music friday: the last waltz (martin scorsese, 1978)

By Thanksgiving of 1976, we had seen The Band, they being one of my wife's favorite bands (and mine, as well). We had seen Eric Clapton. We had seen Neil Young as part of CSNY. We had seen Bob Dylan. I had seen Paul Butterfield before I'd met my wife-to-be. And in later years, we saw Van Morrison, and Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. We were, in short, the perfect audience for The Band's concert swan song, called The Last Waltz, held at Winterland in San Francisco on that Thanksgiving in 1976. We had been to Winterland before, and would go many times after, until it closed at the end of 1978 (we saw Bruce Springsteen there twice in the last month of its existence).

But we didn't attend The Last Waltz. We felt we couldn't afford it. The tickets, you see, were $25 each. (They included a turkey dinner.)

So we didn't attend. Certainly a reason to kick ourselves in the butts down the road. Honestly, though, it might be best experienced through Scorsese's film. It's true, not all of the songs made it into the film ... Dylan sang two other songs, for instance, and many of the other acts did additional songs not in the movie (Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison). On the other hand, there were jam sessions that Scorsese thankfully removed.

There was a lot of after-the-fact controversy about The Last Waltz, both the concert and the film. Some of the guests made sense ... The Band played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career, and Bob Dylan after that. Four of the five members were Canadians, which probably accounts in part for the number of Canadians on the bill (Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and maybe others?). Some were clear influences on The Band ... they wanted to emphasize the importance of their blues roots, so Muddy Waters is there, along with people like Clapton and Butterfield. Neil Diamond seems like an outsider, until you remember that Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for Diamond (the song he sings here was co-written by Robertson). Dylan reported tried at the last minute to keep from having his segment filmed (the compromise was that not of all of his songs made the cut). There is a serious lack of women performers ... only Joni Mitchell, plus a fine studio version of "The Weight" with the Staples Singers.

As for The Band, Levon Helm was pissed until the day he died at Scorsese and Robertson for making Robertson seem more important than he was. And the group wasn't necessarily in agreement that they needed to quit playing concerts.

Anyway, Scorsese's movie removes most complaints. All of the band seem intent on expanding the myth of their existence, and some of the stories they tell are fun, even if they are tall tales. But, as Christgau said when reviewing the subsequent album, "The movie improves when you can't see it--Robbie Robertson and friends don't play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk)." I could have used another Muddy Waters song and a little less of the Legend of The Band. But, in fairness, that would be a different movie. Ultimately, The Last Waltz is probably my favorite concert movie of all time.

As for The Band, I'd say they are both over and under-rated. Overrated, in that their peak wasn't quite long enough. Underrated, in that their peak was immense, and not just musically. Those first two albums were a part of the culture of the times as much as any Beatles album. Sure, the third album was a fall-off, and it went mostly downhill from there, but I give them bonus credits for those two albums.

Here they are with their two early band leaders, along with a good version of "The Shape I'm In":

And here the two highlights from the guests:


film fatales #139: the runaways (floria sigismondi, 2010)

This is the thirty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 32 is called "Jukebox Musical Week":

Somewhat of a black sheep in the musical world, jukebox musicals have their place...for tourists. Wanna make a musical but know fuck all about writing music? Just retrofit some songs into the plot of your movie and you're golden!

As described above, the jukebox musical is one that does not have original songs, instead opting for a soundtrack consisting of (usually popular) songs. These can be from a single band or from a whole decade, but either way, somebody is ponying up for some usage rights.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen jukebox musical film. Here's a list for those in need.

I looked forward to this one ... I lived through the Runaways, didn't have much of an opinion about them, but I recognize their importance and thought their story might make a good movie, especially with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning involved. And while I wasn't familiar with the work of Floria Sigismondi, her background in music videos would seem useful for a film about a rock band.

Sure enough, the best parts of The Runaways resemble music videos, and not in an annoying way ... they fit. But somehow I forgot that, despite the trappings, The Runaways was just another biopic. And I'm not a fan of the genre.

The focus of the picture is narrowed, for better or worse, because it's based on Cherie Currie's memoir. The Runaways is less a story of the band, and more the story of the rise and fall of the friendship between Currie and Joan Jett. It's an interesting enough story, and Stewart and Fanning give their all. But the whole thing is too formulaic, as is true for most biopics, which is one reason I'm not a fan. Yes, a lot of what we see "really happened", but it's stuffed into the film to make a narrative that audiences will recognize from all the other biopics they've seen.

Stewart was still in the middle of making Twilight movies, so her move here away from those films is powerful ... I imagine she impressed even more at the time than she does now, when we expect her to be great. Fanning gets most of the Oscar-bait scenes, and more power to her. But Oscar bait is all they are. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon steals every scene he is in as Kim Fowley, and again, we're used to him now, but he wasn't yet Michael Shannon in 2010, at least as I remember. And Fowley himself probably would like to be the center of a movie about the Runaways, but I didn't really need to see a movie called Kim Fowley.

The Runaways is as good as most biopics, which isn't all that. Good performances help, but then, that's usually true with biopics, which often result in Oscar nominations for the actors.


film fatales #136: encanto (byron howard, jared bush, and charise castro smith, 2021)

Last month, I bitched and moaned about Tick, Tick ... Boom! I added nothing to the discourse about the film. I could have just stopped at "not my cup of tea" and moved on.

I can't fairly judge Encanto, because it's not my cup of tea. I appreciate some of the obvious positives ... the long-due representation of Colombian life, a heroine who doesn't look like a Barbie doll, the brilliant use of color. But Encanto is also praised for its animation ... care has been taken to make each character have their own personality that comes out in their facial expressions and body movements. But those facial expressions drove me crazy. Every character has gigantic eyes, and so what, except when attached to expressions that reflect "reality", those eyes, along with the body movements, give the characters an unreal feel. Hey, it's a cartoon, we don't expect Bugs Bunny to look exactly like a rabbit. But I think we're supposed to react to the characters in Encanto as if they are animated but real, and I was nothing other than distracted.

So this time, I'll keep it short. Encanto is not my cup of tea, your mileage may vary. But if this looks and sounds good to you, then by all means, check it out:


geezer cinema: cyrano (joe wright, 2021)

I can only speak for myself, but Cyrano would be a lot better if it wasn't a musical. The actual singing is OK ... it is fun to learn that Peter Dinklage can sing, as if there was anything he couldn't do. He is easily the best thing about the movie. But saying he can sing and saying he should sing are not the same thing. He is such a great actor, he doesn't need these songs.

And this goes for everyone else in the movie. Haley Bennett, who plays Roxanne, has quite a nice voice, in fact. The songs are written by members of The National, a band that has been around for more than 20 years, so you know you're getting a level of professionalism, at least (I rarely listen to them, myself, so I have no opinion on their qualities). The songs in the film may help the narrative along, but that is not my favorite kind of music. The presentation of the songs is fairly low-key, which fits with the overall tone of the film, but I don't think people are going to leave the theater singing the songs. Only one of them stood out for me in the entire film, "Wherever I Fall", sung by a few soldiers before they go out on a suicidal mission (Glen Hansard is one of the soldiers).

Cyrano is a family affair. Director Joe Wright has a daughter with Haley Bennett.  Writer Erica Schmidt is married to Peter Dinklage. I imagine it was a nice film to make for all concerned. I usually like Wright's films, especially his Pride & Prejudice. Cyrano is nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar, and that makes sense. I've seen three of the other four nominees, and while I'm not the best judge, Cyrano was as good as any of them (I might pick Cruella, which isn't much of a movie, but the costumes raise it up a bit). I'd say Cyrano is a harmless movie, and some people might love it, even if I didn't.

Here is the kind of thing that's missing from Cyrano. You could say the comparison is unfair ... Joe Wright is a fine director, but Steven Spielberg is one of the great directors. West Side Story is an acknowledged classic (although I'd argue it's not nearly as good as its reputation). But you take perhaps West Side Story's most memorable song (i.e. people still remember it many decades later), toss in one of the year's best performances from Ariana DeBose, and let Spielberg loose with a camera and a musical, and you get something like this:


tick, tick... boom! (lin-manuel miranda, 2021)

This should be short and not-so-sweet. I can't fairly judge tick, tick...BOOM!, because it is filled with things I don't like, and it isn't good enough to overcome what I bring to the table. Broadway musicals are not my cup of tea. It tells the story of the late Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent and then died before he could see how successful it was (it won a Pulitzer and a bunch of Tonys). I couldn't name a single song from Rent, or tell you the plot. I need to emphasize, this is on me ... tick, tick...BOOM! is not a bad movie because I know nothing about Rent. I'm just explaining why I disliked the movie, while trying not to dismiss it because it doesn't match my taste preferences. The central character, played by Andrew Garfield, is an obnoxious artist, and I've known a few artists and yeah, they can be obnoxious, but since I didn't care about this art, I didn't care about the artist.

I was reminded of Next Stop, Greenwich Village, another movie about artists in New York getting started on their lives and hopefully their careers. It has a central character, but there are several other important characters, so the burden of being a starving artist doesn't fall solely on one person's shoulders. It's also a very good movie, an autobiographical account of the beginning of Paul Mazursky's career. I highly recommend that movie.


geezer cinema: west side story (steven spielberg, 2021)

My wife, who liked this new West Side Story, nonetheless said that she still didn't really know why they remade it. Did the world need another West Side Story?

On the one hand, I think the question was answered in the affirmative right from the start. It's nice, I said to myself, to watch a popular entertainment from a director who knows what they are doing. You wonder why it took Spielberg so long to make a musical. And that feeling lasts ... he is in command of the medium, even making the usual "opening up" of a stage play in ways that feel natural ("America" is no longer on the rooftop, it courses through the city, dazzling).

And why not do a remake? We go to a theater once a week, and we've seen previews for The Tragedy of Macbeth several times, now. I don't know if that movie will be good (although, having seen Frances McDormand on stage as Lady Macbeth, I'm hopeful). But no one complains that there are multiple productions of Macbeth.

The problem is that while West Side Story is cemented in popular culture, it isn't necessarily a great play, and the earlier movie isn't as good as people think it is. It has the songs we all remember, and the dancing that seemed at the time to be so innovative, and perhaps that's enough. But Maria and Tony are among the more boring characters in the play, and the movie comes to a stop for their scenes. It's not the actors' fault ... newcomer Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort do a fine job. But there's a reason why Rita Moreno and George Chakiris won Oscars in 1962 while Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer weren't even nominated (Wood did get a nomination for Splendor in the Grass). Anita and Bernardo pop off the screen ... the parts pop off the screen. And so, in Spielberg's version, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez steal every scene they are in.

Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner do what they can to cover up some of the dated attitudes, and they give a semblance of backstories to the main characters ("Gee, Officer Krupke" feels like a true story here). But they are still stuck with Maria and Tony.

There is some excellent acting in all of this ... Mike Faist's take on Riff is intriguing. Everyone is talking about Rita Moreno, and sure, it's nice to see her, but she is replacing one of the most insufferable characters in the original, and she is always more a plot device than a character.

One thing I realized from the start is that I knew the score by heart. We had the movie soundtrack in our house when I was growing up (I also know the words to Oliver! and Gigi). Back then, soundtrack albums were the way you revisited favorite musicals. There was no streaming or On Demand viewing. West Side Story didn't show up on television until 1972. Like many big movies back then, it had occasional return engagements ... my wife and I saw it on a date at our local theater around 1968. But whereas now, you can watch your favorite movies over and over, in 1961, if you wanted to recapture the West Side Story feeling, you listened to the soundtrack. And that's why I knew the score in 2021.

So, is it worth seeing? If you love West Side Story, of course it is. And it's a better movie than the original. But is it one of the best movies of 2021? Nope.


original cast album: company (d.a. pennebaker, 1970)

This is the thirty-second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 32 is called "Documentary Now! Week".

As film enthusiasts, we owe it to ourselves to watch anything that caters to the more niche aspects of our hobby. And Documentary Now! may be the most inside baseball show about movies since The Critic. Helen Mirren hosts this Masterpiece-Theater-in-its-own-right lampoon of some of the most influential documentaries ever made. Its a show made with so much respect and love for its source material while also providing delightful caricatures of said films. In order to get the most of the show, this week's a little bit of a challenge+, as you must check out both a documentary they have parodied and the episode that parodies the film you select.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film parodied in "Documentary Now!" AND the corresponding episode.

This is only my second year doing the Letterboxd Challenge, but I'd have to say this week's category was the most complicated I've seen yet. Not only did I watch a movie, I watched a related televsion show, from a series I admit I'd never heard of, Documentary Now! It's a mockumentary, created by some SNL folks, that takes a real documentary and parodies it. Helen Mirren appears as the Masterpiece-like host. Some of those real docs were hard to find, and I ended up with Original Cast Album: Company almost by default. It's a "direct cinema" film from D.A. Pennebaker, which in itself gives it some interest.

Pennebaker was invited into the session to record the cast album for Company, which had just begun its run. It was intended to be a pilot for a proposed series, but that idea fell apart, leaving just this one example. It's the usual fly-on-the-wall approach, and more interesting if you are familiar with Company (I was not). There were a few familiar names, even to me. Dean Jones, who starred in a zillion Disney movies like That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug, was the male lead and showed off a fine voice. The legendary Elaine Stritch was her inimitable self. Best of all was Beth Howland. At the time, she was known for appearing in stage musicals, and she was the original Amy in Company. But I recognized her for the nine years and 200+ episodes she appeared in the TV show Alice. I don't think I even knew she could sing. Amy, it turns out, gets to be the main singer for "Getting Married Today", which is described by Wikipedia: "With 68 words sung in a total of 11 seconds, "Getting Married Today" was notable for being the most difficult musical song with the fastest verse in history."

As for the Documentary Now! parody ... what's the word, meh. It was close to the original, too close ... the only humor came from making the connections to the original. There was nothing inherent in what they were doing that was funny. It's quite the academic exercise, though.


once more with feeling

I have an entire category on this blog devoted to musicals. Including this post, I've only written about 20 musicals ... 20 in more than 18 years. It's been more than 10 months since the last one (Swing Time). It makes me wonder why I have a musical category (I think someone requested it).

It's not that I don't like musicals. I placed three of them in my Facebook Fave Fifty list some years ago, with a few others that could be called musicals if we're speaking broadly. But the most recent of those three musicals was 1972. And I haven't watched more than a handful of 21st-century musicals. I watch concert movies, but I'm not sure those count. In my wannabe hippie days in the early 70s, I watched lots of 30s musicals ... was a bit obsessed by them, to be honest. But nowadays? Nope.

But I did watch a musical on November 6, 2001. Liked it a lot. Have watched it since, even going to a theater for an audience-participation midnight showing. You might not call it a musical, but I do. It was an episode from Season 6 of Buffy called "Once More with Feeling".

If you have Hulu, you can watch the episode there. In the meantime, here's the soundtrack, courtesy of Spotify:


swing time (george stevens, 1936)

Generally considered one of the two best Fred and Ginger movies (along with my favorite, Top Hat). An Oscar winner for "The Way You Look Tonight", which is perfectly sung by Astaire, but which is a bit spoiled by the fact that Rogers has her head covered in shampoo during the scene. The score, by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, also includes "Pick Yourself Up", "A Fine Romance", and "Never Gonna Dance". The plot is the usual Fred and Ginger trifle ... the plot is never the point of their movies.

The dance highlight is "Never Gonna Dance" (many of these clips are of poor quality, especially unfortunate since Criterion has recently released a restored version):

The most famous dance in the movie is "Bojangles of Harlem", a tour de force as a dance and as a production, that is problematic because Astaire wears blackface. This time, it's hard to get a clip that shows the entire number, so here's an excerpt:

Finally, here is probably the best dance number in the film, "Waltz in Swing Time":

Bonus, because I can never resist posting it again: the greatest scene in Fred and Ginger history, one that never fails to bring tears to my eyes:


remembering valerie harper: rock rock rock! (will price, 1956)

That'll teach me. I thought I'd watch a movie with Valerie Harper, in memorial so to speak. I don't think I'd ever seen one, so the choice was open. I should have just watched a rerun on Rhoda.

I thought I knew what I was in for. I've seen more than one of these 50s rock and roll movies, most of which feature Alan Freed in some way. Just in 1956, Freed was in Rock Rock Rock!, Don't Knock the Rock, and Rock Around the Clock. They're never any good, but they do offer a chance to see some of the early rockers lip syncing their hits. This was just one of the areas where Rock Rock Rock! failed me.

Which rock and rollers turned up in Rock Rock Rock!? Chuck Berry ... can't go wrong there. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The Moonglows. The Flamingos. The Johnny Burnette Trio. LaVern Baker. Berry did "You Can't Catch Me", a nice choice, although his guitar isn't plugged in. How about the rest? The Moonglows are best known for "Sincerely". They did two songs in this movie ... neither was "Sincerely". The Flamingos are remembered for their immortal cover of "I Only Have Eyes for You". I can't really blame the movie for missing that one, since it wouldn't be released for another couple of years. Instead, they did an obscure non-hit. The Johnny Burnette Trio had a single in 1956 of "The Train Kept a-Rollin'" backed with "Honey Hush". Neither turned up in this movie. LaVern Baker is perhaps best known for "Jim Dandy". Here, she sang that record's B-Side. Lymon and the Teenagers' biggest hit was "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". They got two numbers in Rock Rock Rock! ... neither was that hit, although in fairness, they did do "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent". Those are the biggest stars in the movie, and only two of them gave us one of their hits. Not to mention the other acts who show up in Rock Rock Rock! "Alan Freed's band" did two songs ... Teddy Randazzo got four (he played the male lead ... Randazzo went on to write several classics, like "Goin' Out of My Head", but we got none of his famous songs in this movie, probably because he hadn't written them yet). Finally, there was Jimmy Cavallo and the House Rockers with two songs, an annoying little squirt named Ivy Schulman backed by The Bowties on one song, and "Cirino" with the same Bowties for another song.

But wait, there's more! The female lead was Tuesday Weld, who got two songs herself ... her songs were dubbed by Connie Francis.

What a mess.

As for Weld, I am a big fan. But this was not her finest hour. She was 13 when the film was released ... depending on how long it took to make it, she might have been 12 during filming. She got to share a kiss with Randazzo, who was 21. She later appeared in some fine movies. David Thomson once wondered if Weld would be more highly regarded if she just used her real first name, Susan. I bring this up so you won't think I'm trashing her. But she is pretty bad in Rock Rock Rock!

And Valerie Harper, the reason I watched this? It was her first movie. She's basically an extra, playing a teenager at a dance, on screen for maybe 3 seconds.