The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Les Miserables

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rock of Ages

June 15, 2012,  Warners/New Line  123 minutes
I suppose it was only a matter of time until we got a Tom Cruise musical--and a cruise missile of a musical it is. Repurposing rock hits into narrative arcs can only be classified as naked commercialism. It's not like these songs were crying out for dramatic context--they're AM radio fare. The movie's poster comes at you like those cheap TV ads for K-tel records, the big names flying at you--Tom Cruise! Mary J. Blige! Catherine Zeta Jones! Alec Baldwin! Foreigner! Journey! Guns N' Roses! Bon Jovi! "Nothin' But a Good Time" promised. But in fact the movie has a lot of (uninspired) story--tho less than the stage show, astonishingly, whose libretto by Chris D'Arienzo was a virtual season's worth of melodrama stuffed between 24 musical numbers--a good many of which are mash-ups of two or three songs by disparate bands. Such a long-winded book  prevents  any  mistaking  the show for a  rock concert masquerading as theater. And great effort has been made to use  familiar '80s hits in a context that defines the characters and/or advances the plot; in other words, like a real Bway musical. This was something of a surprise to me, having come to another, less cohesive prejudgment based on what little interest I could muster to consider this in the Bway canon. The mere mention of the heavy metal bands whose songs make up the score was enuf to kill my interest in its tracks. Or should I say, traxxx?

Being a Bway baby didn't preclude my taking interest in other genres of music as I emerged from the cocoon of childhood, including--prominently enuf--"rock" in manifestations of pop, reggae, ska, new wave, salsa, world beat and electronica. Wheras musicals are a finite study (perhaps a dozen new a year), rock is a countless universe of bands with a dizzying spectrum of banality to sophistication. With so much volume how do we ever find our way to our own musical gods? Or do they somehow find us? Surely our friends & peers influence our taste, or at least introduce new sounds into our lives. Some relationships are built entirely around the appreciation of music. It was my high school friend, Bill (and later first roommate in New York) who began my education down the slippery slope with such hippies as The Mamas & the Papas and Spanky & Our Gang before acclimating me to the likes of Grace Slick, Santana, Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman. What does our taste in music say about us? Does it in some fundamental way, define us? Is it as ephemeral a question as one of nature vs nurture? Music has been an incalcuable factor in my life--I couldn't imagine living without it. But for the most part, the score of Rock of Ages fires very little in my brain's pleasure center.

Is it unfair to surmise a certain demographic drawn to the catalog of bands chosen here? (White, blue-collar, parochial, testosterone driven?) Was the impetus for the show from (D'Arienzo's) musical affection, or was this a wholly commercial opportunity seized? In either case the question remains: did the score (as chosen) dictate the characters, the sensibility, the milieu and the story? Or did the script come first, seeking songs to make its points? My guess is the former--for it's hard to take the narrative seriously. A sort of  A Star is Born of the LA rock scene; the story revels in the finer points of sleaze even as it wants to wink at it in parody. It's still a little difficult for me to accept the pic as a period piece--but in fact it is set some 25 years ago, which ages the music more than I can readily recognize. I mean this: in 25 years pop music evolved from The Andrews Sisters and Benny Goodman to Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones. If it doesn't seem to me so radically different now from the '80s; then call me ignorant of current rock. At any rate the core audience here was aging adults whose youth was steeped in this soundtrack.

After tryouts in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Rock of Ages tested the waters Off-Bway for a few months before transferring to Bway in March 2009--where it ran as long as Man of La Mancha--until January 2015.  The show was rushed to the screen faster than any in memory; with the film coming--and going--midway thru its Bway run. Such optimism wasn't built on Chris D'Arenzio's book, given the fundamental changes made, and the addition of two other scribes (Allan Loeb & Justin Theroux--yes, Jennifer Aniston's mate) --to wrestle a new screenplay. Much of this might have something to do with attracting Tom Cruise to playing Stacee Jaxx. In the stage musical Jaxx is entirely despicable and ends up a has-been. The film paints him more ambiguously. Indulgent & excessive beyond parody, he also wants to be the pic's soul--a psuedo-zen freak with spiritual powers; he not only retains his status but succumbs to a blonde wife with (at coda) baby on board. Curiously, the young wannabe rock stars, Sherrie & Drew on stage wind up heading for the suburbs; whereas on film they, of course, find stardom. Wisely cut was a subplot with a German father & son (villainous developers after the Bourbon Room club); whose conflict is the son's passion for confectionary baking. The film invents instead a morality-spouting adulterous Mayor, whose wife campaigns to close the club with a fervor equal to her once devotion as groupie (and bedmate) of Jaxx's.

D'Arienzo demonstrates no talent for names. Stacee Jaxx? Wofgang Von Colt? Constance Sack? Drew Boley? A boy band called Z Guyeezz? A glass of beer and two friends could improve on this on any given night. But not apparently a trio of screenwriters. When Sherrie meets her idol, Stacee, she gets off this gem: "When my hamster died your music really helped me pull thru." Yes, I know it's meant to be ridiculous, but really? Much of the script seems to have been written around a bong. Such as when Sherrie and Drew trade notes on how far their fortunes have fallen:
--"I'm a stripper at the Venus Club"
--"I'm in a boy band"
--"You Win."
Club owners Dennis & Lonny are thrown the one uncliched character surprise: they realize their attraction for each other, and act on it, unabashedly. It's not really very convincing, coming off more as patronizing--but as it celebrates rather than condemns queerness--in a (arguably) heterosexually-aimed piece of entertainment, it's hard to object to. But there's only manufactured conflict, nothing of any substance, or really, even interest. 
Was there ever such an outcry over rock in the '80s that had the religious right protesting on the Sunset Strip? The flimsiest of devices parts lovers Sherrie & Drew--he thinks she fucked Jaxx; she thinks the spotlight has turned him into an instant asshole; Jaxx himself has an unlikely reckoning confronted by a journalist. It's all as random as Dennis & Lonny's sudden passion for each other.

The film was assigned to Adam Shankman who'd directed Hairspray a few years before, demonstrating an understanding of musicals on screen. In fact, his helming here is not to be faulted--neither in his staging of the many musical sequences, or the semi-starry casting with top-lined (but not top-billed) Cruise. Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Malin Akerman play roles newly written for the pic; and Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, and Russell Brand nicely prop up supporting characters. Somehow I've remained rather clueless about Julianne Hough, who seems entirely new to me, tho apparently she came to prominence quite young on TV's Dancing with the Stars, and had already made the Footloose remake in Hlwd, as well as Cher's Burlesque. (Later in 2016 she plays Sandy in the live-TV Grease.)  As Sherie in Rock,  Hough defines the 

country girl gone Hollywood-rocker with exactitude down to her still blushing youth. For her love interest, Shankman determined that Mexican TV actor and singer Diego Boneta would score as Zac Efron did in Hairspray. He's fine as well, but Boneta appears to me underage for getting in, letting alone working a bar. Which makes Baldwin & Brand look like codgers. Their slow burn for each other adds some fresh humor, even tho it never feels very real. Mary J. Blige models a series of wigs while running a strip joint; Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to sing Pat Benatar while feigning Republicanism; and Paul Giamatti disappears into the role of slimey agent, complete with world's most pathetic pony-tail. Unfortunately, none of them are very interesting characters.

Credit Shankman for boldly putting forth an unapolegetic credence to the laws of musical comedy right from the start, with Hough belting her heart out on a bus heading west, only to have her fellow passengers naturally join in. Her arrival in Hollywood is "Just Like Paradise" tho in short order she dodges a drug bust, gets accosted by hookers, harassed by males and loses her suitcase to a thief. Heavy handed, sure. But these people are going to sing these songs as if they were the narrative, and not some MTV video, and they come with much more frequency than you'd expect. A good many of them are also mash-ups of two or three songs, and reflect various pairings and storylines. But the film is also uncommonly vulgar while shying away from more hardcore realities (there's more cocaine in Annie Hall than all of here); as a rock god, Stacee Jaxx gives Tom Cruise license to indulge in his brand of movie star weirdness (better exploited in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia), complete with hawk-like
stares and tattooed bod--tho at times it feels like he's relying on his bandanna to do all the acting. The Sub-Saharan circus surrounding him is a bit much (including a monkey butler lamely called "Hey-Man")' but you can see his magnetism as a rock star--a performance kid Cruise has been rehearsing since pubescence. As well as the soft-porn scene that's "I Want to Know What Love Is"--tho what's meant to be comic is simply trashy. Later at the Venus Club Mary Blige unleashes a Cirque de Soleil-worthy pole dance number to "Anyway You Want it" by Journey--an insanely popular band, of which I've managed to exist all my life knowing virtually nothing about. Their catchy but vacuous anthem, "Don't Stop Believin' " wraps the film up in a fairy-tale ending: Jaxx sober, reborn & soon-to-be-dad by journalist bride; Drew & Sherrie a duo in Jaxx' show, and all remaining characters rocking out in the audience, including an unleashed Zeta-Jones in fishnets & leather. And not a hint of marijuana smoked on screen--in this hardcore LA rock scene. It's almost unbearably silly.

To great extent one's enjoyment of this pic, depends on one's taste for the chosen brand of rock. Half a dozen songs were familiar to me from the '80s zeitgeist, but I ran a very different soundtrack during those years: Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Sade, The B-52s, Blondie, The English Beat, Springsteen Madness. Along with...Evita, Dreamgirls, Nine, Rags, Little Shop of Horrors, Chess. But in truth I listened to more rock in those days than Bway--which felt evermore in decline, or worse: irrelevant. Rock of Ages hit the summer market on the Ides of June 2012--but even a starry cast (and Tom Cruise to boot!) didn't draw a millenial audience. The film scraped up $38 million domestic, but less than $60m worldwide--falling far short of its $75m cost.

It had been two and half years since Nine--the last Bway musical transferred to screen, and a great deal had transpired in my life with a nod to the future. A smart agent sold my deceased mother's house in San Jose instant-quick, and for above asking; which in turn allowed me to put a serious bid on the house I'd eyed in Palm Springs, struggling in a bottomed-out market, now in a short sale. I came out like a bandit--first-time homeowner in what felt like my spiritual homeland since I was nine years old. Fully furnished and equipment stocked, I was set from the start to accommodate vacation rentals until my own retirement & relocation. In the meantime, that allowed for my own extended desert getaways, which effortlessly drew friends from both coasts and Chicago. Times were good. Obama had taken reigns from the idiot Bush; my job was as secure as it was unobtrusive; Greg was stable if not terribly active; my entire known family was dead and scattered to the wind and I had at last unshackeled myself from the slavery of ambition. I conceived & commenced this very blog--which became more pleasure than project and has smoothly driven these last 7  years of my creative life. 2011 was also the year I finally broke my 28 year streak of passport storage. The impetus was a maiden voyage on a luxury cruise line sponsored by Playbill magazine, a Bway-themed cruise with top Big Street talent sailing around Italy in September. It was compelling, and easy to convince Larry Rubinstein to join me. But prior to sailing I granted myself a continental mini-Grand Tour, hitting London, Paris, Rome, after a quick dash thru New York, where I had just enuf time between visits with friends to catch The Addams Family (even with a replacement cast it was de regiuer--as 
"mi familia" of course.) and Catch Me If You Can, which I loved even more than in Seattle, but which sadly, puzzlingly, didn't catch on in NY. Far less memorable was the single West End show I caught, Betty Blue Eyes--a pleasant if minor musical based on a minor 1984 British film, A Private Function. (Even the Brits were now adapting their old movies.) What I most wanted to see, Matilda, was still a month off. I lucked into a discount rate at Claridges and ran all over London for 3 nights--which was but a tasty sample of a town that feuled my imagination for over half a century. I suspect my British obessesion was first perked (again at age 9) by an hour-long sitcom from CBS in the fall of '62 called Fair Exchange--which left a strong impression upon me, despite airing for only several months. A NY & London family swapped daughters for a school year. Culture shock ensued. Paris was an embarrassment of landmarks, but I came away from my whirlwind trio of days, feeling the place somehow cold. That was instantly corrected upon arrival in Rome--as I'm always comfortable around Italians, which is more than I can say for the French.

The Regent cruise introduced these eyes to a series of Mediterranean jewels: Portofino, Monte Carlo, Sorrento, Amalfi. The Playbill contingent proved to be only about 120 out of 700 passengers, but we got to know a few. As the online face of all-things-Bway, Seth Rudestky was familiar to most of us already, and as Camp Counselor he quickly matched Larry & I up to John & James from London, who aside from bonding so nicely (and having such great senses of humor) were only over time revealed to me to be well-connected British theater folk. It was nice at this stage of life to enjoy them merely as people and not calculated opportunities to exploit. Among the marquee names on our cruise none was more exciting to me than Andrea Martin--

whom I had worshipped for decades (for her catalog of characters on SCTV and other comedy shows) long before she stepped on a Bway stage and earned Tony nominations for each of her five Bway musicals--and winning twice. Aside from considering her a comic genius I felt I had a deeper understanding of her as an Armenian-American woman; as she had much in common with a friend of my parents, who I'd grown up knowing only too well, and who in 1970 took me and my high school pal, Bill, from Syracuse (my birthplace and her home) to Niagra Falls, Toronto and up to Montreal--all the while revealing herself a character worthy of Andrea Martin. It was a thrilling treat to watch the genius behind Edith Prickley and Pirini Schleroso, work up close, of course, but it was even better to engage with her offstage. Yet there was a moment in one of the Playbill informals where we did some improv that afforded me the chance to reference a rather obscure (but choice) bit from Andrea's SCTV days with but a gesture. Our eyes locked as she got my reference, and it was all either of us could do from breaking up entirely. Something in the bolt of that moment between us was so private, yet in full view of an audience made it all the more electric. Her friend, Debra Monk accompanied her on the cruise (without performing), and the 4 of us later spent an afternoon at Peggy Guggenheim's museum in Venice after sloshing down the Grand Canal in a motorboat. Also on board ship were Christine Ebersole (who would figure in later travels) and Brian Stokes Mitchell who arrived only on the final night,
but lingered long after his lovely concert to chat up our group, allowing me to impress upon him how good (divorced from its ill-fated, manic production) the score was for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown--something he didn't seem aware of had come thru on record. It was nearly the end of the cruise before we got acquainted with Jeff & Karen Seltzer, dedicated theatre fans--and in Jeff something of an archivist after my own heart--they too, would figure later. If the world was opening up to me again it wasn't thru the cinema or theater. Rock of Ages doesn't satisfy as either a Bway or film  musical, nor did it draw fans of these bands in large numbers. But there will be no end of rock music and musicians featured on Bway, some misguided fast flops, some immensely successful.

Report CardRock of Ages
Overall Film:  C+
Bway Fidelity:  B
Songs from Bway:  19
Songs Cut from Bway:  11
Additional Songs: 5
Standout Numbers: "Don't Stop Believin'"
               "Can't Fight This Feeling"
Casting: Starry for something so trashy
Standout Cast: Hough, Boneta, Brand
Sourthumb Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: Crisp, lively, worthy of better material
Choreography:  Strictly MTV
Scenic Design: Florida for Hollywood
Costumes: Rock 101
Titles: Over opening numbers
Oscar noms: None

Sunday, November 26, 2017


December 18, 2009,  Weinstein   118 minutes

I was nine years old thru all but three weeks of 1962, which as I've already noted was and always will be "my favorite year." The growth of consciousness I spurted then was awash in all the cultural signifers, from design to music to film and TV, and that magical playground they called Broadway. Was it simply a factor of my awakening that everything then looked so stylish & modern? Would I have felt the same if I awoke in 1971? or 1985? Perhaps, but I would rather doubt it. Except for maybe that scuffle over Cuba, 1962 was real swell. And so, too, was being nine years old, living in a five-year-old house in a virgin suburb of Southern California; and seeing for the first time both San Francisco and Palm Springs.

Among other things that happened in 1962, the Italian film director, Federico Fellini--coming off his peak international success: the scandalous and unavoidable La Dolce Vita--wrestled with his next picture, which became the brilliant, epic, and exceptionally cinematic reflection of the artist's eternal struggle with creation: Eight and a Half; the highest peak in Fellini's career and one of the undisputed classics of world cinema. 
                            And a most unlikely prospect for a musical.
The film had its own indelible soundtrack by Nino Rota--with snippets drawn from all over (including one of the most seductive uses of Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon" ever put on film). Rota, was of course Fellini's house tunesmith, and their collaborations are a match made in heaven. Tho Rota's music is unique, he doesn't write "songs"--there aren't lyrics to any of his familiar melodies--he's a classicist with modernist inclinations, and yet tho brimming with music, no one would call 81/2 a musical. It was gutsy to think it could be one.

And that was Maury Yeston. Who, like me, got religion at age ten seeing My Fair Lady (tho he saw it on Bway). Factor in his first composed musical as a new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (my own childhood favorite), and then the audacity of making one of 81/2---this is my kind of guy. (It helps that he writes beautiful melody that doesn't sound like anyone else's, and in particular I mean The Measure of the Age: Sondheim.) Yeston, who has certainly had his share of success, following Nine on Bway with Grand Hotel and the unlikely but brilliant Titanic, has also had some frustrating roadblocks. He had written a Phantom (of the opera) musical just prior to Lloyd-Webber's behemouth, which pretty much cramped his far superior version. Earlier still, Yeston was on board to score the first incarnation of La Cage aux Folles--a re-set in New Orleans to be called The Queen of Basin St. Sounds fun, yes? Not that one can regret Jerry Herman's Riviera-on-the-Hudson swan song. And yet. . . Yeston's music has depth and color, and tho he's twice won Tonys for Best Musical, he's not truly earned the recognition & clamour he deserves--which is no less than that accorded Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber. It was Yeston's audacity to attempt his first major work with the BMI Workshop on such a complex phantasmagoria as 81/2.

Fellini (as a source) was no stranger to Bway, having been musicalized twice before 1970--and entirely divorced from the mark of Nino Rota. His Nights of Cabiria turned into Sweet Charity (a great success), and La Strada as. . . well, La Strada--a four performance flop from Lionel Bart in 1969 (starring a very young Bernadette Peters and Larry Kert). But 81/2  was sui generis--a surrealistic cavalcade of images, a rambling stroll thru one (very un-common) man's crisis of the soul, that was simply breathless in its scope and ambition. It was  instantly among my favorite films when first I caught up with it in 1981; so I could well understand Maury Yeston's obsession--which scarcely a year later was on Bway. The story of Nine's long gestation process (from 1973) is in itself quite fascinating--the evolution from mixed cast to all-women (& Guido), the addition of new numbers right thru, and inspired by, the rehearsal process. The under-the-radar surprise critical smash, the last minute steal of the Tony from Dreamgirls. The sainthood, without further doubt, of Tommy Tune. It would make a good story on its own--a real Broadway story.

None of the women were really stars. Karen Akers a rising local chanteuse, Anita Morris, Shelly Burch, Laura Kenyon (the darling of Ben Bagley recordings) Taina Elg (one-time MGM third-liner) and Liliane Montevecchi--imported from somewhere French, maybe Canada. Each worthy a "star" moment, but further incarnations cast it more "worthy" of the title: Laura Benanti, Jane Krakowski, Mary Stuart Masterson and Chita Rivera in the 2003 Bway revival, or Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson and Sophia Loren in the equally unlikely prospect that came to be: a 2009 film, directed by Rob Marshall, the man credited for reviving the movie musical with Chicago--but who hadn't come much further along that line since.

Of course at the center of this estrogen circus is Guido--a man so necessarily charming he had to be built around Marcello Mastroianni. Wisely, Yeston kept the original film's Italian soul intact, instead of adapting it, say, to Los Angeles. The musical's Guido was the Puerto Rican Prince of Bway: Raul Julia--a man of smooth charm & seduction (a perfect Gomez Addams later), equal to his Italian precursor--and a lovely singer as well. The first revival 21 years later lured Spanish film star Antonio Banderas to the stage. For the screen, Rob Marshall found yet another enchanter, no less convincing even while lacking the requisite Latin genes. Daniel Day-Lewis in accent or affectation is never less than utterly mesmerizing, and for him Guido is no stretch --except, perhaps, vocally. He's not a singer, but he manages to croak out the abundant lyrics to good effect. Daniel first came to my attention in 1986 with such vivid takes on such widely divergent roles in My Beautiful Launderette and A Room with a View. His chameleonic abilities allow him an incredible variety of characters, all played with his underlying aquiline touch: My Left Foot, The Last of the Mohicans, The Age of Innocence, The Crucible, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Lincoln; it's an astonishing resume, (yielding 3 Oscars from 21 movies) concise yet broad in range and high in quality. At age 60 with Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread  in the can, Daniel Day-Lewis claims he's retired from film. Apparently he really enjoys being a cobbler--acting just gets in the way.

Yeston's score was so instantly commanding that I'm sure I internalized it before seeing the show on Bway in October '82--four months after its surprise Tony win. I'd bought two orchestra seats far in advance, and on the appointed evening brought a NY friend to the 46th St. Theater (now the Richard Rodgers) where I'd had many an enchanted evening in years past, only to find at Will Call that my tickets were for the previous night! With the show sold out I was stunned into such visible shock that an angel stepped out of the ether and literally handed me two extra orchestra tix, entirely gratis. Thus, it was meant to be. The show was so fresh and melodic that I was back to see it scarcely two months later with TC in NY to celebrate my 30th birthday. (The album later became a staple of Sunday mornings for TC.) On Bway Nine utilized a single unit set, white tile boxes and columns evoking a Venetian spa; and its stageful of women, all in black & white costumes--a Neapolitan Ascot. It was a brilliant concept by stager Tommy Tune. But even more so was Yeston's smart adaptability translating Fellini's epic surrealism into a compact space without sacrificing the scope. Or simply put: cinema into theater.  It  was  a  gutsy  gamble that paid off. But to then make a film of Nine, is to be changing it back, now with inevitable comparison to Fellini's original--even while laden with extra baggage of its own.

Rob Marshall has stated his problem with film musicals: he needs justification for the singing. Which to me seems like an apology instead. Music and singing--much of it coming out of left field--has been in movies from the introduction of sound. I don't buy the argument that contemporary audiences (raised on MTV and YouTube) don't "get it." We all accept the most outrageous of alien or superhero scenarios. Yet Marshall needs to rationalize musical numbers by framing them as fantasy--all in the mind of the leading character (as if anyone slips into a vaudeville number to escape reality.) That was his big epiphany in restructuring Chicago for the screen--a narrative which worked there, so why not here? Well, for one thing it means a good share of Yeston's score must be sacrified, and Arthur Kopit's libretto must be rewritten, changing entire sequences and characters. Aside from cutting no less than (stupidly ironic) nine numbers (including the title song) adding two (which are at least by Yeston); the screenplay--begun by Anthony Minghella of The English Patient & Talented Mr. Ripley (who died midway) and finished by Michael Tolkin of The Player--then omits the show's central fantasy section: Guido's run with Carla's inspiration: Casanova in Venice, and the mini-musical that is "The Grand Canal." The film's Guido remains clueless to his imminent project thruout, even adding a "2 Years Later" coda to wrap the story up, where it never had to go before. Another casualty is Guido's French producer, Liliane LaFleur (on the not entirely unreasonable argument that European film producers  are rarely women); replacing her with British costumer and substitute Mommy (still called Lilli--and tailored to Judi Dench) as Guido's one true confidante. Film critic Stephanie Necrophorus is now an American correspondent from Vogue. And whereas the musical maintained a symmetry with its title focussing on nine women in Guido's life, the film drops two entirely: a columnist, Lina Darling, and a nun from his childhood, Mama Maddelena. In the end, Nine is one of the more bowdlerized Bway musicals to hit the screen since the 1960s.

Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas were both in serious contention for Guido, until Daniel Day-Lewis sent the produers a self-made audition tape. And even knowing how British he is, we are entirely seduced and convinced by his Italian mastery. Marshall claims Sophia Loren was the first woman cast, having told her he wouldn't make the film without her. As the only Italian among the principals, she holds the spiritual center of what became an smorgasbord of casting from across the continent and beyond. A wide range of Hlwd's top actresses came in and auditioned for various roles. A Spaniard, Penelope Cruz, was considered for Luisa and Claudia before finding her way to Carla. (And earning the sole Oscar nom within the cast). For Lilli (originally French) they brought in Marion Cotillard, who landed Luisa instead. So Lilli jumped the channel to let Judi Dench put her British stamp on it. Kate Hudson was given a newly invented fashion journalist role with a sycophantic, slightly silly production number that evokes the era of Hullaballo and her own mom, Goldie Hawn. A more unusual choice was American pop-singer Fergie for the earth-mother-whore Saraghina. Marshall first cast Chicago's Velma, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Guido's muse, Claudia--but upgraded to Nicole Kidman, whose statuesque beauty and '60s styling evokes Anita Ekberg. So now Claudia is a Swedish siren played by an Australian actress. Each and every one would do their own singing.
Onstage Nine assumed a contemporary ('80s) time frame. The movie sends it back to 1965, allowing for more direct reference to Fellini and the Italian style of the period--which has some logic to it. Marshall begins with Guido in mid-interview; "You kill your film several times," are his first words--hopefully not an excuse for what's the come. But shortly we are on a Cinecitta soundstage where, alone, Guido conjures a parade of the women in his life (past & present) on the half-built set of his next movie (Italia--big title, with no concept.) There are shades of Follies here; an exciting opening with stirring music (using the show's choral overture) giving each character a true star entrance. It's quite theatrical but works well cinematically. Marshall brings most of the numbers back to this set, whether they start there or not--narratively anchoring Guido's imagination. This made more sense for Roxie in Chicago because her dream was starring in Vaudeville. But there's no mention that Guido is making a movie musical--why would ruminations on his life and film come out as musical fantasies? Escaping the pressures of his production crew and a press conference, he slips into "Guido's Song" as a form of mental escape. It's a great "wanting" song--filled with conflicts and ego; and has one of Maury Yeston's very best lyrics:
     I want to be Proust
     Or the Marquis de Sade    
     I want to be Christ, Mohammed, Buddha   
     But not have to believe in God

The pic has him athletically bouncing around the studio set, intercut with his escape from Rome (in a vintage Alfa Romeo taking sharp turns with stunning views of the Forum and Amalfi Coast). The song's coda adds a cathedral of women gyrating, but the editing is sloppy, haphazard; a missed opportunity for the sort of breathless excitement the music commands. With the entire concept of "Grand Canal" discarded, Venice is replaced by Anzio (south of Rome on Italy's west coast)--and the spa (in both show and 81/2) is now a hotel--the very one that figures prominently in Fellini's Amacord. So the film loses "The Germans at the Spa," a wonderful choral number, which even in the show is actually extraneous--no Germans figure later in the show. And tho so much of the score is cut, at least the extended scenes are well written--much as they are in 81/2.

On stage Anita Morris made "A Call from the Vatican," while rolling around in a see-thru body suit; Penelope Cruz gets a full-blown Burlesque number on silk bannister and ropes. This is one song I've never cared for in any incarnation--it's just a bump & grind, and tho it seems to stimulate that cliched tired businessman, it does nothing for me. I'd like to think it's Cruz's scene work that earned her Oscar attention beyond this vampy number. Judi Dench gets some nice scene work too, and I suppose it isn't too much of a stretch to believe a Brit learned her trade sewing costumes at the Folies Bergeres. Her musical-hall performance reminds those who forgot (or never knew) that Dench was the original Sally Bowles in London; and later played Desiree Armfeldt as well. Facile bromides ("Try harder") from a cardinal sends Guido down memory lane (in black & white) to his nine-year-old self, seeking the whore Saraghina on the beach to teach him life lessons. But "Be Italian" quickly segues back to color and the soundstage set, now covered in 40 tons of sand, and Fergie on bistro chair--joined by an army of whores, kicking sand up in their tambourines. It's a

rousing number--the show's signature of sorts--and Fergie sings it well indeed, but aside from the fact that she's just too young (she looks like she just stepped out of high school) there's just nothing inherently believable about her as an Italian. Her Anglo-Irish-American looks work against the song she's singing. Couldn't they at least have died her hair black? On Bway and in Fellini, Saraghina was more corpulent and weathered--a bit of a hag. Perhaps if Kathy Bates sang. . .

Luisa arrives at a working dinner, and fades into her own reverie ("My Husband Makes Movies") tho it isn't clear if this is her vision or Guido's: imagining her viewpoint in song--the strain of Marshall's concept showing. (There was no such ambiguity in the musical, where this was her response to a question at a press conference.) Marion Cotillard sings it well, without fancy trappings--tho again we have drifted to the soundstage set. Carla's arrival sets tempers aflame, and in retreat Guido gets picked up at the bar by American fashion scribe Kate Hudson cueing a song revering, even fetishizing "style"--with no substance. I don't know what go-go dancers in Swarovski crystals has to do with  "Cinema   Italiano"---but  the  wind-blown,  sped-up 
catwalk choreography is a welcome uptick in energy at the mid-point. Surely one can't argue against Sophia Loren as (everyone's) idea of Italian motherhood. But wouldn't Guido recall a much younger mama than the 74 year-old we have here? Loren had put a few songs over in her 20s Hlwd years ("It Started in Naples," "Houseboat") so her own number was required here: an instrumental waltz from the show was given new lyrics by Yeston; "Guarda la luna"--essentially a lullaby set by Marshall in a neverland of candles. I wish I could say its impact met its intentions.

Mention should be made of the occasional use of ghosts--summoned by Guido's fancy: Mama riding in his Alfa Romeo; A wench stroking a cardinal while he's damning sex; Claudia watching Guido forge an autograph & kiss on her photo, while laying in her lap. Claudia appears only in his imagination until well into the second hour, arriving at last for costume fittings and begging for a script. In her first musical since Moulin Rouge Nicole Kidman gets the exquisite ballad "Unusual Way"--which is beautifully set on a  late  night  walk  thru  deserted  Roman  streets  (a direct 
steal from La Dolce Vita--there's a fountain, too, but her somber mood precludes wading in it--ala Ekberg). The song begins seamlessly on real cobblestone locations, but Marshall is constrained by his on-going concept; thus bringing a fountain to the soundstage set, before concluding back in front a real one in Rome. More invented scenes lead to Luisa's final straw, and we have again a confusion of perspective (hers or his?) in another burlesque bit; a new one "Take it All" (inexplicably nominated for an Oscar); a striptease with metaphoric pretensions--giving Cotillard, alone among all the women, a second number. With this final collapse Guido agonizes thru his final song, "I Can't Make this Movie" with one beautiful image, tearing down a sheet projecting film images. The story cuts to two years later, Guido walking with Lilli in a grey seaside village. She suggests he go back to work; he claims the only story he could write would be about a man trying to win back his wife (i.e. himself)--and of course, that's the spark. Where Fellini left off with a bubbly circus parade invading his outdoor Sci-Fi set, Marshall brings Guido back to Cinecitta shooting an intimate scene, while his armada of past women (and men) enter from above, as if in curtain call-- to a jaunty instrumental of "Be Italian"--to take their place behind him. He's joined lastly by his nine-year old self (who, I've not yet mentioned is adorable) who climbs on his knee on the camera crane as it lifts into the sky; as the music fades his final word is. . . Action. It's beautiful--just the right bit of softness, yet packing an emotional wallop.

Nine premiered in LA on December 8, and a week later in NY. I was fortunate to see it in the fabulous George Lucas ILM theater in SF on the 15th, prior to its main release on Xmas Day. The movie grossed a paltry $19 million domestic and only $54 million worldwide, falling far short of its $80 million budget. Tho hopes were high that Marshall would pull another Chicago out of his bag of tricks, the outcome can't be considered surprising. Tho catnip to some (and count me among them), ultimately who cares about the problems of an exalted Italian film director? One place the film falls short is in bringing out the full connection and resonance of 9-year-old Guido, with the 50 year-old. Yes, there are a few such moments; luring Saraghina from her beach hut; being caned by the priests, and that final joining on the camera crane. But his songs, "Getting Tall" and "The Bells of St. Sebastain" are missing--not to mention the title tune sung to him by Mama--giving weaker meaning to the title: Nine.

I was having my own reach back to the age of 9 that year (2009), reacquainting myself with the desert eden I first laid eyes on at that age in 1962. Since moving away from LA I hadn't been out to my hedonistic paradise, but with frequent trips to LA to see friends and theater, I began to include this detour in February. With renewed intention to retire there one day I was lured by Open House signs to casually check out the real estate market. Almost implausibly, I fell in love with the second house I saw; and loitering in it at length gave me the acquaintance of a realtor, Dave Stukas, who would become something of a friend. Dave wrote comic gay mysteries on the side, and had the same love for mid-century modern desert architecture.
Six years after my father's suicide, my mother, who wanted nothing more than to join him was still inexplicably clinging to life despite having shrunk to skin and bones, increasing dementia, conjestive heart failure and massive doses of morphine. On July 31st she finally gave up the ghost--quite literally as I later discovered from her Ukranian care-taker, Svetlana--as her struggle to let go was in battle with a dybbuk that apparently had possessed her for some time--which went a long way in explaining her behavior during those last years--short-tempered, unpleasant, ironically obsessed with "identity theft"--so unlike the Mother I once knew. 88 and long reclusive, there was no need of a funeral or burial; and for the second time The Neptune Society got my business. I had not an ounce of sorrow for the occasion, only relief. As it happened, I had a long-planned vacation scheduled the following week, which was the perfect release from all the concomitant stress. From San Francisco I drove first to Ashland, Oregon to see dear friends Lisa Loomer & Joe Romano, now relocated from LA, then on to Portland and Seattle where I was to meet up with Larry (flown in from LA) for us to catch the pre-Bway tryout of Catch Me If You Can--a thoroughly delightful show (ironically about identity theft!) I suppose there's some karma in my finding solace in a musical--much as I had built my own perfect world in my childhood bedroom, in protection from whatever horrific, war-torn secrets these people who conceived, birthed & raised me, deliberately and fatally kept from me. Yet I should thank them for allowing me to find my own kind of bliss.

It certainly wasn't in San Jose. Having never lived in that house myself, I had no reason whatsoever to hang on to Mother's haunted manse (still crusted in steel bars from my father's paranoia)--even as a rental property. Better instead to invest in my own future in Palm Springs. In November Dave had another Open House in a neighborhood I hadn't yet considered, and I had to admit this was the one. 5 lesbians had gone bankrupt keeping it up as a golf weekend getaway, and were losing it in a short sale. I had yet to sell Mother's house, but I clung to hope that no one else would snap up my PS dream in the meantime. One way or another I was going to find my way back to this desert paradise that first seduced & enchanted me when I was--but of course--nine.

Report CardNine
Overall Film:  B
Bway Fidelity:  C
Songs from Bway:  8
Songs Cut from Bway:  9
Worst Omissions: "Nine" "The Grand Canal"
New Songs: 2 1/2: "Cinema Italiano"; "Take it All";  
      "Guarda la Luna" (lyric added to Bway "Waltz")
Standout Numbers: "Overture" "Be Italian"
Worst Addition: "Take it All"
Casting: Starry, International
Standout Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis
Sourthumb Cast: Fergie
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction:  Lively, peripatetic
Choreography: More staging than dancing
Scenic Design: One unit set on soundstage
Standout Location: Anzio
Costumes: Slinky, swanky, Oscar worthy
Titles: End titles over numerous film clips
Oscar noms: 4: Penelope Cruz,
               Art Direction, Costumes,
              Song: "Take it All" (Yeston)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Mamma Mia!

July 16, 2008,  Universal   108 minutes

I was struck by a comment from the Irish-American author, J.P. Donleavy who just died at age 91 that “Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money.” My problem is that I can't seem to do that. I prefer my writing to take me away from my worst moments, not quarry them for mental therapy or literary revenge--let alone money. Sure, I'd love to quantify my musings into currency (any takers?) but really I'm compelled more by love to note this sentimental education, while I still have the memory to do so. For lately it seems to be slipping. At least for latter day events--fewer of which seem important, or hold any fissure of impact or excitement. And that is as good a place as any to start with Mamma Mia!  As with more than a few latter day Bway musicals--and biggest hits--here's another one I couldn't get much interested in.

If Zorba's Greeks were depressing to Ethan Mordden for pretending to be life-affirming while embracing an amoral nihilism, Mamma Mia! could be seen as a corrective on steroids. Every moment with these "Greeks" bursts with life-affirming intentions. Yet all of these main characters are anything but Greek. Only the chorus--a literal Greek Chorus natch-- lends any native flavor beyond the scenery, which is that added element Bway couldn't supply to make this jukebox musical a Hlwd blockbuster. It was no slouch on Bway either, running over 5,000 performances over 14 years. The original West End production first starting partying like it was 1999. It was. And from there the show moved across the planet like a virus, such was the pop contagion that was a Swedish band called ABBA--a moniker formed of the first name initials of its quartet (they could as easily have been BABA.); two married couples, no less, inevitably headed for divorce. Winners of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest the group captured numerous foreign markets, but not quite so rapidly in America. At that time my take on their glam-pop sound was the definition of Eurotrash, as dismissable as disco; and equally surprising in its durability, which is what Mamma Mia! not simply proves, but fairly flaunts. A Greatest Hits album laid on an innocuous past-catches-up-with-present story, set in a Greek inn. Purists may scoff but who can argue its commercial success?

Mamma Mia! was the brain-child of British producer, Judy Craymer, whose idea of setting ABBA's pop hits to a narrative story was initially met with skepticism by its own authors, Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus. Nonetheless British playwright Catherine Johnson was engaged, and a story was laid out--one that drew comparisons with a '68 Melvin Frank Hlwd comedy, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. (Three Americans return to an Italian village where their one-time wartime romance--with Lollabrigida--yielded a child. But whose?) MM inverts this so that none of its male trio are aware of a child--who is the one inviting them back to determine her parentage. In time Andersson & Ulvaeus succumbed to the show's creation--tho no new material was offered. By then the duo had embarked on their own forays into legit theater with Chess, and a Swedish language epic, Kristina. Putting it all together was stage director Phyllida Lloyd--completing the triumvirate of 40s Brit birds (all born within weeks of each other), making this a rare femme-centric production from the top down. A prolific stage director, Phyllida wasn't an obvious choice for film director, Still, if Julie Taymor could prove her talents translated to film, why not Lloyd? And as it happens, she does a surprisingly fluid and cinematic job--especially considering how static the stage show had to be. The movie soaks in the Greek Isle milieu, much as The Sound of Music gave us Salzburg as porn. I could see similarites between the two pics in their pride of place and contagiously crossover songs--qualities which helped make each the highest grossing movie musical of their time.

Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do? I'm convinced she could transform herself into Hattie McDaniel, should she so desire. Just as Julie Andrews was that unquantifiable X-tra that sold The Sound of Music; Streep's contribution here is incalculable. Aside from making each moment on screen count for something, who knew she could sing? Well, some of us did--she had her climatic moment in Postcards from the Edge, and there was some pseudo-musical comedy in Death Becomes Her, but she tears into the songs here, convincing you she really was head of pop group back in the day. She has quite a few numbers as well, and they range in moods and styles. Her vanity & indulgence in "Money, Money, Money" is hilarious.; she's a pied piper thru "Dancing Queen," a heart-sick belter in "SOS"; a sentimental mother lamenting with "Slipping Thru My Fingers"--and managing to keep it maudlin-free. And then topping it all with her eleven o'clock number: "Winner Takes it All" making it an entire master class of acting. She isn't just Donna Sheridan, she's Medea reading Jason the riot act. She sells the hell out of it--and her vocal stands up to any classic Bway turn.

Of her former band-mates (The Dynamos), I find Christine Baranski the more believable and enjoyable to watch. She gets her own production number with "Does Your Mother Know?" Julie Walters seems a bit too frumpy, and I find myself constantly wishing it were Tracey Ullman, who would have brought a bit more sparkle to the part (as well as recalling the great chemistry she had with Streep in Plenty.) The 3 potential fathers are a former James Bond, Pierce Bronson; Bridget Jones's crush, Colin Firth; and Stellan Skarsgard, a Swede (changed from the play's Australian.) Perhaps these are a middle-aged woman's fantasy trio--they're not mine. In truth none of their characters are interesting, even with  Firth "coming out" by the end, flirting with a hirsute Greek (which is redundant I suppose). The script doesn't help them out by making the guys too slow on the uptick--wouldn't Sophie's age immediately suggest their potential parentage?--particularly paired with an invitation to her wedding? Duh. 
But Amanda Seyfried scans well against Meryl, her singing as laudable and their familial resemblance uncanny. Her boy-toy groom-to-be, Dominic Cooper provides eye candy with his half-naked, sun-tanned bod. And a deep-black British kickboxer with electro-shock hair and a killer smile, Philip Michael, pops up from time to time as a strangely ardent suitor of Christine Baranski. Not a bad group of people to spend a couple of hours with.

Universal released the film in July, boosting it to a global take over $600 million, the 5th highest grossing film of 2008 (in which it must be noted the rest of the top ten were either superhero, animated or action flicks.) Here was a real throwback, a musical! And yet despite my respect & love for Andersson & Ulvaeus' Chess, a score stiched from ABBA pop hits had no purchase on my interest, which kept me from seeing the movie until December. With mild surprise, I liked it more than expected, but apparently not enuf to see it again until now. Nor did it awaken any new desire to see the show on stage--where it remained lodged in the Winter Garden for another seven years after the film's release!

That summer I returned to NY for the first time in 3 years, and found to my dismay an unfamiliar antagonist: oppressive humidity--which consequently impacted my heavily scheduled week of theatregoing far too much. 9 shows in 8 days: Young Frankenstein, The Country Girl, Mary Poppins, August: Osage County, Gypsy (with Patti Lupone), Spring Awakening--none of which resonated like they promised. Hairspray (then in its last year; with Bruce Villanch) proved the single true highlight--even tho I arrived late, on the run the final 12 blocks, hyper-ventilating and sweating into the Siberian air-conditioning.  I was sure  I  was  having  a  heart attack  the 
next night, thru In the Heights--a false alarm that didn't fully abate thru my final hoped-for enchanted evening: Bartlett Sher's South Pacific--one supposedly for the ages, but not, alas, for me in my frazzled state. Had it come to this? Was I over New York? Had I become my father?

More enjoyable trips were made to LA and Vegas. Larry & I took a train to San Diego to see the Bway-hopeful adaptation of MGM's Bandwagon musical (retitled Dancing in the Dark) which (deservedly) went no further. 9 to 5 trying out at the Ahmanson did get to Bway--another unecessary movie-turned-musical, with an uninspired score. Closer to home, I trekked to Mt. View to see a well-done Grey Gardens, albeit lacking Christine Ebersole's indelible mark; and in SF: The Drowsy Chaperone on national tour--cute, but thin. And tho I no longer frequented  the  resurrections at  42nd St.  Moon,  curiosity 
compelled me to see Rick Besoyan's Bway flop following Little Mary Sunshine: The Student Gypsy. And also their postage-stamp version of Coco--as I had first suggested this to Andrea Marcovicci when she came to do On a Clear Day. I was right; she was perfect for the role and sang it miles above Katharine Hepburn--tho without much of a production the show is a wash.

As I noted at the time, 2008 was a mixture of hope & suffocation--an anxious year. A tense constipated sense of world affairs at the collapse of the Bush term reflected my own creative stassis at the time. For once I wasn't capable of anything but watching the fate of the world unfold. With Greg still healing (at great expense), and Mother still hanging on (ever more erratic) was it any wonder I started having panic attacks, which Kaiser readily medicated. Effective as these drugs were I didn't particularly enjoy them enuf to develop an addiction. But one doesn't need new addictions with the cable universe. TV was well enuf to fill any void; particularly when the quality was on the epic level of Mad Men or Pushing Daisies--among dozens of others. A few theatrical films made lasting impact: Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood were the comedy & drama of the year, but the musical was Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Another jukebox tuner (using the Beatles catalog) the film, alas, is egregiously underrated--one of the best original musicals in many years. One more must be mentioned for merely one scene: the last. After a series of adventures getting to the sea, Mr. Bean's Holiday ends with Bean finding a open door, and at last, sight of the Riviera. Filming with his camera, Bean steps out onto a roof, and Magoo-like descends an unlikely but magical staircase that forms from street traffic and other objects placed in his path, carrying him down to the beach; scored to Charles Trenet's "La Mer." (The French pop tune that became "Beyond the Sea" in America) By the time the film's cast is lipsynching to the full-bodied chorus I am happily brought to tears. (It's easily found on Youtube). Rahadlakum like this is precious gold. It fills me with hope.

There was an enormous infusion of hope that November when after a closely watched year, the Man I backed (who had me at hello) made the most remarkable, unprecedented ascent to the presidency. Not since JFK had there been such a sense of new energy, style and common sense, and I had a new hero: Obama. But the pendulum swings, and now that it's swung to the point of idiocy; nuclear trash-talking, public snipers and a parade of natural catastrophes (hurricanes in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico; fires in California), the state of the world is very depressing. Over this time I watched Mamma Mia! five times; it's songs rattled my brain nonstop for weeks (they are the fiercest earworms). In the end, for me the surprise of Mamma Mia! was that its value is essential and clear. Something silly, tuneful and lovely to look at becomes a comforting balm in hard times. Apparently that isn't lost upon the film's creatives: an original film sequel is now on the way: Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again.

Up next: Nine

Report CardMamma Mia!
Overall Film:  B+
Bway Fidelity:  B+
Songs from Bway:  17
Songs Cut from Bway: 5
New Songs: 1 "When All Is Said & Done"
Standout Numbers: "Money, Money, Money"
               "Mamma Mia" "Dancing Queen"
Casting:  Starry but successful
Standout Cast:  Meryl, Amanda, Baranski
Cast from Bway:  None
Direction: Surprisingly sprightly, fluid
Choreography: Some
Scenic Design:  Exquisite Pinewood sets
               Travel porn location scenes
Costumes: Some
Titles: Over Donna & the Dynamos 
     performing, joined by the b.f. trio
     all in ABBA couture
Oscar noms: None