A Guide to Beyonce’s “Black is King”

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On July 31st, Disney+ released Black is King, a visual album by Beyonce. It functions as a sort of movie-length music video that puts visuals to Beyonce’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was created by Beyonce for the release of last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, where she voiced Nala. Black is King follows the storyline of the film abstractly, and there are short audio clips from the film to help move it along. 

Because this is debuting on Disney+, which markets itself as a family-oriented streaming service, and is not a typical film in most regards, I thought it would be helpful to try something different. Instead of a normal review, I’d like to offer some observations and questions that can guide your viewing of Black is King, whether you watched it and would like to learn more about what messages and artistic reference you may have missed, or you’re a parent interested in watching Black is King with your children and would like to cultivate a fruitful discussion of the film (although the film probably won’t interest young children, I’d suggest pre-teen and up). 

As always, this isn’t an endorsement of the film or a suggestion that it is appropriate for all ages and families.

Initial Feelings after Finishing the Film:

  1. How do you feel? Did you like the ending? Were you engaged throughout the movie, or did some parts feel boring?
  2. Did you like it? Give some reasons for why or why not.
  3. Did you like the music? Did it make you want to dance? Do you think it is catchy?
  4. Do you think the visuals matched the music? How so? Did any shot or visual stick out to you as memorable?
  5. There are a lot of spoken-word sections (where Beyonce or others are talking over the music and visuals). Were there any lines that stuck out to you?
  6. Do you imagine visual albums/ feature-length music video films growing in popularity? What are the pros and cons of the medium?

Talking about Race and Black Identity:

1. Black is King was filmed in various African countries. The music is inspired by African music traditions, there are cameos by artists from all over Africa, the costumes were inspired by African fashions, and there are references to various African mythologies and legends. Recognizing, of course, that Africa is not a monolith but is made up of different countries and hundreds of sub-cultures, did the film spark your interest in learning more about Africa, or in any particular parts of African culture?

2. Black is King is explicitly about Black empowerment. It encourages Black people to embrace their heritage, to take pride in their culture and community, and to use their gifts and talents to help build a better future. In a world where Black people are often seen as disposable and are overlooked, Black is King relishes in presenting Blackness as complex, regal, intellectual, spiritual, dynamic, and worthy of respect and attention. Many of the songs are pieces of activism, such as “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” which lovingly reminds Black girls of their beauty, fighting against the very-real stigmas of colorism.

If you are Black, how did Black is King make you feel? (Parents- as with all of these questions, remind your kids that it’s okay to feel ambivalent). Did the film feel relatable, or like Beyonce was talking to you? If you are white or non-Black, how did you feel? Black is King has no prominent white or non-Black characters- was that strange or unusual for you? Did you feel like you learned anything new? Did you feel inspired?

3. In her seminal work Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry makes the argument that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Her argument essentially says that because the perspective of Black women has been silenced for much of American history, and stereotypes about Black women persist so much in popular culture, when a Black woman is at the forefront of a narrative, it is inherently political and even transgressive in white-dominant cultures. First, what do you think about this as a theory? Is it fair? And then second- Is Black is King political? How or how not? Does it feel political?

4. Throughout the album, and especially in the song “MOOD 4 EVA(the song with Jay-Z that takes place in a mansion), Beyonce talks about her wealth and opulence (fairly standard for celebrities). But through this and her other work, she seems to make this statement: Beyonce and Jay-Z, in being successful and rich, and showing that off, is a source of empowerment for all Black people. Because Black Americans are more likely to be of lower-income, it is inherently progressive and even radical to present Black people who are wealthy and successful, because it presents both an idea of what could (and even should) be, and presents a positive representation of the abilities of Black people.  

What do you think of this? Is Beyonce right? Can showing off wealth and opulence be empowering, particularly for minority groups? Is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (presented) lifestyle aspirational?

Homages and References:

1. Did Black is King help you appreciate The Lion King any more? Were you able to follow the storyline of Simba in Black is King, or was it too abstract? Do you think Black is King could stand alone, without the influence of The Lion King?

