To open the digital pages of miamiartzine.com is to find yourself among devotees of all things related to music. Concerts, operas, open mics, even karaoke nights are looked upon fondly by these folks, myself included. That commitment, of course, extends to films either about or driven by music, which is why you can imagine how excited I am for this fall's slate of movie musicals.
And yet, despite all the goodwill generated for high-profile studio releases, the actual box office results have not quite measured up to the buzz, have they? Exhibit A: "In the Heights," Jon M. Chu's COVID-delayed adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical. The Warner Bros. release had all the makings of a breakout summer hit: high-energy mise en scene, appealing cast, eye-popping set pieces, catchy tunes. And yet, come opening weekend, many of the same people who expressed excitement about the highly anticipated release stayed home.
Fingers were pointed at the studio's controversial strategy of making "In the Heights" available to stream on HBO Max on the same day it came out in theaters, for a full month. But that seems like facile scapegoating. My gut says the film would have still underperformed if it had gone the theatrical-engagement-only route. And remember, this all happened before the threat of the Delta variant became more extensively apparent.
An unsavory disparity emerges, both within and outside the Film Twitter bubble, between what moviegoers say they will do and what they actually wind up doing. Yes, things have changed since early summer, and going to a multiplex or arthouse now means taking a risk. For those who are still hitting the theaters, don't fall into the rut of only going to the big tentpoles. If you say you like musicals, or other movies hovering outside of the mainstream, those words ring hollow if they're not backed up by the opening of your wallets. Actions in this case speak louder than the most elaborate, pull-out-all-the-stops numbers.
And for those of you choosing to stick to streaming platforms and Video On Demand for the foreseeable future, I have some good news: one of the best films of 2021 is now available for your viewing pleasure, though you might end up hating me for the recommendation. It's safe to say this is not your mother's musical. There is another option if you're looking for something more tried and true, but it would mean venturing out to a theater if you don't want to wait. Let's take a closer look at both epic-length releases.
"Annette": The recording studio looks mundane enough, and there is nothing out of the ordinary about the session that's about to get underway. But there's something curiously familiar about the engineer and the sullen teen sitting behind him. Then it clicks: you're Dorothy peeking behind the curtain, only in this case the wizard is an iconoclast from across the pond whose characters live their lives turned up to 11. He leans over to the mic and asks, “So may we start?”
You're actually looking at French director Leos Carax and his daughter Nastya, playing themselves at the beginning of “Annette,” as Carax tells Ron and Russell Mael, otherwise known as the pop duo Sparks, in simple, correct grammar that it's time to get this show on the road. “So may we start,” Russell belts out in his lilting tenor, and he is joined in by a quartet of backup singers. Then they all march out of the recording studio and into a Los Angeles street, joined by stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. The number's self-referential playfulness lets spontaneity, or at least the sparkling illusion of it, lead the way. That sound you may hear is a genre being jump-started.
There's so much bonhomie and good cheer on display that it would be understandable if you're under the impression the rest of the film will follow suit. But anyone familiar with Carax's work ("Holy Motors," "The Lovers on the Bridge") knows that careening tonal shifts are one of his specialties. What follows here is a fairy tale for adults, a cautionary parable about the pitfalls of show business and a chronicle of a relationship that curdles until it becomes as poisonous as a witch's apple, all rolled up into a thrillingly unclassifiable package that's as perverse as it is tender.
The basic narrative has an elemental simplicity: insult stand-up comic Henry McHenry (Driver) falls for revered opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). Their love is mutual and real. (There's a song about it, called “We Love Each Other So Much,” that reminded me a little of Jacques Demy's “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Sample lyric: “Counterintuitive, baby, and yet we remain.”) Only thing is, Ann is a delicate rose with a mighty set of pipes and fierce command of the stage, where the characters she play always die exquisitely. Henry, on the other hand, is a terrible person whose lazy routine, peppered with brooding introspection and patently offensive jokes, nevertheless keeps the audience in his pocket. At least he always makes time to torture his beloved by tickling her feet.
The Maels, who share a screenplay credit, wrote all the songs and composed the score, follow and then dissect the oft-trodden mold of “A Star Is Born,” as Ann's success is laid in stark contrast to Henry's self-destructive behavior. A skillfully executed scene shows the comic, who likes to come on stage wearing a dark green boxer's robe, bombing with a Vegas crowd. Watching the tabloid frenzy from the sidelines is an accompanist turned conductor (“The Big Bang Theory's” Simon Helberg), filled with unrequited longing for Ann.
