Category Archives: Musical Drama Films

A Star Is Born-2018

A Star Is Born-2018

Director-Bradley Cooper

Starring-Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga

Scott’s Review #819

Reviewed October 10, 2018

Grade: A

On paper, by the time a film reaches its fourth remake (think- superhero franchises), there is a risk of either utter redundancy or a lack of interest (or both!). Months before A Star Is Born was released to theaters a tremendous buzz emerged, particularly about the stars (Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga). Considering the latter had never starred in a film before, the word of mouth was surprising. The hype can be believed as the film is a tremendous effort with something to offer everyone.

The story begins as boozy country crooner, Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), performs a sold-out show. He needs the aid of pills to take the stage and suffers from gradual hearing loss but is nonetheless a famous and popular star. Following the concert Jackson meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress who moonlights singing French songs at a drag bar. They immediately bond as he encourages her to celebrate her talent despite her insecurities. As events unfold the pair dive into a passionate romance as her career skyrockets while his deteriorates from drug and alcohol abuse.

On the surface a film such as A Star Is Born runs the risk of being hokey, formulaic, or otherwise generic. The premise dictates as such- successful star meets insecure up and comer, romance ensues, and they face obstacles and internal conflict on the road to success. Sounds like material custom made for a Hallmark television movie or something light weight, especially given the remake of a remake of a remake factor.

Instead, every element of A Star Is Born works perfectly. Of enormous praise is how Bradley Cooper both directs this film and has the central male role. He, as a director, incorporates some interesting camera shots, including a long shot of Ally walking down an alley, rehearsing a song for a performance. Also, the numerous concert scenes are very well done. Impressive since this is Cooper’s directorial debut.

An enormous win for the film is the chemistry between Cooper and Gaga which is evident in the very first moments the two appear on screen together. In fact, their chemistry is purely electric- almost magical as they rapidly bond and connect. Their connection is not only physical, but over their love of music and the artistry associated with creating good music. This bond is slowly tested as Ally’s career takes off and her manager steers her in a more pop oriented direction, which infuriates Jackson. Even through turmoil, the chemistry between the two actors is palpable in every scene.

My two favorite scenes include the scene in which Jackson and Ally first meet in the drag bar. The lovely French tune (Edit Piaf’s “La Vie en rose”) that she performs is cultural and rife with talent. As Jackson gazes at her from the bar there is amazement and pride in his gleaming eyes. He is immediately smitten with her talent and poise and this scene sets the tone for the film. The second comes at the film’s conclusion, as Ally belts out the heartfelt “I’ll Never Love Again”. Performing to a subdued audience, the song is performed as a close-up of Ally to tremendous visual effect.

The musical numbers are heartfelt and emotional without being sappy. From treasures such as “Shallow”, and “Maybe It’s Time” to the thunderous “Black Eyes” and pop driven “Why Did You Do That?”, the soundtrack contains something for everyone.

Cooper, already an acting champ, astounds as he is so good, while Lady Gaga, a novice to film acting, looks like a pro. We believe her struggles, doubting her star potential as she is deemed “too ugly” to make it in the music business. Gaga successfully showcases her pain, doubt, and eventual bombast at her sudden success.

Mention must be given to Sam Elliott, the veteran actor who gives a dynamic supporting turn as Bobby Maine, older brother and manager of Jackson. Elliott does not have a showy role or a big emotional scene- he doesn’t need to. In the actor’s quiet way, he infuses the character with pent up anger but with unconditional love and affection for his brother mixed in. Harboring rage and turmoil for each other, the best scene between Elliott and Cooper comes towards the end of the film when Jackson admits his love for Bobby. The emotion is raw on the face of Elliott in this important scene.

A Star Is Born (2018) is a superlative remake and one for the ages. I can easily see this film, already a fan favorite, going down in the record books. With a memorable musical soundtrack, wonderful acting and directing, and characters audiences can relate to, a classic in the making is not too difficult to imagine.

