All That Jazz (1979)

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To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.  When he is not planning for his upcoming Broadway stage musical or working on his Hollywood film, choreographer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is popping pills and sleeping with a seemingly endless line of women including Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking). He has to deal with his ex-wife and collaborator Audrey (Leland Palmer) and daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) and survives with a daily routine which always commences to the accompaniment of Vivaldi but must include drugs and sex to keep going.  The physical and mental stress begins to take a toll on the ragged hedonistic perfectionist. He has angina leading to hospitalisating and open heart surgery during which all the shows and episodes of his life appear to him in dreams led by Angelique (Jessica Lange) and his stuttering existence is a neverending chorus line on repeat, meanwhile the financiers are wondering if they should bet on his death …  You could be the first show on Broadway to make a profit… without ever really opening! With Fosse/Verdon upcoming on the small screen, it’s time to sit back and relish the great Fosse’s achievements as choreographer and filmmaker once again.  This was based on a period in his life when he was editing the Dustin Hoffman starrer Lenny and staging Chicago. At the same time. Considering that this is about life as performance, it’s crucial that Fosse’s avatar be as intense and rivetting as he was – and Scheider utterly inhabits the role in an enervating interpretation. It’s incredible that Reinking had to audition to effectively play herself, given that she was one of Fosse’s women at the time. Lange is wonderful as the death angel and the literal intercutting of Joe’s open heart surgery with episodes of his life clearly alludes to Fellini’s similarly autobiographical 8 1/2.  And why not. And it’s a musical! With simply stunning production numbers whose editing makes your nerves jangle with joy. This is how dance is meant to be cut!  Co-written by Fosse with producer Robert Alan Arthur, it’s ironic that it was the 56-year old Arthur who died following production and he was posthumously nominated for a slew of awards. I have no idea how, but somehow, somewhere, probably at a festival many years after its initial release, I had the opportunity to see this on the big screen and boy was I lucky. Film as fantasy? It was never more like life:  vicious, funny, dark, nightmarish and doomed.  A fabulously hallucinatory cinematic experience. Jazz hands, flicks and moonwalks? Absolutely! Assume the position.  It’s showtime, folks!

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Lost in London (2017)

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Hollywood is almost like Royalty Without Borders. Woody Harrelson comes offstage from a dour drama in London to see he’s made headlines on a tabloid following an orgy with three women. He tries to persuade his wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) to leave a restaurant where she’s been dining with their small daughters before she sees the news but she returns to their hotel without him and he goes off drinking with an Arab prince, landing at a nightclub where he’s initially refused entry. Inside he meets his buddy Owen Wilson who berates him for his stupidity at not paying 30K to keep the story out of the papers and then they argue about their respective careers and get into a fistfight. The police are called and Woody gets assistance from a singer (Zrinka Cvitesic) who gives his last £50 to a wheelchair-bound beggar who Woody knocks over to retrieve the money before running off in a taxi where he breaks an ashtray. He flees the scene, only to be arrested in a playground and Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) seems bribable with a call to Bono of U2. Except when he talks to him he tells him he hasn’t made a good album since October … In the real world Wes Anderson is a Woody Allen wannabe. He hasn’t made a good film since Bottle Rocket. And come to that, neither have you. Presumably inspired by Birdman, this behind the scenes look at an actor’s wild night out in London was based on something that happened to debut writer/director movie star Harrelson 15 years previously  – and it’s shot in one take – and was livestreamed to a presumably gobsmacked audience in London’s Picturehouse Cinema at Piccadilly Circus and 500 cinemas around the US as it was being made! So far, so unprecedented, and it’s a little ropy to begin with, understandably, mostly due to the movement and some tricky performances from a cast of 30 actors: in reality just before they hit the streets they got the news (which we get from the top ‘n’ tail filmed segments added in post) that one of their locations, Waterloo Bridge, was closed off due to the discovery of an unexploded bomb. You have to admire the chutzpah of a crew who did it anyway! More than that, it’s witty, self-lacerating, and abounds with good energy, philosophical insights and jokes into fandom and celebrity (it might even be a mockumentary such is the extent of the mistaken identity and snide remarks about the last time Harrelson was in a good movie or even sexy). It even has a dream sequence with Willie Nelson playing to Harrelson. Except for the last part which fast forwards to morning (in name only as it’s night for day!) and the imminent trip to Neasden Studios to go to the Harry Potter set to prove Woody’s not a completely deadbeat dad, this is what it is: a live movie shot in a single (admittedly rather murky) take (by Jon Hembrough and Nigel Willoughby). And that’s pretty remarkable. What you are about to do is beyond crazy. Don’t do it!

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

The Patsy (1964)

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Uh, the people in the theater know I ain’t gonna die. Here, it’s a movie stage.  Eccentric hotel bellhop Stanley Belt (Jerry Lewis) is recruited unexpectedly by the comedy team of a top entertainer who has died in a plane crash and whom they are seeking to replace with a nobody. Stanley struggles to become a song-and-dance man as the team including producer Caryl (Everett Sloane), writer Chic (Phil Harris) and assistant Ellen (Ina Balin) – grooms him to become a star. But as the date of a high-stakes appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show grows near, they begin to fear that the only astonishing thing about Stanley is his utter lack of talent. They drop him but Ellen supports him, he becomes a hit and now they want him back … They simply want to make you a star. An unofficial sequel to The Bellboy, this is one where you either love Lewis’s autistic-modernist shtick, or you plain don’t. However the raft of appearances by celebrities and personalities of the big and small screen is jaw-dropping and Lewis’ voice training scene is priceless. You might find broad similarities to The Girl Can’t Help It, which had starred Jayne Mansfield in a work by Lewis’ mentor Frank Tashlin but this takes the concept of a rock ‘n’ roll death and inscribes the dread fear of the comedian – being rewritten by his own team.  There are clever Chaplinesque situations and witty insights into backstage sycophants and their motivations. At its heart this is a serious film about the pressure to be funny.  Featuring the final screen performances of both Peter Lorre and Everett Sloane as part of his manipulative entourage. Directed by Lewis, who co-wrote with Bill Richmond. This is a movie

White Christmas (1954)

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When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.  Years after being demobbed following wartime service in Europe, song-and-dance act Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) join sister act Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) to perform a Christmas show in rural Vermont where, they run into Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II.  He is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life and is beset by financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business in the black by turning it into an entertainment venue! But when Phil and Judy pair off, that leaves Bob and Betty out in the cold … You don’t expect me to get serious with the kind of characters you and Rita have been throwing at me, do you? It’s getting so the PC thought police are making even this jolly time of year a pain in the ass what with songs and carols and anything mentioning the words ‘white’ and ‘Christmas’ causing conniptions. Here at Mondo Towers we are committed to having fun and that includes revisiting this sheerly delightful Technicolor VistaVision explosion of seasonal happiness which is a great taster for the big day. A sort of loose remake of Holiday Inn from a decade earlier, Kaye is teamed with Crosby and they make a great double act, even if this ain’t a Road movie and it was originally intended as the third vehicle for Crosby and Fred Astaire. Clooney and Vera-Ellen make perfect sparring partners for the guys, vivacious and sparky and smart, all at once.  Look fast for George Chakiris dancing behind Clooney and you don’t need me to tell you that all the songs are by Irving Berlin (and Clooney sings both parts on Sisters). The photograph of Freckle-Faced (Dog-Faced Boy) Haynes is that of Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in The Little Rascals. The screenplay is by Norman Panama, Norman Krasna and Melvin Frank. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who elicits joyful performances from all concerned in what is for the most part an excellently staged production – and Bob Fosse did the choreography, although he’s uncredited.  Altogether wonderful entertainment, this was the biggest box office hit of its year. The countdown starts here … The crooner is now becoming the comic

 

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Being human is a condition that requires a little anaesthesia. In 1970 college student and Heathrow Airport baggage handler Farrokh (Freddie) Bulsara (Rami Malek) goes to a nightclub to watch a local band called Smile where he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) who’ve just lost their bassist/singer. He gives an impromptu display of his four octave range and offers to be the band’s new lead vocalist. The diva has arrived fully formed. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) the band – now known as Queen – plays at local gigs across Britain until they sell their van to produce their debut album which earns them a contract with EMI. At the same time, Farrokh legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury and becomes engaged to Biba store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) with whom he lives. During the band’s U.S. tour, Freddie begins to question his sexuality. In 1975, Queen record their fourth album, A Night at the Opera but leave EMI when executive Ray Foster (an unrecognisable Mike Myers) refuses to have the six-minute song Bohemian Rhapsody released as the album’s first single. Freddie has Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau) debut the song on the airwaves. Despite mixed reviews, it becomes a smash hit. Shortly after the band’s world tour, Freddie begins an affair with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), his personal manager, and Mary breaks up with Freddie when he comes out to her as bisexual, although she assures him that he is gay. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career after sacking manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) in a sleight of hand engineered by Prenter who leads Freddie in an increasingly debauched way of life as he records his albums in Munich, drugged up and losing contact with the band and their new manager and former lawyer Jim ‘Miami’ Beach (Tom Hollander). Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with them just in time for Live Aid, a concert which Prenter decided not to tell Freddie about. While facing a recent AIDS diagnosis which he discloses a week before the world’s biggest ever concert, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. .. How many more Galileos do you want?! The dramatic peaks of this controversial and troubled production (is there any other kind?) are the composition of the legendary epic song that gives rise to the title; and the final twenty-minute set at Live Aid on 13th July 1985.  The writing of the songs is what underpins the film’s dramatic core – from the first words or notes or flashes of inspiration to the band’s individual contributions in studios intercut with live performance this might be one of the best expositions of composition certainly in terms of rock band biopics, demonstrating how something gets written, produced and performed. But it’s really all about Freddie the showman and the other guys are just sketches of perfectly reasonable young musicians, not fully formed characters who might have had reason to knock Freddie sideways even if Roger tries (it was produced by them with Jim Beach, so it was never going to go full fetish). There might be complaints about the telescoping of certain incidents (the AIDS diagnosis) for dramatic purpose but it serves the wider ambition, which is to delineate just how extraordinary the connection with the audience was from their very first performance. Mercury’s own lifestyle and how he became ill is then suggested rather than graphically explored (whew) but the seedy Prenter is assigned the role of villain in chief and Leech does what he can in the character role where his costuming becomes the model for Freddie’s gay Village People look (prompting an apposite line from Brian). Boynton is rather good in another underwritten role as the toothsome Mary whose friendship was the hinge for Freddie’s sanity and a reality check when he went over the edge.  The social and cultural backdrop of Zoroastrianism and being a Parsi immigrant in Britain is paid its due even if it’s a little perfunctory but works to explain Freddie’s exoticism and the originality which he gleefully exploits for presentation amid these middle class boys. It’s ironic that it’s Roger who wants to cross-dress for the I Want to Break Free video and Freddie who gets pilloried for it at a press conference. Roger, there’s only room in this band for one hysterical queen. It’s far from perfect but once you get accustomed to the wildly charismatic Malek (and his enormous teeth – extra incisors, folks!) it’s quite thrilling, taking us from the wet dull dank hinterland of England in the early 1970s when the apex of fame is an appearance on Top of the Pops, where the BBC man insists that they lip-sync; through the leather-clad descent into a druggy fug not giving a four x about what people thought until it was too late while the other guys got married and had families. Freddie’s efforts to find Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) years after their first encounter at his party are quite touching particularly because he’s the first man he takes home to meet the parents, on the morning of Live Aid, prompting a reconciliation that leads the folks to watch him on the telly. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (from a story written with Peter Morgan) is flawed and rather kitsch but somehow the parts make up an entertainment that will have you stomping in the aisles. How these extraordinarily well-educated men heard music and put it through their own misfitted filter for a wider world is the whole show. Basically, this is Queen’s Greatest Hits. Oh, and Freddie’s cats are absolutely delightful. Directed for the most part by Bryan Singer who flung a hissy fit à la Freddie and had to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher. I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever

Fame (1980)

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I mean, if I don’t have a personality of my own, so what? I’m an actress! I can put on as many personalities as I want! Accepted in the Drama department of New York’s High School for the Performing Arts are sensitive Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane) who thinks he’s gay, Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl, and brash Ralph Garci (Barry Miller) who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky (Albert Hague), a conservative music teacher. Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) is accepted in the Dance department, despite having no interest in the subject. Brazen Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara) is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent. Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than hers. We follow the progress of the students through four years of high school until it’s time for graduation …  I’s young, I’s single, and I loves to mingle! Time to ‘fess up:  like all kids of the Eighties my Thursday nights were Top of the Pops followed by Fame, the TV show inspired by this Alan Parker film. And two of the highlights of my life were – therefore – seeing the back of Lee Curreri at NBC when he was recording a kids’ show; and some years later, Debbie Allen (Lydia the taskmaster dance teacher) leading the parade at New Orleans Mardi Gras, cher! That’s the fame of Fame, which had us delirious on all platforms before the term came into use. Its diverse cast pleases millennial taste although the un-PC jokes (about being gay, Jewish, black, female) would probably tee off some. It’s an equal opportunities offender! Personable, characterful, there’s one for everybody in the audience which is why everyone could relate. It’s bold and dramatic and fun and the Hot Lunch sequence makes you squeal with sheer enjoyment while the songs are just great.  Some of the plot lines strain to reach a conclusion and it’s not exactly tied up with a big red bow at the end, but you know, it’s kinda wonderful in an enervating way and no way can you not sing with delight and dance yourself dizzy watching it again! The film within a film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show and for those of us who used to go see it as a weekly performing event it’s a fabulous aide memoire. Shot at a time when Annie and Grease were on Broadway, this is a liberating, joyful viewing experience and the cast are wildly talented and charismatic in a NYC before it was cleaned up.  It’s simply teeming with infectious energy, danger, ambition and inchoate teenage rage. Written by Christopher Gore.  Music is the hardest profession of them all

Crazy Heart (2009)

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You woke me up. Former country-music legend 57-year old Otis ‘Bad’ Blake (Jeff Bridges) is so broke he’s reduced to playing dives and bowling alleys in various desert venues in the Southwest. He’s always retching from a combination of long-term heavy drinking, cancer and emphysema. In town for his latest gig, Blake meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sympathetic reporter and the niece of a talented pianist whom he’s hired as part of his pick-up band, who has come to do a story on him. He unexpectedly warms to her and a romance begins, with Bad taking to her four-year old son Buddy and regaining a kind of balance that even the need to support and write songs for his protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) can’t undo.  Then he finds himself at a crossroads that may threaten his last shot at happiness when he opts to have a drink one day when he’s looking after Buddy I’ve been drunk most of my life. I missed a hell of a lot. Adapted from Thomas Cobb’s eponymous book by writer, producer and director Scott Cooper, this is a tale of a mellow fellow on the outs. Played beautifully by Bridges, he’s the kinda guy that probably inspired Bradley Cooper to top himself in the latest iteration of A Star is Born:  oozing talent but permanently dying for want of a drink, ageing without mercy.  He’s got an opportunity to contact the son he hasn’t seen in 24 years and he blows it horribly. It’s a compelling portrait and Bridges is matched by not only Gyllenhaal who has some moving scenes with him, but such a ridiculous cast of co-stars – Robert Duvall (who also produces) hires him to play at his bar while the great Tom Bowers is the proprietor of a liquor store. A warm drama about a likable if flawed protagonist who’s got one last shot – and a whole lot more lined up in the bar. Bridges is an avatar for real-life country hero Merle Haggard and with original songs written by T. Bone Burnett this is a treat for music fans. That’s the way it is with good ones, you’re sure you’ve heard them before