And into this slowly gestating maelstrom comes the couple's first-born, played, naturally, by a puppet. Is this creative choice a commentary on how each marriage is a play where everyone plays their part? Or is it because it adds to the strangeness of it all? The titular character splits the difference between early Todd Haynes and early Tim Burton. (The latter was actually attached to this project at one point.)
The baby's arrival should bring stability to the increasingly strained home, but it comes just before “Annette” reaches a precipice that takes the film in an even darker direction. Befitting its exactingly color-coordinated palette, everyone's true colors are eventually laid bare, as the crashing waves of tragedy, global stardom and ruin add up to a potent cocktail with more than a tip of the hat to the work of Stephen Sondheim. At 140 minutes, it's a dose of excess that asks for the viewer's commitment, but what comes across as chaotic at first glance feels a lot more controlled on repeat viewing. Because if you fall under its spell, you will want to see this more than once.
Carax, ever the nonconformist, has choreographed a pas de deux that pirouettes between light and shadow, embracing a theatricality that feels innately cinematic. He's made a nightmare that unfolds like a dream, a bold, death-obsessed odyssey that washes over you with mad scientist brio.
“Respect”: There's a scene early on in this polished portrait of the Queen of Soul's rise to fame that makes one wish this was more of an out-and-out musical. Young Aretha Franklin (Skye Dakota Turner) is visiting her mother, Barbara Franklin (Broadway luminary Audra McDonald). As the two sit by the piano, Barbara, long divorced, asks her daughter to “sing-talk” to her about life with her dad, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Those who don't tend to gravitate toward musicals will likely be pleased to hear the bulk of “Respect” is more of a biopic with a lot of music as opposed to a musical where people break out into song. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.
There is something to be said for a film as all-encompassing as "Respect" that tries to include a little something for everyone (just a little bit) while remaining fiercely protective of the singer's legacy. This shiny pink Cadillac of a biopic trots out all the hits and takes you along for a ride through all the expected music biz beats with a conviction that fill the clichés with an urgency that pays off when the gloves come off.
“Respect” shines the spotlight on Jennifer Hudson, reportedly hand-picked by Franklin herself after seeing the “American Idol” alum in “The Color Purple” on Broadway. She carries the film capably, wisely opting against mimicry and instead evoking Franklin's sound distilled through her own distinctive vocals.
But what really gives the film a firm foundation is director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson's decision to devote a sizable amount of screen time to Franklin's childhood. Near the beginning, young “Ri” navigates a bustling party thrown by her dad at his Detroit home circa 1952 just before she's asked to perform for the guests, all while in her jammies.
Equally compelling is the movie's depiction of the sexism, institutionalized and otherwise, that Franklin encounters. Potentially life-changing record deals are made in front of her by the men in the room, a stifling glass ceiling she keeps hitting at every turn.
Less successful is the film's portrayal of Franklin's role in the civil rights movement, something that Tommy and Wilson dive into at first, then abandon for entire stretches to focus more on her career and personal life. Scenes like the ones where Franklin and her father interact with Dr. Martin Luther King (Gilbert Glenn Brown) feel like they're from a different movie.
Speaking of Franklin's personal life, “Respect” goes all in on including the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, at least as much as a PG-13 biopic will allow, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to explore the ripple effects those psychological scars have later in her life. Where the movie runs into trouble is when it shows how her first husband and manager, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), took over her life to such an extent that he wrested the freedom that she yearned for. A Sirkian quality to the domestic friction between Franklin and the men in her life gives way to something more uninspired. Also, let's just say the way the film depicts Franklin's dependence on the bottle is the opposite of subtle.
The broad strokes take away “Respect's” vitality, particularly during its second hour, but they're not a dealbreaker. Tommy surrounds her uniformly strong cast with top-drawer production values. The MVP in this regard is costume designer Clint Ramos' stunning creations. You know how I normally berate period pieces for making everything the characters wear appear brand-new? This is a case where just such an approach is ideal.
“Respect” is a grand, pleasingly old-school spectacle that's at its best when it puts the creation of Franklin's sound up front and center. To Tommy's credit, she refuses to depict her as a saint or a victim. When this diva lashes out at her loved ones, the cruel putdowns sting. The filmmaker also knows when to wrap things up. She ends with Franklin's legendary live recording of “Amazing Grace,” the gospel album that returned her to her roots and launched her into the stratosphere. The movie doesn't quite take you to church the way, say, the documentary “Summer of Soul” does, but it's a touching tribute all the same, a testament to the resilience of a woman who stopped at nothing to find her voice.
Following a limited South Florida theatrical run, “Annette” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It had its world premiere back in July as the opening night selection of this year's Cannes Film Festival.
“Respect” is now playing in theaters, including the Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, Regal South Beach and The Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables.