Radio with Pictures - from Cinema to Streaming
Music films made for cinema tend to fall into three categories -1. Biopic (Rocket Man ,We Will Rock You) , 2. Documentary (20 Feet from Stardom, Searching for Sugarman, The Compleat Beatles) and 3. Indulgence where the Director has another agenda and the music is not the sole focus ( The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Rattle & Hum) . We have had all three recently arrived from cinema to a streaming platform near you , two extremely worthwhile, one incredibly frustrating....
Eccentric Aussie filmmaker Baz Lurhmann has matched the gaudy excesses of Elvis show business lifestyle with a bright lavish cinematic palate that consumes you right from the opening frames and doesn't let up. This will be of no surprise to those familiar with Lurhman's previous efforts but it is refreshing to see in a music Biopic.
The soundtrack is equally impressive with T Bone Burnett infusing all of the influences in Elvis childhood , a cracking rockabilly sound for the early years and the soul, gospel influenced '68 Comeback special onwards . The energy in the tracks and the actors playing the musicians is electric. Using Elvis' manager Colonel Parker as the narrator also ensures cohesion with the story at the same time having a villain in the piece with Elvis as the hero.
And to get the gig as Elvis, relative unknown Austin Butler had a fine line to bring the conviction required and not descend into parody as the seemingly never ending parade of Elvis imitators continue to do over the decades since his death. Butler has the singing chops to match the early Elvis persona then gives way to miming to the real thing from the '68 special onwards. That he lost out on the Oscar 'as Best Actor is a travesty as he really seems to the King, to such an extent that he found the persona hard to shake off in real life.
Find it : Neon
There is an interview with Austen Butler here
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller have taken the approach of using Cohen' s best known song as a basis of a documentary that sketches across the breadth of Cohen's life succeeding in the process of informing the viewer about the many components of Cohen's journey. This includes Cohen grappling with Phil Spector in the 70's, his record company in the mid 80's and life as a Monk in the 90's . Some of the footage is candid (the Monk footage is particularly enlightening) and many former music colleagues, collaborators, friends and partners are interviewed, all used to good effect. Bob Dylan features in that the oft repeated quote about the meeting in a Paris cafe in the 80's (mentioned in my Dylan article here) with Dylan informing Cohen that writing he song "I and I" from Infidels took 20 mins as distinct from Cohen taking years to write "Hallelujah".
The genesis and evolution of the iconic title track is central to the narrative and we see how Cohen went through many , many iterations of lyrics culminating in both John Cale and Jeff Buckley recording definitive versions (with Cale interestingly chopping and changing some of the words in the process). It's here that the documentary splits into two, we have Cohen's renaissance as a live performer in later life in parallel with a seeming bunch of no names recording their own versions (chief culprits Eric Church and contestants in American Idol type shows) . It was great to see Cohen find new levels of success and see that the song kept reaching new generations. However it was painful to see the commoditisation of music with a work of this stature being plundered out of all of it's magic. Thankfully it doesn't detract from the overall story.
Find it : Neon
There was much hype about Brett Morgen's new effort focused on the life of David Bowie. billed as an "immersive experience" that should provide both clues and caveats about what this sets out to be. Nothing better can be explained than Morgens interview with a Bowie podcast where he discloses that the 1995 1 Outside album provided the inspiration to his approach.
Fans of Bowie (and I count myself as one) recall this album as an absolute head scratcher. Reunited with Brian Eno for the first time in over 15 years Bowie built an annoying narrative that seemed to go nowhere in between disparate tracks that were variable in quality . Morgen does the same here, there are stream of consciousness quotes from Bowie either via voiceover or shown in interviews throughout the 70's and frustratingly the music is often deconstructed or mashed up , very few complete performances or airings of songs. So the crashing snare and beat announcing "Sound & Vision" lasts a few seconds and live clips such as from the 1978 Isolar tour (if they have this footage it warrants it's own film,, priceless ) and his 50th birthday concert (seems to be a great version of "Space Oddity") are cut short.
A straw poll of people in the cinema where we saw this last year concluded it was "boring" . For all the troubles and angst Morgen went through to make this it seems he was blinded by thinking what Bowie would want do than satisfy many many fans who still find his absence on planet earth still difficult to comprehend
Verdict: Avoid - find any Bowie album from the 1970's instead
Find it : Amazon Prime