Wild Rose

There are dozens of movies about aspiring singers and bands that are worthy for you to see. Some are set in a different time, many in a different place but most of them that work, have a heart. Earlier this year, we got a biopic of Elton John and it is terrific, I think however, from an emotional perspective at least, it has been surpassed by this Scottish tale of a woman who feels that she is in the wrong place but the right voice. I worry when I see superlatives being bandied about in the trailers, because they can set your expectation up for disappointment. No need to worry here, Jessie Buckley is all that has been advertised and I hope she is singing the Oscar nominated song on the Academy Awards, right before she picks up her own award.

For forty years, I have asked students to share something about themselves in the first week of class. Overwhelmingly, one of the personal tidbits that gets dropped is their love for some kind of music. If I were to paraphrase a sentence that I heard nearly a half dozen times every semester it would be…”I like all kinds of music…except country”. Now there are plenty of students who did love country music, but I always found it fascinating how many try to distance themselves from an art form that seems so accessible to me. Maybe they subscribe to the stereotypes of the old songs, and don’t want to be seen as morose or too conventional. This is the sort of film that ought to convince them to see and listen to the world a bit differently. Country music as it is portrayed here is not dull, and it certainly applies to a youth culture as much if not more than an older generation.

Two films jumped into my head as I was watching this, “The Commitments” and “Sing Street”. Both featured music but very different kinds of music. Each story has a different theme, friendship, love, responsibility. Despite these difference, you may notice the story beats are very similar. After we are introduced to the characters, they reveal how talented they are, they overcome initial obstacles, they fail at the next obstacle, but ultimately redeem themselves with the promise of a future obstacle that they will be well equipped to manage. All stories will have some of these types of cliches, it’s unavoidable in fictional storytelling, these are the dramatic turns that make us follow the events. A movie succeeds when it makes these cliches feel real and presents them in a dramatically fulfilling manner. “Wild Rose” manages to do this just fine.

Rose as played by Jessie Buckley, is a headstrong woman who has great talent and ambition but has also made some bad decisions and lacks a sense of responsibility. She needs to grow up. The question concerns how she will manage to do that. Can she be the person she needs to be for her family, and still be the person she wants to be for herself? That is a question that all of us have to answer and it does not always turn out well. We can see that Rose wants to do right, but she does not know how to. She has the raw talent to succeed but lacks the discipline to make things work out the way she wants. Along the way she has a couple of allies and she doesn’t realize how much they want her to do the right things as well. Sophie Okenedo is a sympathetic employer who is moved by the music and the passion that Rose shares. Julie Walters is the Mother who wants her daughter to grow up and be the person she is capable of being, but she is tired of being an enabler for the bad choices her daughter is making.

The music is amazing in this film. Of course there are a variety of country standards and some obscure songs that pre-date the film, but there are a number of original songs written for the film, and all of the ones performed by Rose in the film were recorded by Jessie Buckley who has an amazing voice.

This will be on my end of the year list. Three chords and the truth.

Mary Poppins Returns

For a nostalgia junkie like me, this premise was catnip, with a potential for disaster. The original “Mary Poppins” is one of the pivotal films of my childhood.  It was the one movie that I distinctly remember my grandmother taking me to. I also recall listening to the soundtrack with my friend Kathy Callen and singing the words from the songs, because in those days there was no home video, we relived the movie through the music. So I wanted to revisit the characters and the setting of the movie, but there is always trepidation when a sequel comes along, especially when it if fifty plus years later. As things worked out, we are all in good hands. Rob Marshall has made a career out of bringing musicals to the screen and this original story with new songs fills our expectations in a number of ways.