Dreamgirls-2006

Dreamgirls-2006

Director-Bill Condon

Starring-Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson

Scott’s Film Review #792

Reviewed July 20, 2018

Grade: A

Dreamgirls (2006) is a glossy show business style drama with plenty of glitz and glamour. Adapted from the Broadway production of the same name, the story is loosely based on the trials and tribulations of The Supremes, a popular all-girl group from the 1960’s. Despite the film being heavily focused on the drama and tension between the characters, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack and fantastic acting- most notably newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who garnered a surprising Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for her role.

The film tells the story of the evolution of American R&B music during the 1960’s and the 1970’s- the action mainly taking place in Detroit, Michigan, where the genre began. Taking center stage is the incarnation of a girl group called The Dreams, who are controlled by their manipulative record label executive. A womanizer and creep, Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), guides the girls to stardom, but beds both the beautiful Deena (Beyonce) and the talented yet overweight Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). This leads to conflict as Curtis decides that less talented Deena is more marketable and thus should be the central figure of the band.

With a stellar cast in tow, Dreamgirls contains a plethora of talent and a good historical lesson to boot. The main draw in the acting department is the revelation of the talented Jennifer Hudson. Winner of the talent show American Idol, many pooh pooed her film direction, apparently assuming she was a flash in the pan and a “reality television” star. The challenging role of Effie is perfectly suited for Hudson- brazen, pipes for days, and plenty of attitude. Her acting aside, Hudson scorches through an unforgettable rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which is assuredly what won her the Oscar.

Otherwise, the supporting cast is worthwhile and impressive is Beyonce in a pivotal role. Surely, the singer/actress faced her share of detractors, along with Hudson, but their chemistry is amazing and she nails all of her songs. Eddie Murphy is a gem in the role mirrored after James Brown, James “Thunder” Early.  The role is perfect for Murphy- a far cry from his standard comedic roles that have grown stale over the years. This role rejuvenates the actor’s credibility.

Dreamgirls does at times falter a bit with the drama, almost soap opera-like situations. A triangle develops between Effie, Curtis, and Deena, which leads to tension, bad-blood, cattiness, and melodrama. If the film were a standard drama this would undoubtedly make the film suffer from a tired script or generic writing. But the musical numbers are so riveting that these flaws can be overlooked completely. The ritzy glamour and sparkles that erupt during “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only” are wonderful fun and the songs are memorable leaving audiences humming along as they dance in the aisles.

In fact, the story is one that has been told many times before. A dream of rising to musical stardom and the many trials and tribulations that go along with these hopes and desires. Comparisons can be made to Chicago (2002), Valley of the Dolls (1967), or even Gypsy (1962), but the mostly black cast and the 1960’s Motown theme is interesting, particularly as the Civil Rights movement of the time was upon us. The film does not invest much time with politics, sticking mainly with the drama and music, which may be a wise move in order to avoid too much of a message theme.

As the film concludes in 1975, Effie is reaffirmed as a meaningful member of The Dreams after her career has tanked and she has wound up on welfare. A paternity twist is also thrown in for good measure, but the film has a clear “happily after ever” vibe to it which softens the film and keeps it more on the PG-13 level instead of going for darker themes.

Dreamgirls (2006) is a musical that is highly memorable for me because it made Jennifer Hudson a household name and confirms the talent and glory that she is rightfully due. In subsequent years the star lost weight, softened her image a bit, and became, well, more generic. But thankfully we have a gorgeous performance to always appreciate her for.

Carmen Jones-1954

Carmen Jones-1954

Director-Otto Preminger

Starring-Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte

Scott’s Review #736

Reviewed April 3, 2018

Grade: B+

Quite taboo at the time of release (1954) because it featured an all-black cast with not a single white cast member, Carmen Jones is to be celebrated for its contribution to film history for this groundbreaking feat alone. Directed by Otto Preminger (who  ironically is caucasian),  the film features legendary actress Dorothy Dandridge in a Marilyn Monroe style performance worthy of the stars talents. The film is a musical with inevitable tragedy at the conclusion.

