Stars: Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots, Andrew Buckley
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: XLrator Media
Countries: UK, Ireland
Running time: 118 minutes
Best part: Andre Benjamin.
Worst part: Ridley’s direction.
When handling a true story, the producers, writers, directors, actors etc. involved have momentous duties to uphold. As Hollywood’s taste for docudramas and biopics grows hastily, we’re getting more true stories than ever. Attracting specific audiences (those learning about the subject matter and those already aware), these movies are designed to accelerate ongoing discussions. Jimi: All Is By My Side is the latest docudrama to aptly cover a well-known musician. So, why the average rating?
Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix.
There are several factors keeping me from loving Jimi: All Is By My Side. Despite Ridley and co.’s affections, its flaws are more irritating and obvious than a narc at Woodstock. Like an old Republican yelling “get off my lawn!” at a drum circle, the movie breaks up the party before the cool stuff happens. In all fairness, the cast and crew aren’t to blame. In fact, the studio executives – normally responsible for on-set turbulence – let free will and bright ideas take control. Picking through enthralling facts and details, the movie crafts a spirited yet inconsistent take on Jimi Hendrix’s life. The movie kick off in a lowly, New York jazz club in 1966. Chronicling one year of Jimi'(Andre Benjamin)’s existence, the opening scene holds the cards and plays them succinctly. As a sideman to several forgettable acts, his career looks to be heading nowhere. Refusing to take anything seriously, the younger Hendrix lives a hazy, simplicity fuelled lifestyle. One night, he catches the eye of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). Despite being mistaken for a groupie, Linda’s street-smarts and moxy pull people into the spotlight. After Hendrix’s discovery, aided by The Animals’ enthusiastic manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the mesmerising musician turns friends, lovers, and record label executives against him.
Benjamin & Hayley Atwell.
Despite the true story’s value, Jimi: All Is By My Side‘s production issues overshadow the final product. Criticised by Hendrix’s former flame Kathy Etchingham (Played by Hayley Atwell here), its agenda is cause for concern. Also, writer/director John Ridley, lacking permission from Hendrix LLC (Hendrix’s estate), couldn’t use any of the singer/songwriter’s phenomenal tracks. Hindered by these restrictions, this biopic opts for a more subdued and modest approach. Ridley, having tackled story and screenplay duties for everything from Undercover Brother to 12 Years a Slave, lends a strong-willed touch to this project. Avoiding most musical-biopic cliches, Ridley dissects the guitarist’s love of music, women, music, philosophy, music, weed, and music. Infatuated with the subject matter, Ridley’s project explores the under-the-surface elements. This biopic, capturing the ins and outs of Hendrix’s identity, examines a time before the fame, fortune, classic tunes, and copycats. Avoiding America’s bright-lights music scene, its microscope-like, small-scale focus on the London years delivers several invigorating sequences and enthralling revelations. Set before revelatory first album Are You Experienced‘s release, and the Monterey Jazz Festival, the year-long storyline never hinges on his current, long-lasting notoriety. Utilising cover songs (Benjamin’s ‘Wild Thing’ cover is used twice) and extensive guitar riffs, Ridley’s glowing affection hits like reverb and pot smoke.
“I want my music to inside the soul of a person. For me it’s colours, I want people to feel the music the same way I see it.” (Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin), Jimi: All Is By My Side).
Benjamin & Imogen Poots.
Despite avoiding the ‘greatest hits’ structure of Jersey Boys and Get on Up, Jimi: All Is By My Side resembles fantasy wrapped in docudrama’s bright clothing. Dodging any discussion of civil rights, the movie – like its subject – lacks clear vision and purpose. Presenting the rule-makers and rule-breakers evenly, Ridley’s 1960s is as disarming as Hendrix’s stash. Unceremoniously, the third act relishes in Jimi’s abuse of music industry practices, weed, and women. Certain sequences, including one featuring Jimi bludgeoning Kathy with a phone, rift against its hallucinogenic flow. Sadly, Ridley breaks his stings well before the climax. Having written for Steve McQueen, Oliver Stone, and David O. Russell, his style is a frenzying but overcooked mix of visual flourishes. Affectionate for this specific time and place, the archival footage, elaborate production design, and magnetic score alleviate the tension and existential crises. Unfortunately, Ridley’s direction – smashing together sound-bites, freeze frames, cut-aways, and jump cuts – rifts against the production’s restraints. Despite the visual and narrative incoherence, the performances save it from obscurity and unoriginality. Benjamin, known as Andre 3000 of RnB group Outkast, its scintillating as one of music history’s biggest hitters. Blitzing previous performances from Four Brothers and Semi-Pro, his overt charisma elevates this stagnant effort. Poots and Atwell, two of Hollywood’s most underrated women, deliver fun turns in intriguing roles.
Despite lacking ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Voodoo Chile’, ‘Castles Made of Sand’ etc., Jimi: All Is By My Side swaggers and spins around production issues. Thanks to Ridley’s quiet reserve and spirited style, the movie appeals to Hendrix aficionados and average film-goers. If anything, it will attract more people to the master’s discography. Hell, it may get some hooked on ganja! However, despite the ambition and allure, Ridley overworks several gimmicky flourishes. Too bad Hendrix’s Estate isn’t as laid-back.
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 106 minutes
Best part: Teller and Simmons.
Worst part: The relationship sub-plot.
Even the most cynical person on Earth will admit that music is a valuable art form. As a universal language, the medium can bring people together and tear others apart. From the first note to the last, a track can turn sombre morsels into happy-go-lucky specimens. From gospel to blues ‘n’ roots to rock, music genres – like movie genres – rise and fall depending on the surrounding pop-cultural landscape. Whiplash, a small-scale drama with big aspirations, meticulously examines the miasmic world of jazz.
The idea for Whiplash, similarly to a classic album, simmered for several years before seeing the green light. Based on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s horrific music school experiences, his 85-page screenplay treatment hit Hollywood’s notorious Black-list. After gaining interest, he adapted 15 pages of his original effort into an 18-minute short film. Boosted by Hollywood’s occasional-stroke-of-genius methods, this first-feature – a $3.3 million/19-day-shoot production – lands smoother than Miles Davis’ silk threads. The story, like the scintillating tunes blaring throughout, flows with as much intensity, prowess, and class as humanly possible. In fact, it takes this ‘humanly possible’ idea, and re-moulds it into something truly extraordinary. Spirited twenty-something Andrew (Miles Teller) studies the jazz drums morning noon, and night. Hitting his strides at America’s top music school, the Schaffer Conservatory of Music, the ambitious youngster’s life couldn’t be better. Dating candy-bar girl Nicole (Melissa Benoist), he yields vivid dreams about his immediate future. Picked by renowned studio jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is unaware of what’s about to happen. In their first practice session together, Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew before slapping him repeatedly and screaming profanities. From there, Andrew is in it for the long haul.
Fletcher, to motivate terrified students, tells a hearty story about influential musician Charlie Parker. In 1936, at Kansas City’s Reno Club, a 16-year-old Parker got up on stage to perform ‘I Got Rhythm’ on the saxophone. Whilst bombing spectacularly, the drummer, Jo Jones, lobbed a cymbal at his head to the crowd’s approval. Parker, after a year of intensive practice, returned to the venue and made history. If this tale interests you, then Whiplash will suit your tastes perfectly. Following up Inside Llewyn Davis, this psychological-drama delivers an equally impressive ode to a specific genre. Jumping back to a better time, the movie’s infatuation with soulful hits and inspirational artists hits its audience with bass-drum-like momentum. From the opening scene – depicting Andrew and Fletcher’s first interaction – onwards, the movie crafts a spirited dynamic between two enthralling professionals. Going Full Metal Jacket within the first half-hour, Whiplash‘s student/mentor relationship turns up the heat, stakes, and emotional resonance. Delivering some of cinema’s most brutal insults, Chazelle’s screenplay echoes Aaron Sorkin’s more focused works. Like The Social Network, egos, personalities, and tempers clash like warring, blood-thirsty factions. Switching from Brassed Off to The Master to Black Swan, Whiplash conducts a seasoned and visceral performance throughout its taut run-time. Chazelle’s style – defined by quick cuts, whip-pans, close-ups, and a saturated colour palette – elevates each set piece. The heart-thumping climax, set at New York’s Carnegie Hall, delivers actioner-like thrills and sports-drama bravado.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'”. (Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Whiplash).
Teller & Simmons.
