Category: Musical

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (UK-US 2018)

1979 – Donna (Lily James, centre), Rosie (Alexa Davies, right) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn, left) photos courtesy Universal

It was the Friday of the second week of Mamma Mia 2 and our local cinema had to shift the screening upstairs to its 95 seat cinema since it was opening the latest Mission Impossible movie in Screen 1. I suggested we went early to get a good seat. I was proved right as the audience arrived en masse before even the ads started. There were a handful of older men in the audience, otherwise it was entirely female ranging from around 10 years-old to 80 plus. Usually when the ads play, they are loud and audiences speak quietly to each other. On this occasion I couldn’t hear the ads at all – the chatter, shrieks and laughter in anticipation of the film drowned out all the sound from the screen. When the ‘Intermission’ sign went up after the trailers I did wonder if there would be a riot at the prospect of waiting a further 10 minutes for the film to start. But the audience just chatted on and the projectionist seemingly found a way to start the feature earlier than usual. The audience quietened immediately and behaved impeccably (laughing, groaning and cheering appropriately) from then on.

I mention all this because professional film reviewers seldom see films with audiences and it certainly affects a reading when audience participation is part of the show. I should declare my own snobbery here. If I’d remembered that Richard Curtis was involved with the storyline of the film, I might have avoided it altogether. But I forgot and therefore enjoyed the experience like everyone else.

Donna leads a break-out from her graduation ceremony

Following on from Mamma Mia! (2008), the sequel is in many ways actually a prequel. Amanda Seyfried as Sophie is ten years into her marriage. She’s pregnant but her husband is now in New York learning more about the hotel business. She plans a re-opening of the ‘bijou’ hotel she inherited from her mother Donna and invites all the characters from the first film to the opening. But this is also a time of introspection and the first of many flashbacks introduces Lily James as Donna back in 1979 graduating from university and heading to the Greek Islands. The narrative then moves backwards and forwards in time towards a finale when all the characters are together. The distributors tease the audience with expectations that both Meryl Streep and Cher are in the film. The former has some brief moments and the latter a little bit longer and the chance to sing ‘Fernando’ with a barely recognisable (by me, anyway!) Andy Garcia.

Back to the present. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) with Christine Baranski as Tanya (left) and Julie Walters as Rosie (right)

What to make of this $75 million ‘juke-box’ musical? Well, you can’t go wrong with Adriatic sunshine (Vis, Croatia), Abba songs and some excellent troupers. There is one moment of comedy genius from Julie Walters, Cher is worth her one song and the new younger cast members have plenty of energy. I felt a bit sorry for Amanda Seyfried who I think is up-staged by Lily James (who gets the better songs/production numbers). I remember being impressed by Ms James in The Darkest Hour in a very different role. Overall, however, I don’t think the narrative holds much interest and I couldn’t detect any sub-text. It also doesn’t make much sense. If Sophie was conceived in 1979 she would have been nearly 30 when she married in 2008 and nearly 40 now – or is this film set in 2009? It is indeed a juke-box musical. You pays your money and you get the songs. I didn’t feel short-changed. As the golden age musicals had it ‘That’s Entertainment!’

I feel that this second film is a bit more bland than the first and possibly a bit slicker and more ‘Americanised’. It’s still essentially a British-Swedish production but presumably there is more American money behind it. (I note that Wikipedia calls the two films ‘American musicals’, which is a bit rich.) The second film has so far followed the first in making much more at the box-office outside North America compared to the Hollywood ‘domestic’ market. The director is Ol Parker, best-known for the ‘Marigold Hotel’ films and Catherine Johnson, the original writer of the stage musical is still involved. But what happened to the original director Phyllida Lloyd? Will the dilution of the Streep role harm the second film’s ‘legs’ at the box-office? We’ll see. I’m assuming that the first film’s audience skewed older and female.

Head Over Heels (UK 1937)

Jeanne (Jessie Matthews) in her dance mode in the nightclub gardens

In 1937 Jessie Matthews was one of the most popular stars in British cinema. Her musicals/romantic comedies had started to build a profile in North America where she was known as ‘The Dancing Divinity’. Stories persisted about a possible move to the US and a partnership with Fred Astaire. That possibility is one of the potential elements of this film directed by her husband Sonnie Hale. Hale had taken over directing his wife’s films from Victor Saville who had moved from Gaumont-British to work for Alexander Korda at Denham. Saville did go to Hollywood eventually.

Compared to their Hollywood equivalents, the musicals made at G-B’s Lime Grove studios in Shepherd’s Bush were low-budget affairs but didn’t lack creativity. Head Over Heels is designed by the great Alfred Junge and photographed by Glen MacWilliams, a Hollywood cinematographer who had already shot three previous Matthews movies. Head Over Heels is an adaptation of a French play, Pierre ou Jack, by Francis de Croisset whose plays Arsene Lupin and A Woman’s Face were adapted more than once and became Hollywood ‘A’ pictures.

The plot is quite simple. Jeanne Colbert (Jessie Matthews) is a nightclub entertainer in Paris and shopping in the market one day she meets Pierre (Robert Flemyng), a slightly eccentric character (who seems more English than French). Pierre is an inventor and earns a living as a sound engineer in a radio station. He falls immediately in love with Jeanne but doesn’t know how to woo her. When he visits the club where she sings and dances, he sees that she is quite taken with her partner Marcel (Louis Borell) and despairs. Marcel is a ‘cad’ who drops Jeanne when a Hollywood glamour queen Norma Langtry (Whitney Bourne) appears and invites him to America. Pierre sees his chance and eventually gets Jeanne a job in the radio studio but Marcel is destined to return and a struggle between the two men over Jeanne is inevitable.

Jeanne sings some advertising jingles thought up by Pierre in an attempt to persuade the radio station boss to hire her

Fanmail for ‘The Lady in Blue’ pours in – one of the images from ‘the radio montage’

The radio angle of the film is very interesting. During the 1930s radio was fast becoming the major medium of entertainment for the mass audience. In the UK it was a BBC monopoly and the Director-General John Reith had firm control over its broadcasting policy. Already in the 1930s many Brits turned to continental radio stations for popular music, including Radio Luxembourg which broadcast in English and featured sponsorship of programming like American radio. Pierre sells the idea of Jeanne as ‘The Woman in Blue’ to his radio bosses. She sings advertising jingles and becomes a star. The filmmakers present this in a montage of radio-related images which I found striking. Another interesting technique is the superimposition of Jeanne’s face over footage of Pierre’s hopeless trudging around the nighttime Paris streets in search of her after a break-up. Techniques like this inject some visual excitement into a film which is otherwise limited to three main locations – the nightclub, the radio studio and the dingy apartment Pierre shares with his friend Matty. The nightclub with its outdoor garden for performances is the setting for the dancing in the film, though there is less than in most musicals. There are a number of notable songs by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, the best of which is ‘There’s That Look in Your Eyes Again’. All the songs are sung by Ms Matthews.

Pierre searches for Jeanne in this expressionistic sequence

If you’ve never seen Jessie Matthews before, you may be surprised by her cut-glass accent which now sounds way over the top. The irony is that Jessie was a working-class girl from Berwick Street, famous for its fruit and veg market in Soho. She was the seventh of eleven children and a genuine Cockney who felt compelled to change her accent dramatically to suit the middle-class voices of 1930s British stage and cinema screen. Her forced identity shift is the mirror opposite of the middle-class young women who had to find voices to play working-class girls. Why did she do it? Possibly because she was headed for the London stage while her musical rival (as a singer only) Gracie Fields didn’t suffer from keeping her Lancashire accent.

Confrontation at the radio station when Jeanne objects to Marcel and Norma Langtry singing the song that originally belonged to Jeanne and Marcel

In this film the focus is on Jessie as actor and singer and she accomplishes both well. Her Jeanne is a rounded figure, assertive and assured but also vulnerable. But she certainly isn’t prepared to put up with nonsense and her fightback in the too brief final reel is very enjoyable. Part of Jeanne’s trouble is that by breaking her contract (because of the action of Marcel) on two occasions she is barred from working in Paris for three months each time which seems a heavy penalty. All film actors were treated badly by studios and impresarios but independent women seemed to suffer more than most.

Jeanne at the radio mike in typical enthusiastic and engaged mode

It’s a long time since I read a biography of Ms Matthews but her marriage to the comedian Sonnie Hale was difficult and at this stage of her career she began to experience stress and various problems that would affect her career. Hale pressurised her and she wasn’t convinced of his directorial qualities. Some of the ideas discussed above may have come from the experienced crew rather than Hale. I must do some more research before any other Matthews posts. Head Over Heels is on Volume 3 of The Jessie Matthews Revue DVD from Network.

In the clip below Jeanne sings “Head Over Heels’ in her act until she sees her partner Marcel betraying her with the Hollywood star.

Victor/Victoria (US 1982)

Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.

The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.

In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook.  This original version is

a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).

But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).

There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.

Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).

Bells Are Ringing (US 1960)

Dean Martin and Judy Holliday

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

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

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

Ella at her switchboard in attempted disguise when Jeffery calls

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

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

Gangsters and the police descend on the answering service

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

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

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

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

chiraqweb3

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

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

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

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

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sing Street (Eire-US-UK 2016)

sing-street

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Five Years (US 2014)

Last5yrsposter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the UK trailer.

Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013)

Sunshine on Leith is a “jukebox musical” (a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score) based on the songs of The Proclaimers (Craig and Charlie Reid who do a Hitchcockian-style walk-on early in the film). As a sub-genre the jukebox musical has been around for a long time and has produced some pretty mixed results. Often, I feel, the filmmakers try to squeeze too many numbers into the allotted time or else the narrative is shaped crudely to the demands of the best-known songs. Both dangers were largely avoided in Sunshine on Leith and, while I have a few quibbles (see below), I enjoyed the film very much.

Spoilers– but no more than in the UK Trailer (see below)

The film was based on a 2007 stage play by Stephen Greenhorn for the Dundee Rep which toured successfully throughout the UK. I saw it and, as far as I can remember, the film script, also by Stephen Greenhorn, sticks pretty closely to the original. The story is shaped around six characters (grouped into three couples). Davy (George McKay) and Ally  (Kevin Guthrie) are two squaddies making the difficult return to civilian life after a tour of duty in Afghanistan (where the film begins). Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Joan Horrocks) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They live in the eponymous Leith (the port area of Edinburgh) with their daughter Liz (Freya Mavor), a nurse who resumes her relationship with Ally when he comes back home.  She arranges a date with her brother and her best friend Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), a fellow nurse.  Ally does not have parents to go back to and his sister allows him (reluctantly) to share a bunk in the bedroom of her young son, Brendan (John Spencer).

At first, all three relationships seem to be going swimmingly but problems emerge. Rab learns that he has a daughter he didn’t know about, conceived in the early stages of his marriage to Jean with an ex-girlfriend, now deceased. Liz is fond of Ally but has ambitions to travel rather than settling down, while Ally is desperate to establish the family he never had as soon as possible. The problems all come to a head at the mid-point of the film at Rab and Jean’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration (held at Leith Dockers Social Club, a venue that will be familiar to readers of Irvine Welsh’s fiction). Jean discovers about Rab’s daughter. And Ally makes a cringe-making public proposal of marriage which doesn’t go down too well with Liz. The rest of the film is given over to resolving the problems of the three couples.

While the plot is hardly original, I thought it worked well as a whole – apart from the strand involving Davy and Yvonne which I felt was awkwardly contrived. For the sake of symmetry, their relationship had to be confronted with difficulties like the other two couples. Yvonne is given a backstory explaining how she ended up in Edinburgh. She was in a relation with a Scotsman who sounds as if he was from the ready-made stock of Scottish stereotypes, a boozer who could only talk about feelings when sufficiently inebriated. This sets in motion a doubt that the (ultra-sensitive) Davy could, despite appearances, be from the same stock. A fight breaks out at the anniversary party as someone makes a joke at Ally’s expense, Davy tries to stop it but ends up defending his pal and almost hits Yvonne by mistake, making her doubt his true nature. They get over this hurdle but it is when she questions his commitment to her, asking if he would leave Edinburgh with her if she had to go back to England. He is annoyed that he is being manipulated and he says he wouldn’t and she heads for the station for the London train. (London is, of course, about 500 miles – give or take – from Edinburgh so it’s one of the few occasions, when a song is “telegraphed”). On the plus side, it does pave the way for one of the most enjoyable sequences of the film.

Another aspect of this plot strand that I felt was weak was Davy’s reaction when, before the blind date with Yvonne, Ally tells him “this one’s different . . . She’s English”. “English!” he responds with a mixture of shock and disgust. This is played for laughs (see the trailer) but let’s try a little commutation test. Yvonne is played by a black woman and if we substitute “Black” for “English”, we get a very different tone. This is especially unfortunate as, while Craig and Charlie Reid (the Proclaimers) have long campaigned for independence (and many other causes), they are not known for their Anglo- (or any other) phobia. Being English, Yvonne is automatically referred to as “posh” and of course lives in the “select” district of Morningside. It’s all so passé. I don’t recall if these aspects come from the original stage production; if so, it should have been dropped from the film.

Any musical will live or die by the music and the performances of it. I’m more of a “greatest hits” person than a hardcore Proclaimers fan but I felt that the music worked very well, both as sung and as orchestrated on the instrumental sound track. The songs rarely feel crowbarred into the narrative bur arise naturally out of it. The film starts off strongly as a group of soldiers in an armoured personnel vehicle in Afghanistan do a visceral a capella version of “Sky Takes the Soul”, the music and the words fitting the scene perfectly:

It could be tomorrow or it could be today

When the sky takes the soul

The earth takes the clay

The scene ends in a roadside explosion which deprives one of the soldiers of his legs and another of his life.

Next, Ally and Davy arrive back home in Edinburgh (“I’m On My Way”). A double date at the pub showcases “Over and Done With”, a jaunty number I wasn’t familiar with (and which also serves as the background to the end credits). I felt “Let’s Get Married” was one of the weaker numbers but was given a raucous rendition in a pub with the Hibs-Hearts derby on TV in the background. One of the most familiar Proclaimers songs is “Letter From America”, a song linking the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century with the industrial sabotage by the Thatcher regime in the industrial heartlands of twentieth century Scotland. However, in the context of the film, it had a more personal approach with one of the characters considering emigration. (Despite the film’s contemporary setting, the song was, of course, written before the days of text, Skype and email).

Of course the performance of the songs is of paramount importance and there is the perennial problem of singer-who-can-act or actor-who-can sing. I thought Les Miserables was spoiled by too many of its leading roles going to non-singers (as well as the decision to record the singers as they were actually acting as opposed to playback) but Sunshine  on Leith works extremely well with the former. Sometimes (I’m thinking in particular of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You), non-singers who are good actors and can convey honest and simple emotion do the most effective renditions of songs and this is largely the case with Sunshine on Leith. (The exception is Antonia Thomas who plays Yvonne; she comes from a musical theatre background and has an excellent singing voice). Perhaps the biggest revelation was Peter Mullan who, with Jane Horrocks, was no doubt taken on to give the cast of largely unknowns extra acting heft. In his rendition of “Oh Jean” he growls his way through the song and convinces through sheer determination and he is ok in the ensemble pieces. I don’t really like Jane Horrocks as an actor. She oozes with tweeness, and overdoes the cute little comic “faces” she makes. However, her performance became stronger as the film becomes sadder and more serious and her rendition of “Sunshine on Leith” was quite excellent. It is a song we tend to associate with hordes of football fans on the Easter Road terraces but she invests it with a plaintive dignity.

