I didn’t even know Music existed until a couple weeks ago. The musical was nominated for two Golden Globes, including Best Comedy or Musical, and a passion project for the pop singer Sia. She wrote, directed, and cast her music video muse, Maddie Ziegler, as the titular figure Music and filmed back in 2017. Then I read about the backlash from the autism community for the film’s portrayal of autism and I became more intrigued. Currently, Music rates even lower on Rotten Tomatoes than Cats, and the reviews have been equally as baffling and unkind. Sia has responded defensively on social media to her film’s critics, and the brewing controversy has given the movie a fascinating rubberneck quality of, “You have to see this.” It is with that morbid curiosity that I sat and watched Sia’s Music, a movie awash in misguided decisions.
Music (Ziegler) is a teenager living in Los Angeles who is severely autistic and in need of care. She needs eggs in the morning, insists on a walk around the neighborhood, loves dogs, and has her headphones on to shield her from being overwhelmed by exterior noise. Music escapes into elaborate fantasies where she dances along to soaring pop songs. Her grandmother dies early and the only living relative is Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering drug addict who doesn’t want to play mom to her demanding younger sister. Eventually, Zu begins to see her sister differently and bonds with her neighbor, Ebo (Leslie Odom Jr.), who teaches boxing classes to the neighborhood youth. Zu is getting her life straightened out and learning responsibility, though she might ultimately still decide Music is too much for even her.
Let’s tackle the biggest issue of contention, the film’s portrayal of autism. Ziegler is not autistic or, to my knowledge, neurodivergent. This fact alone doesn’t necessarily mean the movie was doomed to insincere failure. It may well become the norm that neurodivergent actors play neurodivergent characters, much as it seems has happened with trans characters and firmly established for ethnicity. However, I think much of the response to a person outside of a community portraying that community comes from the intent and the depiction. Are they coming from a good place? Are they trying to portray this life in an honest fashion? And is the portrayal harmful, derogatory, or trading in negative stereotypes? With Music, I have no doubt that Sia was coming from a good place. She has spoken about the autobiographical elements of the movie and basing the character of Music on someone that she knew personally. I know there are people like Music on the autism spectrum. It’s a spectrum for a reason. The problem comes with the depiction of a person this severely autistic from an outsider. I’ll explain in a comparison.
In 2001’s I Am Sam, Sean Penn played a mentally challenged man fighting for custody rights. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. In the film, Sam had a group of friends, all of whom were similarly mentally challenged, and some of them were played by actors who were genuinely living with that same condition and others were played by actors only pretending. It was very apparent who was who, and it made the entire movie feel uncomfortable because it felt like the real people were being caricatured in literal proximity. It didn’t feel right, and I can’t imagine twenty years later that filmmakers would make that same choice. On the other hand, with the Netflix series Atypical, the lead character is played by a neurotypical actor but the portrayal of a character on the spectrum is done with great empathy and consideration, with an outreach toward those within the autism community. Intent and depiction are the keys.
The onscreen depiction of autism in Music is pretty galling and potentially harmful for those within the community. It’s all negative stereotypes. Ziegler is constantly contorting her body, making silly putty faces, side-eye glances, hitting herself in the head, and playing to the most abrasive and controversial cliches of those living with autism. She can barely mutter more than a few words, usually in imitation. Because this is the depiction of the character, having a neurotypical actor in this role can feel plenty insulting to many viewers. Music is less a character and presented more as a burden because of her needs and challenges. She gets Zu into trouble and lashes out in public. At no point does Music come across as more than an assembly of tics and ugly stereotypes.
It’s not just that the depiction in unflattering, as all characters do not need to be unerring shining examples for their individual communities, it’s that the movie doesn’t bother to give her any inner life. There are a few of passing comments about how Music sees the world, like a savant too pure to take in all the majesty at once, but these are merely gestures. The biggest opportunity into the mind of the character would have been through the numerous musical numbers but these are, by far, the most confusing artistic choice by Sia. I was expecting the musical numbers to provide insight with Music, to give voice to a character who has trouble communicating. Someone would ask how she was feeling and we’d zoom into her mind and the singing would be her way of expressing that answer or her complicated emotions about any topic. The use of singing and music would be her voice. Alas, this doesn’t happen at all. Like at all. This is shocking to me and the movie never really recovers from this misstep. The musicals are confusing because they often seem to be from the perspective of Zu instead and communicating her own struggles. Is Music just imagining her own sister’s inner turmoil through dance? There are also musical numbers devoted to exploring Ebo’s inner turmoil. That means two other characters are given primacy over Music in her own personal imaginary musical interludes.
