Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Rocketman Review

Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived.  Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole.  Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.

It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song.  While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century.   I’m all in.

But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film.  We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts.   By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative.  Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.

More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film.  Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due.  The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies.  In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat.  It should have been electric.  Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves.  I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?”  We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.

And why on earth is the band nameless?   Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential.  There are no scenes showing their camaraderie.  No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France.  No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance.  Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.

I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago.  Look, you can play with facts in films.  I get it.  Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential?  You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene.  But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release?  If you’re going for fantasy, go all in.  If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can. 

The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene.  Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse.  He also sings the material, which is impressive.  I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly.  And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about the film does.

Acting, Race, Sexuality and What's Offensive

One can argue about the distinctions between the two terms, but acting is – at its most basic level – pretending.  A good actor can play virtually anyone or anything, and in doing so impart some truth to an audience.  It’s art, to be sure, but it’s artistic pretending.  You would think that pretending would have no bounds, that its only limits would be the human imagination, but that isn’t the case, not because of the people’s limitations but because of mankind’s ignoble history that’s led to certain types of pretending to become taboo.  The most obvious example is white people painting their faces black, but there are others, and the guidelines aren’t as clear-cut as you would think.  Read this article from the USA Today in full and tell me that you now have a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  To quote the movie Fletch

Fletch: “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” 
Frank Walker: “How gray?” 
Fletch: “Charcoal.”

When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live allowed for many comedic skits that might not fly today.  I say “might not” because it’s not entirely obvious what’s allowed and what might stir controversy.  (If you disagree, keep reading).  In December of 1984, SNL aired a mock-documentary of Eddie Murphy playing a white man, to hilarious effect.  (If you’ve never seen it, do a quick Google search).  That same year, Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to portray one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr.  This was all deemed well and good in 1984 (at least through the lens of the American mainstream), but when Crystal reprised his impersonation at the 2012 Oscars, he got a lot of flak, with one critic making the blanket statement, “Blackface is not okay.  Ever.”    

Setting aside for now that there is in fact a distinction between “blackface” as historically understood and Billy Crystal putting on makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis, Jr., it’s important to note that Davis’s daughter Tracey defended Crystal, saying, “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling.  Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing.”  She also took issue with categorizing Crystals portrayal as “blackface.”

Now, you might say that Crystal’s Oscar performance is an exception to the rule due to it being a reprisal of a skit from years ago, but that going forward we should have no more of this.  No white person should ever wear black makeup to portray another person. 

What about the reverse?  Can someone wear white makeup to portray a character?

Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy who once again showed his acting and imitation prowess in 1988’s Coming to America, when he wore white makeup and depicted a stereotypical Jewish man telling a joke at a barbershop.  I just watched a clip of it and laughed out loud.  I don’t know if the Jewish community raised a ruckus back in 1988 for this skit – I do know my Jewish wife found the scene hilarious at the time – but given that Jewish actors once made a living performing actual blackface back in the day, staying silent on the matter was probably best.

But there is of course a distinction to be made here.  Whites have historically been privileged in this country and blacks have historically been oppressed.  Furthermore, blackface has such a sordid history that we could agree that wearing dark makeup, even as an attempt to depict a person whom you respect, should be relegated to a thing of the past.  (Which means that Tropic Thunder couldn’t be made today, which is regrettable.)

As Kara Weisenstein summarized in this Vice article: “Darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume.”

Fair enough, as long as it goes both ways.  I mean, I love Eddie Murphy’s portrayal in Coming to America, but Jews haven’t exactly been exempted from oppression (and they’re also a minority, making up less than 2% of the U.S. population), so let’s just agree – going forward, no person of one race should wear makeup to portray a person of another race.  Is this something that we can agree on in 2019?  Can we?

But then we get to a more recent controversy involving Scarlett Johansson, who was lambasted for agreeing to play a transgender person in the proposed film, Rub & Tug, before finally bowing out of the project.  As summarized in this article from The Guardian, Johansson’s initial response to the hubbub was correct on its face but not taken well by the trans community: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”  All three of these actors played trans roles that were largely lauded, but the argument goes that the time has come for a change, that since trans actors typically can’t play roles that aren’t trans, it makes sense that at the very least trans roles should go to trans actors.  Yes, there was a time when it was okay (apparently, that time was in 2014, when the show Transparent debuted), but no longer.  Going forward, trans roles should only be played by trans actors. 

Can we agree on that?  Okay.  Again I say, fair enough.  But then…

Why isn’t there backlash against Eric McCormack, a straight man, reprising his role as a gay character on NBC’s Will & Grace?  Just as with Billy Crystal in 2012, the word “reprisal” once again seems to be a key word here.  Even McCormack admits that he’s still allowed to play the role of Will Truman primarily because the show debuted in the 1990s.  Were it to have debuted in 2018, the role would have gone to a gay actor.  But then McCormick adds, “But does that mean that now when you walk into a casting room you have to state whether you are straight or gay? I don’t know.”

Now that’s an interesting point.  I can picture a casting director having a questionnaire for actors as they enter the audition room in order to fend off potential controversies, which of course would set off a whole new controversy! 

But if it’s all a matter of fairness, then let’s look no further than a hugely successful show on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  Most of the characters in the show are Jewish, but much of the cast, including leads Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, aren’t.  Is this okay?  If yes, why?  Because the actors have the same color skin as the characters they’re playing?  Is this the only factor to consider?

I don’t know, but ultimately I think the answer has to be that it’s okay for non-Jewish actors to play Jews, just as it should be okay for Catholic Italians to play English Protestants or American Jews to play Mormons.  Acting is pretending, and as McCormack implied, where do we draw the line and how do we determine who’s on what side of the line?  Will we have to have actors submit ancestry charts prior to auditioning for a role?  “I’m sorry, would-be actor, but you’re trying out for the role of an Italian-American from Texas with a background in the oil industry, but you’re an Irish-American from Arkansas whose family has a background in agriculture.  There’s no way you can play this part.” 

Crazy, right?  Personally, I love that Tony Shalhoub plays a Jew in Mrs. Maisel, that Emma Stone plays a Brit in The Favorite, and that Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett play damn-convincing Americans.  It’s okay. 

Fine.  We seem to be getting somewhere, but just when I think I can wrap my arms around it all, there are examples that throw everything off kilter.  When actress Juliette Binoche played a Chilean in The 33 no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.  But why?  Binoche is white, and there surely must be talented Chilean actresses.  Binoche was allowed to play a Chilean, but she clearly wouldn’t be allowed to play a Chinese woman or a Nigerian woman.  Is it only about race or skin color?  Or is there more to it?

There is!  Or at least to some folks, there is.  And this brings us to a hugely successful film with an Asian cast.  The lead actor in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, is only – these are not my words – “half-Asian,” so this led to a controversy about the film’s casting, with some saying that the film should have cast “full-Asians.”  This sounds so wrong to me that it brings to mind Voldemort and his posse attacking Mudbloods.  As writer Deanna Pal – who has an Italian parent and an Asian parent – beautifully states in her article defending the casting decisions of the film, “Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out…to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am.”

To me, as long as an actor’s portrayal of another person is coming from a place of love and respect – and this can include poking fun of that person, as Eddie Murphy did in Coming to America or Billy Crystal did on SNL – then I personally don’t give a shit.  Yes, I know, being a fifty year-old upper middle-class white man has given me the privilege of being able to say, “I don’t give a shit.”  I get it.  But I personally love the recent trend to throw historical accuracy out the window when casting a work of art, allowing anyone to play anybody.  The recent movie Mary Queen of Scots has a multiracial cast despite it not being historically accurate, and the musical Hamilton did the same to great effectBut if this is allowed, so too should it be allowed for a straight man to play a gay man, a half-Malaysian woman to play a Chinese woman, or a gay, half-Italian, half-Arab man to play a straight, half-Jewish, half-Brazilian man. 

As Kara Weisenstein concludes in her article, “I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.”

Honestly, let’s relax a little bit here. 

I’ll end with a funny YouTube comment I read about the aforementioned SNL skit, whereby Billy Crystal plays Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Piscopo plays President Reagan:

“This is so offensive, I can't even believe it's real - how dare they let an Italian from Jersey play Ronald Reagan!”

Signing off, hoping I offended no one with this essay, but knowing full-well that I did.

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

Watching Vertigo in a Theater

Can you still be moved after watching a film for the twelfth time?  I’ve learned that you can, but It helps to experience it the way it was originally intended: on a big screen in a packed theater. 

Last Sunday I watched Vertigo with my daughter as part of a mini Hitchcock festival in Louisville, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see it.  I’d rented it just a year or two ago and didn’t think another viewing in such close proximity would be all that enjoyable.  Boy, was I wrong!  Seeing the movie again with a few hundred others was absolutely thrilling, reinvigorating my appreciation for the film many believe – Martin Scorsese among them – to be Hitchcock’s best (my favorite is still Rear Window), and reinforcing my belief that watching film in a theater still gives you the best opportunity for an amazing experience.  Yes, there will be those times when you get a buffoon seated right behind you, wrestling with his crackling candy wrappers (as happened to me just last month while watching First Reformed), but when I look back on my favorite movie experiences, most entail seeing it with a large group of people.  Imagine that; humanity can actually enhance art created to make people feel.

Especially fun for me was the audience’s laughter.  I’ve always appreciated the banter between Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” and Barbara Bel Geddes’s “Midge,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed at it.  Last Sunday, the laughter around me was infectious, and I grew a new appreciation for the screenplay penned by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.  So much of this film is silent – Stewart shadowing Kim Novak’s character – that it’s easy to forget the dialogue, but much of it is brilliant.  The audience absolutely howled with laughter when Midge unveiled her joke painting to Scottie – a scene that I’ve always found to be heartbreaking, as Midge immediately regrets her actions – but who can argue with a laughing crowd? 

Because the people in the theater seemed to be invested in what was happening on screen, I was eager to get to the film’s big payoffs.  I knew what was going to happen of course, but it was akin to watching a film with your child, when the real fun is watching his reaction.  On Sunday, I awaited with pleasure the gasps I was sure to hear upon the film’s climax.  The audience didn’t let me down, and I enjoyed hearing people’s banter after the film had ended.

There are two points to Vertigo that still don’t hold up for me.  Yes, many films require a certain suspension of disbelief, and for the most part I’m able to dive into Vertigo without much skepticism, but there are two sticking points (SPOILER ALERT):

1)      If Kim Novak’s character is pretending to be Elster’s wife during the first half of the film, how does she manage to play unconscious even when Scottie undresses her at his apartment after fishing her out of San Francisco Bay?  Wouldn’t she have played along until just before he undressed her and pretend to wake up?  If not, does this imply that she was particularly titillated with the prospect of a having a man undress her?

2)     Where does Kim Novak’s character disappear to when she enters the McKittrick Hotel, and why doesn’t the hotel manager claim to have seen her enter?  There are several explanations for this on-line – none of them very satisfying except for Hitchcock’s definition of an “icebox” scene, meaning – in effect – that there is no explanation.  You just have to accept it.

3)     Oh!  I just thought of a third.  How does Scottie get both cars back to his apartment after Novak’s fake suicide attempt?

None this doesn’t matters all that much.  The film is beautiful, heartbreaking, creepy, thrilling and entertaining.  What else do you want?  During the film, I whispered to my daughter during one of my favorite shots, just after Scottie says to Midge, “We were engaged once, though, weren’t we?”  Hitchcock points the camera down on Midge while she’s working at an easel, and Midget’s eyes shift.  We never hear about exactly what happened between her and Scottie, but that shot is absolute perfection.  It speaks a thousand words even if you don’t know exactly what story those words would tell.  Check out minute 1:42 below:

Perfect.

The Florida Project

A month ago, I lamented about this year’s best picture Oscar nominees and listed the few movies I saw in 2017 that I thought deserved recognition, only one of which made the Oscar cut: Get Out.  I’d like to add one more movie released in 2017 that should have been recognized for more than just a best supporting actor nomination for Willem Dafoe: The Florida Project, a low-budget film released last fall to rave reviews, though if you blinked, you might have missed its theatrical release.

The Florida Project is one of those rare films that I gravitate toward – short on plot, long on characters and realistic slices of life.  It brings to mind some other films like Beginners, Nebraska, Lovely and Amazing, The Squid and the Whale, Boyhood and the Joe Swanberg films (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire, All the Light in the Sky, and the like), though its portrayal of the American poor through children’s eyes has almost nothing in common with those films.  In that sense, it’s like no other film I’ve seen.

Director Sean Baker’s portrait of poor families living in a rundown motel outside of Disney World is captivating, largely due to the amazing talents of child actors Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik and Valeria Cotto.  Much of the film is shown through their perspective, as they stroll from motel to ice cream stand to waffle house to cow pasture to abandoned homes.  I marveled at some of the dialogue between the children and am curious about how much was scripted and how much was simply kids being kids, as they express wonderment of a fallen tree that’s kept growing or take delight in sharing an ice cream cone.

The adults are worthy of note too, and not just the incomparable Willem Dafoe – wonderful as the motel manager who, without sentiment, protects the lives of his poor tenants in ways large and small, a more important figure in their lives than the mobile food pantry volunteers who hand out bread in the motel parking lot.  Bria Vinaite, who plays mom to Prince’s Halley, is also a standout as an aimless adult doing whatever she needs to do to pay next week’s rent, including using her daughter to hawk wholesale perfume in a country club parking lot.  Yes, she’s a neglectful parent, but I found her also to be sympathetic, as her love for Halley shines through at times, though not always in the most conventional way.

The film shows a side of life that we don’t often get to see – the American poor, eking out a living, relying on each other for basic niceties, not having the luxury of caring about politics or the environment or the economy.  Surviving is all they have time for.  Like my experience watching the film Boyhood, I kept waiting for the Hollywood dramatic turn: a car crash, a molestation or a murder.  There were times when the kids were running through a parking lot or crossing a street, and I winced, expecting one of the children to land on the hood of a car.  But like Boyhood, The Florida Project doesn’t take the easy way out.  Many lives are crushingly difficult, not because of life-altering events, but because of the harsh, daily grind, when one day bleeds into the next, never exercising the difficulties of the day preceding it.

Often, I value a movie on how much I’d like to see it again, and I was taken with something Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote about the movie.  He was more harsh in his assessment of the characters the film portrays, but he still loved the film.  He writes: ”…you’ll most likely not want to see (it) twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.”

I think he and I agree on this point.  I’m not sure I’ll be eager to rent this movie again, even for all it’s attributes.  But if you haven’t seen it once, you’re missing out.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved