THE HILLS ARE ALIVE — HOLLYWOOD HILLS EDITION

There’s a world far far away from gritty reality, a world where fantasy and emotion overcome the mundane bonds of the everyday world, a world where lovers burst into song and float away on the wings of choreography. 

 It’s the world of movie musicals, which have had a resurgence on TV and now in theaters, with this week’s release of the candy-colored new musical set in La La Land

 

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LA LA LAND (2016)

It’s hard to believe that the same Damien Chazelle who wrote and directed the emotionally brutal Whiplash (five Oscar noms, won 3) also wrote and directed this transcendental resurrection of movie musicals.

Whiplash was a by-the-book perfect, low-budget first film.  We liked it, great ride.  But even if you’re a fan, it’s worth reading Richard Brody’s scathing critique in The New Yorker, written back in 2014 as the film was hurtling toward multiple awards.  His big beef is that Whiplash isn’t really about art – it’s about power.  And he’s right.

But now it all makes glorious sense.  Whiplash was Chazelle’s second film – made after he’d spent some years knocking around Hollywood as a screenwriter for hire.  And it was carefully constructed as a perfect indie feature to buy him the leverage he’d need to make the movie he really wanted to make – La La Land.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are struggling artists and (for the third time: Crazy, Stupid Love; Gangster Squad) fated lovers, who get swept up in an ambitious mix of enchanted fantasy and downbeat disenchantment.

Sounds like L.A. as we’ve known it –  and also like a must-see awards contender.

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GUY & MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2009)

This was Damien Chazelle’s first movie, his Harvard thesis film.  This is the warm-up for La La, the reason he made Whiplash and this is the absolute must-watch for this weekend.

Guy & Madeline is a black and white indie jazz musical.  It’s been described as “blissful, brilliant”, a “mumblecore musical”, as Cassavetes meets MGM and Godard meets Busby Berkeley.  It was the toast of the 2009 Tribeca Festival, but offbeat enough that no major distributors ponied up.  So after sitting on the shelf for a year and a half it got a tiny release ended up grossing only $35k.

Guy is a jazz trumpeter and Madeline is… trying to figure it out.  They’re together, then Guy leaves her and by the time he wants her back, she’s moved on.

Shot in old school 16mm, the intimate moments are truly, indie, intimate.  The singing, the tap dancing are like a very good rehearsal – hovering between polished and unpolished.  It keeps you deliciously on edge, nervous they won’t pull it off and irrationally thrilled when they do.

Like La La Land, Chazelle’s collaborator here is his college roommate, composer Justin Hurwitz.  It wouldn’t work without that great music, and one of the surprises of the movie is that for all its low budget look and feel, the score is fully orchestrated, performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra.  But in keeping with the indie feel,  the jazz performances are mostly live.

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THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1963)

Chazelle says this is his favorite film of all time, and the influence on his two musicals is very clear.

New wave director Jacques Demy made a unique and even odd film.  It’s an opera, really — no spoken dialogue whatsoever – even the most mundane lines are sung.  And threaded through the whole thing is the grand, heart-tugging music of Michel Legrande.  The young lover’s theme was retitled “I Will Wait For You” and with English lyrics, and became an American pop hit in the 60’s.

The story is a kitchen sink drama of ill-fated young love.  Catherine Deneuve works in her mother’s umbrella shop and is deeply, touchingly in love with Nino Castelnuevo her devoted mechanic boyfriend.  He is drafted into the Algerian War, and on the eve of his departure they make love.  By the time she realizes she is pregnant he is on a battlefield and his distracted letters make her think he’s drifting away.  A rich but decent young jeweler from Paris courts her; her mother convinces her to marry him.  They leave town to raise the child together.  When the boyfriend returns, he too marries – a quiet girl who has always loved him.  When the lovers meet again six years, they studiously avoid any mention of their lost love.  But as they part, the love theme swells, expressing the inexpressible longing for the passon of their youth.

When you start watching Umbrellas, with its bright pastel colors and beautiful people and sung dialogue, you don’t quite know how to react.  But if you stick with it, the simplicity and emotion merge with the artificiality and end up completely sucking you in.

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MOULIN ROUGE (2001)

Again and again the movie musical seems to be dead and completely irrelevant – and again and again somebody reinvents and revives it.  In 2001 that somebody was Baz Luhrmann with his Moulin Rouge!

Nobody can top Baz Luhrmann for florid over-the-top operatic grandiosity, and in that regard Moulin Rouge! is his most perfect creation.

Wikipedia describes it as an “Australian–American pseudo-pastiche jukebox musical film”.  Accurate, but atypically opinionated for Wikipedia.  We don’t know exactly what “pseudo-pastiche” means.  It seems like a jab, but we have to imagine that Baz would take it as a compliment

Moulin Rouge! is the story of a poor writer (Ewan MacGregor), a beautiful courtesan (Nicole Kidman), and a wealthy, jealous duke (Richard Roxbrough).  There’s also a depraved cabaret owner (Jim Broadbent) and Toulouse Latrec (John Leguisamo).  The writer and the courtesan are equally in love with each other and with art — but the duke has all the money.  Then the courtesan gets tuberculosis.

Shoot us, but we loved this hyperkinetic amusement park ride of a movie that wrings every drop of juice from its jukebox score.  We’d recommend you see it at the Ziegfeld in New York – but sadly, it’s closed.  So instead, sip an absinthe or two and crank the surround sound up to 11.

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ONE FROM THE HEART (1981)

One of Coppola’s first big directing gigs was the 1968 musical Finian’s Rainbow.  So maybe it was a bit of nostalgia that brought him back to a musical after Apocalypse Now, which almost ate him alive but was instantly hailed as a masterpiece.

With One From The Heart, he set out to revive the movie musical and simultaneously revolutionize filmmaking.  The entire movie was shot on sets at Zoetrope, and edited on video.  This gave him a huge amount of control, but the buildout of indoor sets and HDTV equipment caused the budget to balloon from $2 million to $25 million.

The movie was finally released after battles with distributors, and was almost universally panned as gorgeous to look at but disjointed and, ironically, heartless.  It recouped only a tiny percentage of its budget, and set the stage for Coppola’s eventual bankruptcy.

Like many notorious flops, it looks far better in retrospect.  It’s worth seeing for many reasons – the cast (Teri Garr, Frederick Forrest, Raul Julia, Nastassia Kinsky); the original Tom Waits score; and the fantastic multilayered neon visuals.

But in addition to the groundbreaking technical innovations, the film was also ahead of its time in applying the conventions of movie musicals to what is essentially an indie film story.

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CRY-BABY (1990)

One week out from NBC’s latest musical spectacular, Hairspray Live!, (should Coppola have used an exclamation point?) we would be seriously remiss if we didn’t pay homage to John Waters.

His 1990 follow up to the original Hairspray movie brought a totally different kind of indie sensibility to a campy frolic that simultaneously leveraged and undercut Johnny Depp’s heart-throb status.

Because of Hairspray’s success, Cry-Baby was the first and only time a John Waters film has sparked a bidding war.  It was also Depp’s first feature lead, coming out the same year as Edward Scissorhands.  The film underperformed on its release – it was just too much like a real Waters film for mainstream success – but it’s become a cult classic.

Set in 1954 Baltimore at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, the story is a play on the teenage bad-boy genre.  Local teens are split into three group: the Squares (good boys and girls headed to college); the Drapes (bad boys and girls as represented by Depp) and the Nerds (kids like Waters himself).  But because this is a John Waters film, a bad boy is the hero and a good boy is the villain.

The score plays like a jukebox musical, but is actually from the incredibly prolific and award-winning film, TV, jazz and classical composer, Patrick Williams.  The large cast is vintage Waters, ranging from Iggy Pop to Polly Bergen, Troy Donohue, Joe Dallesandro, Patricia Hearst and Willem Dafoe.

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RETURNING TO A NOIR WORLD

Film Noir was a reaction to a nation reeling from war overseas and upheaval at home. When men went off to fight, women stepped into the public sector with newfound independence. Soldiers returning home found their jobs gone, the social order upended and the world they had fought to preserve vanished.   

