Judy (2019)

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I’m only Judy Garland for an hour a night. Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) tells young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) just how special she is while he bullies her and drugs her with her mother’s (Natasha Powell) collusion to keep her thin to star in The Wizard of Oz. Mickey Rooney turns her down and she is forced to endure a fake birthday party for the press. Thirty years later the beloved actress and singer (Renée Zellwegger) is bankrupt and scrabbling to play any gig she can with her young children Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Llloyd) in order to get enough money for the next day – literally singing for her supper. She deposits the kids with her ex Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when no hotel in LA will have her because of her history of non-payment.  She attends a party at older daughter Liza Minnelli’s (Gemma-Leah Devereux ) where she marvels at Liza’s lack of nerves before her own next show. She encounters Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) a young guy who clearly wants to impress her. Her only hope of getting her kids back and having a home of her own again is to sing concerts and she is bailed out by an offer from promoter Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to play a long cabaret engagement at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) is appointed her assistant and minder and has to help get her onstage each night as Judy battles nerves, drink and pills. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with Mickey who turns up to surprise her and she is smitten again … I see how great you are. I don’t see the problems. Adapted by Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter this never quite escapes its stage roots and each song (including Come Rain or Come ShineThe Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow) serves – performed either when she is late, drunk, nervous, or abusive – as a trigger for another flashback to the Thirties at MGM to explain the status quo. The trouble with this is that there is no joy in the performance, which may be true to life but this narrow focus ill-serves a biopic although there are moments when Zellwegger has an uncanny resemblance to Garland – facially, with gesture and movement as she nails the physique of a depleted, bag of bones Judy in her final months. She also sings the songs herself but the lip-syncing seems off.  Despite a two-hour running time her relationships feel underwritten and under-represented. Even the backstage antics with the talented Buckley (a glorious singer in her own right) don’t seem busy enough for that situation and while it may be true the idea that she never rehearsed with her music director (Matt Nalton) it seems preposterous whether or not she was always using the same music charts from Carnegie Hall. The highlights of her career are ignored but she enjoys the offstage attention of two diehard Friends of Dorothy (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera) in a subplot which feels tacked on even if it’s a serviceable nod to the gay fans that Judy so openly acknowledged (and her funeral occurred in NYC just a few hours before the Stonewall Riots – coincidence?). It has its moments and one occurs close to the end when Delfont is suing her after she has used the F word at a member of the audience. Buckley and Nalton take her for a farewell lunch and tempt her to eat something. She plays with a piece of delicious cake on her plate and finally takes a bite and savours the taste. She declares, I think maybe I was just hungry.  It’s a rare piece of black comedy referencing the starvation she endured as a teenager and finally lightens the mood as if this constant state of hanger might well explain her decades of poor decision-making and a bad rep. There’s an attempt at a feel-good ending onstage but it’s not enough and rings rather hollow, trying to squeeze more emotion out of that tiny diaphragm in a set of songs that aren’t especially well directed.  This is a film about performance, not feeling. It’s a BBC Films production and it seems under funded, threadbare and careworn, practically uncinematic. Surely such a star deserves better, even at the fag-end of her career. Directed by Rupert Goold. What have you ever done that would make anyone listen to you?

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Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

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I have an eye for new and refreshing talent. In 1977 world-famous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) takes much-younger animal trainer Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) as a lover, but the relationship deteriorates when Liberace gets Scott cosmetic surgery to remake him as his younger self and eventually takes other bedmates and a disillusioned Thorson becomes addicted to drugs… What a story. It’s got everything but a fire at the orphanage. This premiered on HBO which disqualified it from all the awards it was surely due. Adapted from Scott Thorson’s memoir Behind the Candelabra:  My Life with Liberace, this is a corrosively funny account of the mega-famous flamboyant bachelor pianist’s last ten years, four of which he spent with the younger bisexual who would of course betray him in a palimony lawsuit. Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay hits all the right notes and boy does Douglas totally get the tone. Damon is no less good, sparking life into a rather passive role – this really is all about performance, on and offstage and screen. Rob Lowe as the wonderfully enhanced plastic surgeon is a role for the ages and he relishes the part:  he’s totally hilarious.  And it could only be Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. The whole shebang is over the top, crazy, deadly serious and more or less true. The film is dedicated to composer Marvin Hamlisch who died a year before it was released. Directed by Steven Soderbergh with admirable verve.  I love you not only for what you are, But for what I am when I’m with you 

