Lou Reed’s Berlin (Schnabel, 2008)


Not a success during it’s first release in 1973, Lou Reed rarely performed any songs from the album during his live shows. In 2006 however, accompanied by a 30 piece band and 12 choristers, he did a touring his tragic rock opera across the United States. Julian Schnabel, best known for his plate art and the wonderful, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly took the opportunity to film the event during a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. He further incorporated some found and created footage by himself and his daughter, notably using Emmanuelle Seigner in various vignettes as the ill-fated Caroline. It’s an interesting touch that enriches the performances, and is especially effective because of it’s scarcity.

I haven’t seen many concert films in my life, it’s difficult for me to judge this against others of it’s type. It has the advantage that I like Lou Reed a hellavalot, and even though Berlin has never been one of my favourite albums it certainly benefits from the live show… and I don’t think I’ve yet to listen to a Reed album I don’t enjoy on some level. The band is very strong and it’s impossible for me to choose a standout. Every last person contributes at some point or another, and is given the opportunity to shine just a little brighter. It’s clear how much work and team effort went into putting together this performance and the end results are quite spectacular. Reed himself is a rather restrained performer, and some have criticized him for not showing the same passion as some of his contemporaries. I have to agree outright, because while Reed doesn’t have a flair for the dramatic or a very theatrical presence, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. His focus and passion seem to channel right through to the chords of the guitar rather through the movement of his body, but even then, there are lapses like the very emotional Caroline Says II and The Kids. While I appreciate a sort of exuberance from musicians, I also like Reed’s restraint, and they really do service these two songs in particular. One almost feels as if Caroline herself is being held back, trying to hold back the tears, trying not to cry. It’s truly heartbreaking.

An interesting concert film, though, I can’t imagine it having much to offer for someone who isn’t fond of Reed’s music. Though it tries something new, it never falls for the gimmick, allowing the artistry of the words and music take full force. Berlin is an extremely heart wrenching opera of sex, drugs, abuse and family and how it all comes together to tear at the character’s lives. I might have to revisit the album detached from the film, because I truly think I underestimated it the first time I listened to it.

State Fair (Walter Lang, 1945)

I’m so easily manipulated, I’ve been told by many I’m the perfect audience. Quiet, attentive and responsive. I should be paid for my services by a comedian, because if someone tells a joke, I will laugh. Perhaps that’s why I have such an attachment and aptitude for classic Hollywood cinema, I accept the romance, the comedy and the horror that it presents, not necessarily as factual truths, but emotional ones. State Fair (1945) is not one of the all time great musicals, but it’s one of the tender, sweet ones that Minnelli had pioneered just a year before. It’s not about spectacle, riches or stage, it’s about family and the lives of every day people. The magic and tribulations of every day life. Not much happens in the film, at least not in terms of action, emotionally we run through what feels like a lifetime of emotions and every one of them is as sweet and sincere as the last.

Though these types of films are a kind of wish fulfillment, the idea that out there someone is perfect for you, and happiness is possible. It has that same longing for a new life and new love that everyone has no doubt felt at one time or another. The spectacle of the fair allows it to happen, a meeting place of different people and places, a celebration of life at it’s fullest. I was most sympathetic to young Margy’s character transition, as I think I’m near the same time in my life as she is. Actually, watching the film, I wonder how I’ll feel about these films ten or twenty years down the line as so many of my favourites or films that attract or “speak” to me include characters just a few years away from my own. I’m at a point in my life where I’m the “ideal” female target age of popular classic Hollywood cinema, and just a few years off the early 20s woman popular in the new Hollywood vehicle. Will I still feel the same affection? The same kinship? It’s all worth wondering as huge what-ifs, looking down the road at the person I may be, not the person I am. Margy is one of those girls who just feels as lost as I am, her make-up and hair may be done up with a lot more elaborately than my own, but her crisis feels just as real.

Writing this out, I feel so unlike myself as I say I yearn for the simple things in life. I do, and I don’t. I don’t know how to define simplicity, it’s not some conservative ideal of the perfect home, perfect husband and perfect job, but rather the idea that a person can be happy. This film touches for that because that’s what Margy years for, she doesn’t necessarily want a new world, she doesn’t want the old one either… she wants her own. The film is never condescending to the country life, and similarly does not demonize or caricature the city either. The fundamental equation is that people can feel, and we are also capable of change… it’s even necessary. We have to work for what we want, and looking on the bright side of life might just win you a few extra dollars. Even though on those cold and unhappy days where you feel as if the world is a rotten place, I think it never hurts to try and see a little good in it, and the people around you. That at any opportunity something can jump up and surprise you for the better, and it can happen anytime and anywhere.

As I said, I’m a total sap for these kind of films. The songs and the romance always sways me, and leaves my stomach fluttering with butterflies. I’m happy I’m a push-over though, films like this, however momentarily seem to infuse me with an energy to be happy and to be the best person I can be, and I don’t see any harm in that.

What is it about Musicals?