The first thing the movie gets right is the tone of the story. There is some melancholy over a Mother who has passed, a family on the brink of financial ruin, and some grown ups who have forgotten what it is to be imaginative. Jane and Michael Banks are all grown up and face some adult problems, and Mary Poppins is really there for them. Michael’s children are doing their best to be mature in the face of their family upheavals, but it is taking a massive toll on their childhood. When Mary Poppins drops out of the sky and into their lives, they are not being given a chance to grow up, but rather, to enjoy a childhood they might lose. OK, that’s the serious part and it fades into the background quickly to give the main focus of the film full range. This movie is a visual confection, designed to entertain us with old fashioned story telling and traditional film making. An occasional boost from computer technology is present, but you never get the idea that this is a series of ones and zeros being manipulated to show us something that can’t possibly be there. I know that the London Clock Tower was not used an actual location, but because so much of the film relies on studio backstreets and real sets, the magic sells much more readily. Kites and Umbrellas are real, so it’s OK that the Dance Hall is a digital fabrication.

There is a nice chunk of the story told in animation, and it was such a pleasure to see traditional two dimensional line drawings and cartoon characters. Shamus the Coachman and Clyde the Horse are refreshingly old fashioned characters that look like they could have been part of the original film. They also lack the irony that so many comic moments in a contemporary film comedy would require. If we had just had the animation section of the movie, this would be a delight. Mary and Jack, dance and cavort with penguins and a variety of other critters in a show piece dance number that is all flash and fun. The cotton candy the children are indulging in while watching is exactly what I felt like I was consuming. Something sweet, light and airy, and it was utterly delicious. If there are critics of this film ( and I know there will be), I suspect one of their complaints will be how this movie mines the beats of the first film, in much the way “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” copied the original. There is an extended animated sequence as noted, there is also a visit to an eccentric relative of Mary Poppins to try to address a problem and a light-hearted comic sequence ensues. We don’t have chimney sweeps, but we do get lamplighters who also wear dark vestments and dance on high with props, in ths case, bicycles rather than brooms. Instead of the suffragette that the original Mrs. Banks was, Jane is some kind of labor organizer. Thankfully, just as in the original, we are spared that as backstory and it is simply a characteristic to add color to the character.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a suitable performer for this film, he has talent and charisma enough to hold the screen when it is his. I was very much surprised to notice that this talented, Tony Award winning, Academy Award Nominated songwriter, contributed only his voice to the songs featured in the film. If I have any reservations about the movie it is that the songs are serviceable and nice but not memorable. There is nothing equivalent to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” or “Feed the Birds” or”Supercalifragalisticexpealidocious”.  Maybe with subsequent viewings, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “A Cover is not the Book” could in fact be hum-able and repeated, but it is a little too early to tell.

The not so secret weapon of this movie is Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins. Whatever vocal skills she has, and they are considerable, she could hardly match Julie Andrews, so she doesn’t really need to try. She adds a different characteristic to the film. Mary’s flintiness falls away on a regular basis and she enthusiastically engages in the nonsense songs as joyfully as the children or Jack, the character played by Miranda. She sings beautifully and she dances with vigor and she looks the part the whole time. Mary Poppins is not the emotional center of the film, she is the initiator and reflector of the emotions that are being felt by others and Blunt is quietly and forcefully in control, even when she acts out. I thought she was fantastic in “A Quiet Place” earlier this year, this is a completely different performance but it is just as noteworthy. She may end up competing with herself in the Awards season.

The movie is also filled with other performers who manage to get a little extra into the movie. Meryl Streep doesn’t really need to be here but she worked with Marshall before and she is in this just long enough and not any more. Angela Lansbury and Julie Walters also add a bit of English charm to the story. Walters is amusing and Lansbury is just the right light touch at the end of the movie. Colin Firth has only a couple of scenes where he twirls his mustache and tries to look like Walt Disney himself.  The most amazing element in the supporting cast however is Dick Van Dyke, playing the older version of a different character from the first film. He has one scene and the ninety three year old, dances and sings like it was still 1964. He has a thousand watt smile that is the perfect cherry on the top of this dessert.

If you are a cynic, a hipster, or someone who thinks films need to promote a social justice agenda, there is not really anything here for you. However, if you are a child at heart, or the parent of children, or you want to feel like a child again, then this is right where you want to be. This is a holiday entertainment that will please families and leave you with a song in your heart, although the lyrics might not be there as well.