Friday, 17 December 2021

“West Side Story” 2021

Some brief notes on Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Broadway musical and remake of the 1961 movie.
 I don’t have much to say about the alleged cinematic artistry of Spielberg, nor how I feel about his Disneyfication of West Side Story; the movie is exactly what you’d expect to come from Spielberg in 2021, and for some viewers that will be as pleasurable as it was tedious for me.

I went into the movie – and happily sat through its 156-minute run-time – because of my deep and abiding love for the music of Leonard Bernstein, and, for all of my fellow-admirers, this effort is no disappointment. West Side Story was a music triumph at its premiere, in 1957, and has gelatinised, in the most gratifying way, into a sterling classic, both in the worlds of musical theatre and classical music. I’m glad to hear that I’m not alone in thinking of Bernstein’s music as among the great achievements of American composers in the 20th century, and I was heartened to find that, as much as I didn’t enjoy what Spielberg was bringing to the work, I didn’t mind enduring it, because each time a song began in the movie, I sat with a large literal smile beaming all the way to the end.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Barbra: My First Time

I don’t know who would believe me if I said that I was a Barbra Streisand virgin until yesterday. It wouldn’t strictly be true; I’ve seen clips of her on The Judy Garland Show, and in Meet the Fockers and Guilt Trip, but I wasn’t exposed to the dazzle of her music making until I turned on The Barbra Streisand Album for my drive home last night.

The album was Streisand’s studio début, and I won’t forget the experience of hearing its opening. After a short meandering solo by a plucked double bass, Barbra’s mezzo voice pierces the open silence above it, with a rhythmic incisiveness and mercurial inflection. She starts with the now-famous six-note falling scale that opens “Cry Me a River,” and that her distinctive tone immediately renders new and unfamiliar.

I was surprised to hear the wide range of approaches she takes on in one album, to convey her meanings. She veers from poise and precision – an elegance that may befit a salon in fin-de-siècle Paris – to brassy, growling roars, where she loses (that is, gives up) her control over pitch, pronunciation, and other aspects of making a nice sound. Her broad spectrum of expression covers infinitesimal nuances, subtle gradations in colour and timbre, and always seems to arise from a spontaneous idea or impression – moments become masterpieces, flung out on the wing.

Streisand’s distinguished artistry, and the sound of it on my inadequate speakers, made me think of the immediate recognisability of many of my favourite artists – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Terrence Malick, Maria Callas, Chantal Akerman, Wes Anderson, Glenn Gould, Clint Eastwood, Nina Simone, or Jean Seberg – and how their style is more than an idiosyncrasy, or a brand. Style (at least, that of a great artist) is an outward expression of an entire personality; it’s the shuddering of a great soul, rendered as a physical experience. It’s why the styles of the artists mentioned above – as highly influential as each of them was – are so inimitable, why any attempt to reproduce them can only come off as the shallowest mimicry, and why coming across it in their work, in each moment-by-moment encounter, can feel like an enlargening of life itself.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

A Moving Musical Documentary on Netflix

I watched a very moving documentary on Netflix last week:
Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, which tells a story of the highly anticipated original Broadway production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, and its immediate failure. The 2016 documentary was directed by Lonny Price, one of the production’s main cast members, and he interviews Sondheim, the production’s director, Hal Prince, a number of his castmates, and two notable audience members who saw the original run. I watched the movie as someone very interested in the work of Sondheim, and came away from it deeply touched by the experiences and perspectives of the people it features.

The documentary’s setting is the musical theatre of Broadway in the early 80s, but its subject is the expectations and frustrations – the dreams and subsequent hard reality – of any young person starting out in life. This happens to be a theme of the musical Merrily We Roll Along as well, and the plot, as relayed by Sondheim and Prince, is an apt parallel for the stories told by the once-young-and-aspiring real-life performers that Price interviews.

Sondheim and Prince had hired a cast of young performers, in their late teens and early 20s, each of whom was making their debut on Broadway, and who couldn’t have been more thrilled by the entire experience, including that of being a part of the history of their heroes. Price engagingly includes himself in the telling of the story, as well as the story of how the documentary got made, in part.

The show’s failure (closing after just 16 performances) had a devastating impact on all the documentary’s subjects, even Sondheim and Prince. Some of the young performers tell of struggling in a tough and competitive industry, one famous one struck on enviable success, and at least one left the acting profession entirely. More than the details of the production or what came after, the most engaging aspect of the entire movie is the affecting care and attention that Price pays to the people involved. The then-young performers are now all much older, and each carries a wealth of experience that’s instantly evoked in their interviews.

The weight of emotion that comes with that experience is brought poignantly to the movie’s forefront, and the documentary becomes a story that mirrors that of the show: Young people with big dreams transform into baffled, worldly, and keenly emotional older people. The tender observation – call it Love – with which Price shows their stories (including his own) is what enriches those emotions, and turns his documentary into a powerful experience.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Year in Movies – 2020

Like many, many things in 2020, this blog and any updates gave way to very different priorities, and not only did I watch fewer movies last year, but the way in which I watched them and the aspects that I paid most attention to and appreciated most also shifted, perhaps irreversibly. I found myself responding much more strongly to movies where the filmmakers took conspicuous and considerate care in imagining and conveying characters’ emotional lives, and to stories that seemed informed by lived experiences and hard-won knowledge.

Miranda July’s Kajillionaire (which could just as easily have been my Number 1 movie of the year), a movie about familial struggles, was born not only out of her prodigious imagination, but also out of her accumulating feelings of frustration, fury, discovery, joy, and a multitude of others that arise from her new experience of being a wife and a mother. Shirley was made by a consummate cinematic creator, Josephine Decker, who herself must have experienced some of the terrors and ecstasies of artistic creation before evoking them in the story of her protagonist, the real-life novelist Shirley Jackson.