Category: Musical

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday (in that red dress – see below)

Our Christmas Day treat this year involved putting up the screen and projector and downloading Bells Are Ringing. It was only later that I realised the coincidence that we had been watching the last classic MGM musical produced by the ‘Freed unit’, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and directed by Vincente Minnelli. In the next few weeks La La Land, the ‘new Hollywood musical’ is expected to arrive in the UK. I wonder if it will kickstart a revival or even do enough to sit alongside the Freed triumphs? Bells Are Ringing comes from the same three creative talents as The Band Wagon (1953), possibly my favourite musical. Bells Are Ringing isn’t such an instant ‘wow’ but it does have several things going for it, beginning with a terrific central performance by the fabulous Judy Holliday in her last film before a tragic early death from breast cancer just five years later.

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

I fear Ms Holliday will not be known by modern audiences. She was first a stage performer before getting her big break in the Hepburn-Tracey comedy Adam’s Rib (1949). This was followed by her Oscar-winning performance in Born Yesterday (1950), two notable films with Jack Lemmon and a handful of other film projects before this, her last appearance. On stage she had a hit run for Born Yesterday on Broadway and won a Tony as best actress in a musical for the stage version of Bells Are Ringing in 1957. In 1952 Holliday had appeared before one of the Senate Committees during the anti-Communist hysteria. She avoided ‘naming names’ and is said to have charmed her interrogators with a ‘dumb blonde’ routine. This was part of her star persona but in reality she was one of the most intelligent and cultured performers in American theatre and film. She escaped an official blacklisting and during the 1950s was an ‘A’ star for Columbia, but there is a suggestion that she didn’t appear on TV as much as might be expected for such a talented performer – a comedian who could sing and dance and had the potential to develop into a fine ‘serious’ actor. Some critics have suggested that she wasn’t ‘beautiful enough’ to be a big star in Hollywood, but she was vivacious and attractive and someone who audiences could relate to very easily.

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

The ‘bells’ in this romantic comedy musical are not primarily wedding bells. Ella (Judy Holliday) works for ‘Susanswerphone’, a telephone messaging service housed in a run-down building, the last one standing in an area of re-development. The central plotline involves her attempts to solve her clients’ personal problems, notably the stalling career of playwright Jeffrey Moss (Dean Martin). She does this while trying to hide her identity with predictable results. Two subplots involve an attempt by a new client to use the answering service to run an illegal betting system and a comic police surveillance of the business based on a misapprehension. The betting scam introduces gangsters to the mix and this strand reminded me of Guys and Dolls. The stage origins of the narrative are clear in the limited number of sets (all studio-based) and one of these, a complex street sequence, proved to be a striking attempt to re-create the realism of ‘Hollywood New York’ while retaining the control offered by a studio set. Otherwise, locations such as glamorous New York apartments and park settings are reminiscent of earlier MGM musicals (with a cinema marquee for Gigi reminding us of the legacy).

The songs had music by Jule Styne (with arrangements by Andre Previn) and lyrics by Comden and Green – who had started their careers in a revue troupe with Judy Holliday in 1938. While many of them are enjoyable but forgettable, at least two have subsequently become standards and I recognised ‘Just In Time’ and ‘The Party’s Over’. 1960 is an odd point in time, certainly in popular music but also in stage musicals and in Hollywood. Rock ‘n roll had softened dangerously by 1960 and stage musicals wouldn’t receive the ‘shock’ of West Side Story until 1957 – which followed Bells Are Ringing into film production. Bells Are Ringing feels like the end of something rather than a beginning. It was the end for MGM’s Freed Unit and it came towards the end of Vincente Minnelli’s career as a director of musicals (the last was On A Clear Day You Can See For Ever in 1970 with Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand). I didn’t have time to study Minnelli’s use of mise en scène, but the colour schemes are certainly bold with strong primary colours. The gowns are promoted in the trailer below and some are certainly extraordinary. There is a strong echo of The Band Wagon and, as one commentator noted, the performance of one song, ‘The Midas Touch’ could easily have featured in the earlier film. Just as in The Band Wagon, Minnelli’s film seems to seek to undermine ‘artistic pretension’. When Ella is invited to a cocktail party she wears an extravagant red dress given to her by one of her clients. She is then teased by her friends who correctly relate it to the opera La Traviata. Because the dress is not in the current fashion she then tears off much of the ‘fancywork’ on the frock and reveals a simpler and more attractive dress – which is also suits her much better.

Some comments on Judy Holliday’s performance suggest that she was depressed and conscious of being overweight during the filming. All I can say is that she made the film for me (ably assisted by Dean Martin). Bells Are Ringing is otherwise a conventional MGM musical, perhaps a little below the best 1950s output of the studio. All the same, La La Land will have to be very good to displace the Freed musicals in my preferences. I think the BBC should be required to show a season of them every Christmas.

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

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This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented

“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “

on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.

I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.

The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”

Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”

I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.

And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own

Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”

The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.

I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion

Sing Street (Eire-US-UK 2016)

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This is film is typical of those written and directed by John Carney. So audience responses will probably be similar to that for his earlier films Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013). The other factor to consider is how much you like the popular music of the 1980s — I did recognise some of it and it seemed fairly accurate for the decade.

The basic plot involves what I take to be a ‘boy band’ formed by a group of school students intertwined with the lead singer’s attraction to a teen girl. The material about the formation of the band is heavily influenced by The Commitments (1991), as the S&S review notes. However, I did not think this film was in the same class as the earlier. The musical talent is less and the story line is rather lightweight by comparison.

The lead character is Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who, because of family problems, has just moved to a new school. The object of his romantic gaze is Raphina (Lucy Boyton) who provides the motivation for his musical entrepreneurship. These two, together with their supporting cast, are good at playing the teen’s world, though I thought the plotted ages were not always convincing.

In an ironic take on ‘boy bands’ we get the group experimenting with a variety of styles from the 1980′. This has much humour but does start to feel repetitious. And whilst the film is fairly comic, nearly all of the best lines come in the first 30 minutes. As with the cast, the dynamic of a Dublin school in the 1980s is effectively realised. And I thought the attempt to create a fairy-tale ending did not fully work. it also had a pinch from Fellini’s Amarcord (1973),

It sounds good and looks fine, but there is too much shallow focus. To give one example: following a reaction shot we get a second shot, a long shot from behind Conor, who is gazing at Raphina for the first time. But she is not in focus. This does not quite fit with the intent that the audience should register her impact on Conor. Technically it was filmed on both 35mm and RED digital. This seems to be the reason for this sort of shot.

It has a 12A certificate, nothing really untoward. And it has already had what seems to be a minor success in the USA.

The Last Five Years (US 2014)

Last5yrsposter

The Last Five Years is a film musical based on an off-Broadway 2002 stage musical by Jason Robert Brown (which I hadn’t seen nor heard of until now) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (whom I only know for his screenplay for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic.) It is a musical melodrama rather than a musical comedy, largely a two-hander, about the rise and fall of a love affair and marriage. It’s the story of a young couple who fall madly in love only to be pushed apart by the complications of life and their relative success and failure in their respective careers. Cathy (Anna Kendrick) plays the small town girl trying to make it in the city as an actor and singer. She meets Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an ambitious young writer (the “new Jonathan Frantzen” according to his agent) searching for a publishing deal. As Jamie’s new novel projects him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock musical theatre in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their relationship.

In a way the film reminded me of the various versions of A Star Is Born in that one of a couple feels the pain of their partner’s success. But whereas A Star Is Born involves the formerly successful partner declining while the other one rises from obscurity, Cathy in The Last Five Years never actually makes it and Jamie’s success combined with Cathy’s failure poisons the relationship.

The film is structured around sixteen scenes, each based on a song, eight for Cathy, seven for Jamie and only one where they sing together in the same scene. This occurs at the halfway point where they are in Central Park and Jamie proposes to Cathy and then the scene segues to their wedding in the same location. They sing first of all separately and then in a duet, the only one in the film. The fact that they don’t sing together, with the exception of this scene, derives from the original stage musical where the two characters sing on the stage alone in alternate scenes, appearing together only in the Central Park scene. I don’t know how effective this was in the stage musical but in the transition to film it could have been problematic. As one of the couple sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with looks, gestures, occasional grunts and minimal verbal responses. Sometimes the problem is dealt with one of the couple speaking to the other on the telephone and we infer the other’s responses. And in one scene, the action is conveyed by a Skype conversation. It could have resulted in mannered, one-sided interactions between the characters, but overall, I found this stylistic trope strangely beguiling in the way that it embodies visually the couple growing apart.

The first scene in the film, based on Cathy’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’, (“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on / Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon / And I’m still hurting.”) tells of the end of the relationship. This revelation might be considered a spoiler; however, the film itself opens with this spoiler as it is the first scene in terms of the plot and the last of the story. (I’m referring here to the distinction between plot and story with story consisting of all the events we see, hear, and infer in chronological order; and plot as the way these events are presented to the audience and which sometimes departs from chronological order.)

After this scene I expected film would flashback to the beginning of their relationship which indeed it does with Jamie’s song, “Shiksa Goddessbut rather than continue the narrative chronologically, we cut to the penultimate scene (in terms of the story’s chronology) – “See I’m Smiling” – which marks the beginning of the end of their relationship five years later. It then reverts to Jamie’s song, ‘Moving Too Fast’, showing the relationship developing in its early stages. What becomes clear is that all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards to the beginning of their relationship while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. This can be a little confusing at first but you soon grasp that it ‘s neither in chronological order nor a simple flashback. Of course this (double) departure from conventional narrative structure can be seen as gimmicky but, on balance, I found it an effective way the portray the couple drifting apart.

It is a musical as well as a drama and so performance is of paramount importance in both fields. Producers of musicals have the problem of actors who can’t sing (the film has fun at the expense of producers of musicals when Cathy expresses her frustration at a casting session of not being paid enough attention with the lines, “Why am I working so hard, these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical. Christ!”) and singers who can’t act. Classic Hollywood film musicals used to solve the singing problem by providing – uncredited – dubbing for the voices of well-known actors; for example, Marnie Nixon is only recently getting the credit for her work as the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But in The Last Five Years the performers cope more than adequately (Jeremy Jordan) and much better than that (Anna Kendrick). With the exception of Into the Woods, I wasn’t too aware of Anna Kendrick as I’m not exactly the demographic for the Twilight films where she got her break as the friend of the character played by Kristen Stewart (whom I wasn’t aware of until Still Alice). An interview in the Guardian last Friday reminded me that I must have seen her with George Clooney in Up In The Air but I don’t remember her. But in this film I found both her acting and singing to be excellent. She handles the fundamentals of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — so well. And her acting expresses very effectively the extremes of emotion Cathy is subject to.

It helps that Cathy gets the best songs and her characterisation is more nuanced than Jamie’s. Both characters get a comedy number. Jamie’s ‘The Schmuel Song – which I don’t think really worked – is a story about a tailor who achieves his dreams and, apart from cheering Cathy up after another rejection, contains a kind of ‘follow your dreams’ message. Much good it did her. Cathy’s comic song, ‘A Summer in Ohio’,  relates to Jamie (by Skype) just how miserable she is while doing summer in Ohio as Jamie remains in New York. She cheerfully belts out lyrics like, “I could wander Paris after dark / Take a carriage ride through Central Park / But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio / Where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake, Wayne”.

Brown’s score is an eclectic mixture of musical styles drawing on a number of genres  – jazz, rock, pop, Yiddish folk, ‘Sondheimian’. The songs are occasionally soulful. The best song, the break-up song that the film opens with, is quite poignant. The problem is that the subsequent songs don’t match up to this. Only a few of the songs stand out musically as opposed to being acceptable vehicles for developing the drama (though certainly no less than the much vaunted Wicked which I saw last week). This is a pity given the talent available.

Another problem for me is that, apart from a few words of spoken dialogue, it’s a sung-through musical (i.e. virtually all the dialogue sung – cf Les Misérables, Eva, Miss Saigon) and often this leads to a kind of relentlessness, depriving the audience of breathing space. One way of avoiding this is to create a soundtrack where big numbers alternate with a sort of melodic recitative with recurring musical motifs but this is not – with the exception of a section in the I’m Still Smiling scene – the approach of The Last Five Years, which is simply a sequence of songs that lack organic unity.

It seems to have been such a minimal theatrical release that it is more like an advertising campaign for its VOD release (which is where I found the film). The interview in the Guardian with Anna Kendrick I referred to above didn’t even mention the film. This is a pity as, despite the caveats I have expressed, I found the film engaging and enjoyable.

The information on the stage musical comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years

and the film from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years_(film)#Musical_numbers

Here is the UK trailer.