Despite the overworked premise, Whiplash never walks to the beat of its own drum. The central conflict, beyond the trauma and rage, delivers blackly comedic moments. “Are you one of those…single tear people”, Fletcher asks Andrew as his reputation and defences crumble. Throughout this fear-and-potential-driven experience, Andrew and Fletcher’s feud sends characters and film-goers into a tailspin. Andrew – praising music religiously – treats each sound, music page, and instrument with greater affection than most. Seeing his father (Paul Reiser) and girlfriend as mindless distractions, his anti-social behaviour wrestles with Fletcher’s sociopathic teaching methods. Fletcher, looking for the next big jazz talent, switches gears every few seconds. One second, he’s chatting heartily with old friends. The next, he’s berating his pupils over physical features, wrong notes, and slight mishaps. Despite the shocking behaviour, his intentions become clear and, to a certain extent, believable. Obliterating the “good job” approach, his style births classic hits and memorable musicians. Teller and Simmons bolster the movie’s relentless tempo. Adapting to the blood-sweat-and-tears role, Teller delivers his most commendable performance yet. Drumming with immense power, the Spectacular Now leads improves upon his skills here. Simmons, known for the Spider-Man trilogy and Juno, excels as the mighty mentor ruling his rhythmically sound version of hell.
Boiling Whiplash down to its most salient conceits, Chazelle teaches us a valuable lesson: don’t meet your heroes. More importantly, if you do meet them, don’t work for them. This drama-thriller is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition and expectations. Driven by our leads’ momentous conflict, the movie’s cynicism and snarky wit might prove too much for some. However, the compelling story and fun performances deliver a beat worth tapping to.
Musical biopics commercial hits share one particular similarity – they gain significant traction by following a specific formula. Despite the quality of certain examples, these docudramas skate by on the success of the people/groups etc involved. Get On Up examines one musician, and the blues-soul hits he carved from nothing. Despite clinging onto several alluring conceits, this musical biopic is nowhere near as energetic as its title suggests.
Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul.
Obviously, James Brown aka the Godfather of Soul is an inspirational person worthy of significant cinematic treatment. Breaking down racial and artistic barriers, Brown was a caricature and musician willing to transform his world. His songs, hitting hearts and minds from the 1960s onward, work their way into the consciousness like no one else’s. In addition, his work paved the way for everyone from Stevie Wonder to Pharrell Williams. So, does Get On Up do him justice? Short answer: Yes and no. Yes, on a performance level. No, because of the rift between its director and writers. For those unaware of Brown’s story, the movie chronicles the best and worst parts of his existence. The movie’s first scene comes off like a belligerent, Eddie Murphy-driven Saturday Night Live Sketch. Kicking off in 1988, we meet a worn-out Brown (Chadwick Boseman) in the midst of a concerning drug problem. After finding out someone had used his bathroom without his consent, Brown threatens the attendees of an insurance seminar with a shotgun. Looking past is peculiar event, the movie then tracks back through his better moments. With Vietnam in full swing, late 60s America turned to musicians like Brown to distract itself from problems abroad. Beyond this, the movie extensively applauds his fascinating success story.
Viola Davis as Susie Brown.
Abandoned by his parents, Joe (Lennie James) and Susie (Viola Davis), Brown shifts from working for brothel owner Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer) to jail time to singing gospel alongside Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis). Tracking Brown from his troubled youth to his notorious 90s comeback, Get On Up painstakingly throws everything regarding his existence onto the big screen. In fact, director Tate Taylor (The Help) appears to be making a habit of wholeheartedly tackling African-American history’s most involving stories. From the opening hostage sequence onward, Taylor latest docudrama seeks to deliver a ‘greatest hits’ version of Brown’s invigorating legacy. Refreshingly, his style crafts several Oscar-worthy moments. In certain sections, Taylor examines everything from Brown’s extraordinary personality to his significant achievements to his deplorable brushes with temptation. This biopic’s shiny veneer is a testament to Taylor’s own guile and heartiness. Refusing to make big-budget dross, Taylor is a game-changer himself. Unfortunately, the material he’s working with fails to honour Brown’s unforgettable aura. As Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s second major screenplay for 2014, following up enjoyable action-thriller Edge of Tomorrow, their work copies and pastes entire sequences from similar musical biopics. Following a tried-and-true formula, their writing lacks Walk the Line and Ray‘s bright spark. Tackling Dreamgirls‘ structure, this rise-and-fall formula deserves a significant shake up.
“If it sound good, and it feel good, then it’s musical.” (James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), Get On Up).
Dan Aykroyd on a mission from…the studio execs.
In trying to reinvigorate this genre, Taylor and co. shuffle things around to fit a non-linear format. Delivering a convoluted narrative, this note-worthy biopic lacks its competitors’ coherency and depth. By switching up certain story and character beats, Taylor reduces its overall message to fit the Brown family’s wishes. Depicting a conservative analysis of Brown’s life choices, The movie, for the most part, leaves his problems with domestic violence and drug abuse on the cutting room floor. In addition, the race-relations angle is, bafflingly, picked up and dropped without warning. Addressed in small doses, the movie’s agenda restricts itself to, every so often, having minor white characters say the N-word. However, beyond the prickly race issues and stirring conflicts, the movie hinges on its performers successfully enveloping these parts. Fortunately, Taylor’s specialty resides in pulling brilliant turns out of stellar ensembles. Boseman, kicking off his career with last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42, is revelatory as music history’s biggest ego. Capturing Brown’s signature voice and mannerisms, his scintillating turn is worth the admission cost. In fact, his dance moves elevate the movie’s catchy renditions of ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’, and ‘Please, Please, Please’.
Handling Brown’s reputation with care, Taylor and Boseman succeed in delivering a meaningful and efficient biopic. Fortunately, as the narrative rises and falls, Get On up delivers several applause-worthy moments. However, despite the lead’s inherent charisma, the movie around him hits some unbearable screeches. Boosting this docudrama above the pack, Boseman – like Brown – is a true game-changer.
Stars: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld
Release date: June 27th, 2014
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 104 minutes
Best part: Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry.
Worst part: Levine’s bland performance.
Back in 2006, which now seems like a millennia ago, the world was introduced to a mass distribution of iconic indie-dramas. I know, this seems like a rough estimate of this phase’s beginnings. However, most importantly, the world’s core shook uncontrollably when it first heard the sweet, soothing sounds of Irish romantic-drama Once. To me, this kicked off the transcontinental mix of cinematic touchstones and life-altering tales that would continue to this day.
Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.
Recently adapted into a major theatre production, this Oscar-winning indie darling tells a heartbreaking story about second chances, sticky situations, and songwriting. So, why am I talking about one of the past decade’s most ambitious cinematic experiments? Well, it’s a matter of principle. Here, Once‘s writer/director John Carney has turned his attention to Hollywood’s intricate systems and obvious appeal. His latest effort, Begin Again, certainly has the right amount of guile and charm. In fact, these traits might push this dramedy into many critics’ Top 10 lists. However, for those who have seen Once, the similarities between these movies come off as trite and convenient. For instance, the narrative takes several predictable and contrived turns toward its inevitably cheerful denouement. In the first scene, we are introduced to scornful singer/songwriter Greta (Kiera Knightley). Slouched into the corner of a popular New York nightspot, Greta is forced into the club’s fear-driven spotlight by Steve (James Corden). Despite failing to impress the hipster-centric crowd, one bizarre attendee stands up and cheers audibly for her sultry stylings. This crowd member, despite not looking the part, is a major record producer on the l0ok out for inspirational music. Dan (Mark Ruffalo), having been fired earlier that day by long-term business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def), is one step away from packing it in.
Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine.
As you can tell, the narrative is a superfluous mix of conventional and ineffectual plot-treads. Pushed away by his estranged music-journalist wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and advantageous daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s drunken antics eventually hurl him into Greta’s equally-treacherous path. So, with my complaints rising to the surface, why do I like it so much? After leaving the theatre, my enjoyment levels hurriedly elevated like Knightley’s transitions between notes. The narrative, divided into two definitive parts, becomes comfort food for the senses. Greta, having been dumped by deceitful rock-star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, delivering a nod to John Mayer), is the movie’s most scintillating ingredient. Pitted against Ruffalo’s husband-and-father storyline, her arc becomes infinitely more watchable. Aiming to distract his audience, Carney’s style comes off like a twee exterior covering up a near-rotten core. the first third, charting Dan and Greta’s meeting point, moves at an unnecessarily sluggish pace. Pinpointing a particular scene, the story follows a Nick Hornby-like structure toward the second-two acts. Carney, following a familiar pattern, sticks too close to his previous effort. With Hollywood success looming over him, his generic follow-up never takes shape. In fact, Begin Again feels like it’s missing a final third/quarter needed to wrap-up certain story-lines and round out certain viewpoints.
“Musicians, for the most part, are monosyllabic teenagers who really don’t have a whole lot to say.” (Dan (Mark Ruffalo), Begin Again).
RnB icon CeeLo Green.
Despite the false notes, the movie’s endless magnetic streak, gleeful optimism, and array of Voice judges eclipse the aforementioned quibbles. Carney’s direction, pulling Once above the pack, dives head-long into the limbo-like area between realism and pure-and-unadulterated fantasy. Here, with style and substance performing a profound duet throughout the taut 104-minute run-time, Carney’s bigger-is-better shades come out swinging. With A-listers, a much more alluring city, and vastly different genres to play with, the story’s blissful pace and consistent tone create heart-wrenching moments to bounce off of. Creating an outdoor album with the tools at their disposal, Dan, Greta, Steve and co. take to Manhattan’s wondrous streets to escape their humdrum personal lives. These sequences, in which Greta’s songs covet the screen for elongated takes, display Carney’s knack for fusion and visual flourishes. His camerawork refuses to stay still for extended periods. Racing through even the most tedious of moments, there’s always something to pick out of Carney’s highly-stylised compositions. In addition, much more so than anything else, our attractive performers add ever-lasting gravitas to this otherwise harmless affair. Breaking out of her period-piece stigma, Knightley shines in this strong-willed role. Charting their swift rise-and-fall stories, Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry bolsters several corny and heavy-handed sequences. Sadly, Levine’s first acting gig yields transparent results.
Sitting comfortably between Inside Llewyn Davis and Jersey Boys, Begin Again delivers enough laughs and smile-worthy twists to skate by with minimal effort. Ruffalo, Knightley, and Steinfeld – leading this cute-and-kind-hearted cast – bolster this mostly repetitive and needless venture. With similar story and character beats to Once, Carney’s latest strums to an all-too-familiar tune. If anything, this will become a musical whose soundtrack eclipses everything around it.
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender
Release date: May 9th, 2014
Distributors: Element Pictures, Magnolia Pictures
Countries: Ireland, UK
Running time: 95 minutes
Best part: Fassbender’s manic performance.
Worst part: Gyllenhaal’s lacklustre character.
Some movies, whether they deliver momentous scores or pop songs designed to sell albums, use music to accelerate their effect. Blaring through each cinema’s sound system, a song, or even an entire compilation, can worm its way into our heads. British indie dramedy Frank utilises this concept to build upon its funky and potent core. Accentuated by out-there performances and manic directorial ticks, Frank delivers a fun, insightful, and momentous insight into music’s effect on human beings.
Domhnall Gleeson & Michael Fassbender.
Screening for festival fanatics and steely critics at this year’s South by Southwest festival, Frank had a high note to reach to impress these auspicious crowds. Sweeping through the circuit, this dramedy throws caution to the wind whilst its characters try to conquer their burgeoning issues. Pressing against typical festival-dramedy tropes, the movie’s inner-peace is repeatedly disrupted. The narrative, when not looking into an ever-so-slightly unhinged trajectory, follows the mediocre existence of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). This struggling keyboard player/songwriter, stuck in a depressing office space, dreams of hastily escaping his tragic existence. Everyday, Jon draws up the soundtrack to his monotonous life. Taking inspiration from the most mundane of occurrences, Jon’s life halts when he witnesses a man trying to drown himself. The man, keyboarder for popular grunge group ‘Soronprfbs’, is deemed unworthy of future gigs by the band’s eccentric manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Invited to play at their next gig, Jon watches on as the group crashes and burns on stage. However, Jon, invited to their cosy recording-studio abode, draws inspiration from misanthropic percussionist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and electrifying lead singer/songwriter Frank (Michael Fassbender).
Experimenting with music.
The word ‘predictable’ doesn’t belong in any context, or review, of this peculiar romp. Over several weeks, Jon learns from everything he sees and each bizarre personality he runs into. In each scene, little surprises and jokes reside to amp-up this already impressionistic creation. Working with a creative screenplay and boisterous cast, director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) takes aim at Ireland’s ever-lasting cultural stamp, the world’s music scenes, and genre clichés. Here, Abrahamson looks to his bubbly characters for ideas. Looking through the pages of this enjoyable material, his bright direction searches for and develops eye-catching gems. For the most part, Frank sticks to its promises by staging itself in affable and quaint locations. Stuck together in the recording studio, the drama relies on discomforting personalities and interesting ideas. The brightest moments revolve around the band’s quaint jam sessions. By using epiphanies and spiritual practices, this eclectic bunch seeks to conquer the alternative-rock game. Pushing past everyone around him, Frank – wearing a large, paper-mache head – holds his group together with charm and everlasting appeal. Without turning conflicts into melodramatic exchanges, the narrative takes several sharp and mood-altering turns towards darkness and disparity. Punishing its opportunistic new keyboard player, the group’s antics keep Frank above similar fare. Heading to SXSW itself, the movie’s fish-out-of-water-esque humour throws our ensemble into the heart of pop-culture. Aided by Twitter and Instagram, Jon’s social media coverage may draw a line between the band and its comforting surroundings.
