The new Leonard Cohen documentary…

…is a disaster.

For those unfamiliar with Leonard Cohen, it fails, seemingly making the assumption that you are familiar to some degree with his life’s work.

For those who are familiar — like me, the substance and storytelling contained within Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is abysmal.  A real letdown for fans of Cohen. Admittedly, the filmmaker takes his own, different tack, focusing on a key relationship of Cohen — but he failed at really conveying that too.

There are a couple nice little biographical tidbits, like a dry shave to reinvigorate a stage performance.  But these show that the filmmaker is not intending Words of Love to be some sort of un-biography. There’s a very strong sense that there was a lot more biography left out, or i.e. never found by the filmmaker. That there’s a lot more to Leonard Cohen’s life, big and small, that we never get to see.

Kate McKinnon’s performance of “Hallelujah” right after the election, and right after his death, was more profound and substantial than this entire movie. One of the most incredible things ever done on SNL, a deeply emotional and powerful tribute to Leonard Cohen while simultaneously mourning the death of a nation that happened on that horrible Tuesday night.

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Speaking of music.  Where’s the music for Christ’s sake? I mean, you’re handed that on a tee. There were snips here and there of Cohen on stage, as if to say, ‘by the way, here’s Leonard Cohen doing what he does best, doing what made him famous, the only reason we’re now making a documentary.’  But there was way too little of it — so disappointing. It’s not like there are a hundred other Leonard Cohen films out there. Swap out about half the interview time for music and this thing would have been much improved.

Sometimes I get frustrated or even angry at filmmakers screwing up the goose that laid the golden egg. I’m in no way angry here, because I recognize it as pure incompetence. It shows that making a documentary is no gimme. It’s not that easy. You have to know what you’re doing.

I mean generally, if you have strong content for a documentary, often you just let that stand on its own. So maybe it is easy. This filmmaker seemingly did everything he could to block the extraordinary work of Leonard Cohen. The couple aforementioned tidbits raise this one to 3/10.

Comparison Notes: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, Citizenfour, Room 237, Rocketman, Love & Mercy, Searching for Sugar Man, Walk the Line

Rocketman: Launch Failure [u]

In Walk the Line, a music producer tells an as-yet unrecognized Johnny Cash that he doesn’t need any more gospel songs.  Ready to dismiss him as another act doomed for failure, the producer asks Cash the following:

If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out in that gutter dying,
and you had time to sing
One song people would remember before you’re dirt…
One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth…
One song that would sum you up…
You telling me that’s the song you’d sing?
That same Jimmie Davis tune we hear on the radio all day?
About your peace within and how it’s real and how you’re gonna shout it?
Or would you sing something different?
Something real, something you felt?
Because I’m telling you right now…
that’s the kind of song people want to hear.
That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.
It ain’t got nothing to do with believing in God, Mr. Cash.
It has to do with believing in yourself.

With trepidation and little confidence, Johnny Cash then begins to sing one of the most powerful songs ever written in the history of rock or country, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

That is one big “AH HA!” moment.  The kind of moment that the weak, ineffectual Rocketman never gets within a country mile of.  And that is one of the keys to why, despite partial success as a musical, Rocketman is a broken movie.

As a drama, it fails utterly and completely. Compare to Love & Mercy, which as far as telling a story about love and finding happiness, stands as a minor masterpiece when viewed next to Rocketman.   As a biopic, Rocketman face-plants.  I.e., it’s a disaster.  Even the supposed alcoholism of Elton John – low-hanging fruit – is mangled badly.

On top of all that: with all the music included, there is but a scant brush of “Candle in the Wind, ” and omission entirely of the obvious “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Funeral for a Friend”/”Love Lies Bleeding,” and “Levon”. There’s no rule that you have to include songs A, B, C, D.  I have no problem including lesser songs to tell your story.  I have no problem taking your own approach to the story.  But if you’re going to do that, the result has got to be a lot better than Rocketman.  Generously: a low 5/10

Comparison Notes: Crazy Heart, Shine, Walk the LineGet on Up, Love & Mercy, Ray, Amadeus, The Doors: “Let me tell you story about heartache, and loss of God” — and does he ever

UPDATE 7/1/19: I don’t know why I was being generous before.  5/10 felt wrong the moment I typed it. This movie’s got some good music, naturally, but it peeved me.  4/10

Blaze of something less than glory

Telling your audience at the very beginning of the movie that the star of the film is now dead, and how he died, doesn’t help your plot development a whole lot.  That glitch is emblematic of the weight holding down Ethan Hawke’s Blaze.

Which is too bad, because Blaze had an impact on me.  It is richly textured and filled with outstanding performances, especially the central one.  On top of that, I loved the music.  It was a great portrait of a talented and tragically flawed musical soul with whom I identified.  But a movie is not a portrait.  It’s a movie, something Hawke doesn’t seem to fully understand.

How so?  The movie meanders all over the place, perhaps to echo the rambling nature of Blaze Foley.  It doesn’t work.  Focus on the story was badly needed, as some of the most salient aspects of the musician’s life were glossed over or outright omitted, while less impactful episodes were stretched thin.  And a theme of mine — the power of linear storytelling — is blaring in its absence.

Blaze is a very heartfelt and honest film, so I’d love to give it a higher score.  Maybe because of its meandering nature, I didn’t get the emotional connection I might otherwise.  I absolutely recommend it, but can’t get past 6/10.

Comparison Notes: The most direct comparisons are to Crazy Heart, then to Walk the Line, Ray (Jamie Foxx), and other musical biographies, but perhaps the better comparison is a movie like Leave No Trace — the idea of a character who has some strong personality vectors but is fundamentally flawed.

PBS Log: Janis: Little Girl Blue

Another recent PBS highlight was the airing of Janis: Little Girl Blue, which I had missed during its theatrical release a few months back.  I love good PBS programming, and American Masters is continually excellent, but it would be nice if they wouldn’t claim films as their own original production without a nod to prior release; this is not the first time they’ve done that.

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WHEN JANIS SINGS, I’M GLUED.  At the program’s start, I said ‘ho-hum, I’ll flip between this and baseball.’  That flip never happened, and baseball took a night off.

This documentary ended up being one of the most magnificently compelling musical biographies I’ve seen — in a sense, much deeper than Amy.  It features a ton of never seen before footage (by me anyway).  Janis Joplin was a joyously, deeply talented performer, heralded in her lifetime as “Queen of the Blues.”  Little Girl Blue does a good job sticking to her life story, which is all that needs to be done.

One more dig though on the PBS airing: they kept bleeping out any one of the 7 words you can’t say on television.  Very annoying.  But a funny thing about those words.  Although I wish PBS would have some cojones, it’s almost always readily evident which one of those words is being bleeped.  So, annoying, but not enough to truly diminish the powerful story.  And then there is this on the PBS airing:

Never-before-seen extended cut features new interviews with Alecia Moore (a.k.a. Pink), Juliette Lewis, Melissa Etheridge, Laura Joplin and Narrator Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power)

These interviews are key, so kudos to PBS on that I suppose.  Make sure you see the version with them (I can’t imagine the film without).  I haven’t checked, but I would guess that if you watch it via PBS VOD, there should be a good chance of escaping the aforementioned censorship.  9/10

Availability: PBS

PBS Comes Alive

AGAIN THIS YEAR AS LAST, our local PBS station emerged from an endless tedium of run-on pledge breaks almost as if it had something to prove.  It’s very frustrating to me that PBS completely discards all normal programming in order to convince you to support the type of programming that only occurs during pledge breaks.  Great thinking there, KPBS.  If they found a way of soliciting contributions commensurate with the level of programming I highlight today, I’d return to membership.

So first up, premiering locally on Tuesday, March 29, (March 4th I imagine they were too busy with the month-long pledge break) was a two-hour American Masters biography of Loretta Lynn.

American Masters - Loretta Lynn

I learned a lot about her life and music, having for so many years eschewed country music.  I still think that most modern mainstream country music is like most popular rap: not worth listening to.  But Loretta Lynn: now there’s talent.  I was completely enveloped by this biography, and just as I felt it drag slightly in the second hour it swept me right back in with her more recent work, including collaborations with the likes of great rock star Jack White.  I think that’s the mark of an enduring icon: like Johnny Cash, David Bowie, or Leonard Cohen, continuing to produce ever-more profound work right to the end (not that Loretta Lynn is by any means at the end).

That first line of “Portland, Oregon” gives me goose bumps.  What an eternal voice.

Frontline - Saudi ArabiaKPBS followed up the Loretta Lynn show with a jarringly different Frontline, “Saudi Arabia Uncovered.”  It’s quite clear that Saudi Arabia is a completely corrupt, morally bankrupt nation governed by those who so lack confidence in their faith that they disallow any sort of non state-sponsored journalism, women from driving, or non-Muslims from entering the city limits of Mecca, as just a few examples.  You’re talking about a country — typical for the region — that is maybe one step above Syria, Afghanistan or North Korea.  A country that makes China look like a thriving democratic fun-zone by comparison.

This episode of Frontline was as compelling as any of this gem of broadcast journalism.  It and American Masters are available to watch online or via your streaming device.

Amy’s on Fire

Amy - movie poster

The dead singer, not the movie about her.  If I were judging Amy purely on filmmaking skills, it would receive a thumbs-down.  Case in point.  I heard Tony Bennett’s posthumous compliment of her about being that rare “true Jazz singer.”  So it’s appropriate that the movie use this quote.  What’s inappropriate is repeating the quote three times.  That gets uncomfortable, because it uncovers the movie’s greatest fault: disorganization, and by extension lack of vision.  Amy did that a few times — repeated itself unnecessarily, as if the filmmakers weren’t confident they were getting their point across.  Repetition in film can be a very effective narrative device if done tactfully.  Tact is what Amy — the movie — lacks.

I think the reason for Amy’s faults is that the filmmakers were so absorbed with all the material in front of them that they got swallowed up by it.  Without knowing what to leave out, they threw everything in, sometimes multiple times.

But I admit, I got swallowed up myself.  There’s no doubt that Amy Winehouse was a great singer, a great talent, a young Amy - movie - text blockwoman full of soul and passion.  Amy did not open up any sort of deep, profound revelation that we’ve never heard before.  The job of a documentary like this is to provide that ‘ah-ha’ moment — and it failed at that.

Which is connected to another shortcoming of the film.  There was little trajectory, or arc of story — doom was written all over Amy Winehouse from the beginning.  One could argue it was impossible to show a trajectory that didn’t exist in the person, so in that sense Amy may be forgiven.

A couple more dings: the movie hails itself as “a ground-breaking motion picture.”  No way on that one.  And on Amy Winehouse herself — yes it’s a tragic story.  I can grant that.  But don’t compare what happened with her to the truly tragic ending faced by, say, John Lennon.  Amy is effective, but for an infinitely more emotional and powerful experience (and a vastly better film), go with Life Itself.

For all its faults, Amy — I think the singer more so than the film — did stick with me.  I have to give credit to the movie for putting me in her world, a sad place speckled with glory.  7/10

Love & Mercy: A Welcome Relief

Love & Mercy - poster medThe Rotten Tomatoes consensus (87% among top critics):

As unconventional and unwieldy as the life and legacy it honors, Love & Mercy should prove moving for Brian Wilson fans while still satisfying neophytes.

True, except the part about neophytes.  As ubiquitous as Beach Boys music has been in the past, if you don’t have a general familiarity with the band don’t expect to find it here.  Love & Mercy focuses on the life of Brian Wilson in the latter stages of his involvement with the Beach Boys, and on a sour period years after departing it.  The obvious comparison brought to my mind was Shine.  Not showing the Beach Boys’ rise to fame is one of the ‘unconventional’ choices the film makes, and there are others.

Love & Mercy - text blockNormally I celebrate fresh approaches in movies, but Brian Wilson’s story is so powerful that it speaks for itself.  Though there are flashes of brilliance, the film too often bobbles the ball and has trouble getting out of its own way.  I would classify it as a not entirely confident or accomplished approach.  Nonetheless, performances are good, and the story strong enough to pass through.  Love & Mercy is good, even great at times.  But its lack of vision as a whole film stops it from being wholly great.  Between Shine and Love & Mercy, I’ll take Shine.  7/10

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A Note on the actors: Kudos to Elizabeth Banks on a job well done here.  I became enamored of Banks with her supporting but pivotal role in the exceptionally underrated psychological drama The Uninvited.  And if I don’t get around to a separate post, 2015 will forever be known as the year of Paul Giamatti.