2. The opening sequence is a retelling of Exodus 2:1-10, where Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile to escape the slaughter of all the Hebrew boys. Moses is a large figure in African American music, especially in gospel songs that were sung by enslaved people to speak about freedom. What might Beyonce be referencing by showing it here? And are there any similarities between Moses and Simba from The Lion King?

3. There is a concept called the “Christ-Like Gaze” in film, outlined by this excellent article. It puts forth the idea that cinematography- the way the camera films subjects- can be used to look at people the way Christ looks at us. The three tenants of a “Christ-like gaze” in a movie is this: 

  1. The film sees people as being complex and filled with inherent worth and dignity. The movie doesn’t watch characters with cynical dispassion. Instead, a Christ-like gaze approaches the characters in warmth. Practically, this means the camera doesn’t objectify characters (such as focusing on body parts for sexual attention). There is often a focus on the facial expressions and eyes of a character. The camera is usually at eye-level with the subject.
  2. A Christ-like gaze means the film isn’t only concerned with the plot. The characters act beyond being used as plot devices. The story- and the camera- pays attention to little details and truths about life. Does the film take time to observe beauty? Are there any moments of quietness?
  3. Movies can (and should) depict suffering honestly, but a Christ-like gaze ends in hope. Hope is not blind optimism, nor is it the removal of consequences. But hope knows that there is a resurrection and healing coming.

So with all of that being said- does Black is King have a Christ-like gaze? Does the camera treat the Black bodies on-screen with care and present them as beautiful? How is the scenery treated? How do the choices in hair and costuming contribute to the presentation of Beyonce and the other stars? Is this an uplifting film, and in what regards?

Further reading:

NPR- “‘Black Is King’ Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity”

Vox- Beyonce presenting herself as African Goddess Osun

The Root: Some of the cameos in Black is King

Vox- Framing Black Bodies as Art in “Apeshit”

            –  Madeleine D.

 

There Is Always Redemption At East High: The True Fantasy of High School Musical

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A wise woman once said that there are few things more well-suited to quarantine than rewatching the entire High School Musical Trilogy. That woman was my mother, and that’s what my family has been doing for the past week. 

The trilogy, starting with the first film released on the Disney Channel in 2006, was a generation-defining series, with each movie containing many instantly iconic moments. It was a huge hit for Disney, and it remains a nostalgic favorite for many, including myself. 

Rewatching the series, I was struck with several revelations. First, is that the series genuinely holds up. There are some dated elements, sure, particularly when it comes to early 2000’s fashion, but the series remains a refreshingly sweet teen story about growing up, first love, challenging the status quo, teamwork, and being proud of who you are and where you’re from

Beyond the messages, musical numbers, and the star-making performances though, the High School Musical trilogy embodies multiple fantasies, which is the real reason the series is universally appealing. 

Some of these fantasies are obvious. Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a romantic fantasy. Being super talented at two things, like Troy is at basketball and music (getting a scholarship for basketball and being considered for a scholarship at Julliard?!), that’s another fantasy. Actually having a great high school experience? Fantasy. The fantasy of being able to run around your unlocked high school in the dead of night to scream out your emotions. These, and so many more, are the core appeal of the series. 

But one of the fantasies of High School Musical that I think flies under the radar has to do with the antagonist, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). Sharpay has gotten a sort of posthumous pardon in the past few years with a compelling “Sharpay was the real victim” discourse emerging on social media. This is fun in its own right, but let’s focus on Sharpay’s intended depiction in the series. 

Sharpay Evans is seen, in the viewpoint of the movie, to be a spoiled, ambitious, hard-working, but conniving and controlling theatre kid. She has worked her whole life to be in musicals, which is impressive, but she doesn’t have the sweet summer child innocence of first-timers Gabriella and Troy. In each of the three films, she is poised to be the star of whatever musical production is being put on, but Troy and Gabriella are picked instead, so Sharpay tries to get back into the spotlight. Her efforts to do so range from convincing the drama teacher to change the date of the callbacks all the way to having Troy kidnapped in the dead of night

But at the end of each movie, without fail, Sharpay’s plan is somehow foiled, Troy and Gabriella are restored back to the spotlight, and Sharpay realizes the error of her ways. And when the whole cast sings the final triumphant number, Sharpay is invited to sing with them and is welcomed back into the fold, where she becomes counted among our protagonists. Our protagonists never hold her failings against her. 