This blog has occasionally referred to British actors in French films being given (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) or not (Charlotte Rampling) a narrative rationale for the fact that their (rather good) French accents are not exactly like a native speaker’s. Of the six central characters in Sunshine on Leith, three are played by English actors, although one plays an English character. (George McKay, despite his name, is a Londoner). So how are the accents of the two who are playing Scots? George McKay managed quite well and although his accent wasn’t Edinburgh working class but vaguely middle-class and non-geographically specific, it was at least as authentic as Ewan McGregor’s in Trainspotting. The only character given narrative support for a non-Edinburgh accent was Peter Mullan and his character comes from Glasgow. Jane Horrocks’ accent, although you could tell it was meant to be Scottish, didn’t come from any recognisable location in the actually existing Scotland (think Willie the janitor in “The Simpsons”). Some actors can do it and some can’t (Sean Connery!) It would have been better if she had used her own Lancashire accent. It’s not as if Scots don’t marry English women – half of Glasgow used to decamp to Blackpool in July when I was young. But I doubt if these matters will cause too many problems for audiences furth of the British Isles where the producers hope to sell the film, hence the premier at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, well known for his work as an actor in such productions as Bugsy Malone, Caravaggio, Lock Stock and Two  Smoking Barrels and Band of Brothers. Sunshine on Leith is his second film as a director, the first being Wild Bill in 2011 (which I haven’t seen).  I have seen some criticism of his direction. Variety, for example, referred to it as “televisual”, which I find a lazy criticism unless it is justified by specific shots and sequences. I wasn’t aware of excessive use of the close-up, for example, and his fondness for the use of rack-focus in shot/reverse shots is not particularly televisual. He drives a relentless pace and gets his actors to derive the maximum juice from each song (and occasionally dance) routine.  Fletcher (with his cinematographer George Richmond) shows Edinburgh at its best – strikingly picturesque and not just the posh bits but Leith as well (although must of it was actually shot in Glasgow which has a better studio set-up and is apparently 20% cheaper). “Auld Reekie” with her skirts on is a wondrous site – especially as the mess they’ve made of the city centre in the ludicrous trams enterprise is kept from view.  Suitably edited, Sunshine on Leith would make a very effective commercial for the Scottish Tourist Board.

The film ended on a high note with, inevitably, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). The song is so ubiquitous now in Scotland that if the independence referendum opts for a ‘yes’ vote and they need a new national anthem, there’s a ready-made one (and preferable to songs about mists, hills, heather and tattie scones or battles long ago). Its very familiarity presented Fletcher and his colleagues (particularly choreographer Rosie Grey) with a problem of how to stage it. It was done as a reconciliation song of the estranged lovers in the open air, on the Mound, outside the National Gallery of Scotland. The scene starts off as an argument between the couple with an audience listening in judgment, a trope familiar in American rom-coms (not to mention Richard Curtis nearer home). And after using the song by cutting back and force between the other four characters in a sort of pre-finale, it leads to one of the few all-out song and dance numbers, with Davie and Yvonne making up. Half of Edinburgh seems to be part of the number, including some joyful police officers, on the Mound. (I’ve seen cops in musical before, eg Singing in the Rain, Une Chambre En Ville, but this is the first time I’ve seen them cavorting ecstatically). The choreography is a bit on the primitive side but I’ve always felt that the camera  (with the editing suite) is the most important element in film (as opposed to stage) choreography.  If not all the actors are natural singers, the same can be said for dancers – and  George McKay gamely does his best. The film got round this problem by skilfully mixing ‘real’ dancers with baffled actors who were neither wholly in nor wholly out of the dance routine. One of the actors said in an interview that it was impossible to completely block off the area to passers-by but I think that this works in the film’s favour. There is a short extract below.

I would have liked a bit more reflection on some of the social issues which could have arisen in the film. The Peter Mullan character says that Scots have always had to leave to find work, “always have and always will”. And the effects of the war (at least on the British soldiers) are shown by the soldier – played by Paul Brennan, star of Loach’s The Angels Share – having no legs. Certainly, on of the saddest moments in the film occurs when Ally decides to sign up again. When Davy reminds him how close to death they were, he admits that he’s going back “because they wanted me” – he is not only unhappy in love but unable to get a decent job and a place of his own to stay. But such references are few. Perhaps I expect too much of what is after all a feel-good musical and in that category it certainly delivers.

Now for Filth, representing the ‘other’ Edinburgh.