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

Christiane F. (1981)

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Aka Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo. You’ll never forget her … In mid-1970s Berlin, an aimless teenager (Natja Brunkhorst) who lives with her single mother and sister in a social housing project falls in with a drug dealer Detlef (Thomas Haustein) after meeting at a nightclub where her hero David Bowie is performing. Soon her addiction leads her to hanging out with other junkies at Bahnhof Zoo subway station and then to a life on the streets… I only did it because I wanted to know how you feel. Adapted from tape recordings with the real-life junkie whose story it tells, this has cult written all over it. From the Berlin setting, the drugs, Bowie and the excruciating portrait of a beautiful child lost to sex and heroin and, well, rock ‘n’ roll, it’s tough stuff. Working from a screenplay by Herman Weigel and director Uli Edel adapting Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s non-fiction book, Edel directs with verve and a realistic grit. This is not an attractive experience despite the superficial elements of cool – its low budget, graphic sex scenes and shooting style place it in the exploitation realm while the classic score by Bowie (Station to Station, Boys Keep Swinging and unofficial theme song Heroes are the most famous tracks) and the great Jürgen Knieper give it a real kick. The cast are mostly non-professionals and the beautiful Brunkhorst is the only one who proceeded to an acting career. However watching dead-eyed kids having underage sex, shooting up and overdosing ain’t pretty and this squalid depiction of Berlin in the 70s is miserable – no wonder it cleaned up. A film that truly shocked upon release, it’s dedicated to Atze, Axel and Babsi, all portrayed here and all dead from heroin ODs.  A grim Euro-classic with a cameo performance by Bowie actually recorded in NYC.  I can’t get hooked if I just use a little, only once in a while. I can control my using

The Halfway House (1944)

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Death is only a door opening.  During the Second World War, people converge on the Halfway House, an inn in the Welsh countryside run by Rhys (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (his real-life daughter Glynis Johns). In Cardiff, famous orchestra conductor David Davies (Esmond Knight) is advised by his doctor to cancel a tour and rest, or he will live for only about three months. In London, Lt. Richard (Richard Bird)  and Jill French (Valerie White) argue about the education of their young daughter Joanna (Sally Ann Howes) who overhears them agree to divorce. Then Mr. French and Joanna go on holiday. Captain Fortescue (Guy Middleton) is released from Parkmoor Prison where he did time after being court-martialled for stealing the regimental funds. In a Welsh port, merchant captain Harry Meadows (Tom Walls) and his French wife Alice (Françoise Rosay) quarrel about their deceased son, a victim of the U-boats. Black marketeer Oakley (Alfred Drayton)departs from London for some fishing, while Margaret (Phillippa Hiatt) and her Irish diplomat fiancé Terence (Pat McGrath) take a train from Bristol…… Boyish girls and girlish boys. The fashion for the supernatural in wartime continues apace in this adaptation of Dennis Ogden’s play The Peaceful Inn by Angus Macphail, Diana Morgan, Roland Pertwee and T.E.B. Clarke.  Arguments about what constitutes grief (should a mother feel more than a father), should a family stay together for the daughter’s sake and political righteousness (Ireland’s neutrality – a wish for an impossible peace or an excuse not to takes side) are all on the table. The final images suggest that the external landscape following the inn’s bombing is something that can be made and remade within the mind itself. Strange and fascinating Ealing production with all those familiar faces.  Directed by Basil Dearden. That’s last year’s calendar!

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

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

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