Your first thought might be that this is formulaic, that Sharpray having the exact same character arc each movie, never progressing in a linear fashion over the course of all three movies, is poor writing. I, too, thought this originally. But with more contemplation, I realized that this is not the case. In fact, the cyclical nature of Sharpay is actually quite profound. Everyone struggles with bad habits and destructive behaviors. In real life, we rarely progress linearly or in an efficient manner. We all have strongholds that keep us in vicious cycles. In this way, High School Musical continues to be very profound and observant about human nature. 

Even deeper, though, the ending Sharpay gets in each movie speaks to one of our deepest desires as humans. We all want to be forgiven unconditionally. We want our mistakes and failings and vices to be forgiven and forgotten about. We want our friends to continually receive us with open arms and always be ready to sing with us again. We want to be redeemed. We want salvation. 

That is the fantasy of High School Musical, because, in our daily lives, our relationships are full of bitterness and grudges and unforgiveness and anger. We do not ask for, or receive, forgiveness from everyone. We are not given unconditional love. We ruin our friendships and are not let back into the fold. We do not act as redeemed people. 

Oh, but this Easter, let us remember that this doesn’t have to be a fantasy! When we celebrate Easter, we remember that we have been given unconditional love and continual grace. We can live as Sharpay Evans does- in full confidence that no matter what we do, we can be forgiven, redeemed, and enter back into covenant fellowship. Over and over and over again.

Sharpay may want it all, but she should realize that the unearned mercy and reconciliation she’s been given by her peers is what is truly fabulous.

Boldness in Storytelling: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Jojo Rabbit, and Cats

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*Spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker 

I’ve said before that I’d rather have a movie that takes risks and sticks to a bold vision than one that plays it safe and is dull. When I say bold vision, that doesn’t mean the movie has to be big or flashy. Avengers: Endgame is a big, flashy film, but doesn’t have as bold a vision as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, which is a much quieter film but sticks to its guns and has fascinating ideas. 

But after seeing the wild trio of WWII satire comedy Jojo Rabbit, the final movie of the newest Star Wars trilogy, and Cats, I have been forced to ask myself if I really, really do prefer boldness. 

Star Wars

You’re probably here for a review of The Rise of Skywalker, and you’ve probably already seen it and have a lot of thoughts. 

I like Star Wars, but would not call myself an invested fan. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, primarily for the promising new characters, and I really liked The Last Jedi, because it tried to move the franchise away from nostalgia and tired patterns towards a new future. It challenges Star Wars fans to imagine a more inclusive Star Wars, and it made the franchise less escapist.  

Unsurprisingly, it’s now one of the most divisive films in recent history. Not that director Rian Johnson couldn’t have gone about his radical reimaginings with more grace towards the original fanbase, but I can never forgive The Rise of Skywalker for doing him dirty and almost entirely retconning everything he tried to do. There are ways director JJ Abrams could have tried to unite the fanbase without erasing or ignoring everything Johnson introduced. The way it was handled reeks of desperation and cowardice. 

I usually see movies knowing most of the spoilers, but I didn’t for Rise of Skywalker, so there ended up being three moments I involuntarily threw up my hands and sighed. 

  1. Rey is a Palpatine- I’ve never been punched in the face, and I don’t know if Rian Johnson has either, but now we both know how it would feel. 
  2. Han and Ben/Kylo moment- I know Harrison Ford hasn’t cared about Star Wars for a while now, but after seeing this, I question if he’s ever had any genuine enthusiasm for anything in his entire life. 
  3. When Rey and Ben kiss- Writer/director Joss Whedon once said, “Don’t give people what they want, give them what they need.” This choice gives people neither of these things, which in a fandom as divided as Star Wars, with a movie as fanservice-y as this, is actually quite an accomplishment, I guess. 

There is a distinct lack of identity to ROS, despite the film trying to namecheck and cameo every part of the Star Wars legacy. It shows, more than anything, that Star Wars has to change. It can’t continue like this, and it’s going to take a very strong creative force (not a Dollar Tree-Spielberg) to move the franchise into new territory. Not everyone will like it, but that’s what bold vision takes. 

One of the worst parts of ROS is the hastily completed redemption arc of Ben Solo. We all knew it was coming, but that doesn’t excuse that there is absolutely no attention paid to the fact that he’s been, in effect, a fascist. In a world with a rising number of actual fascists, extreme alt-righters, and incels (these three things are not all the same, but there is a heavy overlap), Kylo Ren being one of them can’t be treated lightly. 

So if Star Wars isn’t going to teach you how to redeem a fascist, then Taika Waititi will. 

How to Redeem a Fascist: Jojo Rabbit vs Rise of Skywalker

Jojo Rabbit is a dark comedy about WWII and Hitler that tears apart the ideology of the Nazis. With the rise of neo-nazism today, a movie that is both critical of nazism but also has compassion for those who have been taken in by it is critical. 

The film tells the story of a 10-year old boy (a fantastic Roman Griffin Davis) living in Nazi Germany near the end of WWII who is one of Hitler Youth and discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) a Jewish girl his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in their house. His interactions with Elsa challenge all that he’s been told about the Jews and the war, and he comes to terms with the lies he’s believed. 

The film is able to show how those with hateful ideology prey on vulnerable young people by promising things that all people universally want- to be loved, accepted, and made to feel important and powerful in a world where so much is out of our control. By emphasizing throughout just how young Jojo is, the audience is reminded just how vulnerable and easily persuaded children are, which helps us root for Jojo’s redemption, even as he says and does terrible things. It reminds us to be compassionate for the scared child within all of us. 

Jojo is redeemed by the end of the film by realizing what he’s been taught is wrong, and then, with the help of others, finding love, identity, and community outside of this ideology. The people who help him don’t ever condone or excuse his bad actions, but they don’t give up on him. Most importantly, they offer Jojo alternatives. In our age of calling people out on social media and “canceling” people, it is very easy to say someone is doing something bad, but there’s very little offering of something better. That’s where the hope is in Jojo Rabbit. 

Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Ben Solo is a mass murderer and a father-killer who says he’s drawn to the light side every few scenes, but only changes when he’s healed by Rey, to whom he already has a force-connection with. Then he has a quick exchange with his dead-dad, and then he helps out Rey and then dies. 

Now there is no explicit outlining of the First Order’s ideology, but from context, visual cues, and the history of Star Wars, it’s clear they are supposed to be like the Nazis.* That makes Ben Solo, a young man who was taken in by Snoke/the First Order, fit to compare to Jojo. 

When Ben goes to the light side, he doesn’t have to reckon with his ideologies and past (besides being forgiven by dead dad.) There’s no conscious uncoupling with the systems that were approving and supporting his vile behavior. There is no real alternative he joins with, except Rey. Because in the Star Wars universe you can just switch to the “light side,” Ben never has to unlearn all of his behaviors and hateful thoughts like Jojo does. And Ben dies heroically, which, ironically enough, is a key component of fascism, the cult of death. When it comes to Ben vs Jojo, this lyric from Hamilton sums it up well- “dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Jojo has to live with the continued consequences of having been a part of an evil institution. Ben does not. 

Even worse is that Rise of Skywalker implies Emporer Palpatine created Snoke to manipulate Ben, because then it’s like Ben was somehow mind-controlled and manipulated into becoming a neo-nazi, which makes it easier to excuse his behavior and it reduces the systematic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism to one individual bad apple. 

Jojo Rabbit never does this, instead showing the systemic and structural ways youths are pulled into ur-fascism/nazism while also not negating personal responsibility and choice. These complex choices make Jojo Rabbit a bold movie that doesn’t run from controversy or relevant commentary. But it isn’t controversial because it’s trying to be provocative or just rile people up. It’s for good reason. And it’s an overall excellent film. 

And then there’s Cats

Cats

There’s been a lot of great memes about Cats. Reviews for the film have basically become a genre within themselves. It’s a movie so inexplicable that it makes it hard to talk about, and you’ve probably already decided whether you’re going to see it or not.

But while making a movie of the musical “Cats” was probably a fundamentally bad idea, this film is bold through the level of seriousness and commitment everyone, from the actors to the director, takes with this movie. It’s ridiculous and nonsensical and contains the eternal sin of somehow being able to make beautiful-human Idris Elba look like a naked mole-rat, but once you surrender to it, at least it tried. Honestly, I’d rather have something like this, with its breathless enthusiasm and wild disregard for things like “decency” and “respectability” than something that feels soulless and engineered. It’s unhinged, but isn’t it kinda beautiful that it can all bring us together in utter dismay? 

There’s this great story about Harold Prince, a legendary theater producer, who met with Andrew Lloyd Webber about his musical “Cats” and was insistent that there must be some kind of deeper analogy and theme behind the story (sounds like a man after my own heart) but simply could not figure out what they must be. He said to Webber, “‘I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone, and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’” 

Sometimes, you have to surrender and realize that this is just about Cats. 

-Madeleine D. 
*Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video on this subject of Star Wars, the First Order, and Fascism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAVeyXwy3BE

Movie Minute: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Leave No Trace, and Mamma Mia 2

July has been a hectic month, but nothing can stop me from seeing movies, so here is what you need to know about these three new releases.

Ant-Man and the Wasp

After Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is somewhat of a palette cleanser. Not from any of the Marvel formula, but from even pretending to have stakes. It sheds the foreboding nature of Infinity War and relishes in simpler times, by redoing jokes from the first film and being just as pleasant. I had a great time watching it, but I struggle to remember much, and while things technically happen in the lives of the characters, there aren’t any far-reaching consequences for the MCU as a whole, nor is there anything thematically to take away.

It does make a few improvements on the first film. The villain, Ghost, played by Hannah John Kamen, is not only a visually arresting character but one with twisted motivations who gets a surprising ending for an antagonist. Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd continue to make a charming pair, and seeing them work together in a way no other pair of superheroes have in the MCU is exciting to behold. And Michael Peña continues to steal the screen and our hearts. But all of that isn’t enough to make it a necessary film. And while you may ask, are any of these movies actually necessary? within the story the Marvel brand is telling as a whole, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a pleasant romp but very forgettable, and when the other Marvel films are going in an exciting new direction, this feels like a step back.

Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace struck me in a place I haven’t been struck since my favorite film of last year, The Unknown Girl. Both films tell small stories about people struggling with messy, complicated ethical decisions, who ultimately bring out the best in other people and themselves through conviction and will. This slow and enchanting Debra Granik film never goes where you think it will, and ends with a startling conclusion that works perfectly with its compassionate, melancholy, yet hopeful, story of a father and daughter struggling to keep out of a society they cannot rest in. Watching the coming-of-age of daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her realization that her desires might be different from her fathers is both heartbreaking and empowering, told with the nuance of experience by Granik. I won’t say more, because the less you know the better, but I would say it’s a must-see.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainImage result for mamma mia 2

If you liked the first Mamma Mia, then you’ll like this one. Case closed.

It’s an accurate description though! Mamma Mia 2 is exactly like the first one, good and bad in all of the same ways. It has a flimsy story and weak characters, and everything is in paradise and beautiful and is the ultimate wish fulfillment (primarily for women. It is a film made for the female gaze, and honestly, it feels nice to be catered to in such a way, albeit superficially). It’s a joyful movie that celebrates family, friendship, and motherhood (and free love and deep pockets, but that’s beside the point). Abba’s music is infectious, and the cast, young and old, is having so much fun that it’ll wear down the sourest of souls. Fittingly, my feelings are as they sing in the film:

I tried to hold you back but you were stronger. Oh yeah! And now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight. And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose!

-Madeleine D

“Dancing Through (A) Life”: The Greatest Showman

Dancing through life/ skimming the surface/ gliding where turf is smooth/ Life’s more painless/ for the brainless – “Dancing Through Life” from the musical “Wicked.”

The Greatest Show

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are closed down. Fact.

A lot of people enjoy the circus. Fact.

The circus has a long and troubled history of animal abuse allegations and other ethical violations. Fact.

P.T. Barnum was not the inventor of the circus but widely developed it and was a “self-made man.” Fact.

Barnum was a charming man who advocated for the rights of the downtrodden and outcast and was a progressive social thinker. Fa-hmmmmmmm. Time for a musical number! And a one, two, three, four-

The Greatest Showman is from first-time director Michael Gracey and the passion project of Hugh Jackman. It’s a full swing original pop-musical, so get with it or get out. It’s full of clever choreography, likeable actors with earnest performances, beautiful sets and costumes, and a story that hits all the beats of a tidy rags-to-riches. It’s here to entrance you with magic and wonder. If you want the real P.T. Barnum, you’ll get a glimpse of him, but some of his rougher edges are mysteriously scrubbed away. Here, Barnum is carried by the earnest Jackman, whose Barnum is a business-minded, occasionally dishonest but gold-hearted, family man who identifies with all the outcasts he’s using in his show.

But, even if you don’t know anything about Barnum, there is still a sense in the movie that a lot is being left out, which it is. For example, you aren’t going to see the story of P.T. Barnum’s first real act, which was to buy Joice Heth, an elderly slave, advertise her as the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, and perform a public autopsy on her. I guess Hugh Jackman wasn’t down for that?

The Greatest Showman says it’s telling the story of P.T. Barnum, but it really wants to tell the story of how the circus is a haven for outcasts and misfits, a place for them to find a family. It’s not historically accurate, but you probably knew that you aren’t here for a history lesson, you’re here for musical numbers with Zac Efron and Zendaya! And that is legitimate and a fine indicator of a good time.

The music, penned by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek from La La Land, is fun and light. The choreography is enchanting and creative, with the cast using the settings around them as musical instruments and props during the performances, and it is an unapologetic musical. People just pop into songs. Director Gracey has a background in music videos, and it shows.

If you want a musical, you’re going to get a fun musical. But if you’d like a musical with a bit of thematic depth, I don’t think you’ll get it.

The selling point of the movie, the big theme and the subject of its many anthems, is being an outcast and being yourself. Ignoring, probably, the real P.T. Barnum’s motives, here, everyone is an outcast in some way, trying to fit in. Barnum gives them the chance to be seen and loved. The film really wants to say interesting things and hit on tough subjects- racism, marital infidelity, the dangers of show business on families- but it only does that in a very shallow way. That includes its own theme.

The problem with saying that everyone faces adversity is that yes, the central problem is the sin that all humans have of categorizing people and hurting each other. But some oppression is systemic and institutional. So, Barnum’s desire to be respected by his wife’s wealthy parents can’t really be equated with the struggle of the black characters in the film. Barnum can escape the adversary facing him. They cannot.

Furthermore, you don’t get to know the “freaks” very well. Some of them are given little introductions, but the majority are not. Because we don’t get to know these “freaks,” they don’t get any humanity outside of, “they are rejected by society.” This reduces them to what the movie wants to say the circus freed them from being- nameless freaks.

I went in wanting an entertaining musical, and I got one. I had a blast watching it. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. I’d probably see it again. If you want to see an original musical, this is the only one being offered up this year, so go have a great time!

But I really don’t think it is too much to ask for some themes in a movie, or at least a message or interesting thought to chew on. Especially with a story like this, that has multiple routes to take. But The Greatest Showman is not willing to give me something beyond what I can find from Katy Perry’s Roar.

And that’s the real shame, because this movie tries to encourage people to be honest and fearless, but can’t find any strength to do that itself.

-Madeleine D

City Of Stars: La La Land

For this review, I’m going to use the IO9 format for reviews, a Q&A Style.

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Oohh! La La Land! That movie I’ve been hearing a lot about!

Yep. The musical-romance starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as a down-on-his-luck jazz musician and wannabe actress in L.A. Directed by Damien Chazelle of Whiplash. It just won a ton of Golden Globes.

Do you think it was a masterpiece? Truly the best film of the year?

Maybe. It certainly is one of the best films of the year.

You’re not just going to praise it?

No, I think we should discuss it and explore the nuances of it. I don’t believe in blindly accepting a critic’s every word.

That’s what I do with your reviews.

I’m the exception. You can trust me.

Okay, so first off, how is the music? Can Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling really sing?

They both do nice jobs with their singing! It’s obvious they are not professionals, but at least they are doing their own singing. After the film I went home and listened to the soundtrack again. I’m sure an original song nomination will come during the Oscars.

For someone who likes musicals too, it was hard after the movie to not want to get up and sing.  Maybe I left the theater humming. Maybe I did a little dance with my sister in the lobby of the theater. You don’t know. You weren’t there.

(There’s your shout-out, Eliza, I hope you’re happy)

Is the acting good?

Absolutely- the hype is valid. Emma Stone in particular is able to show her entire range, and everyone does a good job. It truly is an actor’s film, and I’m sure the academy will reward it for that, along with other things it sets bait for.

Sets bait for… wait, are you saying this is an Oscar-bait movie?

Well, to be fair, most movies that come out around this time are looking for an Oscar, and it’s no secret that everybody in Hollywood wants one. Why not try for one? But in La La Land’s case, there are two trains of thoughts on this.

First, director Damien Chazelle wrote the script for La La Land in 2010, before he thought he would have a chance in the business and before Whiplash fame. He wrote it out of love for old movies. Therefore the use of Cinemascope, allusions to films like Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the soft lighting, dusk-hour shots, and the underlying theme of sacrificing for your art, came from his heart. Those things came from his desire to make a film that is a modern masterpiece. And if he wrote and made the film because he truly loves it, then great!

But here is what bugged me as I watched it: First off, the Academy Awards love movies about movies and about working actors. The Academy loves to justify their own careers and flaunt their own success. And La La Land does that. Using the techniques that La La Land uses- obviously with the intention of replicating the masterpieces it is referring to- made me feel like I was being goaded at the whole time. The film seemed to keep on asking, Do you like me? Do you like me now? How about this? This is pretty cool. Look at this! Remember that old classic? We’re alluding to it here. Is it good? Do you like it?, knowing that the critical audience for this film- people who love old movies and musicals- couldn’t resist it.

So you don’t like that it tries to be a good movie? What’s wrong with you? Plus, it’s not just a celebration of old movies. It’s a romance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and that appeals to the public.

Thinking back to other movies that I have liked this year, like Fences, Hidden Figures, Sing Street, Zootopia, and others, I think that all the stories of those films have an urgency and importance to them. They are fresh, have something to say, and have a message that can resonate on some level with everyone. La La Land lacks that. A story of two dreamers who are insecure about their dreams is something I’ve seen before. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone have been in two other movies together before, although this problem has nothing to do with the characters- both Mia and Sebastian are flawed with full character arcs. But I’ve seen the crazy, tortured soul artist before, and a lot of movies take place in L.A. and romanticize it.

Now I should add, to be fair, maybe I didn’t “get” La La Land to its full extent because it’s a movie made to replicate the emotion of being in love, and to my parents’ enthusiasm, I’m young and have never been in love before. But the story seemed to service the technique and medium, instead of the other way around.

So, because you don’t love the ordinariness of the story, does that mean you didn’t like the movie?

Absolutely not! I said it was one of the best films of the year, and it makes my top ten list. With all that I’ve said critically, La La Land makes some of the best uses of the film medium I have ever seen. I would say the film almost shines more than its actors.

Something striking about the movie is how it uses the musical format to emphasize the main characters. Maybe it’s just me (although I sure hope not) but I sometimes have moments where I imagine there is a movie playing out around me, starring me. The spotlight goes on. Everything in the background fades out. There is a sweeping pan of my surroundings. La La Land replicates this feeling by actually doing it to the characters. It takes “being the hero of your own story” to a whole new level, in only a way a film can. By combining song, dance, acting, dialogue, camera angles, long takes, lighting, locations, and score, La La Land is an achievement in every meaning of the word.

Should I see it?

Absolutely. It’s a beautiful mix of many genres, so even if you aren’t a musical person, I think you would still enjoy it. The film is for the romantics, the cynics, and artists, the realists, and everyone in between.

It may not be the most thought-provoking or important of the films offered up this year. But its influence on film, particularly movie musicals, might be one of the most lasting, and the joy it conveys onscreen, along with the nuggets of truth and honesty, are too tempting to resist.

-Madeleine D

SING STREET

John Carney has a style. Every director does, but for John Carney, you just need to know the storyline to know it’s his. Two people, one a struggling/aspiring musician, the other a producer type or musician, both hurting, come together to repair their lives through music. Then they go their separate ways and/or remain just friends. That’s the formula to Carney’s biggest hits, Once and Begin Again. Once was magic, the little indie that could, while Begin Again, despite being enjoyable, was criticized for being over-produced (and in a little bit of karma, a movie that criticized musicians for selling out, was criticized for selling out to Hollywood). So Carney has returned to his roots, back to Ireland, down to the very school he went to as a kid. Sing Street is out to reclaim what was lost. So Carney has a style. But can he take that style and apply it to a different story.

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Sing Street begins in 1985’s Dublin with 14-year old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). His parents are on the verge of splitting up, there are money problems, and he’s sent to Synge Street, a Christian Brothers school where Conor is tormented. But one day, after he spies a beautiful girl (Lucy Boynton) who says she’s a model across the street, he decides to start a band so he can woo her. Thus begins Sing Street, the band he forms with classmates. The girl, Raphina, agrees to be in their 80’s-tastic videos, and the two start working out the various problems in their lives.

Sing Street has a lot of different stories in it, making it a messy film. There isn’t a lot of distinction between what is a side plot and the actual plot. Is it a coming of age story? A story about Conor’s family problems? A story about him and his brother (Jack Reynor)? A love story between him and Raphina? A story about him overcoming trying circumstances? It’s all of these. But it works in a way, because life is messy, too.

One thing I appreciated was that the circumstances Conor, Raphina, and their families find themselves in are never romanticized. In Begin Again, the struggles of the two main characters seem nicely packaged in a way that were easily solved by the end of the movie. Once is better, showng that music and friendship helps, but life struggles are not something that can be resolved in two hours. With a movie like Sing Street, which could have easily fallen into an 80’s nostalgia trap, the character’s hardships could have come across as rosy. They never are. It is painful to watch Conor’s parents fall apart, and him be bullied at school. However, the movie is still very hopeful. It is, like Conor once describes his music, happy-sad. Things are hard, but we’re going to power through it. I think that is a very commendable message.

As for the constant peril of falling into an 80’s nostalgia trap, it never does. My dad explained to me after the movie that the movie made him appreciate in a fresh way the chord changes and creativity shown during that decade of music. Sure, there was weird hair and bad fashion and terrible music, but there were some good things, too. Carney, being so close to the source material, made the depiction of the era and setting very grounded. The city seemed lived in, the settings seemed familiar to the camera in a way that they didn’t in Begin Again, but did in Once.

Regarding similarities with Once, Sing Street has a lot of them. There are a few direct scenes almost ripped from the screenplay of Once. Those aren’t quite welcome. What is welcomed is the naturalistic performances, especially by the two leads, and good music. While not as memorable as Once, I still went and listened to the soundtrack on Spotify- “Drive it Like You Stole It,” being a stand-out. These movies are consistent, if for no other reason than an original song Oscar nomination.

Going back to your roots seemed to have done the trick for John Carney. Sing Street, while not perfect, is an improvement from Begin Again. It reaches high and tickles the ceiling. It is extremely enjoyable, and feels very personal. Carney, with a little more work, can take a good style and apply it to a new story.

One last thing to think about, as we possibly draw a close on this musical trilogy. Once was about how music can bring redemption. Begin Again was about how music can bring transformation. And Sing Street is about how music can bring empowerment. Which, if you think about it, these themes go in order.

But I’m calling it now- the next Carney movie is going to be about a rock star and the relationship with her tour manager, and how they start using music to give to charities. How music can bring about change. Let’s see if I’m right.

-Madeleine D