Spike Lee’s concert movie David Byrne’s American Utopia (A) is an often absurdist, sometimes poignant and always joyfully ebullient work featuring twelve troubadours on a Broadway stage making music seemingly ripped from the soul of the here and now. The idiosyncratic Talking Heads lead singer is part narrator and part conjuror in a cathartic protest film structured loosely on themes about the lingering possibilities of the United States experiment. Byrne gleefully marshals an international group of musical artists including two dancers with a peculiar Punch and Judy vibe in a fife and drumline spectacle replete with timely social justice and voting themes. The work is made all the more magical by the mere fact that it was chronicled weeks before New York City productions shut down for the global pandemic. Lee brilliantly captures what it was like to breathe the same air of musicians and fans in a shared live experience and focuses the eyes and ears on the simple pleasures of the performance’s sparse staging: it’s a kaleidoscope of transparent curtains, fancy footlights and swirling shadows to take viewers into the visceral vortex of putting on a show. Familiar singles such as “Once in a Lifetime” and “Road to Nowhere” are joined by compelling new tunes including a jewel of a song lent to the ensemble by the great Janelle Monae. The film’s daring dozen appears to be marching to its own beat and to a better day for the land of the free. For both strident fans of the lead artist and newcomers to his subversive optimism, Lee’s concert film showcases Byrne in fine form and an America strolling in sensational syncopation to a better day.
Four decades after Bandit’s criss-crossing car chases left Smokey in the dust of Georgia, Edgar Wright’s Atlanta-set Baby Driver (A) grafts grifts and getaways, criminally comic chase capers and manic musical syncopations that yield new song to this southern boomtown into a wholly original new entertainment. This candy-colored fantasia is an engrossing and involving tale from the get-go, propelled by a very charming Ansel Elgort in the central role as a go-to guy for driving armed robbers from scenes of the crime and plucky Lily James as the waitress who wins his heart and may just pull him away from his life in the shadows. Add to these great performances scenery chewing Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, and it’s off to the races. Wright has drawn his characters finely with clever quirks that pay off perfectly in episodes behind the crimes and behind the wheel. Because Elgort’s character has “a hum in the drum” and relies on an iTunes shuffle for the soundtrack to his days (including sweet, swift exit music), the film is laced with an electric and eclectic jukebox of joy ranging from Blur to The Beach Boys to the Incredible Bongo Band. The movie is faster, more furious and funnier than most anything in the marketplace right now because it sweats the details, cares for its characters, goes out on a limb for adventure and doesn’t mind crossing lanes between genres. It’s an ultracool summons into trippy territory. It’s the mix-tape and mash-up of summer that you didn’t know you were looking for, and it’s ready for a fresh spin.
For a film ostensibly about the pulsating best of electronic dance music, Max Joseph’s We Are Your Friends (D) is listless and low energy, and even the music is only good on occasion. A vehicle for Zac Efron to flex his musical muscles in the central role as an up-and-coming DJ in San Fernando Valley, the film famously flopped in its theatrical release, appearing on the surface to be like a pretentious nightclub that people avoid in droves. The movie’s characters talk in unfulfilled platitudes about achieving the dream; now available for a second chance at life on the home viewing front, it’s still not worth the stream. Caught up in a love triangle with a promoter/mentor phoned in by Wes Bentley and mutual love interest played by the beautiful but vacant Emily Ratajkowski, Efron channels Cocktail-era Tom Cruise, except with considerably less charm, coasting along in a formulaic plot that does none of its ensemble any favors and sometimes just feels like an overlong Sprite or Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. The golden god even suffers for his art, with the eyebrow scar and all. The film peaks early with a promising rotoscope animated PCP hallucination. Perhaps it needed to stay on something because it’s never onto something.
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (A-) tells the origin story of rap group N.W.A. with a sense of immediacy that reflects today’s headlines and a genuine gravitas that traces the family tree of the gangsta rap movement with poignancy and panache. Jason Mitchell is the breakout star as charismatic tragic hero Eazy-E, with O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre also giving outstanding performances as the music group members each put their personal stamp on the sound and the fury of a business born in chaos. Paul Giamatti is also effective as their duplicitous manager. Gray does a strong job coloring in the period details against a backdrop of events such as the L.A. riots and with a singular soundscape that pulses with momentum. He transforms the biopic and its usual tenets into an epic that rings true today with insights about the first amendment, crime and policing in America and finding one’s own voice no matter where you’re from.
I suppose Mr. Holland would never forge his opus or dead poets their society without a little creative inspiration. Writer/director Damien Cazelle’s Whiplash (B+) supposes that great art comes from a relentless push from both oneself and some other outside force. The film starts with an aggressive, percussive beat in a lonely hall and ends with nearly the same in a concert hall, but the film’s young jazz drummer protagonist, brilliantly played by Miles Teller, is not the same man from beat to beat. Under the tutelage of a maniacal perfectionist with the draconian stylings of an unhinged drill sergeant – the performance of a lifetime by J.K. Simmons – Teller’s promising artist learns to hone his craft through a ridiculously escalating series of Herculean obstacles. Cazelle and his powerhouse lead actors never let up in this powder-keg of obsession, filled with unexpected grace notes. The authenticity of the film’s merciless NYC music school and the close-ups of blood, sweat and tears required to make great jazz add to the film’s somber and occasionally off-kilter tone. While there are character details that get somewhat short shrift, the movie is largely an absorbing riff and an often riveting tight-wire act. Mostly, it’s a stunning showcase for fine acting.
Lightning does not strike twice for Once writer/director John Carney as he brings his wounded souls bonding over music motifs Stateside in the NYC-set drama Begin Again (B-). Mark Ruffalo is a down-on-his-luck producer and Keira Knightley the unlucky-in-love songstress who catches his attention. Together the maven and his muse create an album on the streets of New York and rediscover their stride. It’s often affecting and means perfectly well, but the music never rises to the level nor the milieu to the moment to render a result as uncommon as its makers seem to imagine. Carney coaxes viewers a bit into the fact they’re watching a musical; and this camouflaged concoction filled with recording sessions, crooning and concert sequences occasionally swells to its raison d’être. Ruffalo and Knightly are charming as the chaste protagonists, and Adam Levine is serviceable in the role of a rock star on the rise. Other supporting cast members are given short shrift and are as misplaced as Manhattan by a director who better staged a similar tale among the buskers of Dublin.
Let the impeccable period detail, stirring folk music and dark comic details of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewin Davis (B) wash over you, and you’re in for a film you can’t take your eyes or ears off. Newcomer Oscar Isaac is the standout performer as the titular vagrant ruffian whose sins in life are scrubbed clean each time he belts out cherubic tunes. The supporting cast doesn’t fare quite as well (not an awesome year for Carey Mulligan), except a hilarious John Goodman as a larger-than-life drifter and Justin Timberlake in a great studio sequence. Many standout musicals are set as history is about to blow a different wind (Cabaret and Hair come to mind), and the Coen Brothers’ fairly inert plotting at the dawn of a folk revolution seems to miss an opportunity or two for dramatic tension. But I think they’re really saying that soul-altering art can come from the unlikeliest of authors who may be footnotes at best in the record books. Like the cat that keeps getting loose in the film, a true artist remains untamed and elusive. Something tells me time will be kind to this curiosity.
Doug Hamilton’s Broadway Idiot (B) is an effective documentary about how the dueling aesthetics of punk rock and musical theatre find their place together on the Great White Way. In this case, the doc tracks how theatrical wunderkinds including Michael Mayer and Tom Kitt translate the watershed Green Day concept album American Idiot to the musical stage, winning new fans including the band itself. There’s great access to backstage footage as the production evolves and awesome sequences from the show itself; but since there’s not a lot of dramatic tension behind the scenes, it registers more straightforward than surprising.
John Carney’s Once (B+) is a treasure box of a musical with an unassuming storyline showcasing a man and a woman who enter each other’s lives when they need each other most. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova play the unnamed pair – he, a busking Irish guitarist and she, a Czech pianist, who find themselves “Falling Slowly” into the spell of making beautiful music together. Very much in the vein of Before Sunrise, the duo are fated to be together and bring out talents and insights in each other that they never could have found separately. In its simplicity and handheld look and feel, it celebrates the joy of discovery and the brilliant promises of second chances at love.
Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do! (B+) is a light, fizzy film about the meteoric rise of a one-hit wonder band to the height of fame and fortune. Hanks as manager and the bright young cast he has assembled are a delight to watch as their characters sort out relationships once the band gets big. Filled with great music and period detail, this is a rich sleeper comedy.
Great music, superior performances and an engaging true life story of a pianist who suffers a mental breakdown culminate in a touching experience in Scott Hicks’ Shine (B+). Most of the film’s moments are genuinely mobbing, and Geoffrey Rush is a revelation.
Richard Dreyfuss soars as a music teacher inspired by the people who love him in Stephen Herek’s Mr. Holland’s Opus (A-). This finely tuned film is filled with clichés and somehow still works, possibly because it deals with dreams deferred and the notion that even life’s smallest notes are part of a collective symphony. The quality of the acting, the music and the overall groundswell has quite a power to move.