What is the point of the musical numbers then, besides squeezing in ten or so Sia music videos into a dramatic narrative that doesn’t appear to be connected to them? The music videos themselves are very reminiscent of Sia’s recent output, largely single takes and bursting with bright pastel colors and goofy costumes that look like a children’s TV show. The dancing is interpretative, which means a lot of emphasis through the body movement and facial expressions, and you may find it slightly lacking or perhaps too goofy that it takes away from the emotional content or attempted investment. I enjoy musicals and I even like the approach, in theory, that Sia would have been articulating, shedding light on a personal experience that re-sees the world as a more whimsical, wholesome, and friendly environment. This approach succeeded in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, where Bjork’s love of old musicals shaped the way she chose to escape from the world and highlighted the discrepancies between fantasy and reality. That’s not what Music does or even attempts to do. You could remove the musical numbers completely or just serve them on their own. The only direct story connection comes with a side character, a Chinese teenager who is pushed into being a boxer by his belligerent father. He secretly wants to be a dancer. In his lone appearance in the musical numbers, he gets to indulge in his dream and dance and sing (or lip synch) and it has emotional resonance because it’s an expression of his inner desires and the longing is felt. Why is this one supporting character, who could have easily been removed entirely from the narrative, the only one that fits with the approach to the musical interludes providing actual insight? As far as the quality of music, it sounds very much like Sia’s pop ditties and there are a couple winners. “Together” has a buoyant bounce and swooping, cheerful melodic hook that is hard to resist.
Hudson (Bride Wars) is the real main character of the movie and her struggle with responsibility is a familiar arc, from screw-up on the margins to matured adult with goals and a found family. She’s an trying to stay clean though she’s really just looking to skip out on life and enjoy a permanent vacation in Costa Rica. This is even her stated goal after inheriting the guardianship over Music. There are plans late to transfer her sister into a group home but this deliberation isn’t really given the attention it’s due, in fact I don’t think I can recall even the mention of it prior to the potential move-in day. The character of Zu is completely stock, a neo-hippie wild child that needs to learn to slow down and accept responsibility. I don’t know what that looks like because for most of the movie she’s just having her sister tag along while Ebo explains things about autism in a delicate fashion (including physical restraints, which have met with plenty of disagreements from the autism community who cite the danger they pose). You would think Zu might have a better handle on this stuff, or that her grandmother would have been more helpful with that instruction book she left behind for the care of Music. This is more a movie about a recovering addict getting her life together and bearing with her burdensome younger sister. Seriously, the character of Music could have been a coat rack for all the impact and agency displayed. Hudson does an admirable job with what she’s given even if grungy and strung out are hard for such a naturally sunny and charming actress more prone to breezy rom-coms. Odom Jr. (One Night in Miami) is wasted as the kindly neighbor harboring a secret and mending a broken heart. At least he gets to sing too.
While watching Music, I kept thinking of an obvious creative choice that would have sidestepped a majority of the mushrooming controversy and spared Sia. Why not just make the character of Music someone with a different condition? Why not make her suffer from post-traumatic stress, or an anxiety disorder, something keeping her form living the life she desires and communicating all that goes on inside her person? Automatically, it eliminates the controversy over the negative depiction of autistic stereotypes from a neurotypical actress and it makes the character more a central figure in her own story that can be developed and examined. Frankly, in 2021, we don’t need portrayals like Music to better understand life with autism. This kind of movie might have been met more charitably in the 1990s but now it’s instantly problematic, and I feel like much could have been avoided by removing the autistic aspect to Music’s character, especially since it does so little to the story other than create havoc and challenge. Beyond that, Music falters because the many musical sequences fail to tie back to the characters in meaningful ways. I’m confused over the shifting perspective as well. From a technical standpoint, the movie looks and sounds like a professional movie with a polished Sia soundtrack. However, it’s the poor thinking behind these decisions that dooms the project. While it’s no Cats-level disaster, at least nobody was living with human-feline creatures at home. Music is not a good movie but it’s the kind of rare artistic flop that might be worth viewing just for its audacious missteps, like 2018’s Welcome to Marwen. I don’t think we’ll be getting a second feature film from Sia any time soon.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s full of big feelings, declarations of self-identity, an unabashed love of the transformative power of theater, and its power of positivity can be a balm to many during this holiday season. The Prom is based on a short-lived Broadway musical about a girl in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to the school prom and the ensuing media controversy that erupts. A team of out-of-work theater actors (Meryl Streep, Anthony Rannels, Nicole Kidman, James Corden) see publicity value in rallying to her cause, so they decamp to Indiana and challenge the homophobic PTA leader (Kerry Washington) who refuses to hold an inclusive prom. Director Ryan Murphy’s style and sensibilities work well within the realm of musical theater; a decade of television curation for FX and now Netflix has made him an expert on camp and flash. The man loves applying slick gloss to trash. His camera is constantly, uncontrollably moving during the numerous musical numbers, attempting to compensate for the generic quality of the majority of them. There are two standouts. The first is when Corden’s character takes our lesbian teen to the mall for a makeover. It’s got a catchy hook and one that becomes a reoccurring theme for the show. The second is when Rannels’ character is pointing out the hypocrisy of local Christians decrying homosexuality but falling short of other Biblical teachings. The story is sweet but un-challenging. The plot exhausts so quickly that I was amazed at one point to discover there was still an hour left in the over two-hour production. Each member of the squad gets a signature number to varying degree of success. The happy ending is affirming and heartfelt but also quite easy and kind of unearned. The amount of catharsis and reconciliation doesn’t gel with the emotional investment and development of these characters. They’re nice but relatively dull, and the industry satire only goes so far to chide the out-of-touch Broadway elites for their own prejudices of Midwest life. The Prom is disposable fluff that will pacify an afternoon.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Lars von Trier’s latest shaky video opus is likely the most unique movie going experience you’ll have all year. Dancer in the Dark is a clever, heartfelt, and achingly beautiful tale of sorrow and redemption. Dancer stars Iceland’s version of Madonna in the elfin Bjork. She plays Selma, quite possibly the nicest but also most stubborn person in the world. She’s an immigrant in 1960s America working long and odd hours to ensure that she can raise enough money for her son. You see Selma is slowly going blind but continuing to work so she can make sure her son will not have to suffer the same inherited illness. So she works late on heavy industrial machinery causing accidents as her condition worsens all to stop her son’s genetic curse she will give to him. Selma’s escape has always been musicals. In life she hears music in unusual places and visualizes life stopping to burst out into a vibrant fully choreographed musical number. Selma’s life continues to degenerate along with her vision as events pile on worse and worse until they all come crashing together.
Dancer in the Dark is no picnic in the park. The movie is haunting but incredibly depressing. Lars von Trier’s previous film (Breaking the Waves) was another wrenching drama with good people going through rough times with no fraction of light at any end of a tunnel. His jerky handheld video work is back capturing the life of Selma and seemingly framing it in a more realistic sense. The video images are edited to look like a documentary and the whole feel is one of raw power. You aren’t merely watching a film, it’s like you are in it witnessing the actions from the sidelines. The escapist musical numbers are shot in glorious still film to contrast the drab realism of video. The colors are bright, the faces are happy, and the cinematography is a wonder to envision.
Bjork soars and delivers what should be an Oscar-caliber performance. I never knew the queen of alt-rock had such emotive powers. Selma’s innocence is keenly expressed in Bjork and her glassy eyes. Her love for her son is no more evident then all the suffering and tragedy she goes through. All of the suffering and tragedy could be avoided – except her son would not be helped.
The ensemble around Bjork work fantastic magic as well. Peter Stormare is a sad figure trying to just get a glimpse of Selma’s attention. David Morse is a down-and-out policeman who is Selma’s landlord and in need of some cash. He’s afraid to tell his bourgeois wife they’ve run empty with money. Catherine Deneuve turns in the brightest supporting performance as Selma’s co-worker and friend Kathy. She’s torn between trying to stop Selma from continuing on her acts that could cause her harm and helping her along her determination. A great scene as example of her care for Selma is when the two of them are in a theater watching an old Hollywood musical. At this point Selma is completely blind and can’t see what’s going on, so Kathy takes Selma’s palm and dances her fingers in correlation with the actions on screen to Selma’s delight. A simple scene yet so elegant and beautiful.
Dancer in the Dark is a wonderful piece of original film making that gives us the escape of hope and the crush of despair. Selma’s love of musicals and their role in life is perfect symbolism for discussion. Dancer will leave you with a distinct feeling by the end credits. Whether it’s sorrow or bewilderment Dancer in the Dark is a film not to miss.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I knew going back to my first Lars von Trier film was not going to be a pleasant experience, and oh what an understatement that turned out to be. von Trier has compared himself to a Nazi, his intense methods have driven his actors to the brink, including Dancer in the Dark’s Bjork who swore off the entire profession of acting after her experiences working with him. I am not surprised by this response because his movies have famously followed a formula of a woman being tortured by men, by society, by forces outsider her control, and then she suffers for two hours and dies, a victim of the cruelty of the universe. Repeat. It’s a formula that I’ve since grown weary of and after 2018’s The House That Jack Built I contemplated not watching another von Trier movie again. He just can’t help himself and his nihilistic, heavy-handed impulses handicap his genuine artistic abilities and the merits of his storytelling. Back in 2000, it all felt relatively new. von Trier was the biggest name of the Dogme 95 movement, a Danish collective of filmmakers who swore to adhere to digital video and other aesthetic rules to better replicate reality as it was, ripping away the glossy artifice of Hollywood fantasy. von Trier was subversive, provocative, and exciting, and since then I’ve broken free from the von Trier spell. I was questioning whether I would share Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark with my girlfriend, who had seen neither, and in hindsight I’m glad I picked Requiem instead (think about that, yikes).
Dancer in the Dark is a powerful experience and one that is unfortunately smothered by von Trier’s heavy hand. It’s easy to root for Selma (Bjork), a Czech transplant in small-town 1960s America (the movie was filmed in Sweden because von Trier is afraid to fly). She already has so much going against her: 1) she’s a woman, 2) she’s an immigrant, 3) she’s poor, 4) she’s suffering from a degenerative disease that will rob her of her sight. Even worse, her son will suffer the same fate unless Selma raises enough money for an operation. She takes on extra work at her factory, even if she’s not exactly qualified, and she’s a hopeful yet stubborn woman who says what she means, earning friends who will champion her. She’s also a lover of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, as they presented an escape to her as a little girl growing up in poverty. America was the land of opportunity, where everyone dances all the time, sings their hearts out, and gets the girl or the guy by the conclusion of the finale. That dichotomy, between reality and fantasy, and all the cultural and psychological commentary within, is the strongest aspect of the film and a peak of ambition that von Trier never really got close to again with his later punishing dramaturgy. The first musical number doesn’t come until 45 minutes into the movie, and by that time we have had our heroine, her plight, and the first markers of a looming tragedy efficiently established.
Jeff (Peter Stormare), a lovesick co-worker who shows up every day to maybe drive Selma home, cannot understand musicals, saying people just burst out into song and how unrealistic this is, and Selma agrees, but for her it’s wonderful. She hears music in the world around her and it gives her life, especially as her vision deteriorates. As injustice after injustice falls upon her, Selma uses extravagant musicals as an escape, where everyone is a friend waiting to jump into the number and work together. A common refrain she sings is “there’s always someone to catch me,” referencing the choreography of musicals where the dancers frolic together but it’s also her request to the universe for a little help, for someone to catch her when she stumbles and provide that level support a woman of her means and background lacked in this landscape. The musical numbers staged by von Trier have a chaotic energy to them, assembled from dozens and dozens of sporadically placed cameras. They feel like a burst of imagination while keeping an improvisational feel; less drilled than managed. The first musical number “Cvalda” is a delirious daydream where Selma imagines the various sounds of the work machines creating a percussive symphony and she’s a Mary Poppins conductor. After Bill (David Morse) dies, she retreats to “Scatterheart” to make sense of her actions, with her son telling her she only did what she had to do and Bill rising from the dead to beg her forgiveness. When she’s in solitary confinement and can’t hear any sound, Selma goes into despair. She shouts the lyrics to selections from The Sound of Music to bring music back into her isolated world. Even on her march to execution, Selma copes by turning the “107 Steps” to the noose into a song. Her last words are her singing her final goodbyes to her off-screen son, so until the end musicals were how this woman chose to compensate for the rotten luck of her life. And oh boy was it ever rotten.
There’s one scene in the second half begging for symbolic unpacking where Selma is in the middle of her trial and the prosecution calls a famous Czech film actor and dancer to the stage. It’s none other than Oscar-winning theater legend Joel Grey (Cabaret) and his character doesn’t know who Selma is, even though she told the court she had been sending money to him (she listed her son’s account for his operation under a pseudonym to not risk it being derailed). This famous actor starred in movies in her native Czechoslovakia and crossed over to American cinema. He was an idol for young Selma and another figure to encapsulate the promise of America. Then as he’s testifying on the stand is when Selma drifts back into another rendition of “In the Musicals” and Grey joins her in tapping, and he confesses, “I didn’t mind it at all / That you were having a ball / at my musicals / And I was always there to catch you.” He understands and empathizes. This scene alone is just packed with so many layers of metaphor and projection and symbolic subtext and commentary and you could probably write an entire Master’s thesis on its myriad meanings. At its best, that’s Dancer in the Dark, when von Trier is using the language of musicals to subvert their form, to lay commentary on the un-reality is a rejection of the cruelty of real life, of finding order in disorder, finding community amid a nest of selfish vipers competing for dominance. It’s when von Trier uses our understanding of musicals to really make us think about the associations and contradictions that makes this movie a stirring and sometimes sensational experience.
Alas, the artistry is seriously wounded by von Trier’s heavy-handed approach to all drama. This has become even more pronounced after where von Trier has obliterated the entire world (2011’s Melancholia) and ruined a four-hour movie with a last-second dumb joke of an ending (2014’s two-part Nymphomaniac). Subtlety is not one of the tools von Trier prefers to dabble with. It’s a shame because he’s a natural storyteller when it comes to establishing vulnerable characters in fraught scenarios and slowly raising the temperature, organically transforming allies into enemies and friends into abusers. This is done very well in 2004’s Dogville as well, a movie I would argue both plays into and succeeds his tortured-woman formula of drama and political allegory. I would say Dogville is his second-best film precisely because I was expecting another unrelentingly unjust ending for another anguished woman. However, where a lighter touch could accomplish his points, von Trier instead brings out a bazooka. Selma’s deadly encounter with Bill happens at the halfway point in the film. From there there’s still another 65 minutes of her suffering to drag out to preposterous proportions. We go through the trial, her cross-examination, her willfully keeping secrets that will only make her look guilty to maintain a promise to a dead man, and then there’s her visitations in jail, her appeal, her rejection of her appeal because the costs will empty the fund’s for her son’s operation, the realization of her impending execution, the march to the execution, her being bound to a board because she cannot stand straight because she’s so scared, her rejection of the hood, her last song while she waits for the governor’s call, and then her abrupt death. There were several points where I was just pleading, “Enough already,” because it was so thoroughly exhausting.
Selma is served to be a martyr of an unjust system that looked suspiciously on immigrants, and Selma elects to accept her fate because anything less would endanger losing what she has set up for her son’s well-being. This woman takes all this punishment and that’s the story, America. That’s the story of America, America. That’s what von Trier is getting at, but the 140-minute movie is so overdone and so drawn out to obsess over the wrongs inflicted on this poor woman that it unintentionally blunts the message. The second half becomes a passion play where we watch our poor Selma elect to accept tragedy and self-sacrifice and endure all the injustices. It’s harrowing and upsetting but would still be so if we didn’t spend half of the movie dwelling on a litany of examples of her fated misery. I’m sure others will argue the crushing nature of the injustice is meant to convey for the viewer the feeling of aggravation and outrage. I would agree that outrage is sought, but when von Trier doesn’t let up, it tilts into overwrought self-parody.
Dancer in the Dark resonates as strongly as it does because Bjork gives every ounce of herself in this performance. She was originally just going to write songs but von Trier chased her for a year to convince her to also star as the lead. There are moments of awkwardness where it feels like maybe she’s confused in the scene with what her lines are supposed to be, but then her lack of polish is revealed for its true strength. It’s a deeply, deeply felt performance, stunning in how raw and empathetic she gets, subsuming herself into the character and her tribulations. You don’t see the craft so much here as you do sheer, undiluted passion and ferocious naturalism. She doesn’t hold anything back and gives the best performance in any von Trier movie. In my mind, she had been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar that year but this was not the case; she was only nominated for Best Original Song (“I’ve Seen It All”) where she wore her famous swan dress that became a go-to punchline. She was, and continues to be, an eclectic artist and a really weird person, but man could she be a tremendous actress given the right circumstances. It’s a shame that von Trier’s sadistic directing style lead her to quit the entire profession.
Looking back on my original review, I remember seeing Dancer in the Dark with my freshman pal Kat Lewis, who was just the biggest Bjork fan you could find in all of Ohio in 2000. We were both floored by the movie, and Bjork, and cited it as uniformly brilliant. With twenty years of distance, I can say some of the ironic commentary of undercutting musical escapism feels too easy now, seeking credit for daring to ask, “Hey, what if musicals weren’t so happy, huh?” It’s still a worthwhile subversion to explore but simply presenting it as a subversion isn’t enough for a satisfying thematic focus. It’s funny that the moments that stood out to me as an 18-year-old, like Catherine Deneuve dancing her fingers on Selma’s palm to communicate the onscreen dance routine she can no longer see, are the same ones that stood out to me as a 38-year-old. Good writing will still make itself known and felt. There’s plenty to admire and, paradoxically, enjoy about such a depressing movie, but von Trier’s inability to self-edit and hold back his condemnation of humanity is what truly oppresses his movie.
Re-View Grade: B
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.
Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.
The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.
The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.
Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.
Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.
It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.
The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.
Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.
Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.
Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.
Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.
This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.
Re-View Grade: A
Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.
In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.
Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.
For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.
Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.
This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.
Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.
The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”
I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.
This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.
Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.
So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.
By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.
Movie Grade: A
Show Grade: A+
The Incredible Jake Parker is an Ohio indie written/directed/produced by Angelo Thomas, who just graduated from his arts college this spring. The 22-year-old adapted his own book into his first feature, all while finishing college and taking on activist responsibilities. The fact he has a finished feature film before he even graduated college, a film that was scheduled to open in multiple cities, is a damn impressive feat. Thomas is already well ahead of the game. Unfortunately, Jake Parker became another victim of COVID-19’s theater closings, and the limited release has been postponed. I was graciously given a digital link of the film to review and, even though I know people involved with the production, I vow to be as objective and constructive as possible with this film review. I honestly think the delay might help the movie, allowing for further critical examination and technical tinkering. As is, The Incredible Jake Parker is a well-made, albeit criminally short, indie that feels like it’s missing necessary development and potential drama to convey the steps in the journey of its titular star.
Jake Parker (Liam Wall) is a teenage musical sensation but he’s got a secret. He’s rapidly losing weight, enough to alarm doctors and his manager. Jake is anorexic. His tour is put on hold while he checks into a treatment center that will help him reflect and grow. He’s angry and eager to leave, but the more time he spends with the doctors and fellow patients, the more that Jake is able to tackle his personal demons with his body issues and figure out the man he wants to be.
The filmmakers behind The Incredible Jake Parker have an important and very personal message they take very seriously. Thomas has been open about his own troubles with an eating disorder and has spoken across the country about his experiences and insights. The character of Jake Parker is obviously informed from his own struggles and triumphs. Eating disorders are also a malady not typically associated with men, so smashing that taboo and educating viewers is admirable. We even see this flippant attitude in the movie where catty media figures wave away the implications of an eating disorder, especially for men, and prescribe just “eating a hamburger.” Body dysmorphic disorder is particularly affected by our omnipresent media culture that applies value to being thin, desirable, and staying within the codified boundaries of what is deemed appealing. That level of scrutiny and pressure can affect anyone’s mental health, let alone a performer whose press coverage and album sales can be affected by his good looks. It’s understandable to fall sway to negative thoughts that one’s body just simply isn’t good enough. The movie is filled with useful information about eating disorders as well as steps one can take to regain control over their body and mind and make healthy choices. By that regard, the movie can provide a great outreach to connect with people, especially young people, and inspire them to improve their own mental health and physical well-being. That’s what good art can do.
Now, with all that being said, it doesn’t feel like those good intentions have latched onto a suitable and engaging narrative to carry the burden of its worthy message. The movie is only 64 minutes long before its end credits and has the unmistakable feeling of missing development. We spend the first act establishing the problems for Jake and then in the last five minutes he finds effective solutions to those problems, but the connective tissue, the work, is missing in between. I’m going to go into some mild spoilers here though I don’t consider these to be significant because, realistically, did you expect Jake to not get better? I went back and re-watched what was Jake’s breakthrough therapy session and it amounts to being told that resilience is key and to find his inner strength. The very next scene involves Jake requesting ice cream to dine with a friend, seeming to now be able to manage his eating disorder, but why? Why was this a big breakthrough for Jake and why does it come with so much movie left? There’s another personal revelation that Jake is hiding that takes precedent in the last 15 minutes, which is odd to include so late after he seemed to overcome the movie’s big conflict, and even stranger to consider the fear it could pose to his musical career given modern-day sensibilities. It’s included to provide another scandal but it’s also there to get the plot even further across the hour-mark. Even his other late conflicts resolve so easily, some over text messages, that it begs the question of why introduce obstacles if they are so quickly overcome? When you wrap up your main internal struggle so early and with little elaboration, it leaves us questioning why we still have a movie.
So absent more in-depth examination on those problems, maybe we can use the extra time allotted to get to know Jake more as a character or the other residents of his treatment center, building a friendly network of lovable people leaning on one another to get better. The supporting characters are typically defined by their problem and stay that way. Mom (Rachel Coolidge) is an alcoholic, though we don’t see her drunk or even drink in hand if I recall, and Dad (John French) is a workaholic, though we don’t see him in a hurry to leave (the closest family Jake has is his British manager). Jordan (Sarah Levitch) has an eating disorder and was abandoned by her parents. I’m assuming the supporting characters at this treatment center all suffer from eating disorders but that could be my mistake. I have to go with this assumption because there is a raft of supporting characters that don’t open up about their specific problems, only occasionally their feelings of being helpless or being ashamed. A support group is a fantastic setting to derive some character-driven drama, forcing people to confront their pasts, mistakes, sense of self, vulnerabilities, relationships, and even butt heads before growing closer. It’s a conflict crucible ready for meaty scenes and yet it too is MIA. If Jake’s ultimate triumph over his personal demons is derived from the support he feels with the friends he’s made, then it would naturally need to feature meaningful interactions with supporting characters where we get to understand them and watch that progression of friendship and trust. It’s not that the material with these characters is bad, it’s just that they could all benefit from more of it.
I do want to congratulate Thomas and his team for putting together a very professional looking movie. Even though its budget is a fraction of the Hollywood indie, The Incredible Jake Parker looks polished and proficient. The lighting and cinematography are a highlight of the movie, often finding compelling ways to frame the angular jawline of our titular star in anguish. It was filmed over nine days in Louisiana (boo) with some second unit work filmed in Columbus, Ohio (yeah). The songs we do get from Thomas and co-writers Austin Moore and Liam Wall are peppy and well composed with impressive production value. Just watching Wall sing is enjoyable and he seems at his most comfortable when he’s belting a tune and guitar in hand. The acting overall is generally good. Wall (Gold Dust) is a little stilted at times though it works for the awkwardness or clenched-jaw resentment he holds onto like a lifeline. Sasha Jackson (Blue Crush 2) has a few nicely delivered moments expressing her maternal worry and hope for Jake, who is more than just a client. The assorted supporting players make pleasant impressions, enough so that I desperately wanted them to have even more interactions to better allow the actors to shine.
Given Jake’s musical profession, I was expecting the film to include moments of his singing and guitar-playing for performances and songwriting, a reflection of his inner struggle for control and creative expression. What I wasn’t expecting was the movie to become a traditional movie musical where the characters just break into song and look into the camera. It first happens around the half-hour mark and took me aback, but I liked the two-minute introspective song and thought, “Okay, well if this is going to become a major element of the storytelling, I’m ready now.” I kept waiting for another moment of song-breaking and it didn’t occur until nearly the very end of the movie. It lasted, and I counted, 34 total seconds. Why break reality if it’s only going to last as long as a television commercial? If these two moments are the only ones that break reality to become a movie musical, then why include them if they only amount to two-and-a-half minutes? Could the sentiment not have been expressed with Jake merely playing his guitar and singing to himself rather than the music kicking in from on high? I was actually expecting more musical numbers simply because Wall can sing and play the guitar, as evidenced in the grabber of an opening scene where Jake records his amateur song that goes viral. He has talent so it would make sense that he writes a new song to discuss his journey, something he could perform at the very end to express his maturation and lessons learned, a new Jake Parker. That inspirational song, “Incredible,” plays over the end credits but why not actually see Wall perform the song to the camera, with the emotion pouring out of him, to mark the climax? It’s not like the film was running too long. Imagine the end of 2018’s A Star is Born and instead of Lady Gaga delivering that last powerful song to sum up her experiences, it just played over the credits.
There are some other technical areas where The Incredible Jake Parker could benefit from some further attention before its big release rollout. The sound mix is often noticeably amiss with different shots having fuzzy interference that’s all the more noticeable when it’s edited with shots without. Some shots don’t seem to be using sound from other takes, so an off-screen character will sound distant because their dialogue was recorded away from the boom microphone. Why not pull sound from that character when they were on mic and layer it over? The color grading isn’t consistent at points, most notably when the film transitions from purchased stock footage that is vibrant in color to the more muted colors of the actual movie. I’m also hopeful that a new musical score can be applied (not the songs, the actual score) because it’s often too plain. The bigger technical element that could use another overview is the editing. Jake Parker is edited with a formula that a spoken line equals a shot cut. A character speaks. Next shot. A character speaks. Next shot. Repeat. It’s a stolid rhythm that can gum up the visual flow of scenes. The movie is crying out for another careful pass in the editing suite. It’s little things in the edit and pacing that can help mitigate whatever filming limitations there may have been.
The Incredible Jake Parker is a musical with a message and some spiffy technical acumen, especially considering that Angelo Thomas is only 22 years old and pulled this all off. Even though it’s only 68 minutes with credits, there is much to be impressed with this first film. There’s a late montage of real people (I’m assuming) who speak about their own struggles with eating disorders and mental health, their advice, and what a figure like Jake can mean to them, and while it may be manipulative my heart felt full-to-bursting while watching this genuine outpouring. It made me even more certain that had the film given more space to Jake’s journey, I would have been even more dazzled. Rare is the film I say could use an additional half hour minimum. The Incredible Jake Parker has all the hallmarks of great drama, with the insights of a man who lived it, so I wish we could have really dived into the development of its title character and his incredible story.
Nate’s Grade: C+
If you’re a big fan of 80s music and looking to congenially pass 90 minutes, I suppose you could watch the new musical Valley Girl as it whisks you away on a cloud of simple nostalgia. That’s the word for this movie. Everything is very simple, from the stock characterizations, to the boy-meets-girl romance, to even the performance of the dozens of popular 80s songs, which are reworked into being blander vanilla versions that reminded me of what Kids Bop does to music. We follow a titular valley girl (Jessica Rothe, so great in the Happy Death Day franchise) as she falls for a punk rocker (Josh Whitehouse, struggling in the singing department) from the wrong side of the tracks. The romance is very familiar as are their trials of stepping outside their individual comfort zones for the other person. The big problem with Valley Girl is that the first half feels like it’s at warp speed; nary a minute goes by without a song-and-dance number barreling onto the screen. The second half, in contrast, has only a handful of these numbers and tries to expand the characters but by that point it’s too late. I don’t care about them. Since it’s a jukebox musical, the songs should be selected to provide better insights into the characters’ emotional states, but too often they feel superfluous and clunky. “Hey Mickey” introduces our selfish jock (Logan Paul of YouTube infamy) at a pep rally. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is about having fun on the beach. “Boys Don’t Cry” about dealing with being sad. It’s that kind of application. There’s a frame device where an older mom (Alicia Silverstone) is recounting her 80s experiences to her teenage daughter, and this could have provided a satirical and clever development, allowing the recounted experiences to blend into fantasy and her hazy memory. Valley Girl isn’t a bad movie, just one lacking significant purpose outside nostalgia and cleaning out a big music clearance account. If watching watered down 80s hits sounds like your thing, then party to the max, man.
Nate’s Grade: C
As far as Ohio indies go, Mock & Roll might have one of the smartest creative approaches. It’s a mockumentary following the mishaps of a Columbus, Ohio band trying to make it big. Director/co-writer/editor Ben Bacharach-White (Jimmie Van Zant’s American DeTour) and his cast and crew make good use of limited resources, blessed casting, but the movie could have been even more had it devoted more attention to its comedy writing and doc tricks.
We follow the band Liberty Mean, with lead singer Robin (Aditi Molly Bhanja), guitarist Rick (Chris Wolfe), bass player Tom (Pakob Jarernpone), and drummer Bun (Andrew Yackel). They are a parody band that sticks to only one source, parodying the songs from the rock band The Black Owls. Their mission is to put together an album, gather enough fans, and take the South by Southwest Festival by storm. Robin’s brother, Sully (William Scarborough), is documenting the band and their wacky hijinks as they play punk bars, try crowdfunding, undergo drug trials, stumble into the underground world of art dealing, and land in jail.
Mock & Roll is an amiable experience and one comparison became so fundamentally clear to me that afterwards it’s all I could envision. This movie feels exactly like a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel live-action tween series. I know that may sound like a complaint but it’s not intended as one. The comparison just became so obvious to me that I was amused throughout to see the finished film hold to this creative endeavor, whether intentional or unintentional (I’m guessing unintentional). The exuberant energy level of the performers, the comedy scene writing that has specific beginnings and ends, the episodic nature of plot, the “let’s put on a show with our friends” mentality, the wacky hijinks, the direct communication with the camera, it felt like an extended collection of episodes for iCarly or Wizards of Waverly Place or Hannah Montana. Again, I do not intend this as a criticism, but the style and delivery of storytelling, as well as the genial likability of its cast, made me draw this comparison.
The best thing this mockumentary has going for it is its spirited cast who go beyond their limited characters. The difference maker in mockumentaries is characterization. The Christopher Guest mock docs (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) don’t have revolutionary storytelling but rely upon seasoned actors to really dig in deep with their unique characters, so that no matter the situation, something will spring out of the interaction and response to conflict. The characters in Mock & Roll are scant. The one with the most outward personality is Rick, puffing his chest out with bravado and swagger. The other two male characters, Tom and Bun, are working on the same note, basically deadpan absurdity. They’ll wax philosophical or bizarre at any moment. Robin, unfortunately, seems to be the straight-man role to center the rest of the group.
While these roles limit what comedy styles are available in the different vignettes, the performers go above and beyond and make the movie enjoyable. Wolfe (Where Are You, Bobby Browning?) is a standout as Rick and his voice reminded me of T.J. Miller. He has a natural charisma but also can easily channel a grinning doofus, which gives him the widest comedy berth. I would happily watch Wolfe in other movies and think he has a bright future in comedy. I would hire him. Yackle (False Flag) appears to be the best improviser on the set, able to pull wonderfully bizarre details from thin air and deliver them with understated care. His riff about Beethoven being deaf, and also blind, and having wooden hands, and that’s what made him great got a solid laugh from me. Jarernpone (Dark Iris) has a similar acting technique except it’s unloading deep philosophy without breaking a sweat, also performed at an understated rate, where the comedy best resides. Bhanja is a welcomed presence among the boys and I wish she had been given more to do. She shows promise and an engaging personality even in limited form. There are two supporting players of note, Scarborough (The Incredible Jake Parker) as Robin’s mostly unseen documentarian brother Sully, and Ohio superstar KateLynn Newberry (Dark Iris, Widow’s Point) as Rick’s girlfriend tasked with building a crowdfunding campaign for the band. Both are enjoyable to the point I wish they had been onscreen more often. Newberry has such a great nonplussed frustration with the band’s self-deluded antics.
The episodic nature works for Mock & Roll until it simply doesn’t. At 77 minutes long pre-end credits, the movie feels far more like a collection of scenes than as a film narrative with a recognizable three-act structure. The vignettes don’t last longer than maybe eight minutes, which is another reason why they feel like anecdotal segments of a 22-minute TV episode. There is an advantage where if I’m not engaged in one scenario, and many are hit-or-miss, I know that another is coming up (after these commercial breaks). A disadvantage, however, is that nothing feels like it builds off the previous actions of the story. You could rearrange any of the first hour and would only impact the overall plot minimally (a reference to a crowdfunding campaign here and there). The episodic nature robs the movie from feeling like its plotting matters or builds to needed payoffs and running gags that make it more satisfying to watch than, say, a collection of unrelated skits.
Then in the last quarter of the film it becomes a prolonged segment that transforms into a baffling Boogie Nights homage. The gang get involved in art theft transportation (a miss), and then it happens again with a criminal art smuggler Dante (Brian Bowman, Dark Iris). This entire segment feels like the Wonderland/Rahad Jackson sequence late in Boogie Nights. Bowman is meant to be Alfred Molina in an open bathrobe, wavering between inebriated and dangerous. The plot beats follow the sequence and even some of the dialogue exchanges are similar. So the question arises, naturally, why even bother? The segment isn’t funny and doesn’t seem designed to be funny. Throwing the characters into an increasingly uncomfortable scenario that presents more and more danger could produce some great cringe-worthy moments of awkward comedy. This doesn’t happen. It just keeps going and it’s the only segment that actually builds off the events of previous segments, and I wanted it all to just go away. It’s too long, too turgid, and doesn’t have nearly enough construction in its comedy to justify the jaunt into criminality. The ending is also so flippant that it feels like it could all have been removed for the impact it has. If you’re going to break the formula established for an hour, it better be worth the excursion.
This transitions into some of Mock & Roll’s design flaws that keep it from being a stronger movie. The fact that the central band is a parody band of The Black Owls will mean next to nothing to an audience, the far majority who do not know whether The Black Owls are a real band or not. They are real but a quick check on Spotify shows they haven’t exactly crossed a listening threshold, so when the Liberty Mean band members talk about the band’s real songs, we won’t know the reference points. We don’t know the reference so we can’t appreciate the parodies, and the performances of Liberty Mean are fleeting, and many don’t even allow us to hear the parody songs themselves. If this was the given reality, Mock & Roll would have been better to just have them parody a silly fake band, or a band that everyone in the audience would be familiar with, rather than settling on a local rock band that allowed their music to be given featured placement. The idea of Liberty Mean as a parody band, and the nature of parody, also feels sadly underutilized. I was hoping the movie would go into a direction where one of the band members splits off, forms their own band, but it’s a parody band of Liberty Mean, so a warped parody of a parody.
There are many fun possibilities for comedy with a parody band (a rival band nemesis, per se) but the comic shenanigans that Liberty Mean encounters are lackluster. The comedy segments are one-idea concepts that fail to develop and surprise as they go. The band plays at a punk bar and everyone seems to make a big deal out of this like it’s a grave offense, but the audience doesn’t understand why this would be any different. We’re not graced with any unsavory “punk bar patrons,” or specifics beyond that the acoustics might not be as precise. The band agrees to take part in an experimental drug experiment and the results are boring. They get high, they see hallucinations, but it’s nothing terribly interesting or different than you would expect. I’m starting to loathe drug tripping sequences in comedy because too many assume characters acting stoned is funny enough. There is also a lack of editing used for comedy potential with Mock & Roll. Watch The Office, or any other faux doc series, and an added benefit is that edits are part of its intention, so a quick cut or an inserted interview line allows a dense layering of jokes. Or at least the opportunity. Strangely, none of the band members are ever filmed individually for their takes. There are many comic and storytelling options through mockumentary that aren’t used.
Mock & Roll is a smartly modest film that coasts on the good will of its exuberant cast. Crafting a mockumentary approach for a fictional band is a clever way to make an indie film that can stand out with limited resources. The technical attributes are solid, especially the sound, though there are occasional questions like whether what we’re seeing is meant to be doc footage or simply reality, because when Sully is the only cameraman, who else is filming when he’s in the shot? The good nature of the movie is enough to warrant the time spent with an agreeable cast that seem to be having a good deal of fun. The episodic pacing works to keep things moving; however, it also makes the events interchangeable and lacking stakes. The comedy writing is often underdeveloped and reliant upon the performers to do most of the heavy lifting. It is breezy, genial, and fun, thanks to a cast that has great chemistry. I could see further adventures for Liberty Mean but would prefer a new creative approach. Mock & Roll could have been weirder, wilder, or simply better written and make better use of its documentary format.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.
Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.
As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.
Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.
This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.
The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.
The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.
I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.
Nate’s Grade: C