What is it I love about musicals? It’s almost easier to ask anybody, what is it you like about music? There is something about the movie musical that rubs people the wrong way, though I’ve yet to hear a particularly worthwhile case for their dismissal and dislike for a genre that for me is one of the most purely cinematic. For me, at it’s best, the musical is an outward expression of emotions. It’s obvious and artificial because it’s cemented in fantasy and abstract our introverted thoughts and emotions to the outside. Much like a Beatle’s love ballad like “I want to hold your hand” or “Something”, it’s not a matter of how direct the lyrics are meant to be, but the skill to which they are presented and explored. The only difference is, the songs of a musical are worked in a plot, and the juggling act extends beyond just the musicality but into choreography, visuals and context. Perhaps that’s why it’s so divisive, there is so much that can go wrong… but in my experience, when they hit it just right, it’s unforgettable.

My father, a man of great intelligence and an amateur cinephile himself is one of those people who doesn’t like the musical. There are exceptions though, as he considers both Oliver! (1968) and The Commitments (1991) among his favourite films. He especially does not like the older, apparently more upbeat entries in the genre. He doesn’t like the artificiality of people breaking into song, it’s unnatural for him, and he can never emerce himself in that world. Though this is in my mind an almost valid understanding of why someone doesn’t like it, it’s not justification for disliking the film… if that makes sense. I think it’s the approach to musicals that trips more people than anything else, they approach it as truth, instead of fantasy. Most people (not my father, who hates George Lucas), who dislike the musical have no problem with Star Wars… yet, it’s just as if not more ridiculous and detached from reality than something like The Wizard of Oz or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I’ve never understood film as truth or reality, it’s more of a reflection of imagination and the mind. Even those that seem closest to life are really just an abstraction.

Of course, this is just talking about one singular kind of musical. There are many musicals that don’t have spontaneous “let’s burst into song” moments. In my experience, they’re often more serious in nature, or deal in some way with the stage. This category includes films like Cabaret, The Red Shoes and most of the Berkeley musicals. Still maintaining the use of song and dance as an expression of what cannot and is not said, there is a greater sense of the character’s own physical detachment from their mental state. They’re only different than the first musical, no better, no worse. I also find them generally to be much more accessible as they are not quite as fantastic, and for someone unfamiliar with musicals, it’s a better stepping board into the genre.

Why do I love musicals? For all the things I mentioned and more. The direct and immediate exploration of emotion especially I find touching. I grew up on musicals and the language of song and dance came naturally to my young mind, though I have to admit, I have no talent for either. This ought to be a fruitful and exciting month, I can’t wait to discover some new films.

November: The Month of the Musical

As I said I would, I ignored the poll and decided to focus my  viewing attentions  for November on the musical. Once the month starts I’ll have a little more to say about the genre itself, but for now I’m just allerting you what to expect and asking for some recommendations. Obviously, I won’t be able to get to all of them, but it would be nice if someone pointed me in a direction I wasn’t aware of before. Here is a short list of  films I will most likely be seeing:

The Merry Widow (1934)
Strike up the Band (1940)
State Fair (1945)
Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
The Pirate (1948)
Carmen Jones (1954)
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
The Pajama Game (1957)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Lou Reed’s Berlin (2007)

As you can see, I’m interpreting musical  very loosely to allow concert films, and even documentaries on musicians and music. So be open with your suggestions

On the Town (Donen & Kelly, 1949)

I love a good old fashioned musical, and while On the Town is far from one of the best, it still packs a punch. Having seen both Kelly’s and Donen’s later work, like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, this feels like an exercise. The film feels like a model of An American in Paris, the same simple story, the same affectionate portrayal of a city, and the same extended ballet sequence. They all pale in comparison to the later work, but that does not diminish the quality and energy of the performers.

Though, there is no doubt that Sinatra is a talented singer, he cannot hold his own against Kelly’s magnetism and masculinity. The film is sold because he manages to make a song and dance affair masculine. It’s perhaps his greatest asset as a dancer, and why he edges out Fred Astaire as a favourite dancer among most modern audiences. He’s rippling with muscles, choosing dance moves that highlight his athleticism… he always makes sure to have a good number of pelvic thrusts too, not that I’m paying that close attention… but they’re there, yea. They’re nice.

The music itself, is on the weak side, despite it’s iconic number, “New York, New York“. I did enjoy the “Prehistoric Man” sequence, mostly because of the sexual energy of Ann Miller. I’ve never been particularly fond of her, but she proves here she’s a force to be reckoned with. On the politically correct side, this is the first of many sequences that’s really problematic. I’m usually very forgiving, but this film does push some limits that become irksome. What surprises me more, in my mind, envisioning a remake I don’t see them cutting out any of it… strange way the world works I guess.

The next step in my musical journey will probably be Minnelli’s (a more competent director than Donen) Brigadoon. At the very least it will be opulent and beautiful, one thing that lacked in On the Town. The creativity and adventurousness of making a musical on location is admirable, but as a first entry, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The melding of magic, reality and technical facets don’t quite work together yet.