“You play C, F, G?” (Frank (Michael Fassbender), Frank).
Playing off revelatory music-dramedies like Almost Famous and This is Spinal Tap, as well as renowned TV personality Frank Sidebottom, Frank examines music’s affect on pop-culture and social quarrels. Experimenting with varying tools and sounds, Frank’s recording techniques are peppered throughout joyous montages. Alarmingly, pushing its characters to breaking point, the movie delivers an insightful commentary on philosophy and mental health. Blaming one another’s questionable antics, its characters test one another without being condescending or complacent. In the final third, as Frank’s intentions become clear, we see the downfall of a potential genius. Jon and Frank, as their bromance reaches a crux, reflect upon music, life, and escapism. Describing each other’s facial expressions, their alluring mannerisms lend heart and brawn to this ear-drum-strumming farce. Unexpectedly, Jon’s confidence-fuelled efforts do more harm than good. Drawing fame and fortune towards this quirky group, Frank’s personality becomes increasingly unpredictable and concerning. Credit goes to Fassbender for bringing a charismatic glow to this difficult role. Suited to blockbuster fare, Fassbender, like his character, reaches outside the box to deliver extraordinary quirks. In addition, soon after his heartbreaking performance in About Time, Gleeson delivers a likeable turn as the audience avatar and the group’s most opportunistic member. Made whole by Gleeson’s whimsical accent, his charm and wide-eyed glory ground this abstract feature. However, despite her best efforts, Gyllenhaal fails to overcome her nasty character. Thankfully, at opportune moments, McNairy comes along to lighten the darkest moments and deliver genuine thrills.
Similarly to Fassbender’s performance, Frank is an engrossing, enlightening, and intelligent commentary about the world around us. With music being Frank’s guiding light, the movie maintains its optimistic glow and heartening motifs throughout. Looking for new sounds and compilations, the band reflects the movie’s will to succeed by looking beyond the norm.
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Release date: January 16th, 2014
Distributor: CBS Films
Running time: 105 minutes
Best part: The memorable soundtrack.
Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.
Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.
Oscar Isaac & cat.
Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).
Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious Man, Fargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).
John Goodman & Garrett Headlund.
Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark,Inside Llewyn Davishurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.
With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.
Verdict: An intelligent, hysterical, and enlightening drama.
Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill
Release date: June 13th, 2013
Running time: 90 minutes
Best part: The interviews.
Worst part: The overt symbolism.
The best documentaries take subjects of little commercial interest and thrust them into the spotlight. With each production, these informative works may inspire or disgust. Despite cynical preconceived ideas about documentary filmmaking, movies like 20 Feet from Stardom are far more entertaining than many expansive Hollywood efforts. Peeling back layers developed by heartache and fond memories, this well-crafted and ambitious movie explores a vital strand of popular music. This documentary, thanks to its informative structure and unique interviewees, is one of 2013’s greatest surprises. I could talk all day about this movie’s glowing highlights because, honestly, positive word of mouth is needed for this year’s most ground-breaking documentaries.
As the unsung heroes of modern music, backup singers support popular groups. Despite the overwhelming talent at the front of each stage, backup singers bravely place themselves in full view. Movie and live music audiences generally focus on both art forms’ most controversial and appealing aspects. However, like character actors, backup singers provide heart, character, and consistency. This documentary, focusing on several inspirational African-American women, is an intriguing and heartfelt examination of pop culture. In the opening scenes, we are welcomed into this interesting and engaging world. Soul singer Darlene Love reunites with her backup-singer companions. Reflecting upon fond memories, Love and co. relay vital information about their connections to music, family, and spirituality. Merry Clayton, a gospel singing icon, reflects upon great musicians including The Rolling Stones. Starting out with church choirs and ceremonial performances, the interviewees deliberate on transitioning from first recitals to overwhelming stardom. The gorgeous Claudia Lennear discusses her relationship with the ‘sexiness’ of pop culture and Mick Jagger’s stardom. Lisa Fischer deliberates on her professional and personal livelihoods. Fischer’s determination and energy, encapsulated by powerful vocals, places her in the all-important spotlight. On the other side of the coin, 29-year-old Judith Hill, workaholic and optimistic soul, speaks out about the modern music industry’s wheelings and dealings. These singers, with several engaging similarities despite the generational gaps, focus on their frustrating yet engaging profession.
Our singers in action.
From the first second,20 Feet from Stardom establishes itself as a profound and in-depth analysis of music, culture, and hope. This art form, placing a powerful stranglehold on every demographic throughout history, is depicted as a source of knowledge, happiness, and inspiration. Veteran music documentary director Morgan Neville (Johnny Cash’s America) reminds us that individuality and rebelliousness cause ripple effects. For these select few singers, their ripples hit family members, friends, fans, and music industry types. For the most part, Neville presents these interviewees as fair and honest individuals. After efficiently establishing their career highlights, the movie delves into far more sinister territory. In the opening few scenes, Neville focuses on the present. With little knowledge about influential backup singers, I found an enlightening avenue to explore. Thankfully, the movie chronicles each subject’s enviable and empathetic traits. Love, for example, is presented as an ordinary citizen with magnificent memories. Neville, optimistically, presents these subjects as humble and bright figures. They, despite their brushes with fame and fortune, view the world like everyone else. From an early age, family, religion, and artistic value influenced these subjects to pursue this career. Here, certain origin stories are compared to one another. This style, highlighting choir and gospel music’s immense value, links these influential artists. Ultimately, intertwining strands illuminate 20 Feet from Stardom‘s narrative and themes. Born from hilarious anecdotes and fond friendships, the movie examines art, culture, and equality’s historical and thematic relevance. Neville’s work also delves into personal stories and race relations. Neville, infatuated with each subject, focuses on every profound word. Taboo subjects, including Lennear’s controversial Playboy shoot, are tenderly and stylishly reflected upon. Neville, Love and co. present several opinions and anecdotes for viewers to analyse. However, despite the glowing interviewees and over-whelming musical montages, the movie isn’t perfect.
“How can you logically not have a diva have her music on? I don’t get that.” (Merry Clayton, 20 Feet from Stardom).
The structure, despite touching upon the 20th Century’s greatest musicians, wavers throughout the final third. The movie, without delivering a satisfactory conclusion, is occasionally presented as generic PR material. Despite these gripes, the minor flaws are matched by the stellar direction and production design. Neville – presenting his subjects as saviours, sisters, queens, and warriors – douses the screen with selective visual flourishes. After the engaging opening credit sequence, the movie delves into stardom and pop culture’s most enlightening aspects. Consistently, Neville plays archival footage and classic tunes. Reflecting upon several glorious and influential moments, this style highlights Love and co.’s stranglehold upon music history. However, in the second half, the snappy visuals are replaced with confronting personal stories. These moments, though dour, deliver several necessary gut punches. Placed in a specific timeline, these scenes outline the pros and cons of this alluring profession. Unfortunately, despite each anecdote’s worthiness, Neville’s heavy handedness sticks out. With ludicrous symbolism under-cutting several points, the final third belabours the all-important messages. Fortunately, in the movie’s most subtle moments, the interviewees are engaging, enthusiastic, and likeable. Love, known for her profound artistic endeavours, is a warming presence. Defined by her distinctive chuckle, her stories – describing everything from house cleaning to Lethal Weapon supporting roles – will lift audience spirits. The same goes for Clayton’s baffling tales of stardom and rejection. With her awe-inspiring vocals, Clayton brought one of The Rolling Stones’ most popular hits to life. Playing ‘Gimme Shelter’ back to Clayton, Neville illustrates her cultural importance. The song’s standout line – “Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away” – sends chills down the spine. In addition, renowned and caricature-like musicians including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Sting support the documentary’s many stirling points.
With a heartfelt narrative, intriguing interviewees, and pulsating visuals, 20 Feet from Stardom is an underrated documentary delving into an obscure art form. Delving into race relations, fame, and femininity, Neville’s work pushes boundaries whilst delivering an entertaining thrill-ride. Oscar consideration is around the corner for this transcendent, tender, and enjoyable trip down memory lane.
Verdict: An inspirational and energetic music documentary.