2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

Tár (2022)

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Director / Screenwriter: Todd Field

By Roderick Heath

Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.

His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.

Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.

Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.

The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”

Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.

More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.

Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. It bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.

Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.

Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out purposefully to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.

Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender,” and it could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.

Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.

By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, like the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother: the woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.

Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.

What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.

Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.

Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with its antiheroine recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian, making the connection more explicit in choosing a German setting, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.

Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.

Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.

By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.

The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, begins trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.

Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to Bangkok, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.

This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.

Standard
1990s, Biopic, Music Film

The Doors (1991)

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TheDoors44

Director/Coscreenwriter: Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

The Doors, the psychedelic blues band formed by Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Bobby Krieger, and John Densmore in 1966, had the stuff of the movies encoded in their music. Morrison and Manzarek were former film students who had studied under Josef von Sternberg, of all people, at UCLA. Their music, with its variable tempos, wildly imagistic and fragmented lyrics, and emphasis on creating aural atmosphere, surely shares more with the churning visual worlds of Sternberg, Fellini, Paradjanov, Cocteau, Anger, and other druids of cinema than with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, in spite of Morrison’s poetic pretences. The band’s best songs, like “The End,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Five in One,” or “LA Woman,” seem innately cinematic, filled with word-pictures and aural landscapes plucked from imaginary epics and subterranean relics or designed to fuel some roaring montage spliced together by some overheated future movie savant: indeed, Francis Coppola did just that with Apocalypse Now (1979). Morrison’s brief, bristling, calamitous spell of fame became one of the most immediate reference points for the mystique of rock ’n’ roll and late ’60s hedonism for anyone inclined to lionise or denigrate either, and Morrison’s stature is the very image of the Dionysian, doomed rock hero.

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I remember very well when I first saw The Doors, Oliver Stone’s retelling of that essential mythos: it was in high school, on a rainy afternoon when sports had been washed out and the need for a video, any video, to be shoved in the VCR to keep us trapped teens entertained produced some kid’s copy of the film. With no teachers about to turn it off, there we all sat reclining in delight at the spectacle of raw excess and messy creation. For us youth living in a declining mining town where futures both sure and exciting were in short supply, we may have listened to Nirvana or Oasis or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it was The Doors we saw whenever we fantasised about stardom’s carnal crack-up ever after. 1991 was a banner year for Oliver Stone—he had already staked his claim to being American popular culture’s most respected firebrand with his revisionist-history tome JFK, and brought out The Doors mere months afterwards. It was a combination punch of formidable achievement, one that made Stone the one filmmaker everyone was talking about, in those few remaining days before some guy named Quentin Tarantino debuted his first movie at Sundance. JFK is often cited as Stone’s singular achievement, but The Doors vies with Talk Radio (1988) as my personal favourite of his works. The Doors was a troubling success for many rock and film fans, as it went through the motions of providing a Morrison biopic but seemed more intent on sensory overload than in analysing its antihero.

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Stone’s psychologically superficial treatment of Morrison feels deliberate, partly because Stone clearly wanted to use Morrison as a totemic figure to explore the spirit of an era, an exemplar for a generation and a fatefully schizoid quality in his society. Much the same as Kennedy’s assassination let the director shake loose every bizarre subculture and paranoiac perversity in the America of his youth, so Morrison offered a spirit-guide to explore the pungent, sensory-distorting effect of drugs and the even more pernicious effect of American success. He could also be a personal avatar, for Stone seems to have related intensely to another son of the establishment who found himself in deeply resentful conflict with that establishment, and as a intelligent and cultured man who surrendered refinement for immediacy, intimacy for effect, class for passion, intellect for gut feeling. Plus, legend has it both men did incredible quantities of drugs. The Doors exemplifies a controversial, but legitimate approach to the artist biopic, turning the artist’s life into one of their own creations viewed inextricably through that prism. Thus, Morrison becomes his own ranting id-man, spirit-conjurer and magician alternating with sacrificial angel, all painted in mad psychedelic hues. In spite of its title, The Doors is more about Morrison than the rest of the band, and even more about the idea of Morrison and the band than whatever they were in reality. And that’s a good thing.

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The film’s instant impact on the popular consciousness met with some nimble satire, for instance, the parody in Wayne’s World 2 (1994) (“Who are you?” “I’m Jim Morrison.” “And who’s he?” “A weird, naked Indian.”), but also has influenced some of the better rock ’n roll movies—small roster that it is—like Floria Sigismondi’s hugely underrated The Runaways (2010). Stone was lucky enough to have young Val Kilmer around to play Morrison, with his strong resemblance to one of the most masculinely beautiful ’60s rock icons. Kilmer had moved toward stardom playing a sub-Elvis hero in Top Secret! (1984), mocking the affectations of the early rock star; Stone had him create a similar performance, except in deadly earnestness. Stone and Kilmer’s Morrison is a guy living inside out, writing lyrics in speech and seeking prelapsarian formlessness in singing, a fantasy vision of the bardic ideal. Stone latches on to one of Morrison’s possibly part-apocryphal recollections from childhood, of driving past a car accident that left dead and injured Native American itinerant workers sprawled on a highway’s edge, as a motif that inflects the whole film, just as it was a constant refrain in Morrison’s writing.

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Stone’s vision of his hero is protean, almost a man without a centre but a mass of impulses and creative urges. The young Morrison is glimpsed as a beatific Peter Pan smiling at his randomly chosen lady love from a tree, exemplifying the romantic hippie spirit, just as much as he later becomes the ranting ogre of proto-punk and the calm philosopher-poet he may have always wanted to be. Morrison drops out of film school along with Manzarek (Kyle MacLachlan) after his arty student film is sniffed at by fellow students and his teacher (not supposed to be Sternberg, but a square played by Stone himself), and treads through Venice Beach painted in reefs of hallucinogenic colour and gleaming, idealised beauty, where even vagrants gathered about a fire whilst a harmonica player wails the blues has the gilt of epic import, a place where Morrison can romance Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) under swirling stars and a time-lapse moon. Morrison singing a few random lyrics to Manzarek on the beachfront inspires immediate action in perfect obedience to the free-form energy and multitudinous references of the time and place, and within minutes they’re bashing out crude versions of future hits in a Hollywood bungalow with laid-back Krieger (Frank Whaley) and tetchy Densmore (Kevin Dillon), hurling “Light My Fire” together with the same enthusiasm of Garland and Rooney putting on a show. Stone’s chain-lightning, easy-as-can-be approach to the coming together of Morrison and Courson and The Doors as conquering band does nod to classic showbiz films. I love the crash cut from Krieger tapping out time to start “Light My Fire” to shots of LA nightlife with the song erupting in finished form as instant theme to a nocturnal wonderland.

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Stone paints this as an Edenic moment for Morrison and his camp, unfettered idealism and life-hunger immediately earning reward, perhaps the writer and filmmaker’s good-humoured mockery of the way things seem to come much more easily to (some) musicians. But Stone is also not interested in the usual business of artist biopics, which is proving that their heroes are ordinary people who suffer and bleed for trying; the extraordinariness of Morrison is his subject, the Lawrence of Arabia of rock, working up followers with messianic passion and then finding himself going mad from such vision and power. He’s Lizard King in the world Stone left behind to make his tilt at good patriotism as detailed in Platoon (1986), and later on, Morrison’s admission that he might be having a nervous breakdown is backed up by footage fresh from Vietnam, as if he’s a psychic sponge for the half-submerged rot of the moment. “Let’s plan a murder or start a religion,” Morrison suggests as the band and their girls strut their embryonic cool through the LA evening, and he plays crowd cheerleader atop a car with stars spinning above him as the acid kicks in and turns his up-with-people chants into slurred onomatopoeia. Then, quick digression to the desert for some peyote, the band recast as seekers in search of nullifying experiences treading the sands like they’re on their way to the sandy orgy of Zabriskie Point (1970).

