By Marc S. Sanders

When you are a sexy, sultry lady killer, infamy can just about save you from a hanging.  That’s what Rob Marshall’s Oscar winning adaptation of Bob Fosse’s Broadway jazz musical capitalizes on in Chicago. The movie is hot, steamy, dazzling and blazing with magnetic song and dance numbers that are easy to follow while getting your pulse racing.  The design, direction, music, and choreography are magnificent.  The cast is outstanding too.

During the glitzy 1920’s in the Windy City, Roxy Hart (Renée Zellweger) is a wanna be night club performer who gets arrested for the murder of her extra marital lover (Dominic West).  She’s thrown in the pokey where the well known warden Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) oversees all of the other murderesses, and often profits off of their sensationalistic crimes.  Roxy’s loser schlub of a husband, Amos (John C Reilly), manages to hire the hottest defense attorney in town, the handsomely slick and underhanded Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), to represent Roxy at trial.  Billy has never lost a case because his specialty is to manufacture drama for his accused clients, generating sympathy in the papers and among the jury.  In the film, there is a scene where Billy is literally pulling the strings on his puppets, particularly a marionette appearance of Roxy on his lap while he does the obvious ventriloquism.  A memorable moment for both Gere and Zellweger.  On the side is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a double murderer of her husband and performing partner/sister.  Velma owned the public outcry until Roxy’s name was splashed along the headlines.  Now, the spotlight is quickly moving away from Velma.

Rob Marshall choreographed and directed Chicago.  He demonstrates the fun that can be had with murder.  Call it a new kind of excitement that normally we take jubilant delight with episodes of Murder She Wrote or Agatha Christie tales. 

The theme of this picture is how the story is narrated in a colorful reality.  On a parallel level it is performed on a stage nightclub with a bandleader (Taye Diggs) introducing the players who then breakout into their own testimonial song amid large choruses and dancers to enhance the attraction of headlines and sleazy, operatic narratives.  Christine Baranski is the reporter whose front and center, trying to collect the next big chapter development of whoever leads the hottest storyline at any given moment. 

Marshall will turn a courtroom proceeding led by Billy Flynn into a three-ring circus, while at the same time he’ll cut away to the nightclub.  Billy will be on stage, but he’s now wearing a glittery three-piece suit and doing a ragtime song and dance with a chorus of scantily clad, Burlesque women to apply a little Razzle Dazzle for the judge and jury.  Richard Gere is not who you think of for stage musicals, but he is positively charming.

Queen Latifah has a scene stealing moment to show off her entrance into the picture.  Mama Morton is in a skintight evening dress, complete with a swanky boa while performing When You’re Good To Mama on stage at the nightclub. Frequent cut aways have her dictating her powerhouse tune to the inmates.  John C Reilly performs Mr. Cellophane. He lays out certainty that there’s nothing inauthentic about the pushover loser husband he really is.  Both actors got well deserved Oscar nominations.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renée Zellweger are a perfect pair of competitors.  They each have their individual moments and they act with such solid gusto; tough broads not to messed with.  The confidence they exude on screen with character acting, singing, and dancing is second to none.  The script will offer moments when Roxy and Velma think they are high and mighty, and winning the court of public opinion.  Then it will be undone when their hotshot attorney, Billy Flynn, knocks some sarcastic sense into them and a dose of reality sets in.  Roxy isn’t so fond of wearing a conservative black dress with a white collar in court until she sees a fellow cellmate lose her last motion of appeal, and there’s nothing left but to be punished by hanging.  She might be putting on a helluva performance, and signing autographs while souvenir dolls of her likeness are selling on the streets, but none of that ain’t gonna mean a thing if the jury finds her guilty of murder.

Just like I began this article, infamy is the word that kept coming back to me while watching Chicago.  Infamy bears celebrity.  Granted, it’s enhanced for a lively musical motion picture and stage show.  However, there’s a very, sad, and no longer surprising truth to that ideal.  A few years back, I recall news reports about a criminal’s sexy mug shot where he had donned a tattooed tear drop below his eye.  This guy was prime for runway modeling.  However, he was proven to be a violent car thief. He actually got signed by a talent scout following his bail out.  (I think the agent posted the bond.)  Later, he got arrested for some other crime. 

I never saw the reality program Chrisley Knows Best, about a God loving family who proudly live among the finest that money can buy.  Recently, the ultra-vain mother and father were sentenced to over a decade in federal prison for fraud and tax evasion.  Yet, their brand is stronger than ever, as the gossip columns can’t get enough, and their adult daughter’s podcast has millions of listeners.  Word is that a new program is being designed as a follow up to their prison sentences. 

Infamy bears reward.

Chicago pokes fun at the obsessions adhered by the media, the public, the courts and within the penal community.  The well known musical is now decades old, but the topics contained within clearly identify how news is not reported in a simple, objective Walter Cronkite kind of way, anymore.  Everything is heightened.  Everything is dramatized.  It’s not enough that Roxy kills her lover.  That will get her only so much mileage, until the next lady killer comes along (in the form of Lucy Liu, for example).  Roxy must stay relevant.  Announcing she’s pregnant will keep her on the front page (It could help that she faints while doing it). Velma knows all too well that the public favoritism she once had, accompanied with Billy’s sleazy promotion, is even further away. 

Rob Marshall presents a film where any song can be pulled out of context just for its sizzling entertainment.  Try not to forget the Cell Block Tango with solos from Zeta-Jones, as well as her fellow inmate chorus girls, each proudly describing how their guy “Had it coming!!!”.  All That Jazz is arguably one of the best opening numbers to a show, and Catherine Zeta-Jones owns the performance.  Individually, these songs and the performers win my attention in the car or the shower or during a workout.  Assemble them together with the overall storyline, and Chicago becomes a fast paced, kinetic roller coaster that makes you think while you smirk at all the scruples and vices being dismissed. 

The last time I saw Chicago was in theaters in 2002.  I had also seen a stage production of it before then.  I loved it both times.  Rewatching it recently gave me such a jolt of energy.  It is why theatre is a vital source of escapism. Here is an example where you can feel positively entertained while reflecting on a sad truth.  It might be sad, but you’re smiling all the way through while you mouth the brilliant lyrics and tap your feet.

Roxy Hart, Velma Kelly, Billy Flynn and the rest of the cast of characters make Chicago red hot and gleefully sinful.


By Marc S. Sanders

Reader, I’ve been having a hard week.  My beloved puppy dog, Falcon, has not been feeling well and my family and I are so worried for him.  It’s just been a long week having to deal with reality.  Nevertheless, when I watch a classic musical like Singin’ In The Rain, it’s impossible not to smile and catch on to the energy that drives the film from the talents of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.  This trio are not just sensational dancers and singers.  They’re adoring comedians that set a standard for facial expressions and endless entertainment variety. 

A simple, but informative story sets the spine of the picture.  Talking films like Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer are catching on in Hollywood movie houses and the silent pictures are quickly becoming archaic.  Established talents like Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (a scene stealing Jean Hagen) are being threatened with becoming extinct unless they can adapt to the use of their voices in the romantic cinematic roles they are known for.  Don will adjust.  Lina is another story.  Her alluring blond bombshell looks are recognized everywhere.  However, none of that will line up with her natural, squeaky, ear piercing vocals.  She’s a hopeless case for the best vocal coaches that money can buy.  Don and Lina are star attractions with contracts to guarantee them work, but Lina’s voice could put the movie studio out of business. 

Fortunately, Don just happens to land smack dab into the passenger seat of Kathy Selden’s (Reynolds) car.  Kathy has the voice, and soon Don and his trusty songwriting companion and pal, Cosmo Brown (O’Connor), will realize the acting talent to boot.  In the meantime, though, Kathy’s voice will dub in for Lina’s on screen.  There are great gags at Lina’s expense as she tries to work with a microphone for the first time.  This is Lucille Ball material of the finest, comedic polish.

In between all these story developments reside some of the greatest musical song and dance numbers to ever grace a screen.  Few, if any, films have matched the rubber faced hyperactive quick steps of Donald O’Connor during his rendition of “Make ‘em Laugh!” What he does with this cutaway scene looks like a superpower of marvelous agility.  Jim Carrey could never stand next to Donald O’Connor.

Gene Kelly’s accompaniment with O’Connor and their silly, tongue twisting “Moses Supposes” is magnificent to watch.  You could be on your death bed, looking at this scene, and I truly believe you’ll think nothing is so bad in life while you watch this moment.  The pair are masters with their physicality of jumping on and off desks and chairs, while they toss around a stuffy, glass eyed linguist caught in the middle of their shenanigans.  Every prop and set piece are given functionality, be it a lamp shade, office supplies or stacks of paper.  Then there are the lyrics.  How do you so fluently utter words like “Moses” and “supposes” and every other imaginable piece of vocabulary that phonetically sound like them to seem like it is as natural as saying grace? And they do it all while bouncing all over the place with two stepping in perfect sync.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  These guys are functioning on one motor.

To add further compliment, I must emphasize that the camera pointed at these magnificent players hardly ever cuts away.  There are long sequences where the guys are literally walking up walls and back flipping over.  It’s all done in one shot.  There’s only frequent edits away for a close up or another angle.  Otherwise, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are defying the impossible to show breathless choreography.  They seem to defy physics, and the props they use cooperate with every step, leap, run or jump taken.

The same goes for when Debbie Reynolds makes it a trio during another unforgettable number called “Good Morning.”  The furniture pieces are choregraphed to work with the three dancers.  All three race towards a sofa, step on to the seat cushions in unison and then walk onto the back of the sofa, allowing it to flawlessly tip over so they can continue their stride.  Just writing about this, I think about how amazing and wondrous this scene is.  Lightning in a bottle!

All of the material contained within Singin’ In The Rain is incredibly cheerful, full of color and humor and tremendously likable characters.  Yet, it does not ever teeter on being hokey or cheesy.  The musical doesn’t feel dated.  This film transcends generations like The Wizard Of Oz or Star Wars.  No matter the age, anyone should be able to like this movie. 

I love the irony of the number “Singin’ In The Rain” that lends to the title of the picture.  Just think about the word “rain.”  Often it is associated with gloominess and sorrow and mood.  However, the tempo of Singin’ In The Rain as a full length film invites happiness and glee no matter the situation.  Gene Kelly’s clownish activity with an umbrella, a large smile and a rain soaked street corner becomes one of the most delightful moments ever to grace a screen. He stomps, skips and splashes in the large puddles while taking a leap on to a streetlamp just to express all of Don Lockwood’s glorious bliss and adoration for his new love Kathy Selden.  A hat becomes its own character as gushing rain drains out of a storm pipe soaking Don’s head.  The brim of the hat seems to develop its own form of jubilation.

I’ve read that Gene Kelly was a viciously strict co-director (with Stanley Donen) and choreographer on this film.  Debbie Reynolds has testified to long sessions of endless starts and stops.  It was tortuous at times.  If just a toe or a hand was out of place in any of the choreography, Kelly would not stand for it.  It had to be perfect.  I can’t imagine Kelly in a demanding or authoritative capacity.  He is just so cheerful and lovable on screen and so is the entire company of performers.  I guess the contrast with his character lends to how impressed I am with the final product.  However, to make a picture like Singin’ In The Rain this exact and eye popping requires astute examination.  The assembled rhythm of the three dancers and the chorus behind them at least matches some of the most refined military assembly marches I’ve ever seen. 

Watch Singin’ In The Rain for a glimpse into the evolution of Hollywood and cinema.  Watch it for a simple, yet funny story.  Watch it for the characters and set pieces.  Most of all, watch Singin’ In The Rain to discover how grand and wonderful life can be.  It’s likely that none of my readers can do what Kelly, Reynolds or O’Connor accomplish in this film, but I can guarantee that you’ll feel just as joyous as they do while they are putting the show on for you.

Singin’ In The Rain is why movies are so important for our emotional lexicon of escapism.  It lends to good health to watch Singin’ In The Rain.  It’s a film we all need.

Singin’ In The Rain is a reason to live.

CAMP (2003)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Todd Graff
Cast: Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, and introducing Anna Kendrick
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 64% Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch an Early Film of a Famous Actor or Actress”

PLOT: Teen drama enthusiasts attend a summer drama camp and perform in several productions while dealing with an alcoholic musical director and their own messy lives.

Todd Graff’s film Camp plays like Meatballs [1979] crossed with Waiting for Guffman [1996].

A bunch of theatre-geek teens attend Camp Ovation, a summer drama camp where the campers rehearse and perform a different show every two weeks.  And I’m not talking Aladdin Jr. or Annie.  Among this camp’s productions are Follies, Promises Promises, and a color-blind presentation of Dreamgirls.  (It’s exactly as weird as it sounds.)  And the camp’s choreographer is Savion Glover, who is given exactly one scene with spoken lines.  Alas.

A brief prologue introduces the main characters, including Michael (Robin de Jesus), a gay boy who gets beaten up by classmates when he attends his junior prom in full drag.  Ellen (Joanna Chilcoat) is a plain-but-pretty girl with a self-image problem exacerbated by the fact she has to beg her brother to be her date to her own prom.  The appropriately-named Vlad (Daniel Letterle) is a handsome young man who doesn’t seem to have any overt personal problems.  At his camp audition, when he accompanies himself on guitar while crooning “Wild Horses”, one of the camp counselors is beside herself: “An honest-to-God STRAIGHT boy!”

There’s also the introduction of a mousy young lady named Fritzi, played by a 16-year-old Anna Kendrick in her film debut.  We all know how attractive she is in real life, but when we first meet her, she is in complete “Princess Diaries” mode: long straggly hair, flannel skirt, and acting as personal flunky for Jill, the blond camp floozy who doesn’t let anyone forget how pretty and talented she is.

Vlad is the eye of the storm at Camp Ovation.  Ellen is attracted to him, Jill wants to make out with him, Michael is burning to know if he’s gay or straight, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  He’s also an emotional demon-child, an incurable flirt in both directions, so everyone is off-center around him.  That’s the “A” story.