The 1954 feature is based on a 1943 stage production  of the same name, which in turn is based on the music of the famous 1875 Georges Bizet production of Carmen. These facets add to the richness of the film as it is layered in good history, and the well-known tragic elements make the conclusion of unsurprising.

Brazen and beautiful, Carmen is a seductress who works in a parachute factory in North Carolina during World War II. After trading fists with a co-worker, Carmen is jailed and assigned handsome Corporal Joe (Harry Belafonte) to escort her to the authorities. While Carmen is not shy about setting her sights on the young man, his fiancee, virginal Cindy Lou, fumes with anger and schemes to keep her man. This results in a triangle, of sorts, as Carmen and Joe eventually fall madly in love, leaving poor Cindy Lou by the wayside, but their love faces hurdles.

The rather lighthearted first portion of the film, with coquettish humor mixed in, is offset by a much darker path the film then takes. As Carmen and Joe finally profess their love and share a night of passion, she leaves him in the middle of the night, unable to endure prison time. This results in Joe actually being imprisoned as the couple ultimately cannot stay away from one another despite repeated obstacles to their happiness. An additional character, a boxer named Husky, with designs on Carmen, is introduced, complicating matters.

In sad form, much like the opera Carmen, the final scene is both devastating and startling, as Joe treads down a dark and gloomy path of destruction. The character of Joe is nuanced- at first a “nice guy”, the character is an example in complexity, and what a man will do for love. The viewer is left to wonder what will become of Joe and how he could simply throw his life away performing an act in the heat of passion.

For 1954, what a profound and wonderful role for a female, let alone a black female. Typically cast in roles such as maids, waitresses, or even less glamorous parts, how wonderful for Dandridge to capture a challenging role of this caliber. As she sinks her teeth into the meaty and flirtatious Carmen, she is a vixen all the way. Her pizzazz, her flare, and her singing and dancing performances made Dandridge a star and forever known as a groundbreaking talent.

Enough cannot be said of the great importance of the casting of all black actors in Carmen Jones.  Monumental, of course given the time of the film, the result is a film of importance to the black culture, showing that no longer did they need to only appear in “white films” as supporting players, but could carry a film on their own.  How profound and remarkable this was!

My only criticism of the film is undoubtedly a result of the progress made for both black actors and the way black characters are written- though there is still plenty of more work to do. At times feeling a shade on the dated side (in present times plenty of great roles for black actors) with a slight grainy look to the filming, some of the acting from the supporting characters is also not the strongest, but nonetheless liberties must be taken as Carmen Jones is a historical film.

Thanks to the genius and the funding of Preminger, who needed to produce the film independently due to lack of interest, the results are a film that has gone down in history as being worthy, edgy, and open-minded. Wisely casting talented stars with great pipes, the film is a solid success.

Love and Mercy-2015

Love and Mercy-2015

Director-Bill Pohlad

Starring-John Cusack, Paul Dano

Scott’s Review #258

80017274

Reviewed July 17, 2015

Grade: B+

The life and times of the Beach Boys famous and troubled lead singer, Brian Wilson, is finally played out on the big screen (apparently many attempts were made to make a film) as Love and Mercy chronicles his difficult upbringing, unrivaled success, and his interesting life in later years, as he suffered from schizophrenia, traveled down a paranoid, nervous path, and was manipulated by a family friend who served as his doctor and main caregiver. Thankfully, he weathered the storm in large part to his future wife, and remarkably, still performs and entertains in 2015. His musical career began in the 1960’s.

The biopic features many of the well-known Beach Boys tunes to hum along to and to be entertained by, but is not a happy film, nor is it quite a downer either. It is somewhere in the middle of the two. It is a telling of the life story of a rock star. There is risk in this- If the film is too sentimental it will fail. Love and Mercy does it correctly. To be clear, the film is not a schmaltzy, sing along, trip down memory lane type of film for lighthearted film fans. Rather, it is dark, murky, troubling at times (the psychedelic scene when a young Brian is imagining different voices and noises in his head is rather frightening).

Wilson is played by two different actors, first in the 1960’s and later the 1980’s. Paul Dano stars as a young Wilson in the early stages of his career, filled with passion for life, art, and music, talented beyond belief, but clearly in the onset stages of paranoia, thanks in large part to his critical father, a demanding, angry man, quite possibly envious of Brian’s talents as a songwriter, who always wanted more from Brian. In fact, Wilson’s father managed Brian and his brothers to success, but at a huge cost and was ready to bail when the “next big thing” came along. Miraculously, through conflict with his father and other members of the band, Wilson was able to complete the Beach Boys masterpiece, Pet Sounds, a groundbreaking album from the late 1960’s. The film shows the struggles faced to achieve this success.

In later years John Cusack takes over the role of Brian. By this point in his life he is damaged and he is a full blown neurotic, insecure, and dependent on his psychotherapist, Dr. Landy, brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti. Landy has control of Wilson’s assets and will destroy anyone who interferes in this. The scenes in which he screams at and berates a drugged out Brian Wilson to create music are tough to stomach. When Wilson romances future wife Melinda Ledbetter, played by Elizabeth Banks, she ultimately saves his life as she is determined to rescue Brian from the wicked abuse and adjust the toxic levels of medications he was kept on.

I left the movie theater unsure of the factual accuracy of the film and pondering the following questions. Did, in fact, Brian’s wife swoop into his life and “save” him as neatly as the film explains? How instrumental was the maid in this process? Was the Wilson brothers’ father as much as a monster as the movie portrayed him? Was Giamatti’s vicious psychotherapist role true to life or were the aforementioned aspects of Love and Mercy embellished ever so slightly for moviemaking magic? One wonders, but from a film perspective, Love and Mercy really works well as a work that takes risks, does not go for softness or niceness, and gives a character study that is quite admirable.

Whiplash-2014

Whiplash-2014

Director-Damien Chazelle

Starring-Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

Scott’s Review #192

70299275

Reviewed November 13, 2014

Grade: A

Whiplash is a film about an aspiring nineteen year old Jazz drummer- Andrew Neyman, played by rising star Miles Teller (known for 2013’s indie teen drama The Spectacular Now), who is attending one of the most revered musical schools in the country, the Schaffer Conservatory in New York. There, he is both mentored and terrorized by his intense and sometimes sadistic conductor- Terence Fletcher, portrayed by J.K. Simmons. Andrew aspires to be the best drummer that he can be and worships Buddy Rich- a famous Jazz drummer from the 1930’s and 1940’s, who he constantly listens to and emulates. While Andrew aspires to make the school orchestra that desperately needs a new drummer, he meets a cute girl, Nicole, at the concession stand of his favorite movie theater, and they bond. Also in the mix is Andrew’s father, played by Paul Reiser. Once an aspiring writer, who never made it big, he struggles as a high school teacher. Andrew’s mother left the family when Andrew was just a toddler leaving just father and son.

The film mainly centers on the tumultuous relationship between Andrew and Terence and Andrew’s determination to be the best drummer in the world. J.K. Simmons is simply mesmerizing in his role of Terence and this is wonderful to see as Simmons has struggled as a character actor for years. He gives a powerhouse performance and plows full steam ahead in his viciousness and extreme brutality towards the student’s, and on more than one occasion reduces a student to tears- if the tempo is not to his liking he shakes his clenched fist in disapproval. The audience wonders if Terence is simply mean and sadistic or is tough on the students simply to make them work harder and achieve all that they are capable of. Throughout most of the film I wondered if I should hate this character or have sympathy towards him for wanting the students to excel. The sexuality of Fletcher is ambiguous. He belittles and ridicules the students with fat jokes- he hatefully taunts an overweight student about Mars bars and happy meals, uses Irish digs, and inevitably gay slurs on other students, but is he hiding something in his personal life? Is he a closet case? His private life remains a mystery. As brutal as Terence can be, there are moments of sensitivity that the character exhibits- he tearfully tells the orchestra a heartbreaking story of a former student, whom he admired, who recently died in a car accident. In another scene he warmly bonds with a friend’s young daughter.

As brilliant as Simmons is we must not forget to recognize the immense talent of Teller. The young actor does a fantastic job of portraying determination, drive, anger, and vengeance. Andrew has a wonderful relationship with his dedicated father, a love/hate relationship with Terence, (are they bitter enemies or do they have the respect of a mentor/student?) and a sweet yet uneven relationship with Nicole. He successfully portrays a myriad of different emotions over the course of the film. Paul Reiser is wonderful in an overlooked and, quite frankly, thankless role as Andrew’s unsuccessful, yet forever faithful father. Thankfully the film chose to center on the conductor/student dynamic and Andrew’s romantic relationship with Nicole did not take center stage and usurp the main point of the story, as I felt that the dynamic between the two was of lesser importance to the greater whole of the film.

The finale, an intense concert performance scene focusing on the intensity between Terence and Andrew, is superbly done. The close-up camera shots of the two added much to the climax of the film. In fact, throughout Whiplash, extreme close-up shots of sweat and blood and intensity during performances and practices add to the overall rawness of the film. Whiplash is an intense, sometimes brutal, assaulting experience, but what an amazing film it is.

A Star Is Born-1954

A Star is Born-1954

Director-George Cukor

Starring-Judy Garland, James Mason

Scott’s Review #175

995474

Grade: B+

Reviewed September 25, 2014

A Star Is Born was, at the time, considered Judy Garland’s much touted comeback film and was very expensive for Warner Bros. to produce . Garland delivers her finest career performance in my opinion (yes, even better than her portrayal of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz). The performance is multi-faceted and complex- it is comical, silly, poised, emotional, dramatic, and heartfelt.

Playing Esther Blodgett- later changed to Vicki Lester for more Hollywood potential, she is a struggling lounge singer who meets a successful actor, named Norman Maine, played wonderfully by James Mason. Esther saves Norman from public humiliation at a function where he attempts to take the stage while inebriated.  They strike up a friendship and he convinces her to pursue films and, through a series of misunderstandings, she assumes he has ditched her. Determined to become a star anyway, Esther forges her path to success on her own. Norman and Esther reconnect and Norman recognizes her talent and pursues her both professionally and romantically. They marry and she becomes a star while his career hits the skids, largely due to his alcoholism. The talented Mason and Garland are at the forefront of the film and are the reasons for its success.

A few key scenes stand out to me as powerful or important- The scene involving a musical number over a dinner of sandwiches in their posh living room is wonderfully merry and light; a delivery boy who does not know who Norman is ruins the mood and causes jealousy to come to a head in his marriage to Esther. Garland’s emotional scenes are excellent- especially the scene in her dressing room where she crumbles, realizing that Mason has hit rock bottom. And the best scene of all is the Academy awards scene where a drunken Norman causes a public spectacle as Esther receives her top honor, spoiling her night, and accidentally hitting her in the face in front of millions. What a forgiving woman Esther is for staying with him and ultimately choosing him at the risk of ruining her career.

An interesting aspect of the story is that Garland’s character is not some ugly duckling that is transformed to Hollywood royalty- she has the talent already, she just needs a break, but is not down on her luck or starving- she makes a decent living with a touring band and she is torn about leaving them. The musical numbers are inspiring and one is reminded why Garland is such a star as she belts them out of the park like nobody’s business, however they do little to further the plot. At times, more often the case in the first half, the film drags a bit, but the second half (post intermission) brilliant and the ending tragic yet heartwarming. Will Esther’s career continue to flourish?

A major, major flaw with the film is the usage of still frames with dialogue overlapping due to lost footage. This makes following the story very tough and the continuity is affected. It also looks ridiculous and for the viewer to be captured by the story only to suddenly view a discolored still shot with audio is disappointing. Surely, this can be corrected. A Star Is Born is the perfect vehicle for Garland to return to her grand position among the Hollywood treasures.