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Stone started his movie career as a screenwriter and evolved into a filmmaker with an uncommonly vibrant, even assaultive style redolent of great talent and messy ambition. His major works of the late ’80s and ’90s blended traditional Hollywood effects with techniques borrowed from documentaries, TV news, silent expressionism, experimental film, Soviet realism, psychedelia, and sometimes even animation to create a visually rhapsodic, unsubtle but dynamic, associative form of cinema. The Doors subsumes the classic rise-to-fame biopic and layers it with Stone’s vivid, tendentious connections, like projecting an ancient Greek poet’s bust over Morrison’s face before fading into the regulation montage moment of the singer hero surrounded by the covers of magazines featuring his image, ramming home the idea Morrison himself was happy to embrace that the modern pop star was the classical poet-warrior reinvented. Stone offers a corny, but dazzling islet of psychedelia, as the band treads into the wastelands to get high. Morrison, in the depths of his own fantasy mindscape, follows the Indians he saw dead under mysterious eclipses, chased by black raptors and venturing into a cave to be reborn as crowd-mesmerising shaman. He emerges with “The End” as new anthem, with its Oedipal killer-hero embodied by a bald Indian who reappears throughout the film, most notably as a dancing hippie with a third eye painted on his forehead, constant reminder of Morrison’s dance with death and thematic link with JFK, where the same actor played one of the president’s assassins.

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Stone’s visuals often genuinely tap the hallucinatory, half-banal, half-incantatory edge of the band’s songs and the imagistic obsessions in Morrison’s work to a degree of intensity that’s very rare in the artist biopic, calling back to the wildest moments of Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) or even, proportions maintained, Andrei Tarkovsky’s more remote and austere, but equally imaginative, panoramic Andrei Rublev (1966), as the directors seem to have interiorised the visions formed in their head whilst listening to the music and spat out the terrain created within. The camerawork, by Robert Richardson, swims in relentless motion, tracking and crane shots executed in sensual leaps surveying dense frescolike depictions of counterculture nightlife littered with intricate lighting and colour effects. The band’s first performance of “The End” in the Whiskey a Go Go sees Morrison achieving the orgiastic tötentanz that quickly becomes the band’s stock in trade, even cliché, but turns the eyes of everyone, even the go-go dancers, onto the front man who seems to recreate primal scream therapy onstage and then die Orpheus-like, sprawled on stage with women tearing at his carcass. Club management isn’t so happy about the obscene punchline of the song and casts The Doors onto the street, where they are greeted by Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman (Mark Moses) and producer Paul Rothchild (Michael Wincott) with the offer to make a record, which brings Morrison down from his performance high just long enough to get something done.

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Stone’s reputation as American cinema’s most ambitious and aware filmmaker in the period was always rather belied by the blatancy of his concepts and messages, a tendency to push a rather blunt and obvious idea with a force that could become mesmerising and tedious in equal measure. Such a tendency for me significantly hampers the likes of Platoon (1986) JFK, Natural Born Killers (1994), and Nixon (1995), and is certainly apparent in The Doors. But at least here it suits the theme, which is the texture of a pop culture experience, never greatly amenable to nuance, and Stone’s fascination with the idea of Morrison as a man who disintegrated under the frustration of gaining success that offers only a compromised freedom to energise but not radicalise. Stone’s print-the-legend depiction of the rock scene has been lambasted a lot over the years and with some good reason, and yet it’s worth noting that a scene like the early jam that pieces together “Light My Fire” actually gives a good idea of the process behind it in a way very few films about this sort of thing do, like, for instance, Control (2007), where the band just somehow turns up in the recording studios with its sound already burnished. Considering how prosaic most such films are, no matter Stone’s bollocks, I admire what he does here—even having Morrison dance on stage with ghost medicine men as naked hippies flounce around a bonfire—because he’s not trying to capture the surface reality of performance, but his idea of it, the joy of liberation in a stifled and technocratic America.

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Of course, Stone can’t resist laying Morrison’s self-destructive edge down to a mixture of rank Freudian alienation from his parents, and the more intriguing notion of his hero as spiritual grease trap for his society’s wrongs, kicked off by the intense, formative experience of the bleeding labourers that anoints him as witness and soothsayer. Stone turns the parade of celebrities in the background into moving waxworks, as Ed Sullivan is gruesomely caricatured as a phony, old vampire and Andy Warhol (Crispin Glover) is anti-personality at the eye of a poseur storm and prophet of the post-reality age. Stone stages the band’s encounter with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd as a descent into the underworld, where West Coast hallucinogenic inspiration sours under the influence of New York decadence and hard drugs. Morrison nervously pleads with his bandmates not to be left alone to face Warhol, as if he senses an oncoming ordeal he can’t face, but swiftly gives into this pint-sized Satan’s temptations, as Nico (Kristina Fulton) goes down on him in an elevator before Pamela’s stoned disbelief. A photographer (Mimi Rogers) takes iconic snaps of Morrison and repeats the siren call of stand-alone stardom. A press conference alternates between Morrison’s fantasy image of himself reproducing Bob Dylan’s shaded, combative cool and his slightly bleating, defensive actuality, hooking up with an inquisitive journalist and Wiccan, Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan), who successfully prescribes drinking blood as the cure for limp dick and later marries him in a Wicca ceremony (officiated by the real Kennealy).

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Kennealy fatefully disturbs Morrison however, as she digs up the parents he claimed were dead, complete with the not-incidental detail that his father, an admiral in the U.S. Navy, was heavily involved in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and a cop’s intervention in their charged conversation before a show sparks one of Morrison’s infamous stage demonstrations, whipping up the audience against the patrolling cops and getting the show shut down. Morrison’s relationship with Pamela spins into increasingly fraught and mutually wounding territory, counterpointing level-headed Manzarek’s union with his wife Dorothy (Kelly Hu), whilst Morrison’s peevish displays increasingly infuriate Densmore. Pamela has her own sense of humour, introducing herself to a customs man as “Pamela Morrison, ornament,” but shares her husband’s appetites far too much to counterbalance his collective of enablers, including Warhol actor Tom Baker (Michael Madsen) and omnivorous ratbags Dog (Dennis Burkley) and Cat (Billy Idol). An attempt to throw a party for Ray and Dorothy after their wedding devolves into a shambles when Morrison gets stoned, Kennealy comes to call, and Pamela lets loose, sparking a bratty tantrum by Morrison that sees a roast duck stomped on and Morrison posing as Richard of Gloucester to Pamela’s Lady Anne, begging her to skewer and end him or accept the consequences of living with him. Stone’s love of concussive romance pitching half-mad men against haplessly loyal women (see also Heaven & Earth, 1994; Alexander, 2004) is certainly at play here, even if, true to form, he can’t help but make stuff up to make his visions of Morrison and Courson’s relationship more intense, like having him lock her in a cupboard and set fire to it with lighter fluid after catching her shooting smack with a suss Italian aristocrat (Costas Mandylor). Come on baby, light my fire, indeed.