One of the flaws of Camp is that there are one too many “B” stories.  Maybe two too many.  There’s Bert Hanley, who composed a musical decades ago that is still performed today, but who has not written anything since.  He’s coming in to assist with the camp’s productions, but things look grim when he shows up two days late, drunk, and with a suitcase full of booze bottles.

There’s Michael’s ongoing issues with getting his unsupportive parents to attend one of the camp’s performances.  One of the movie’s high points occurs when Michael is performing in Romeo and Juliet, sees the empty chairs in the audience where his parents are supposed to be, and launches into his own interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale.  Bernstein and Sondheim would have approved.

There’s a hilarious subplot that is never fully explored where the camp introduces a sports counselor.  At a drama camp.  This bit is granted two brief scenes, then never heard from again.  Alas.

There’s Jenna, a young girl whose parents wanted her to attend “fat camp” instead of drama camp, so they compromised: Jenna will attend Camp Ovation with her jaws wired shut.  I will leave it up to you to discover how she performs onstage through clenched teeth.  (This subplot does get a very satisfying resolution by movie’s end, it must be said.)

Most of these subplots are good enough to support an entire movie by themselves.  In Camp, however, you get a little whiplash going from comedy to drama to teen angst to revenge back to comedy to performance and so on and so on.  While watching it again, I noticed more than ever how many times the editing seemed to be working around chunks of dialogue that probably had to be cut for time.  Somewhere out there is Todd Graff’s 3-hour director’s cut of this movie, in which every story is given enough time to breathe, expand, and evolve.

So…why do I give this movie an 8/10 rating with so much not going for it?  Purely personal reasons.

Camp is a movie about theatre geeks, made by theatre geeks, for theatre geeks.  The film’s director, Todd Graff – who coincidentally played “Hippy” in The Abyss [1989] – was a drama camp counselor himself, and the film is loosely based on his experiences.  There is virtually zero crossover appeal for this film.  Near the beginning of the film, Fritzi is trying to jog Jill’s memory where they’ve met before: “We were in Night Mother last summer, remember?”  That joke only lands if you know how many people are in the cast of Night Mother, and what the plot is, and how ludicrous it is to imagine that show being performed at a summer camp.

For all his shortcomings, Vlad has a scene that speaks directly to me.  He confesses to Michael that he has OCD.  Without medication, he counts the letters in the words in people’s sentences.  (I count syllables.)  He talks about how his affliction is “always there.”  But when he’s performing onstage…it’s not.  Not only does that speak to me directly regarding OCD, it’s also a metaphor for anyone who has felt like an outsider for some reason or another.  Offstage, you might have self-image problems or obsessive behavior or shyness.  Onstage, those things magically fall away.  I don’t use that term lightly: “magically.”  I don’t know how else to describe what happens in that boundary between offstage and onstage.  Anyway, that’s cool to me, personally.

The movie has a suitable climax, but for me, the real centerpiece of the movie comes when a group of the kids and some of the adult band members meet in secret to rehearse and perform a song that Bert Hanley (remember him from earlier?) wrote but never published.  As they perform, the cynical Hanley overhears it and struggles with himself whether to let them play or to walk in and stop the performance.  It’s a cliched moment, to be sure, but the song itself is rousing and borderline inspirational, and when the scene’s payoff occurs, it’s almost cheer-worthy.

And let’s not forget what happens between Fritzi and Jill.  After some harsh words are said, Fritzi exacts her revenge and performs a show-stopping number from a Sondheim musical.  It’s here where Anna Kendrick’s screen and stage presence are both on full display.  For years afterward, Penni and I would see her in other movies and recognize her based solely on her performance in this movie, and particularly this scene.  (Of course, we couldn’t remember her name for a while…she was always “that girl from Camp.”  It wasn’t until after she appeared in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World [2010] that her name finally stuck.)

And, of course, there’s that cameo from a surprise audience member at the camp’s final production.  (Hint: their car’s license plate reads 4UM.)

Camp may not have the name-recognition of so many other teen comedies, but this one speaks to me directly.  I’m not any one of those kids at this camp, but there’s a part of me in all of them.  I loved the musical numbers.  I enjoyed the theatrical in-jokes.  (“There’s this new thing called ‘drums,’ you’ll love it.”)  And maybe there’s also a part of me that wishes I had attended one of these camps in the summer instead of Bible camp two years in a row.  Just sayin’.


By Marc S. Sanders

What I hearken back to most when I watch The Little Mermaid is my junior year of high school in 1989.  If you were around at that time, then maybe you realized how much of an impact the characters of Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle and Ursula The Sea Witch had on kids, but teen pop culture as well.  Batman was big that year.  Disney’s underwater, romantic, musical adventure was at least as large.  Driving home from school, everyone I knew were singing along to celebrated numbers like Kiss The Girl, Les Poisson, Under The Sea and Part Of Your World.  My drama class couldn’t get enough of Poor Unfortunate Souls.  Oh, how overdramatic we would get in Mr. Locklair’s class while emulating Pat Carroll.  I still harmonize Ariel surrendering her voice.  Yes!  I can hold the tune!!!!  There is no denying The Little Mermaid cast a spell over the student body at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

The Little Mermaid is an important entry in the Disney lexicon.  Disney films were considered substandard, tired and stale before this release.  However, the adored fable based upon a story from Hans Christian Anderson awakened something that still carries on.  The music within the film from beloved writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were delivered like Broadway showstoppers.  The quality of the songs was elevated with gorgeous calypso and reggae harmonies, and vocal characterizations as colorful as the underwater life depicted on screen.

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the title character who dreams of what life is like above the surface.  Her father, King Triton, strictly forbids her from going above the water.  In his eyes, humans are ghastly.  That’s a problem because his daughter is enamored with handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes).  Like a sixteen-year-old who sneaks out of the house through a bedroom window, Ariel visits the nefarious and alluring sea witch, Ursula (a rapturous Pat Carroll in one of the best fantasy villain roles to ever appear in the movies).  The deal is Ursula will turn Ariel into a human for three days.  In exchange the little mermaid must surrender her gorgeous singing voice.  If Eric does not give Ariel a kiss of true love by the time the sun sets on the third day, then her soul belongs to Ursula for all eternity. Ariel gets some help from Sebastian the crab (also a sea-life orchestral conductor), innocent Flounder, and a zany seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett).

The animators at Disney use everything at their disposal to burst wondrous color within the film.  There’s life brought to the sea life within the backgrounds from a blowfish who BLOWS, to the Octopus and the shrimp and swordfish.  Even the random bubbles that float around are marvelous to look at. Nothing is off limits and life under the sea seems so much more enticing compared to the ho hum activities that we humans endure each day with traffic jams and junk mail.

Other Disney productions like Alaadin and Beauty And The Beast that followed, offer some life lessons for the protagonists to consider.  The Little Mermaid doesn’t actually.  It rests upon wishes and dreams for Ariel.  I’m thankful for that.  It’s such a glorious picture that I coast through on the fantasy of it all.  Ariel takes me on adventures to explore shipwrecks and her grotto where her human collectibles are stashed.  I get to carefully approach the dark imagery of Ursula’s caverns where countless, slimy, pitiful souls suffer, while the tentacled monster delights in her vanity with Pat Carroll’s gleeful voiceover.  It’s just enough for me.  Disney doesn’t always have to preach, and I think it’s why The Little Mermaid is my favorite of all of their films. 

Every moment is beautifully drawn in shape and color.  Still for a film that came six years before the Pixar evolution, the expressions of the characters come off so naturally.  Look at Sebastian’s fear and frustration as he tries to keep up with an independent Ariel.  Pay attention to Ariel’s nervous reaction when she encounters Eric on the beach after she’s become human.  She’s animated to try and straighten her hair and grin her teeth because its as if the popular kid in school is walking across a disco lit gymnasium to ask her for a dance.  The animation is purely inspired by natural, human behavior that we are all too familiar with.  When drawn like this, we can’t help but be impressed.

The songs are the highlights though.  The compositions are so lively and easy to pick up and sing along to, like we all did in high school.  The lyrics are equally impressive like the most brilliant of dialogue.  When Ursula makes her campaign for why this trade would be advantageous for Ariel (Poor Unfortunate Souls), I can’t help but believe her.  She’ll have her looks and pretty face.  It’s only her voice!  You got a point there Ursula.  The best villains always have the most sound reasonings behind their motivations.

Sebastian (Samuel E Wright) makes a strong argument for why life Under The Sea is so much better than living on land.  His enthusiasm in song is completely convincing.  Life under the sea is nothing but a party.  Let’s go.

Jodi Benson gives a strong voiceover performance as Ariel.  I’m hearing a firm and independent young woman who stands her ground and will defy any orders to go after what she desires.  Her rendition of Part Of Your World is one of Disney’s most treasured and celebrated moments in film history when accompanied with the setting of Ariel’s towering grotto of props that we humans take for granted like fish hooks and dining utensils, especially a dinglehopper…you know…a fork!  This is what a kid dreams of becoming when alone in her room with no one there to judge her true feelings and desires.  It’s truly glorious.

The one scene that does give me pause is the dramatic discovery King Triton has of Ariel’s secret vault of collectibles.  By the end of the moment, his temper has grown so big, that he unleashes the power of his trident to destroy everything she’s treasured.  I’ve always said this looks brutally familiar to how a father might take a baseball bat to a kid and her room, teetering on domestic violence.  The scene is memorable but unnerving all the same.  Still, I have to remind myself that this is a fantasy, and this is only a movie. 

Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a timeless film filled with magic and whimsy and daring escapes and big laughs that are not just relegated for eight-year-olds.  As adults, we remember those butterfly feelings of our first crush and what held us back from pursuing it further.  We can relate to what the characters do for, and towards each other.  Again, everyone from the deliciously wicked villain down to the defiantly brave protagonist and her sidekicks have a point and very human understandings for why they exist and what they want out of life.  Being a mermaid or a crab or a sea monster doesn’t make any of these people any less human. 


By Marc S. Sanders

The Wizard Of Oz will always be one of the greatest films ever made.

It’s a visually spectacular marvel of filmmaking and creativity. The accomplishments it achieves in performance, fantasy and musical tones work on any generation who has seen it since its debut on August 15, 1939.

Victor Fleming directed the adaptation from L Frank Baum’s successful series of books. Wisely, the picture opens in black and white where we meet Dorothy, one of the best cast roles in film history with the legendary Judy Garland. She lives on her Kansas farm with her dog Toto and her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, along with some friendly farmhands called Huck, Hickory & Zeke. Following an unexpected twister, Dorothy and Toto are sent into the heavens while in their farmhouse. When the house finally lands, Fleming has Dorothy open the door to a kaleidoscope of wondrous color. Dorothy has arrived in Munchkin land located in the Land of Oz. The adventure begins.

Nearly any film of fantasy and adventure can be traced back to The Wizard Of Oz. It features the thoughtful mentor with Glinda The Good Witch, and the lovable sidekicks that Dorothy encounters known as the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley) and the Lion (Bert Lahr). It also has one of the greatest on screen villains of all time, The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). The story pursues objects (ruby slippers, a brain, a heart, courage and a broomstick) for the heroes to acquire, years later to be identified by Alfred Hitchcock as “MacGuffins.”

Victor Fleming with Baum’s ingenuity inspired great storytellers of a future in movies yet to come. Authors like JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien or CS Lewis absorbed the will to compose never before conceived imagination thanks to The Wizard Of Oz. So many moments throughout the land far away from Kansas are so inventive. There’s endless the candy colored scenery of Munchkin land, along with a dark forest where trees come alive to argue and throw apples at you. The Witch’s foreboding castle with the crystal ball is ominous and frightening. The Emerald City where the great and powerful Oz resides is spectacular in life and cheerfulness. I still look in awe at the scenic design of the film questioning how it was all done. Matte paintings of endless depth for background give off the vastness of the land as the famous Yellow Brick Road stretches infinitely over rolling hills behind Dorothy and her friends as their journey continues.

The Wizard Of Oz is also an inspiration for the movie musical. Every song is unforgettable. Is there a greater song in film history than “Somewhere Over The Rainbow?” Dance sequences are totally engaging. Try not to love the ease of watching Dorothy skip along the road to “We’re Off To See The Wizard.” Ray Bolger’s rubber legged straw man clumsiness during his first scene with “If I Only Had A Brain,” seems to defy the limits of what a human body can do. Bert Lahr’s “If I Were King Of The Forest” is comedically inspired; the number that pauses the story for a moment as an escape among the characters’ adventure. As a kid I loved to roll my tongue on the word “forrrrrrrrrest.”

Margaret Hamilton’s green skinned wicked witch dressed in black with the pointed hat set a standard in villainy. It instilled some of the first fears many children ever experience to this day. Hamilton’s evil cackle with her determination to obtain Dorothy’s ruby slippers never leaves your mind once you see the performance. The Witch inspired any kind of horror film, and terrible villains we love to hate like Darth Vader, Maleficent, Hannibal Lector or Lord Voldemort. Evil queens and bad guys from the Disney vault only began from the seeds that Hamilton laid out.

So many of the greatest achievements in film history are contained in The Wizard Of Oz. It’s an outstanding musical, an incredible adventure and a brilliant fantasy. It’s beautifully cast and so creative on every technical level necessary for its flights of fancy.

More than any other film ever made, every person should see The Wizard Of Oz at least once in their lifetime.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short (whew!)
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Egyptian Prince Moses learns of his identity as a Hebrew and, somewhat reluctantly, realizes his destiny to become the chosen deliverer of his people.

I sat down to watch The Prince of Egypt for the umpteenth time today, ostensibly in honor of Passover, but really it’s just an excuse to watch it again.  In the 24 years since its release, it’s become one of my favorite animated films.  I started out thinking it was a gimmicky cash grab.  Then I realized how majestic the score and songs were (by Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz, respectively).  Then I came to appreciate how effectively it humanizes the Exodus story, so it becomes something more than just an excuse for some crazy visual effects.  Then I looked more closely at those visual effects and realized how magnificent they are, too.

So now it’s a treat when I watch it.  But something rare and unexpected happened to me when I watched it today.  Before I get into that, though, for anyone who may still be unfamiliar with this marvelous film…

Moses (Val Kilmer), a prince of Egypt, younger brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and son to the great Seti (Patrick Stewart), is comfortable with his place in the world.  One day, he comes across Miriam (Sandra Bullock), a Hebrew slave who boldly informs him he is not Egyptian.  He is, in fact, the son of a Hebrew slave woman who set him adrift on the Nile River to spare him from the bloody purges ordered by Seti, the man he calls father.  Disturbed and conflicted, Moses unthinkingly kills an Egyptian slave driver in a heated moment and leaves behind the only family he’s ever known to face his fate in the desert.

There he meets Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Midianite girl on whom he showed mercy earlier, and her family.  Embracing his new Hebrew identity, he marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd.  Time passes.  One day, Moses is searching for a lost sheep when he is confronted with a strange sight: a bush that appears to be, not burning, but covered in cold white flames, nevertheless.  To his shock, a voice speaks from the bush.  It is the God of his ancestors, and He is displeased with how His people are being treated in Egypt.  He commands Moses to go to Egypt and tell the pharaoh to let His people go…

Need I go on?  The staff, the plagues, the blood, the angel of death, the pillar of fire…it’s all presented here in spectacular fashion.

When DreamWorks first announced plans to make what basically amounts to a musical version of The Ten Commandments, I was skeptical to say the least.  I even remember what theatre I saw it in: the Ybor Centro movie theater in 1998.  I sat through the movie, and I allowed my skepticism to color my entire viewing experience, right up until the sensational Red Sea parting, which even now is one of the great animated sequences of all time.  But aside from that, I felt The Prince of Egypt was all flash and no substance, a way for an upstart movie studio to get people into theaters with an overabundance of star power and little else going for it.  But after watching it on home video repeatedly…I mean, REPEATEDLY…I started to analyze it a little more.

The first thing that really renewed my interest and appreciation for the film was the humanization of the main characters, particularly the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  Moses is no movie idol in this film.  He’s just a man.  Kind of a scrawny man, too, not classically handsome like his brother, Rameses.  Where Moses looks a little spindly and frail, Rameses looks like he lifts weights, or whatever folks did back then on “arm day.”  I also like how the movie allows these two men to behave and relate to each other like real brothers might.  They race chariots down city streets, needle each other, call each other names, play pranks on the high priests, the whole nine yards.  It’s a dynamic the two men surely must have shared as brothers growing up, but it never gets addressed in other interpretations of the story.  Because we get to see how much they love each other, the scene where Moses reluctantly turns his back on Rameses carries so much more weight than we might be accustomed to seeing.

This dynamic comes full circle when Moses returns to demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves.  Rameses is now pharaoh, and laughs at Moses’ demands, wondering what his “angle” is.  And then, when the plagues are visited upon Egypt and the city has nearly crumbled, the two men share a scene of astonishing power.  Rameses sees his city in ruins, but ruefully remembers how Moses used to get him out of trouble when they were younger.  It’s a wonderfully human moment.

The second element of the film that sparked my renewed interest was the music.  At the end of the opening number, which is itself emotionally powerful on several levels, a solo female voice sings out, “Deliver us!” right at the end of the song.  I can no longer remember a time when that moment didn’t give me goosebumps.  The score by Hans Zimmer is magnificent.  There is one particular motif of a choir of voices that we hear whenever we are in the presence of something holy or mystical, and even that gives me goosebumps.  Another moment that deservers recognition is during the big number, “When You Believe,” as the Hebrews are flowing out of Egypt.  At one point, the song is replaced by a Hebrew folk song, “Ashira L’Adonai,” sung by a little girl.  Her voice is joined by several others, and then a few more, and then a whole choir, and then the whole orchestra comes in for a reprise of the chorus, and if you don’t get goosebumps at that moment, you need a vacation.

The third element that keeps me coming back to this movie is the visuals.  True, the CGI visuals are relatively primitive compared to what was going on at Pixar around the same time.  The chariot race between Moses and Rameses features CG chariots which you may notice have wheels that don’t always turn while the chariot is moving.  This was an aspect of the film that led to my early dismissal of it.  But then came the Angel of Death scene, with a hole literally torn in the sky and sinister tendrils pouring out of it and into the village streets.  And then came the eye-popping Red Sea sequence.  More so than any other version I’ve seen, The Prince of Egypt made me feel in my bones that, yes, THIS is what it would have looked like if uncountable tons of water were parted down the middle, clearing a path large enough for the entire Hebrew nation to walk across.  (Depending on who you ask, that number could have been up to two million people, so we’re talking about a WIDE path.)  As they walk between the two massive walls of water on either side, lightning flashes illuminate sea life swimming alongside them, including some really large fish.  Now THERE’S something you don’t see every day.

So, yeah, the movie is amazing.  People may quibble about its historical inaccuracy, or the liberties it may take with certain religious beliefs.  But that does not diminish its power in the slightest bit.

Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph:

I sat down to watch the movie today, and for reasons I can’t explain, the opening scenes were bringing a lump to my throat.  That solo female voice singing “Deliver us!” nearly brought a tear to my eye.  And it nearly happened again after a wedding song.  And again, when Moses is leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to the strains of “When You Believe.”  And when Moses slams his staff into the shallow waters on the banks of the Red Sea, and those waters shot up into the air and kept going and going…my God, man, I nearly lost it.  I was one thread of self-control away from going full-on blubber-fest.  I mean, I grabbed my chest like a Victorian lady reading a Jane Austen novel.  In the middle of my emotional experience, I kept asking myself, “What is WRONG with me?!”

The answer is, of course, nothing is wrong with me.  I was just in exactly the right frame of mind to have a borderline religious experience while watching a movie.  It’s the same when I watch the finale of Fantasia 2000, when the sprite erupts from the ground in a gesture of pure joy.  Or when Riley learns the importance of experiencing sadness at the end of Inside Out.  Or any number of other transcendent films that can put me right in the middle of the story emotionally.  The Prince of Egypt does exactly that through a well-managed mixture of story, visuals, and music.  It may not be perfect from a technical standpoint, but it gets me where it counts, and that’s all that matters.


By Marc S. Sanders

Okay!  Let’s get the comparison out of the way first.  Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of West Side Story far exceeds the original 1961 version from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins that won the Best Picture Academy Award.  I strongly encourage you to see this new film in theatres before it’s gone.  If you miss it, be sure that when you watch it at home, you have the highest upgraded flatscreen with the most enhanced sound system imaginable.  West Side Story of 2021 is a gift of sight and sound.

What Spielberg accomplishes with an updated and outstanding script from Tony Kushner is a more fleshed out, grittier and honest account of territorial entitlement and heated prejudice when the west side of New York City was on the brink of catering to a wealthy white populace and the Puerto Rican community had become established as Americans, even if they were never considered equals.  )The best promise the Puerto Ricans have here for a life is to live as doormen and housekeepers.)  The music and lyrics are more meaningful than ever before.  The characters are given more depth.  The settings become characters themselves.

West Side Story is another example of solid evidence that Steven Spielberg is our greatest modern director.  He not only focuses on the positions his characters hold, allowing them to act with passion and humor and heartache and despair, but he also takes advantage of the props and settings allowed to him beyond limits.  To watch classic numbers come alive not just with the outstanding vocals and dancing, but to see everything in the frame serve a purpose is so gratifying. 

When the Jets strut and ballet down the city streets claiming their elite status in song, Spielberg makes sure these guys literally stop traffic.  Unlike the mundane placement of the winning song “Officer Krupke,” in the original film which only happens on a sidewalk, Spielberg place the boys in the police station where the props of papers and office supplies along with the furniture pieces serve to lampoon the city judge, the cops, the psychiatrists and even themselves.  Maria (20-year-old sensation, Rachel Zegler) owns her rendition of “I Feel Pretty” while the picture enhances the performance with a run through the dress department of Gimbell’s.  Clothes and accessories fly off the racks to send Maria’s enthusiasm of love and happiness into the heavens.  Kushner and Spielberg make a very wise modification to have “Cool” performed by the romantic lead Tony (Ansel Elgort) as a means to calm down his buddy, Riff – leader of the Jets (Mike Faist), before going into a head-to-head rumble with Maria’s brother, Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks. Spielberg places these guys on a rickety old dock complete with wide gaps in the floor for the boys to leap over along with smooth planks to slide around on while tossing a gun around like it’s a football.  These characters teetering on manhood beautifully display their recklessness for danger and pride.

Rita Moreno is the significant attraction early on as she fills the Doc mentor role in the local drug store.  Wise & Robbins’ film never made Doc into much of a mentor.  Moreno fills that void.  She portrays a new character named Valentina, the widow of Doc, and the film’s tool of sensibility during these troubled times.  Kushner creates a fleshed-out character who explains that while she married a Gringo, she remains a Puerto Rican and there’s no room for bloodshed.  She has learned to live with others, and now Tony and Bernardo and Riff and the rest need to do so as well.  In another writer’s hands, this might come off preachy.  Not with Kushner’s dialogue though.  The background of Valentina is paved out early on and her elderly physicality can only do so much.  She can’t disarm the toughies, but she won’t stand for their stupidity either.  It’s Moreno’s presence that brings the chaos to a halt even if she knows it’ll never end the senseless war.  She is sure to get an Oscar nomination and like her win as Anita in the original film, she’s likely to win the award here as well.  (The only Hispanic woman to win an Oscar since 1961, and she’s likely to repeat that accomplishment again.)

Another fleshed out character that I really appreciated is that of Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), the nerdy student and best friend to Bernardo.  He’s studying accounting and calculator repair, but Chino wants to join the Sharks and fight for their cause. Bernardo, the tough guy boxer, wants none of that for his friend.  He wants Chino to date Maria.  There’s multi dimension to Chino now that I never saw before, and it is so very necessary.  The character puts a heartbreaking seal on the end of the film or play, whichever you are watching.  With Spielberg’s film, we get more of Chino’s motivation.  We now can understand why it is Chino that really delivers the final punch of the show.

Ariana DeBose plays Anita, Bernardo’s wife, and she’s spectacular as well.  I could watch her lead “America” through the colorful, daylight city streets over and over again.  In her yellow dress, with red lace underneath, and her magnificent energy, she’s a powerhouse of magnetism.  She leads a company of dancers with such a drive.  Again, Spielberg uses the environment of these characters to build them up and Anita dueling with Bernardo during this song in broad daylight (as opposed to just an evening rooftop from the original) is sensational.  Clotheslines and soft fabrics of pink, yellow and blue even sway to the pounding drum of the number from Leonard Bernstein, along with Stephen Sondheim’s original lyrics.

Having seen this film twice, I now recall when I watched it the first time how inappropriate it really was to have Natalie Wood cast as Maria in Robert Wise’s film.  Beyond the fact that she was never an accomplished singer or dancer, she is certainly not the correct ethnicity.  Her skin complexion was actually bronzed for the role and she lip synched her dialogue and singing.  Obviously, she was a marquee name at the time and the bills had to be paid while profits were collected.  Still, what an insult to point of the piece.  West Side Story’s conflicts hinge on racial and ethnic divides.  With Spielberg’s film, he went so far as to not even include subtitles for the Spanish dialogue.  I don’t speak Spanish, and yet while I can not translate, I could understand the emotions and motivations among the Puerto Rican populace.  Why should subtitles be provided?  Why should whites play Hispanics?  It’s a disgrace to consider, especially in a film that relies on ethnic identity.  Often, the Puerto Ricans are reminded by the cops or among themselves to speak in English.  Yet they continue on with the primary language.  Bravo.  Just because the soon to be famed Lincoln Center will be erected on these grounds doesn’t erase a heritage.  You can not whitewash a culture within a melting pot, and you cannot change a mentality that really doesn’t need to be altered.  Puerto Rico is America and Puerto Rico, within the confines of this film’s New York is here to stay.  Spielberg, the Jewish, typically non-musical director, ensures an equal playing field among the divided cast.

The chemistry among the cast has to be celebrated.  The Jets and Sharks work in pitch perfect precision with one another.  You only need to watch the high school dance to recognize that.  Moreover, look at the balletic fight scenes among the Jets in blue and the Sharks in red.  Elgort and the physically much shorter Zegler work beautifully as a couple forbidden to love, much less talk with one another.  Spielberg makes up the odd height differential by placing Tony on a ladder below Maria, who stands assuredly on a balcony or simply by seating Tony while Maria stands, thereby allowing their duets to work nicely in sync as they beautifully gaze upon one another.

2021’s version of West Side Story is an absolute masterpiece.  It is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films.  It’s entertaining, funny, celebratory and authentically heartbreaking. It’s the film I never, ever realized was needed to be conceived again.  West Side Story was the very first stage musical – Broadway musical – I ever saw and it always remained my favorite.  Yet, until I finally saw what Steven Spielberg could do with West Side Story, I actually never realized I hadn’t seen all of West Side Story.


By Marc S. Sanders

Is it possible for a musical to be disturbing? Maybe Bob Fosse’s Cabaret favors that argument.

Liza Minnelli won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1972 for her portrayal of Sally Bowles, a carefree, happy go lucky performer at the underground Kit Kat Club located in Berlin, 1931. She is the lead attraction among a company of dancers doing a different kind of stage vaudeville with its colorful emcee played amazingly by Joel Grey, also an Oscar winner.

The musical numbers are outlandish with caked on makeup and outfits that could make Victoria’s Secret seem like a children’s shop. I gathered from the film that Fosse, who choreographed the numbers as well, offered up the escape of life first, before showing the harsh reality of Berlin in its historical context.

Sally and the Emcee’s performances are first on hand, depicted as silly and showstopping. Thereafter, Sally encounters an English gentleman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who is a professor of English study attempting to complete his doctorate. As Sally and Brian become closer as friends first, he must reluctantly admit to Sally that he’s a better bed companion with a man than with a woman. Sally doesn’t understand why he didn’t say that in the first place as she attempts to come on to him.

Herein lies the dilemma many faced as the Nazi party was gaining traction in Germany. How necessary is it to hide your true natures to preserve your life? Sally’s underground lifestyle at the club clouds her vision of what’s gradually happening in the world. Nevertheless, they eventually develop a relationship as Brian appears to be bisexual, more specifically.

A side story concerns Brian & Sally’s relationship with a baron named Maximillan (Helmut Griem), who will wine and dine them at his estate only to later abandon the respective relationships he sets up with them to more or less make them feel as cheap as prostitutes. I wasn’t sure what to gather from this extension, however. The irony is that unbeknownst to Sally and Brian they have both been sleeping with Max. Eventually, Sally reveals she’s pregnant but does not know who the father may be, Brian or Max, and an abortion is considered.

An additional side story concerns a wealthy Jewish German heiress named Natalia who falls in love with a German Jew named Fritz living under the guise of a Protestant.

Cabaret is a loose adaptation of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood (the Brian character) and his experience with stage performer Jean Ross (the Sally character). Isherwood’s stories gradually formed into different iterations of stage plays and short stories before making it to Broadway and Fosse’s celebrated film.

Though Fosse apparently took some questionable liberties and departures from Isherwood’s writings, I think it depicts the personal struggles of love and self identity while the world around them is quickly changing into a scary reality where your own self identity could get you killed.

Fosse gives terrifying glimpses of how the Nazi party seeps it’s way into a decadent Berlin of underground showmanship. Though apparently Berlin really wasn’t so decadent as the film has you believe. Ross and Isherwood have gone on record describing Berlin was a more destitute and poor environment, actually.

In Fosse’s film, a Nazi youth is seen early on being kicked out of the Kit Kat Club. A few minutes later, the night club manager is being beaten in an alley. Fosse juxtaposes scary moments like this against the silly debauchery depicted on stage. It’s as if the Gypsies, homosexuals and Jews in the area are unaware of the evil practice that is gradually taking over outside.

Soon, Fosse makes the swastika more apparent in the streets with propaganda handouts. Most telling is when a young boy is seen at an outdoor beer garden gathering singing a number selfishly entitled “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Fosse is frighteningly effective at showing this boy from the neck up. Eventually, he moves the camera down to reveal the boy’s swastika wrapped around his sleeve. The song which seemed to champion beauty and nature now evolves into a march of grandstanding fascism. It completely shocked me. Just as people like Brian and Fritz are reluctant to reveal their backgrounds, both sexually and religiously, the Nazi party is proud to announce their mindset in a converse manner. By the end of the film, the audience at the Kit Kat Club more predominantly shows Nazis in the audience as opposed to just the one shown in the beginning of the film. Hatred has spread its disease.

While Minnelli shines in her role, her showstopping moment really comes at the end when she dangles her carefree attitude while belting out the title song with “Life Is A Cabaret.” Along with Joel Grey’s Emcee closing out the film with the “Finale,” this musical goes against the grain of most musicals’ cheerful close outs or romantic theatrics. Fosse’s mirror image of the Nazi party taking in Sally and Emcee’s performances are chilling. We sense the characters’ time is at an end and wisely the film runs its closing credits among frightening silence with the cold, blurred images of Nazi soldiers staring right at us.

I had never seen the film of Cabaret until now, but I had attended two different stage productions; neither of which I liked. Bob Fosse’s film seems more clear with its content than I ever got from a stage performance. Perhaps it is because the Oscar winning art direction is more apparent than a stage set. We can see the bustling of Berlin change amid a political climate that at first is not taken so seriously. As hurtful and harrowing the relationships of love between Brian with Sally and then with Max, as well as Fritz and Natasha are, none of this will eventually compare to the upcoming demise for Berlin.

As Miguel noted in our recent podcast that focused on musicals, Cabaret won the most Oscars without winning Best Picture (losing to The Godfather). It’s clear how deserving it was of its accolades. The musical numbers are very engaging but the fear of fascism is well developed too. So there is a roller coaster of emotions to absorb from Fosse’s film. I believe in that podcast I noted that Francis Ford Coppola won Best Director. I now realize I was wrong. It was in fact Bob Fosse who took home that prize, and it’s truly evident how deserving that honor was for him.

Again, while I’ve yet to find a stage production I’ve liked, I was terribly moved by the film. Cabaret, the film from 1972, is a sensational and frightening production.

LA LA LAND (2016)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 91% Certified Fresh

PLOT: While navigating their careers in Los Angeles, a jazz pianist (Gosling) and an actress (Stone) fall in love while attempting to reconcile their aspirations for the future.


La La Land was greeted by the American public in one of two ways.  There was no middle of the road.  You either loved it or hated it.

Critics loved it.  It broke records at the Golden Globes that year and was the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars (Moonlight took the prize instead, and deservedly so).

When it came to the viewing public, people were immediately divided into opposing camps, with each trying to convince the other they were wrong.  “It’s homage!” cried one camp.  “It’s derivative and sad!” cried the other.

Me?  I’m part of the “loved-it” camp.  And after re-watching it tonight, for the first time since seeing it in theatres, I have no plans to change my mind.

I once wrote that there is no movie more in love with “old Hollywood” than The Artist.  Well, La La Land is more in love with classic movie musicals, specifically, than any other modern movie in recent memory.  It opens with an astonishing musical number, “Another Day of Sun”, set on a Los Angeles overpass.  In a breathtaking feat of choreography and cinematography, scores of dancers perform nifty moves in and around a traffic jam, incorporating a live band inside what looks like a UPS truck, in one single take…or at least what LOOKS like one single take.  Could be some CG in there.  Who cares?  It’s awesome, and it sets the tone right away: this will be like one of those old musicals where people break into song and dance without warning.  You can stay where you are or you can leave now, but this is what’s happening.

After that, we settle in to a tried and true story of boy (Sebastian [Ryan Gosling], a jazz pianist who wants to start his own jazz club) meets girl (Mia [Emma Stone], an aspiring actress looking for a break).  This part of the story was old when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did it in countless other films, so yeah, I get it.  I can see why some folks called it derivative.

But that criticism neatly dismisses the underlying subplot about the Old vs. the New.  Sebastian desperately wants to start a jazz club that plays the greats – Monk, Coltrane, Davis – because, as he says in a passionate speech to Mia, jazz is dying.  Nobody wants to hear it anymore.  It’s old.  (He decries a nearby club that combines jazz, samba, and tapas, or some such nonsense.)  “They worship everything and value nothing,” he laments.

But Keith, a fellow musician (played by John Legend) tries to get him to see sense.  (“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?”)  History is written by the people who strike out in a new direction.  Sebastian himself uses this philosophy with Mia, who has gotten tired of auditioning for the same teachers and doctors and coroners over and over again.  He tells her to do something different if you’re tired of the same old/same old.  She takes his advice and starts writing a one-woman play about her life.

And here’s where it gets cool.  While the characters in the movie are urging each other to embrace new concepts, La La Land still has one foot firmly in the past, i.e., the grand musical traditions of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, etcetera.  Two later numbers stick out in my mind.  One is a twilight duet between Sebastian and Mia, shot on location in the Hollywood Hills when the sky is that perfect shade of somewhere-between-pink-and-purple.  They sing a little and then they do a beautiful dance together, but they’ve just met, so they’re careful to dance ALONE together…watch it and you’ll see what I mean.  Right out of Vincente Minnelli.  (Let’s be clear…Gosling and Stone are not exactly Fred and Ginger, but they do a damn sight better than I could do myself, so I give them props.)

Another number with classic-musical overtones is set during the first giddy months of their relationship.  With little or no singing (can’t remember which), we follow Sebastian and Mia as they tick off Los Angeles landmarks, finishing at the famous Griffith Observatory.  They enter the planetarium, and in a gloriously giddy moment of cinematic fantasy, they rise into the air and dance among the stars and galaxies before falling perfectly into their seats and sharing a kiss.  I no longer remember what I did the first time watching this movie, but this time around, I watched that whole sequence with a goofy grin on my face.  If you can’t enjoy watching people dancing in the stars, well…

At one point, Sebastian tells someone, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word.”  I like that.  This movie is, above all, romantic, in spite of how it ends.  It’s romantic in the sense that it revels in the unreasonable, illogical hope that everything will work out okay in the end.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still dream.  (There’s even a song about this exact thing, sung by Emma Stone in a sequence near the end that oozes romance and heartbreak.)

But all of this is nothing…nothing…compared to the emotional roller-coaster of the last thirty minutes of the movie.  It’s here that La La Land gets all serious in the middle of the fluff, because it explores the nature of success and what is necessary to achieve it.  Sebastian is touring with a band that pays well…but it’s not exactly a jazz ensemble.  Mia is just about ready to give up acting…until a casting agent gives her an opportunity to star in a movie shooting in Paris for four months.  These two characters, for whom the audience has been rooting for the previous 90 minutes, are on a downward spiral, and the only way to save their relationship would be for one or the other to completely give up on their dreams.  But neither of them would ask that of the other.  So they go their separate ways.

WHAT?  After all this they don’t wind up together?  Well…what would you have preferred?  An ending that awkwardly keeps them together, with him, say, playing jazz in a French club while she shoots a movie in Paris during the day?  Enjoying success together?  Having kids?  Sure, that kind of ending is POSSIBLE.  (In fact, in one of the many highlights of the movie, you even get a tease of what that might have been like.)  But, hey.  Isn’t that just the traditionalist way of looking at things?  Why not strike out in a different direction?  Do something no one’s doing.  End your movie where each character gets what they’ve always wanted their entire lives…even if that means they don’t get each other.

Boy, that last sentence sounds harsh.  But that’s what this movie’s about, and I think the film’s detractors simply couldn’t get past the grand tradition that demands the two leads wind up together.  They wanted Singin’ in the Rain, and instead they got the musical equivalent of The Remains of the Day.  (Maybe not quite that extreme, but I trust the point is made.)

ANYWAY.  Like I said, I just finished watching this a couple of hours ago, and I am no less convinced of its greatness.  Even though it’s a wrench watching their relationship head towards the rocks, the movie makes up for it at the end with half an hour of glorious, emotional catharsis that left me feeling wrung out, but in a good way.  It’s not quite a tragedy, but not quite a comedy.  Like life itself, it falls somewhere in between.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A musical fantasy about Elton John’s (Egerton) breakthrough years in the 1970s.

Much more so than Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman feels like a genuine musical.  On top of that, it also provides much more insight into the lead character than Rhapsody did.  I did feel that it was stretching a bit, trying a bit too hard to pluck the old heartstrings towards the end of the film.  But the fact remains that I was more invested in the Elton John character than Freddie Mercury.

I think a big part of that improvement is due to the way Rocketman is structured.  The entire film is played out in a series of flashbacks, ostensibly during a group therapy session at a rehab clinic.  I say “ostensibly” because, in the opening moments of the film, he apparently walks into the session moments after abandoning his Madison Square Garden concert.  He is in full Elton John regalia: a flaming orange and red outfit complete with spreading wings on his back and devil horns on his head.  Through most of the film (after his meteoric rise to fame), he will do his best to live up to the devilish nature of this costume.

(This structure is not new…see, for example, De-Lovely, in which Cole Porter defends his life to a mysterious figure at the moment of his death.)

I have said over and over again, on Facebook and to my fellow cinephiles, how I cannot handle movies or TV shows with loathsome characters as the leads.  I can never and will never watch the TV show Mad Men.  No power on earth will ever compel me to sit through another screening of What About Bob? If someone had shot Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle with a shotgun, I would have cheered.

And yet here is Rocketman, featuring a lead character who, in the course of the movie…let me see…gets himself addicted to drugs and alcohol, succeeds in alienating anyone and everyone close to him, attempts suicide, gets the venue city name wrong during a massive concert (that’s a BIG no-no), ditches the people who made him famous in the first place out of misplaced affection for his smarmy manager/lover, and marries a woman (out of nowhere) knowing full well he is gay.

He does all of these things, and yet I was still on his side.  Weird, right?  The last time I felt that kind of empathy for a troubled lead character was in Ray.  (I’m not equating the two films, just remarking on their similarity.)  If I had to draw a line connecting those two films, and why I was able to handle their anti-social tendencies, the first things that come to mind are their music and their backstories.  The music produced by Ray Charles and Elton John (and Elton’s inseparable collaborator, Bernie Taupin) is on such a level that it was intriguing to me to watch their characters evolve, to see where such music comes from, and how much suffering is sometimes (always?) necessary for greatness to be achieved.

Another aspect of Rocketman’s success is the way unique visual tricks were used to convey the extreme emotional impact of certain events in Elton John’s life.  I’m thinking especially of his first concert at the famed Troubador nightclub in Los Angeles.  After a few agonizing seconds of nervous silence, Elton and his band break into “Crocodile Rock”, and when the bouncy chorus begins with its high, ‘50s-esque falsettos, there is a glorious moment when Elton, the band, and the crowd slowly levitate in the air, transported by the music.  I can imagine the real Elton John describing that moment in that specific way.  Or any number of performers describing their one supremely perfect moment in the spotlight, that one fleeting moment in time when it felt like the world revolved around them and their music, or their monologue, or their pas-de-deux.  It’s a magical sequence.

I cannot call Rocketman a perfect biopic.  As I mentioned before, it tries a little too hard at the end.  There is a bit of speechifying that is intended to get a gut-wrenching emotional reaction, but which I felt was a little too much of a muchness.  But it is an improvement on Bohemian Rhapsody.  I got a much fuller picture of Elton John’s life before he became THE Elton John, and as such, I was much more invested in how things turned out.