he immortalized in one of his classic songs, Grandma’s Hand . He stuttered for the first 28 years of his life  He enlisted in the US Navy and worked as a mechanic and then took a job in an aircraft factory. Around this time he started playing the guitar and writing songs and decided to give it a try when he was given the opportunity to record an album. He had no idea if it would work out and was prepared to continue his work “ installing Johns on planes.” Almost overnight his album was a gigantic hit and he found himself on the Johnny Carson show. This documentary begins with a 70 year old seemingly very contented Bill Withers who hasn’t been on the music scene for probably at least 20 years. He is married and his daughter is  finding her way as a singer. He reflects on his career and how he has faded into the background because, as he says, he just doesn’t have much to say at present. He appears to be financially secure having had 3 gold albums with numerous successful songs and having toured and sang with many great musicians. The film makers show the essence of this man through informal conversations with several of his friends including Tavis Smiley, Jim Brown (the football player) , Bill Russell (the basketball player) , his son, wife, daughter and others.  At times he tears up as for example when he visits a school where young students with stuttering problems put on a small concert for him. In a heartwarming sequence although perhaps somewhat contrived, he decides to go back into the studio with a good friend who is a blind musician and his daughter. They begin to write and record. Wither’s delight in the process and in the music seems genuine and is wonderful to watch. The documentary ends on this note. You get the feeling that there is now more to come. (2009)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Musical

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