rock 'n' roll high school (allan arkush, 1979)

I just read a book, I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, by Stephen B. Armstrong, which prompted yet another viewing of one of my favorite movies. I'm surprised I never wrote anything about it before, so here goes.

Sometimes I'll say of a movie that I respect it more than I like it, that I congratulate it for carrying out its intentions while admitting the movie isn't for me. Rock 'n' Roll High School is a bit like the opposite of that. Oh, after reading Armstrong's book, I think it's remarkable that the vision of Allan Arkush et al made it as close to the final product as could be. Arkush battled against people who didn't want the film to be made (Roger Corman kept asking Arkush to limit the scenes with The Ramones). The budget was low, the Ramones were amateur actors ... but Rock 'n' Roll High School has become a cult classic over the years, one I can watch again and again.

I love the relationship between the two female leads, #1 Ramones fan Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) and science geek Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). The camaraderie between the two actresses is beautiful. Most of the movie is cartoonish, but Riff and Kate have some authentic moments between them. The cast is full of the kinds of actors you need to establish your cult credentials, and they are all good: Clint Howard, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, the immortal Dick Miller, Don Steele, Grady Sutton, and two young women, Chris Summa and Marla Rosenfield, who won the hearts of many young boys but then seemed to disappear.

There are two things that separate Rock 'n' Roll High School from other teen-rebellion comedies. The most obvious is The Ramones. To be honest, the first part of the film drags a bit, with a lot of hit-or-miss schtick. But when The Ramones finally turn up ... well, it's one of my all-time favorite movie scenes:

The band had misgivings about being in the movie, and had turned down other offers to be in films, feeling that rock bands were always shown to be stupid. But here, they are charismatic, helped by the lovely fantasy of the film that The Ramones are like the biggest band in the world. And if they gave Oscars for Best Performance by an Extra, I'd say give one each to those two girls strangling each other in line.

The other thing that makes this movie different is the ending. We learn in Armstrong's book that from the beginning, it was intended that the movie would end with the teens blowing up the school. In the 50s rock movies from which Rock 'n' Roll High School draws, the ending usually comes when the parents realize their kids are OK, the music is OK, everything is OK. That's not how this one ends:

Maybe you hate to hate high school to really appreciate that ending.

So yeah, some of the jokes are sophomoric at best, things don't really pick up until The Ramones show up ... nobody ever said this is a great movie. But I love it, just the same.

la la land (damien chazelle, 2016)

La La Land is a lovely musical romance, with charismatic lead performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It looks great, the cinematography (by Linus Sandgren) is enjoyably inviting, and the blend of upbeat moments and downbeat situations is effective. It was nominated for 14 Oscars, winning 6, including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. (It rightfully lost Best Picture to Moonlight in a now-infamous foul-up at the Oscar ceremonies.) It is currently #270 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

I didn't care for it.

First, it's a musical, and a day later, I can't recall a single song. (It won the Oscar for Best Score.)

Second, it's a musical. The last true musical film I loved was Cabaret in 1972. (Since then, I have loved a few concert films ... The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Summer of Soul.) My favorite musicals are Fred and Ginger movies from the 1930s.

Basically, I was never going to like La La Land, and that has little to do with the film itself. So Your Mileage May Vary and all that.

The opening is a marvel of production excellence:

a song is born (howard hawks, 1948)

This is the twentieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 20 is called "Pre-50s Musicals Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen musical film made before 1950. A list to guide you.

If you judge a musical solely on its music scenes, A Song Is Born is OK. One critic said the movie is perfect for the DVD age, where you can just jump forward to the music scenes. Which you'd want to do, because the rest of the movie is a drag. It's a remake of Balls of Fire, also directed by Howard Hawks, that starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Hawks famously hated A Song Is Born. He said he only took the job for the money:

Danny Kaye had separated from his wife, and he was a basket case, stopping work to see a psychiatrist [every] day. He was about as funny as a crutch. I never thought anything in that picture was funny. It was an altogether horrible experience... We not only had to take Virginia Mayo, but [Goldwyn] had her run Ball of Fire about twenty times and rehearse with somebody else to play Stanwyck's scenes. She's not Stanwyck, I'll tell you that.

Kaye is remarkably subdued by his own standards, and is far too dull. Still, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Louis Bellson, and many others make appearances, which helps a lot. Perhaps best is Benny Goodman. While the other musicians play themselves, Goodman plays "Professor Magenbruch", an academic who, it is noted, has never heard of Benny Goodman. So yeah, use that fast-forward button if you like, but don't expect a good movie.

a few 2022 movie lists

I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2022 for the first time. I gave all of them a rating of 9 on a scale of 10. Sorted by release year:

Best movies I re-watched this year (all 10/10):

  • The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • A Hard Day's Night (1964)
  • Jaws (1975)
  • The Last Waltz (1978)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The ongoing Geezer Cinema list. We watched 48 Geezer movies this year, beginning with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse back on January 4:

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

And this list of everything I watched this year:

[Letterboxd list of movies I watched in 2022]

geezer cinema: rrr (s. s. rajamouli, 2022)

What a magnificent movie! It's totally insane, it's three hours long but never boring, it is an action extravaganza as well as a musical, it's everything all at once, to refer to the only other 2022 movie I've seen that is this good.

Rajamouli tells the entirely fictional story of two historical revolutionaries who never met in real life. It's hard to say RRR came out of nowhere ... it is Rajamouli's 12th feature, co-stars N. T. Rama Rao Jr. (NTR) and Ram Charan are huge, award-winning stars, as is fellow cast member Alia Bhatt. It's the most expensive Indian film of all time. It's a box-office smash, and now it's a hit on Netflix. I knew nothing about it going in, except that it was supposed to be good. That turned out to be an understatement.

The stars bring great charisma to their roles. Rajamouli's plot is always engrossing, even when it makes little sense. The special effects are remarkable. The essential conflict of the two men at the center of the picture is told with great feeling. And it's often extremely funny, with a handful of expansive musical numbers we expect from Indian cinema. And there are a couple of "Hey, it's that guys!", like Ray Stevenson (always Titus Pullo at our house) and former Bond Girl Alison Doody.

RRR has some violent scenes, which may prevent some from wanting to see it. Everyone else, though, should check it out whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

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.