Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gadd, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald
In 1991, New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich declared that the best Broadway musical score of the year actually belonged to a movie. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was a sensation. It became the first animated feature film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, spawned a long-running Broadway show, and arguably represents the high watermark for Disney’s animated musicals. All of which means that the latest in Disney’s run of live-action remakes of their animation back catalogue probably has the highest stakes.
The opening prologue, which is here dramatised rather than simply narrated, transports us back to provincial France where an arrogant prince (Dan Stevens) is transformed into a hideous beast, and all his staff into crockery and furniture, as punishment for his cruelty, and doomed to stay that way unless he can learn to love and earn someone’s love in return. That someone is Belle (Emma Watson), a bookish but courageous girl from a nearby town who becomes prisoner in the beast’s palace before working her way into the hearts of the staff and, ultimately, their master (leading some to cynically refer to the film as ‘Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical’). Continue reading
Directors: Ron Clements & John Musker
Starring: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jermaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk
With Ron Clements and John Musker, directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, at the helm Disney is back to doing what it does best, the princess movie. But with Moana, they manage to bring a fresh cultural twist to this old standard.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) loves her island paradise home of Motonui, but since she was very young she has felt called by the ocean. Her father (Temuera Morrison), the chief of her village, has forbidden people from venturing beyond the shallow waters of the reef, but when Motonui is faced with an ecological catastrophe she is compelled to set sail to save her people. Folklore told of the time the trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a precious green stone known as the Heart of Te Fiti from the goddess who gave life to the islands. Encouraged by her grandmother (Rachel House), Moana sets out to find Maui and convince him to return the Heart of Te Fiti and restore order. Continue reading
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemarie DeWitt, John Legend, J.K. Simmons
The classic movie musical, the kind the big studios churned out in the 1940s and 1950s, is largely a thing of the past. These days movie musicals tend to be layered in irony, knowingly winking at the audience in order to acknowledge the inherent silliness of the form. Movie musicals, like everything else, have become postmodern. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, however, harks back to that bygone era. It is striking in how traditional it is, and in how earnestly it embraces its romantic, nostalgic tone.
Like so many great musicals, at the heart of La La Land is a simple story of boy meets girl. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a talented jazz pianist who makes a living playing Christmas carols and harmless ditties in restaurants while lamenting the disappearance of the great American art form and dreaming of the day when he can open his own jazz club. The girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring young actress who has moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of her dreams and now works in a coffee shop on the Warner Brothers lot. Continue reading
Director: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna, Ben Carolan, Ian Kenny, Aiden Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Every year I seem to come across one little movie which compels me to proselytise, a little gem of a film that makes me want to tell the world, because it is a film that deserves to be seen more than it will be. In 2015 it was Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. In 2014 it was Calvary. This year it looks like that film is John Carney’s nostalgic musical Sing Street.
Carney takes us back to Dublin in 1985. Fifteen-year-old Conor Lawler’s (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) parents have been forced to pull him out of the expensive Jesuit School he has been attending and enroll him in the working class Christian Brothers boys school, Synge Street. One day Conor meets Raphina, a young model who lives in the girls’ home across the road from the school, and, in a moment of improvisation, asks her to star in a music video for his band. Expect he doesn’t have a band. So now he needs one. Conor takes a crash course in rock and roll from his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and with the help of schoolyard entrepreneur Darren (Ben Carolan) and musical prodigy Eamon (Mark McKenna), starts a band, which they call Sing Street. Continue reading
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Starring: George Mackay, Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, Kevin Guthrie, Antonia Thomas, Freya Mavor
Following in the footsteps of mega-bands like ABBA and Queen, the latest, somewhat unlikely group to be given the jukebox musical treatment is the Scottish duo The Proclaimers, with Sunshine on Leith.
The film uses the music of the bespectacled Reid brothers to tell the story of two best friends, Davy and Ally, who return home to Edinburgh after a tour of duty in Afghanistan keen to get on with their lives. Ally rekindles a romance, Davy finds a new one, and Davy’s parents, Rab and Jean, prepare to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. But this trio of relationships all hit rocks on the night of Rab and Jean’s big party.
Jukebox musicals by nature have highly contrived narratives – a lot of work has to go into making these pre-existing songs fit together in a logical way to tell a story – and this film is no exception. Early on you can sense there is a lot of setup being done, entire subplots are introduced in order for single lines in a song to make sense, and there are moments when things turn quite quickly. But unlike other films which have chosen to make fun of the contrived nature of their narratives by going over the top, Sunshine on Leith retains a down to earth honesty. These are still real characters telling a largely relatable story.