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One could again justifiably abuse Stone for buying Morrison’s postures as authentic, in presenting him as a man constantly swinging between the poles of the beatific world love of psychedelic rock and satanic troughs, looking forward to the brutalism of punk and heavy metal because of his psychic radar, rather than as a successful guy living the high life whose pharmaceutical indulgences fuel wild emotion swings. But in Stone’s eye there might as well be no distance between man and art, because to an artist like Stone, so often fired by both biography and autobiography, it’s absolutely true. The film’s proper climax is an epic restaging of the infamous 1969 Florida concert that saw Morrison indicted for obscenity. Densmore, already quietly infuriated by overhearing a rock journo sneer at their recent work, is at a fine pitch of anger at Morrison, who after arriving late and soused, starts abusing the crowd (“You’re all fucking slaves!”) with his inclusive demagoguery turning increasingly to septic provocation, and pretending to pull his prick out. The show climaxes in an eruptive return to form as Morrison hurls himself into the crowd and bellows “Break on Through” in a churning mass of wild humanity, the spirit of death hanging on to his shoulder all the while. This is a dazzlingly staged moment that exemplifies Stone and Richardson’s technical bravura.

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The film as a whole is top-heavy with such audiovisual jazz, from Morrison crowd-surfing, picked out by a spotlight as hipster Jesus floating on his human Galilee, to a David Lynch-esque, languorous dolly shot closing in on Morrison in a red-lined recording booth, an islet in a sea of dark, slowly revealing Pamela giving him a blow job to coax him to an enthusiastic performance. One of my favourite shots in the film is near-antithesis to the rest of the sturm und drang, as Morrison strolls on the Venice beachfront in the early morning after one of his most rapturous concert performances, overlord now a burnt-out exile from his own home and wellsprings. Some anticipation here of another moment I love in an underrated rock film, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (2004), where the similarly doomed, rootless and exiled artist hovers in the shadows of the kind of underground, defiant performance that once gave him community and purpose. That shot comes after of one of Stone’s loopiest, most dynamic sequences, as he furiously crosscuts between Morrison on stage and his mad reaction to Pamela taking junk with the Italian climaxing with the closet incident, and concluding with a visual quote from that eternal touchstone of films about American hubris, Citizen Kane (1941), reproducing the camera swoop Welles used to punctuate Kane’s apotheosis as political rabble-rouser on stage. This time, Morrison repeats his earlier cry of “I am the Lizard King – how many of you really know you’re alive?” but not as connective declaration, but rather as spacy star self-worship.

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The film’s problematic nature is so closely linked to its achievements. The plotless rambling through this historical copse seems at first glance egregious, yet is actually fecund in a manner I appreciate as an attempt to prize an artistic experience as a value in itself above other motives. But Stone gets bogged down with duly included gossip, like Morrison and Kennealy having a contretemps over her pregnancy by him, and repetitive scenes in the second half that capture but do not much enlighten the wash-rinse-repeat aspect of life with a self-destructive addict and Stone’s concept of Morrison as someone constantly pushing himself to the edge of death as if on a constant adolescent dare. Ryan certainly looks the part of the kind of twentieth century fox Morrison celebrated, but her performance scarcely suggests what Morrison found so interesting about Courson amongst the panoply of partners life offered him.

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What Stone found particularly compelling about Morrison emerges through such a motif as he studies his hero as doomed not just by internal failings, but also by the specific flaws of his society and as a classic overreacher. Just as much as Nixon represented to Stone both the beauty of America in his capacity to rise from straitened youth to national captaincy, and its dark flipside in his resentment and paranoia, and Alexander the Great believed in the potential and practised the worst inherent in colonial adventuring, so, too, Morrison represents a spiritual America doomed to be tortured by a materialistic age where hedonism is offered as substitute for liberty, his rebellion doomed to cause mere damage to self and others.

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Stone suggests Morrison found a kind of stability in his last days, glimpsed as a pacified, bearded guru reading Beat poetry in solemn isolation (save for a recording engineer, played by the real Densmore), attending Manzarek’s children’s birthday party, and finally expiring with a look of transcendental bliss on his face when Courson finds him dead in a bathtub. That’s probably not how things really happened, but it does help the film find a tentative grace in its conclusion. Stone’s camera roves through Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery in search of Morrison’s grave amongst the greats buried there, and finds it floridly decorated with freaky missives, quotes, and artworks that celebrate the odd glory he found. But the film’s truest intersection of the sublime and the ridiculous is right at the end, with its parting glimpse of The Doors cranking out one of their best later songs, “LA Woman,” in an improvised home studio, with Kilmer-as-Morrison laying down his vocals seated on a toilet.

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1980s, Music Film

Purple Rain (1984)

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Director: Albert Magnoli

By Roderick Heath

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called Purple Rain. Writing a few weeks ago about 80s music videos prompted me to finally check out the whole of Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson’s debut film, an unexpected smash that made its star exponentially more famous, provoked him to create what was arguably his greatest album, and earned Warner Bros great stinking wads of cash. Indeed Purple Rain is defined, justified, and sold by its offering a cavalcade of some of the most accomplished pop songs ever recorded — it feels like nearly half the film’s running time is devoted to simply recording musical performances, giving Prince unfettered freedom in demonstrating his astounding athleticism and stagecraft, capturing perhaps modern pop’s greatest master of a total conceptualised musical act at his height.

As a film, it’s rather less than a Prince, but it’s also no A Flock of Seagulls. It’s surprisingly entertaining a quarter-century later; indeed, from an era of pseudo-musicals (Fame, Flashdance, Footloose), Purple Rain is possibly the most classically shaped, a film about performance as well as including it, offering in its musical sequences a mode for its main character to express his inner self in a way he can’t otherwise. The ancient plotline of a young artist struggling against sabotaging rivals and personal demons to locate his mojo and break through, melded to a dash of autobiographical grit, works with some real intensity. Clearly under the spell of Saturday Night Fever (1977), director Magnoli fuses a carefully art-directed sense of vivid urban grit with fantastically stylised pop performing, and offers a troubled, even obnoxious hero whose skill as an artist is under the thrall of his egotism and frustration. It’s impossible to imagine Curtis Hanson’s Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (2002) without it either; Hanson’s film borrows the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration.

Down on Minneapolis’ First Avenue, The Kid (the Purple One) and his band The Revolution (played, in a startling twist, by The Revolution) are attractions at a hot nightclub. We know it’s hot because it’s filled with people with glitter make-up. The band seems to have missed their window of opportunity to ascend to stardom like other exciting local bands before them, and it’s put down to The Kid’s increasing distraction. They’re stuck as subordinate to headliners The Time, led by mincing egotist Morris (Morris Day). The opening sequences lay the essentials out with cinematic fluidity, introducing The Kid, getting dressed for his act and passing by the screaming fans at the club to perform, whilst Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a wannabe who’s just left New Orleans to seek fame and fortune (in Minneapolis?), sneaks into the club to ask for a job as a performer. The Kid kills with his set, and gets Apollonia’s juices flowing, but on his return home gets clobbered in the mouth by his father when he tries to intervene in one of his parents’ common domestic rows.

It’s a forceful moment, what with Prince, in his signature jaunty purple jacket and puffy shirt, suddenly flat on his back, brought down to earth with the rudest of jolts. It offers immediate context for The Kid’s often appalling subsequent behaviour, his distrust of romantic entanglement, contempt for relying on others, and fear of failure leading to self-sabotage. His father, Francis L (Clarence Williams III), a failed musician and composer, is consumed by raging self-loathing that finds articulation only in abusing his wife and, finally, in attempted suicide. When The Kid takes Apollonia out for a ride on his too-sexy motorcycle, he tricks her into jumping into a lake and then toys with leaving her there. Yes, he’s a real charmer, girls.

Still, Morris is worse; he has his sideman and dogsbody Jerome (Jerome Benson) shove a disagreeably shrill lover in the dumpster and plots to take advantage of the cub owner’s irritation with The Kid by creating a girl-group to take The Revolution’s place on stage. Meanwhile The Kid’s two über-lesbian band mates, Wendy and Lisa (Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman), keep prodding him to listen to a track they’ve composed, but The Kid keeps putting them off delicately: “I don’t want to do your stupid music!” When Apollonia tells him that she’s going to join Morris’ girl group, The Kid clobbers her in a moment of pure rage, and later taunts her from on stage with his grim portrait of a femme fatale, “Darling Nikki.” Having successfully alienated everyone in the universe, The Kid’s day looks just about done, and then his father tries to blow his own brains out. But whaddaya know? This convinces The Kid to give up reenacting his old man’s failings. He makes peace with Apollonia, and takes to the stage to do Wendy and Lisa’s piece with his lyrics, “Purple Rain,” before slaughtering all doubt of his capacity to rock a crowd with “I Would Die for You” and “Baby I’m A Star.”

Purple Rain was conceived by Prince whilst on tour, and the original screenplay by William Blinn, a regular writer for TV’s Fame, was entitled “Dreams.” But that template was heavily rewritten before production by Magnoli, presumably to turn it into a slicker, less dramatic vehicle, and perhaps playing up Prince’s awkward, even bitchy idea of a romantic male lead, which would soon be unleashed to much less popular effect in Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Take away the music and the filler bike-riding montages, and the film would run about a half-hour. Still, Purple Rain stands up with the likes of Jailhouse Rock (1956) as a superior artist-showcase drama, mostly because Magnoli’s slick visuals and quick pacing keep broad comedy and broad melodrama in an effective balance. Purple Rain tries to get at something which would manifest constantly throughout Prince’s career, his ambivalence with fame, his delight in creating art and refusal to see a difference between the musical and performative sides of that art (as opposed to the creeds of both grunge and hip-hop that would eventually marginalise his pop style, in part because both insisted stripping away the showbiz glitz Prince mastered was the true path to authenticity), balanced by his discomfort with the postures, intrusions, and presumptions that often attend such stardom. The Kid’s constant switchbacks in behaviour and ways of relating describe this ambivalence, and it’s no coincidence that the major step the narrative makes him take in moving towards real stardom is learning how to collaborate.

Max Steiner once nixed the idea for Four Wives (1939) of having a dead composer’s piece (which Steiner would have had to have written) hailed as a failure. In such a light, Prince’s willingness to let such great tracks as “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” cited in this film as evidence of his increasingly erratic talent appears pretty brave, though it’s a bit hard to swallow those assessments. Still, they work well enough as aural expressions of a man whose wits are being shredded by his anxieties and mistrust, and whilst The Kid is often a huge prick, it’s all because, he’s real, dude, not some phony! The way the songs, so familiar from the album, are employed in the film is well thought out, from “I Would Die For You” spun from Francis’s aggrieved protestation, to the soul-searching of “When Doves Cry” propelling a you’re-tearing-me-apart montage of the Kid’s corrosive concerns. Legend has it that Prince concocted that unique, bass-free song, the biggest hit of his career, overnight, after Magnoli requested something to dub over the sequence.

The concept of making Purple Rain as a virtual neorealist movie, using nonprofessional actors enacting something like a version of their own lives, was not so unique for a pop movie, for it helps capture an authentic flavour, and also draws attention to its self-dramatising. Unfortunately, it also results in some awesomely bad acting. Old warhorse Williams gives the best performance, although Day, playing his villain as a simpering, comical jack-off who’s effortlessly seduced by the rhythm in the finale, comes pretty close to stealing the film. The joke, of course, is that Day and The Times were another of Prince’s projects, as was Apollonia Six, the girl group Morris supposedly starts. That had, of course, been Vanity Six before Vanity, who was to be in the film, quit it, and a replacement had to be hurriedly located. Prince plays increasingly sullen self-involvement and mounting hysteria competently, if with a pretty immobile face, so the film fittingly only forces him to emote where it counts—on stage.

One can’t really call Purple Rain a work that captures the man in all his dimensions. Despite his hilariously ornate outfits by Louis and Vaughn Marie-France, he plays things very straight, performing some songs stripped to the waist to show off his masculine physique, stowing away for the time being the androgyny that was his favourite indulgence and taunt to square audiences. Stowed alongside it is the edgier, politicised, anti-war polemic that infused his earlier albums, like Dirty Mind and 1999, and came back with Sign O’ the Times. Purple Rain is happy to be a vintage Reagan-era fantasy of success and harmony, portraying First Avenue as a multicultural wonderland. It’s easy to make fun of some the archly onanistic imagery that’s often fit for cutting into music videos, like a love scene that looks like Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and the endless motorcycle rides. You know the Kid’s in deep pain when he stands by a lake, legs wide apart, tossing stones in the water, frowning deeply. Yeah, keep your day job, Prince baby.

Otherwise, go in without great expectations and come out with a grin on your face.

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1980s, Crime/Detective, Music Film

The Cotton Club (1984)

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Director: Francis Ford Coppola

By Roderick Heath

The history of Zoetrope Studios and Francis Coppola’s ill-fated efforts to build an independent studio into a real force after the unexpected success of Apocalypse Now (1979) is often used today as one of Hollywood’s key cautionary tales—or in the words of Homer Simpson: Never try. The vibrant and entertaining One from the Heart (1981), the flavourful Hammett (1983) and the aesthetically original Rumble Fish (1983) didn’t make money, which was kind of a problem considering they really, really needed to. Coppola, desperate for cash, was forced to sell off Zoetrope’s infrastructure. He was marked with a reputation as a loose cannon by studio bosses when he took up an offer from his old Godfather consigliore Robert Evans to come and save his splashy new production.

This film, inspired by a picture-book history by Jim Haskin on the glory days of New York’s one-time congress of cool, the Cotton Club, was due to begin shooting in a scant two weeks. Evans’ off-screen travails, which included the murder of one of the financers, were like something out of the movie he was trying to make. The major problem Coppola faced was that there was no ready, workable script to commence production with. Mario Puzo had written the first version of the screenplay, but Coppola quickly hired William Kennedy, author of the much-lauded novel Ironweed, to drum up a new script to be used in rehearsals. By Kennedy’s estimate, revisions during shooting would number up to 20 times, yet the problems were never really overcome.

The Cotton Club was a colossal flop, further damaging Coppola’s career. But The Cotton Club is a doggedly entertaining and interesting film that well and truly earns it place in Coppola’s cannon, with its high style and historically incisive bent. The story revolves around the conflicts three real-life gangland personages: Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), owner of the Club and the city’s rock-steady chieftain; Dutch Schultz (James Remar), the most predatory and unstable new operator; and Lucky Luciano (Joe Dallensandro), the nascent empire builder.

Revolving around them are other partly disguised, historical protagonists: Bix Beiderbecke (with a dash of George Raft thrown in) reconfigured as Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere); Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll as Dixie’s brother Vincent Dwyer (Nicholas Cage); Harold and Fayard Nicholas as Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines); Lena Horne as Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee); and Bumpy Johnson as Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne, who’d later play Bumpy in virtually the same film under the title Hoodlum in 1996). The contrast of brothers, Dixie and Vincent, Sandman and Clay, is right at home in Coppola’s oeuvre of familial love, creative partnership, and strife. Dixie, a talented cornet player and all-round charmer, catches Dutch’s eye one night at the same time both men also spy young flapper Vera Cicero (Diane Lane).

Dixie escorts the boozy girl home and declines to ravish her drunken bones. Soon, both are taken in by Dutch—Vera as his mistress, Dixie as his pet musician and general dogsbody, each aware of their suddenly limited options despite standing to gain a piece of Dutch’s considerable action. Dutch is a volcanically temperamental go-getter, and when Owney, the last court of appeal in the Manhattan demimonde, attempts to force a peace on Dutch and rival Joe Flynn (John P. Ryan) at a swanky soiree, Flynn’s incessant swearing and racism drives Dutch to knife the Irish hood to death, infuriating Madden and kicking off a turf war with the Italian, Irish, and Negro gangs that Dutch means to win.

Vincent opportunistically uses his brother to get a job with Dutch, but soon enough becomes an independent gangster. He becomes infamous for a string of robberies and mob hits, one of which sees some youngsters accidentally gunned down, making Vincent persona non grata even in the gangland. The simultaneous tale of Sandman and Clay sees their tap act accepted at the Club, the most prestigious spot in town built around Negro art and artists who, farcically, can’t come in the front door. Sandman falls hard for gorgeous dancer and singer Lila Rose, but is persecuted by an apish, bullying supervisor (Ron Karabatsos) when he tries to romance her, and eventually falls out with Clay when he begins to work on making his own star rise. Madden eventually helps Dixie escape Dutch’s service and make it in Hollywood. He returns as a movie star ready to use his new status to pry Vera out of Schultz’s mitts just as Luciano is getting tired of the Dutchman’s antics and plans his elimination for the sake of general peace and Bumpy begins exerting some coloured clout to even the books in the Cotton Club.

After Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s cinema progressively became more formalist – experimenting with showy visual textures and low-key narratives, aiming for something close to a total cinematic stylisation, infused with an air of nostalgia and art-for-art’s-sake wistfulness. Apocalypse Now was utterly stylized, too, but its angry, violent engagement with a hot-button subject appealed. The new-age, old-style, inherently personal, romantic musical One from the Heart didn’t pack the same appeal despite the fact that it’s something like Coppola’s most personal masterpiece; The Cotton Club is many ways a follow-up, interweaving its melodrama with melody. The trouble is it neither gels as a work of sustained style nor as an epic melodrama: the distinct flavour of too many cooks making this broth is readily apparent.

The chief problem is one of focus, with theoretically crucial dramatic elements that never quite work; the central romance of Dixie and Vera never catches alight, their love-hate sparring more the spats of spoilt brats than destined lovers caught in the grasp of an ogre. Gere, at the height of his young, slippery charm, is fine, but Lane’s a flatly ordinary ingénue whose perfect jazz-baby face can’t disguise a lack of any projected character. Story threads that seem important, such as Sandman and Lila Rose’s romance, complicated by her desire to pass and make it in the larger showbiz world, don’t really go anywhere. Dixie hardly seems to notice or care when his rampaging brother is gunned down, without any commentary on familial fate realised as it was in the Godfather films. The subplot of Sandman and Clay is actually more vivid, but not given much time. One wonders how much coherence and substance hit the cutting room floor to get the running time down to a hair over two hours.

Somehow, however, The Cotton Club is a gift that keeps giving. It’s really about its marginalia, offering a cornucopia of images, homages and vignettes, and it can be regarded as a loose adaptation of the French classic Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), in the way it spins dramas around a performing venue, contrasts artists and gangsters as members of the demimonde, and sets up a power struggle of men over a woman who’s a general object of desire. Coppola views the racism and criminality that swirl around the Club with appropriately confrontational cynicism, but the film is more a celebration of cultural energy and awkward but vitality-inducing multiculturalism in melting pot New York. Dixie has sufficient chops as a cornet blower to be readily accepted by the black musicians he hangs out with, and eventually uses his clout as a movie star to break the Club’s strict colour barrier and sit in with the orchestra. Even the monstrous Dutch fancies himself something of a promoter of ethnic harmony. Moreover, Coppola adores and celebrates the old-school chutzpah of its musicians and dancers, leading to a finale in which the boundaries between art and life, realism and style, acting and dance, comedy and tragedy, melt away.

There’s nothing all that new about what Coppola was doing: many Warner Bros melodramas of the 30s and 40s, best typified by Casablanca (1942), sustained such a sublime interaction. Coppola pays homage to that film with the Cotton Club serving, like Rick’s Café, as a crossroads of society, using the musical acts to divide and comment upon the actions, sporting some terrific performances from the Hines brothers, McKee, and Larry Marshall’s awesome impersonation of Cab Calloway. Coppola offers backstage sequences in the Club when Sandman and Clay audition, being as it is the place everyone wants to get into either as guest or performer, and very few succeed.

It takes over 40 minutes before the camera enters the Club through the front door and the panoramic spectacle of the place in full swing is offered, Coppola’s rapidly gliding crane camera roaming the space in a sequence that’s the near-equal of the similar Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas (1990). Thus the film’s most memorable sequences tend to be wondrous little throwaways, like when Sandman takes Lila Rose to a club for old dancers that results in a dance-off between the hoofers; Dixie’s mother (Gwen Verdon) casually schooling a girl in Central Station in a shuffle; Sandman and Clay reuniting through a tap routine that ends in the two halting mid-act and embracing; Bumpy’s brief soliloquy on the exigencies of survival as a black man; Diane Venora’s spot-on cameo as Gloria Swanson, telling Dixie he has It; the motor-mouthed commentary by a Hollywood boss and his Yes Man underling whilst watching Dixie’s screen test.

Best of all is the interaction between Owney and his hulking enforcer Frenchy Demange (the great Fred Gwynne), as when Frenchy smashes Owney’s watch when he thinks his friend failed to fork out enough dough to ransom him back from Vincent. Hoskins and Gwynne walk off with the film, though Remar’s weird Schultz is a worthy for this connoisseur of screen villainy, with his obvious social discomfort bubbling in all his scenes, his mouth twisting into a perpetual grimace of displeasure, his voice in moments of extreme outrage dipping into a low, troll-like croak. Around them bubbles an entirely notable cast, sporting the likes of Tom Waits (who had provided the soundtrack of One from the Heart) as the club’s gruff emcee, the amusingly cast Factory himbo Dallesandro, and future notables, like favourite nephew Cage, Lane, Fishburne, Jennifer Grey, Giancarlo Esposito, and daughter Sofia as a street waif.

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Music Film

Cinema/Pop: The Art of 80s Music Videos

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By Roderick Heath

Michael Jackson’s death threw me back to the popular culture through which I first came to comprehend the world: the shiny, grandiose, pop-saturated, money-flush, yet grittier atmosphere of the 1980s. My favourite song when I was six was Jackson’s “Beat It,” in alternation with The Boss’s “Born in the USA.” Such was the ubiquity of that era’s hits that it was indeed possible for kids who had neither experienced the diplomatic niceties of African-American street gangs or the dubious pleasures of being a disaffected Vietnam vet to shout along to those epic choruses without any trace of cognitive dissonance. It was a time of such ambitions and contradictions. The lingering shades of the Counterculture were reduced to jokes fit for Family Ties. Madonna could extol feminism by stripping, Jackson could happily shill for Pepsi, and both could make these look like triumphs for the subcultures that nurtured their ambitions. That epoch met its infamous Gotterdammerung when Jackson’s Black or White video gave way to a bunch of sweaty, grotty, substance-altered teenagers dancing to Nirvana in what looked like a dreamscape high school auditorium where Freddy Kruger could turn up and begin butchery. The 90s arrived with the crash of metal in the junkyard and the ring of shattering illusions.

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Everything seemed larger in the 80s, and I’m convinced today that this is as much a product of the era’s affectations as it is one of nostalgia. It’s a cliché to note that cinema has long been colonised by the aesthetics of the music video, but the traffic was hardly one-way. If films like Flashdance (1982) and Footloose (1984) were units for selling music to the public and their musical sequences rendered essentially music-video-like, discarding the relationship between viewer and staged act found in most classic musicals in favor of the synchronised pulse of music and film, then the affectations of the great 80s stars reveal a yearning to borrow the glamour, class, the awe-inspiring scale of cinematic icons. Behind this lay egotism and also a genuine yearning to prove that the pop stars of the day were the rightful heirs of the movie stars of the past. Such an ambition could make sense for someone like Jackson, who had the manifold gifts of an old-school song-and-dance man: small wonder he was pals with Fred Astaire.

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There was more to it, of course. The popularity of figures like Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Springsteen reflected once-radical perspectives, but they communicated in a new argot that was inclusive rather than combative. Many of the pop music artists of the time had grown up on and internalised the ideas and theories behind pop art, and, with differing degrees of deliberation, exploited the dissonance between image and fact, identities declared and assumed. Thus, it made perfect sense for each of them to reach towards still-powerful icons of cinematic history, and try to remake themselves into cinematic heroes, albeit with hints of irony. Jackson’s beyond-popular album Thriller is often cited as the singular example of a cultural phenomenon that defined an era for just about everyone; but that now-deceased monoculture deliberately constructed an analogy between itself and a previous one, that of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This era in pop set about constructing a vision of elitist triumphalism that was actually for consumption by the masses, but instead of being artfully constructed solely by rich, white men, it was the province of new voices on the make. Whether or not all of this is strictly responsible for the phenomenon of epic music videos that told substantial stories—or at the very least, employed staggering levels of money and creativity in reproducing cinematic effects—or if that was just a by-product of the video form’s swelling ambitions and crucial connection to the new industry, I can’t really say, but these white elephants were everywhere. I recall the news reports and atmosphere of held breaths before the debut of Black or White back in 1991.

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But Thriller, all 14 minutes of it, is still a brilliant piece of showmanship, with John Landis in the director’s chair and Rick Baker on make-up, both men fresh off their mini-classic An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980), which had proven both his ability to film choreography and awareness of the intricacies of pop music. It begins as a mock-horror film set in the 1950s in which Jackson and his girlfriend (Ola Ray) are stuck in the middle of nowhere after their car runs out of gas—no, really—and then Michael warns his smitten girl that he’s not like other guys. Yeah, Mick, no kidding? The full moon sees him transmogrify gruesomely into a werewolf. Only this proves to be the movie that a theatre audience is watching on screen, everyone cringing in fright except for Jackson, who beams delightedly, munching his popcorn. His girlfriend (still Ray) clings to him and then freaks out sufficiently to flee the theatre, forcing him to follow and escort her home through the dark streets, launching into the song as his half-mocking, half-reassuring ode to the pleasures of being scared. Teens could relate: this was, after all, the great age of Saturday night nooky inspired by the latest Friday the 13th film.

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The clip is uniquely clever in how it constructs a narrative to suit the unusual lyrics and extended musical structure, turning the instrumental bridge, usually death for the clip director to fill out, into the climax in which Jackson turns into a zombie who takes command of a cohort of the dead and leads them in some killer moves. The song isn’t much—a great Quincy Jones synth-bass track allied to some dumb lyrics about how your man is good to hold on to when scary movies get scary—but the clip is more than just a jokey pastiche. The nostalgic cultural continuity in linking 50s innocence and 80s knowingness mainly edits out the fractious time period in between and revels in the roots of modern youth culture. The fact that Michael alternates between cuddly nice guy and threatening ghoul, gets at the heart of the complex creature and icon Jackson was. Landis matches the song’s delight in Vincent Price’s camp contribution, in which his mock-Poe lines suggest resisting the boogie is tantamount to being un-dead, with a sequence of the undead clawing their way out of the grave that’s a brilliant recreation of classic horror imagery. (The movie theatre sports posters for Price’s House of Wax (1953) and for Landis and Baker’s first collaboration, Schlock! (1972).) Then, of course, there’s the epic piece of choreography that’s the centrepiece of the clip, with its line-dancing zombies with make-up as vivid as anything from a George Romero film, and yet whose movements are sinuous and electric. The message, that Michael Jackson can make a corpse dance, was hardly arguable at the time. In the clip and in his success, Jackson is the man single-handedly corralling America’s demons into line.

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The follow-up was Martin Scorsese’s even longer, more elaborate, though less fanciful clip for Bad, in which Jackson plays a young man attempting to rise out of the ghetto, but, when push comes to shove and local thugs threaten him and his girlfriend, reveals that he’s…well, bad. The videos for Thriller and Bad sport the same essential joke—the gentle, meek Michael transforming into a weirdo capable of taming hordes of zombies and street toughs. Scorsese considered Bad a legitimate part of his oeuvre, a continuation of the same ideas expressed in New York, New York (1978), where street-level grit and fantasy coalesce in a dance number that’s more embarrassingly dated than Thriller’s—so much so that it was the target of the devastating Weird Al Yankovic parody Fat.

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Thriller was followed in epic, if not equal, success by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Springsteen, like Jackson, was a figure of 1970s music reinventing himself—beefed up and wielding a synthesiser. But his song writing was still based in the same telling observations of everyday life and sense of working-class drama, and his tradition was still one of lefty populism. Springsteen’s clips were less inflated than Jackson’s, but he hired his own big guns: John Sayles for “Born in the USA” and “I’m On Fire,” and Brian De Palma for “Dancing in the Dark.” Springsteen’s bout of fitness nuttiness had given him a brawnier physique, and he matched this to a power-pop approach to his usual meaty fare of aching small-town frustration. Sayles’ video for “Born” is a dud, and, with its blue-collar mythos and final recreation of Annie Leibovitz’s worship-the-workingman’s-ass cover shot, probably added to the confusion between the song’s cynical lyrics and the shout-along chorus with some variety of Reaganite propaganda. But Sayles’ clip for “I’m On Fire” was a moody mini-classic that presents Bruce as a mechanic contending with the erotic promise of a rich blonde who’s demanding his services both for her car and herself; he finally shies away with his self-respect intact.

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Prince would have shagged her brains out and then sweet-talked her daddy into giving him a record deal. But there’s the difference. Prince’s heroes, like Madonna’s and Jackson’s, were on their way somewhere. Springsteen’s were trying to cope with seeing the same face in the mirror every day. De Palma’s flashy Dancing in the Dark completely ignores the song’s dissonantly mournful lyrics and takes its cue from the slippery, bouncy music, presenting a faked concert performance, where a 20-year-old Courteney Cox gazes ardently up at Bruce until he finally plucks her out of the crowd and lets her dance on stage with him, thus fulfilling the dreams of every girl in the crowd. As with Jackson’s clips, it would seem like utter wankery without Springsteen’s self-mocking grin, the sense that it’s the most public and private of jokes for the most eminently average of rock idols. Prince himself was a one-man multitude, and his affectations of glam first drew him to make Purple Rain (1984), an updated spin on a 50s rock flick where a slightly fictionalised self enacts his own rise from scenester to superstar, and then Under the Cherry Moon (1986), an attempt to make a pop-arty tribute to classic glamour and screwball aesthetics. Under The Cherry Moon betrayed, like many video clips of the 80s, the influence of Francis Coppola’s pop-arty films of the decade, One from the Heart (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1985), with their flashy photographic effects and deliberate artificiality.

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Prince’s lack of discernable acting talent hamstrung his efforts, while Madonna was able to sustain enough illusion of talent to achieve a career. Madonna’s efforts to court the status of classic stardom was even less shy. Material Girl saw her aping Monroe whilst being pursued by Keith Carradine’s initially imperious, but finally awed and boyish filmmaker, thus netting her a rich but altogether modest guy, both affirming and undercutting the song’s crass lyrics. In Vogue, Madonna rattles off a familiar litany of stars, and underlines their meaning for her—“faces on a movie screen”—a reductive instinct on Madonna’s part, but also an honest one: for most people most of the time, the star is the point. Her colossally expensive Express Yourself video recreated whole sets and iconic images out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), creating perhaps the most ambitious fusion of pop art and pop music. The director was David Fincher, picturing a hellish, futuristic city where Madonna’s oppressed blonde is desired by both a hunky factory worker and a sleazy magnate. The worker imagines her dancing in all her trademark lingerie-clad provocation, the boss chains her up to control her, but her symbolic black cat escapes and alerts the worker to her situation. There’s an interlude where she breaks out and cavorts in a Dietrichesque suit and blonde bob, and dances in gender-bending fashion. The encapsulated tale is oddly similar to that in “I’m on Fire,” (except it presents the bottled blonde as being as entrapped as the worker male), but also its assault on gender codes is complete in the overtly industrial-queer fetishism layered upon the regulation pop feminism.

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The appeal of making music videos for directors of the caliber of Scorsese, Landis, De Palma, and Sayles, and the recording artists who hired them, was in the aura of mutual reputation, and also, particularly for Scorsese and Landis, the chance to stage sequences like those in the musicals they grew up with. The conceptual clarity and unity of space, chronology, and staging in these clips is largely at odds with the opportunistic imagery of most video clips, and, indeed, the fragmentation of later musical movies like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002); most directors who cut their teeth in the video clip form proved to be skilled image-makers and terrible storytellers. But an inventive talent like Fincher could expand his abilities in this short form long before taking the reins on colossally expensive Hollywood vehicles; only three years elapsed between Express Yourself and Alien 3 for Fincher. By the early 90s, the terms of reference changed in music; many cutting-edge video clips were still quoting movies, but it was more likely to be completely different fare: the surreal films of Cronenberg, Lynch, and experimental directors. That the efforts of pop artists to live up to earlier eras of cool and fuse new music with retro class and ambitions has not entirely disappeared is confirmed by a project like Outkast’s eccentric period musical Idlewild (2006), and works of outsized multimedia ambition like Daft Punk’s anime movie Interstella 5555 (2003), made with one of Japanese animation’s masters, Leiji Matsumoto. But the age of the music video as event, and the idea of the galactic superstar, died long before Michael Jackson did.

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1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Music Film

New York, New York (1977)

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Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

By Roderick Heath

When the yellow moon begins to bloom / Every night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme for me / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it’s clear that he’ll appear / Some day he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay… – “The Man I Love,” George and Ira Gershwin

Taxi Driver’s surprise success gave Scorsese heft and fame. He was at this time tagged, along with the other young directors taking American cinema by storm—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, Michael Cimino, John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—as a “Movie Brat,” an epithet that, like the label “Impressionist” about a century earlier, became a rallying cry. If there was a common feature of these directors, it was their argot of total cinema. Their first and almost last point of reference was earlier movies. They reinvigorated Hollywood as a commercial entity, largely due to their willingness, even love, of making genre cinema, in recreating the dream films of their youths. All of them worshipped Fellini and Godard, but Scorsese was just about the only one damn fool enough to want to be them.

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Coppola had given the generation its big breakthrough with his canny melding of the cool, studious effects of European art cinema with epic American narrative in the Godfather films. For all these filmmakers, there were differing layers of irony in their attempts to meld auteurism, art cinema, and classic Hollywood. Many of them wanted to take a shot at the total stylisation of the musical. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart, Landis’ The Blues Brothers, even Spielberg’s 1941 (which he made for the opportunity to stage a 1940s musical number), were all troubled productions, most of which flopped and dented the Brats’ domination. Scorsese went to Hollywood to make New York, New York, but remained a New Yorker. For his fellow Movie Brat directors, melding old and new, hip and square, lush and spare was a necessary and entertaining act of cultural synthesis. Scorsese, however, dedicated his new film to examining precisely the gap between life and art, old and new style, façade and critique, spectacle and honesty.

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New York, New York sets out to be, as Marty called it, a film noir musical inspired in form by such showbiz tales as The Man I Love and A Star Is Born, with a screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin. It tells, in livid, often bruising detail, of a marriage between two professional narcissists, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese set out to create the texture of a personal, realistic film in the Cassavetes mould—virtually all dialogue improvised, which made editing the film hellish. The film’s exchanges make up in vivacity what they lack in the arch, contoured crackle of screwball style. The first half-hour of New York, New York is a virtuoso, near-continual scene. It’s VJ Day in New York, and the streets have erupted in confetti and abandon. Jimmy strips off his uniform, casts it out the window, and hits the town in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt looking for just one thing: to get laid. The jam-packed Rainbow Room, where Benny Goodman and Orchestra are playing, represented the peak of the sweet glamour of the Big Band era as well as the emotional apogee of four years of war. Jimmy tries his pick-up lines on every bird in sight. He is especially drawn to Francine, seated by herself waiting for friends, splendid in her USO uniform. When his every attempt has failed on the hostile, evasive woman, he announces a new plan: “I want to stay here and annoy you!” He does just this for the rest of the film.

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Eventually, when Francine’s fellow USO performer Ellen ( Kathie McGinnis) arrives, her date is Jimmy’s friend Eddie di Muzzio (Frank Sivero, soon a Scorsese regular), who has arranged for the four of them to hook up. Jimmy makes sure to cook Francine good before dropping her home. The next day, Francine is trying to find Jimmy to contact Ellen, who’s on the run from killers and shacked up with Eddie. She watches in amusement as Jimmy bluffs the hotel’s concierge, posing as a wounded war veteran (“Anzio!” he hollers, “I was at Anzio!”) and skipping out as always without paying his bill after being manhandled. Jimmy’s in the not-so-fine tradition of Scorsese’s keenly observed Noo Yawk flakes; indeed, New York, New York’s riskiest, most original idea is to make such a flake the hero. For Jimmy is, we learn, talented. He contrives to drag Francine to his audition with a Brooklyn club manager (Dick Miller), and shows he’s a mean tenor sax player, but too edgy and modern for the cleaned-up tastes of the time. Francine reveals she’s just as talented; when the manager expresses a desire for something like Maurice Chevalier, Francine launches into a sweet, swinging rendition of “You Brought a New Kind Of Love,” which Jimmy accompanies with contrapuntal elegance. They are fused instantly into a double act.

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Romance, or something like it, blossoms. After a gig, Jimmy won’t let Francine get out of the taxi they share to her hotel by kissing her. Francine skitters, slips, and flops about, half in the pouring rain, trying to escape his voracious mouth. Francine finds she’s been offered a gig with the touring big band of Frankie Harte (Georgie Auld), and Jimmy is also offered a slot. Unfortunately, he’s gone before she can tell him, so she packs up and goes to join the band whilst sending her agent (the great Lionel Stander) to inform Jimmy. Jimmy promptly skips town and catches up with the band. He almost gets himself assaulted by Hart when he sits in the audience, draws Francine off stage, and won’t let her return. Jimmy is simultaneously declaring his “not love. I like you very much” whilst ranting at being left behind: “You do not leave me! I leave you!” De Niro gives the greatest portrait of the artist as major-league irritant since Kirk Douglas’s Vincent Van Gogh. Jimmy’s alternately (and often concurrently) charming, funny, annoying, foolish, dishonest, angry, sullen, violent, and prone to larceny, but always propelled by a volcanic creativity and contempt for a world of schmucks, squares, and sycophants. He dances up steps in joy, throws tables in rage, play-acts, fakes out, schmoozes, assaults, and plays some mean jazz. (De Niro learnt sax technique, but the music he makes is by Auld.) He tries to sweep the world and Francine off their feet with the purity of his energy, and it sometimes works.

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Thee tour continues, endless wheeling between towns in the band bus; Harte’s crusty and boozy, but he keeps the band disciplined. He won’t give Jimmy any opportunity to play his arrangements or his bop style, but he often relies on Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy dabbles in composition, tracing out the bare notes that will become the title tune, whilst Francine writes poetry. After eading one of her poems about him, Jimmy says, “That was it! That was you proposal, get your coat on, put your shoes on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and drags her to a justice of the peace. When Frankie decides he’s fed up, he concedes to Francine that Jimmy “blows a barrelful of tenor, oh, but he’s some kind of pain in the ass!” Jimmy takes over the orchestra, but appears set for a flop until Francine saves their bacon at an audition with a soulful rendition of “The Man I Love.” With Francine headlining, the orchestra enjoys major popularity, but Jimmy is quietly furious she’s getting the attention, and he jealously guards his command. One evening Francine dashes off stage and reveals she’s pregnant. She returns to New York to have the child, and the band, saddled with a far less talented singer, Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), whom Jimmy beds in Francine’s absence, soon faces disaster. Jimmy signs over the band to another leader, and returns to New York to find Francine riding on a wave of good publicity, her agent having secured her recording dates; Jimmy, the arch, proud individualist, feels she’s degrading herself by kowtowing. Jimmy meets up with black musician friends and jams with them at a Harlem club (“Do they let white cats in?” “Just come in the back way.”). For the first time, Jimmy’s style is set free and wild in the be-bop milieu. Meanwhile, behind the pyrotechnics of Jimmy’s approach to life, Francine grows, quietly, from defensive doll, to urgently helpful wife, to coolly calculating go-getter who gets it. And Jimmy, without saying a word, knows he’s going to get screwed by life again. The subterranean arc of anxiety in Jimmy begins driving him crazy.

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Like many Scorsese narratives, New York, New York is a study of a macho slow burn, except that this one remains entirely interpersonal. Jimmy gets himself thrown out of a nightclub by getting increasingly soused and truculent as Francine is courted by a Decca executive (Lenny Gaines). In one of the film’s most striking images, Jimmy is manhandled along the entry hall lined by bright neon tubes, embodying the electric distress by which he is caged. He and Francine fight in their car, whereupon Francine is stricken and almost loses the baby. When Jimmy visits her in the hospital, they mouth caring statements for each other, but it’s clear what held them together has dissolved. Francine is much more a question mark than Jimmy. Minnelli often looks dazed by De Niro, appropriate to the character, yet she barely registers when not singing; her trademark acting touches feel by rote in comparison. Francine is, finally, the opportunist of the pair. Insufferable as he is, Jimmy is curiously honest even when bullshitting. Very few films paint so vivid a tale of how colliding egos and intentions can destroy relationships. Jimmy and Francine are scrutinized by the camera like a microscope on a pair of mating insects. In the space of about a year, we have one failed marriage, the kind that Francine, later a big Hollywood star, will sigh over if mentioned by interviewers.

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In the film’s epilogue, we are treated to a short film purporting to be Francine’s latest hit movie, Happy Endings, which Jimmy is watching in a theater. Happy Endings is a brilliantly made pastiche of 50s-style musicals, charting the rise of a doe-eyed usher to major star who yearns for her gentlemanly agent Donald (Larry Kerns), who disappeared just when she made it big. Happy Endings presents just such a spin on the New York, New York story that such a musical would have done. The number was originally edited out of Scorsese’s film, and this was credited with its flop; without the sequence, the film’s careful alternation of glam and grit is unbalanced. Out in the real world, Jimmy’s not doing too badly. He has a spiffy nightclub, his song “New York, New York” has, in its cool jazz incarnation, become Casey Kasem’s theme song, and Francine’s singing her mountain-leveling version in her live shows. Actually, of course, the song is the work of Kander and Ebb. (In the film, Francine’s poetry becomes the lyric, with Jimmy unimpressed: “These vagabond shoes…are longing to stray…and step around the heart of it?” he reads, nose curled up like it’s week-old fish.) Backstage after seeing her sing, Jimmy meets his son, and proposes he and Francine get together later; she agrees. But neither can finally be bothered.

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And yet the film around them is a lovingly textured dream, a paean to the total style of classic Hollywood, indeed catching how artifice can sometimes suggest reality better than reality: in the snow-crusted villages the band tours in, where Jimmy and Francine bicker and are married, or the stunning vignette of Jimmy watching, after the first night with Francine, a sailor and girl jitterbugging in the street below a railway line, suggesting an otherworldly staging by Gene Kelly of Alfred Eistenstadt’s Times Square kiss photo. The musical sequences are bravura in style. Marty’s camera (with immeasurable aid from DP Laszlo Kovacs) zooms, dollies, and glides, picking out soloists and darting in on them, then drawing back and painting rich group shots. Scorsese tips his hat to the influence of Michael Powell at several junctions: Jimmy signs into a hotel as “M. Powell;” the scene where Jimmy cracks up in the nightclub is decorated entirely in neon that glows an infernal, maddening red, a favorite signifier for both directors; and the way Happy Endings reflects, in a distinct, distorted mirror, the larger film’s story, is reminiscent of the ballet at the centre of The Red Shoes.

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The central couple’s personal separation symbolizes a vital split in American pop culture. Francine goes Hollywood—big, slick, entertaining, vital but without edge, embracing of artifice over truth. Jimmy remains New York—hip, hard, leaning to black culture, small in scale but intently creative, finally, calmly resigned to his busted dreams (“Yeah I saw Sappy Endings,” he tells Francine). The story, conceived as a variation on A Star Is Born doesn’t entirely reverse the formula; instead of having one figure supplant another in stardom, New York, New York suggests there is more than one kind of stardom, more than one kind of success. This Scorsese film obviously had a stylistic influence on such jazz-and-nostalgia-themed films that followed as ‘Round Midnight, Bird, and Henry & June. It failed on first release, but there is a happy ending; when the film was restored to its proper form, it did good business in a 1980 re-release.

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