Studio chiefs turned to the fast-and-cheap pulp mysteries of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain for stories that captured the dark malaise buried beneath the surface of the outwardly victorious and prosperous nation, and Film Noir was born.  

With the current political and social upheaval the country is once again reeling—tales of corruption, greed and selfish behavior once again resonate with the national mood.

Tom Ford’s latest film, Nocturnal Animals takes a page from the world of Film Noir with its immoral characters and senseless violence.

nocturnalNOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Tom Ford’s latest film is a “story inside a story,” with the first part following a woman named Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man whom she left 20 years earlier, asking for her opinion.

The second part of the story follows the actual manuscript, called “Nocturnal Animals,” which revolves around a man whose family vacation turns violent and deadly in the plains of Texas.  The callousness and indifference shown by the perpetrators is chillingly reminiscent of film noir, where morals and laws were meant to be broken.

The film also continues to follow the story of Susan, who finds herself recalling her first marriage and confronting her own dark truths.  The mood is stylish and cool with a detached take on cause and effect.

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prowlerTHE PROWLER (1951)

Joseph Losey’s The Prowler out-Hitchcocks the master himself. It’s morbid and dark, cut from the cloth of pulp comics.  

The film is about what happens when obsession takes hold and you slowly begin to morph into the worst version of yourself, desperately grasping for the things in life you proudly believe you deserve.

After being frightened by a peeping Tom at her mansion, the stunning Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) calls the police for help. Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) arrives and becomes infatuated with Susan, and the two engage in a short-lived affair. There’s a life lesson in there about greed, but you might be too caught up in the film’s grimy sheen for it to sink in.

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sweetSWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

Alexander Mackendrick’s masterpiece of blind items and blind ambition follows NYC gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) who commands fear from politicians and celebrities alike. One of his followers is Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) a hustling publicist who’ll do anything to get in Hunsecker’s good graces, even going as far to set up Hunsecker’s younger sisters boyfriend as a pot-smoking commie.

Witch-hunts and blackmail are the only agenda—this is not a film for those looking for ethics or principles. The film is a ruthless portrait of New York nightlife and an eerily prescient nod to media sensationalism more than a half century before Facebook and Twitter.  No one is left unscathed in this sinister tale of greed and corruption.

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wrongmanTHE WRONG MAN (1956)

The master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock combines docudrama with the melodrama of film noir.  Based on a true story, The Wrong Man is a powerful portrait of a man, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) who is falsely convicted for robberies he never committed.

Naturally, Hitchcock is every bit as interested in the effects of the outrageous miscarriage of justice that befalls Manny Balestrero as he is in the lasting trauma his detention inflicts on him and his family.

The film relies a lot on claustrophobic camerawork—we feel like we’re as confined as Manny—but the film’s greatest impression is left in its wake.

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aceACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

Billy Wilder’s film is a vicious and cynical satire of America’s press core.  Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a ladder-climbing journalist who views every opportunity as golden —no matter how grim the circumstance.   A cave collapse in New Mexico traps a man, and all eyes turn toward the tragedy—Chuck becomes the self-anointed mastermind behind what soon becomes a national media sensation – and he’s determined to milk it for all it is worth.

This is an outlaw America, an indifferent postwar America where rules of decency come a very distant third to getting the story and the addiction of sleaze entertainment. It’s an ugly vision that eerily predicted the current state of media culture more than half a century ago.

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bigTHE BIG SLEEP (1946)

One of the most celebrated films from this genre, The Big Sleep fully embodies every identifying feature of Raymond Chandler’s writing—dialogue that burns itself into our brains, strong men, femme fatales, violence, a respectable body count, and enough plot twists to give even the most accomplished noirs envy.

You will want to watch it more than once for Howard Hawks’ direction and Chandler’s spikey exchanges, not to mention the chemistry and magnetism of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Production codes at the time of The Big Sleep’s release prohibited it from being as graphic as Chandler’s novel, but maybe thrillers of today can learn a valuable lesson from the restrictions: less can so often mean much, much more.

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