To most people the Proclaimers are one-hit, or at most two-hit, wonders. They don’t have the long back catalogue of well-known hits that other bands given the jukebox musical treatment have. But while the lack of familiarity means you don’t get that little spark of recognition with each song, it does allow the songs to fit into the story less obtrusively. It also ends up being the lesser known tunes rather than the hits which provide the film’s best numbers: ‘Over and Done With’ and ‘Oh Jean’ are great highlights, and the title track ‘Sunshine on Leith’ is sung beautifully by Jane Horrocks.
While all of the cast can hold a tune, none of them are amazingly polished singers. But this adds to the charm of the film. The ordinariness of their voices really fits with both the music of The Proclaimers (and I mean that as a compliment) and the overall tone of the film. This is not a glamorous, sparkling musical. It is a musical about ordinary people, performed by ordinary people.
Keep your eyes peeled early in the film for a quick cameo from Charlie and Craig Reid walking out of a pub during ‘I’m on My Way.’
Sunshine on Leith is an unpretentious and exuberant film, a joyful smile of a movie.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Sunshine on Leith? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Les Misérables first appeared on stage on the West End in 1985 and in the 27 years since it has become one of the most successful musicals of all time. That said, it was still a bit of a risk for Tom Hooper to announce it as his next film project after winning an Oscar for The King’s Speech. It was always going to be a high profile event film, and let’s face it, history has shown us that when you get a big budget musical wrong it can be really, really bad. Hooper assembled a great cast lead by Hugh Jackman – amazingly making his first movie musical despite his strong musical pedigree. But early critical reviews were mixed. Some called it a mess, others heralded it as one of the year’s best. So I was really keen to see it for myself, particularly as I saw the stage production in London earlier in the year and loved it.
The big experiment with Les Misérables, and again part of what made it a risky project,was having the actors sing live. Usually when you make a musical one of the first things you do is get the cast into a recording studio and record an album. Then a couple of months later when it is time for the shoot, the actors simply lip-synch to the mastered recording. With Les Misérables, Tom Hooper decided that he wanted his actors to sing live on each take. The major advantage of doing it this way is it frees up the actors creatively. When you record the songs in advance, the actors are forced to make many of their acting choices well before getting on set, and once on set they are restricted by the necessity of matching up with the recording. This would be far from ideal for a musical like Les Misérables where so much of the emotional crux of the story is delivered through song. This greater level of freedom in performance for the actors has resulted in a musical which is not necessarily as brassy and robust as the stage show, but packs an incredible emotional punch.
This different approach was then complemented by the way the musical numbers have been shot. Unlike a traditional musical, Les Misérables only features one heavily choreographed number, the comical ‘Master of the House’ performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s grotesque tavern owners. The other numbers are shot very simply, often in close-up. The beauty of this approach is you get to see characters faces, something you don’t get on stage. Les Misérables is a very tragic, very emotional story, and the impact of being able to see the faces of characters as they sing is quite powerful. Never is this more apparent than when Anne Hathaway sings ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ shot entirely in one shot, a medium close-up.
Hugh Jackman was always the logical choice to play Jean Valjean. With his baritone voice, his award-winning musical theatre experience, broad chest and handsome features, Jackman seems born to play the part. As Valjean, he carries much of the emotional weight of the film and he does it admirably, imbuing the character with a real strength and masculinity. The film’s other clear stand out is Anne Hathaway as Fantine. She delivers one of the most gut-wrenching performances you will ever see, demonstrating her versatility in a year which also saw her playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. While Jackman will be in the mix come award season, Hathaway can start deciding where she wants to put her Best Supporting Actress Oscar now.
One of the big questions in the lead up to the film was the singing ability of Russell Crowe. Everyone knew Jackman and Hathaway could sing, but the fact that Crowe used to have a band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunt, not to mention his old Russ le Roq days, didn’t have people convinced he was the right man to tackle the demanding role of Javert. This concern was not helped by the fact that his voice was notably absent from a couple of the early trailers. As it turns out, he does alright. His voice is nowhere near as full as some of the others in the film, but you get used to it. He definitely looks the part, and still manages to give some emotional depth to the character.
Hooper’s film is a very faithful adaptation of the musical, plus the requisite new song, ‘Suddenly,’ so that they have something to submit for Award consideration. This faithfulness means that if there was anything in particular that irked you about the stage musical, it still will in the film. In my case, it is the fact that Cosette and Marius are still really boring. It also means that, as is the case with many film musicals, the critical reception will be varied. Musicals are really divisive. People tend to like them or they don’t and if you are someone who can’t get behind the concept of a musical, you’re never going to enjoy one. Even people who like movie musicals may struggle with this one as the ratio of dialogue to song is much closer to an opera than to a normal movie musical. So with a film like this it is difficult to make a general judgement. Instead, I can only speak as a person who enjoys musicals, and who particularly loves this one. I thought it was brilliant.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean