Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Selena (1997)


Selena is the true story of a talented singer who was murdered in her prime, therefore I can't will temporarily do away my usual joke-cracking. I'm no Howard Stern (who callously criticized Selena and her fans soon after her death). I will, however, offer a fair-minded review of the film's quality, as well as some philosophical musing on the nature of a biopic.

What Happens:

In four chunks, the film tells the story of Selena Quintinalla (played by the then up-and-coming Jennifer Lopez). Starting with her apex, a 1995 capacity show at the Houston Astrodome, one month before her death. That concert attracted the largest crowd in the park's history (65,000 people, though the film claims 100,000).

From there the film goes back all the way to 1961 to detail the trials and tribulations of Los Dinos, a Mexican-American doo-wop group led by Selena's father, Abraham Quintinalla. A couple of short scenes illustrate the pitfalls of being bi-cultural. A racist white club owner doesn't want them because they're Mexican, but when they do a gig at a Hispanic bar, they get booed off the stage for doing American-style music. Obviously, Los Dinos never got anywhere.

Jump ahead 20 years. It's 1981 and Abraham is married with three children. He works at a refinery in Lake Jackson, Texas and earns a nice living. However, when his 10 year-old daughter Selena (Rebecca Lee Meza) shows some vocal talent, his old dreams resurface, and he decides to start a family band. He buys some old amps and microphones, a bass guitar, and drums and forces the kids to play them (putting him in the same category as Earl Woods, Richard Williams, and Joe Simpson).

Despite setbacks, Abraham's restless ambition drives the group (called Selena and the Dinos) to practice and perform, while at the same time costing the family the financial stability they once had. Remembering his troubles trying to make it as a Mexican singer doing American oldies, he encourages Selena to start singing in Spanish (even though she doesn't know the language and has spoken English her whole life).

After a lackluster gig at a county fair, Abraham chides his kids for not playing well enough, then wonders if Latino listeners will ever accept a female Tejano singer. Son A.B. says they need better material (he would later end up writing the group's songs). In an oceanside family talk, Abraham promises the kids that they can make it if they really want to. Then, in a nice little scene, Selena's mother Marcela (Constance Marie) teaches her to dance the cumbia, a Colombian rhythym and dance style. This will be important later.

The film then jumps to 1989. Selena and the Dinos have persevered and are making a serious go of it. Money isn't great. They have no road crew and Abraham drives the tour bus, but the crowds are loving the group, who have found their sound, a Spanish language combination of cumbia (see, I told you it would be important) and Tejano styles. Selena loves being on stage, and even designs her own costumes.

As her career continues to blossom, so does a relationship with newly-hired guitarist Chris Perez (Jon Seda). Abraham disapproves of Chris and thinks the romance will kill Selena's chances at stardom. He even goes so far as to threaten to disband the group (which seems like kind of self-defeating logic, doesn't it?) Much of this part of the film alternates between depicting the growing success of the group (number one songs, a ridiculously large concert in Mexico, a Grammy nomination and win, etc.) and the trials of the two lovers. First, Abraham throws Chris out of the group, but when the couple continue to see each other secretly, finally deciding to elope, Abraham realizes his daughter has found true love.

As Selena opens her own boutique, featuring clothes and accessories of her own design, she also begins recording an English-language crossover album. She also talks with Chris about eventually settling down, owning a farm and starting a family. At the same time, trouble is brewing. Selena's business manager, friend, and fan club president Yolanda Saldivar has come under suspicion for stealing fan club money and destroying the records. Abraham and Selena confront Yolanda, who denies any wrongdoing.

Most people know where it goes from here. After a brief scene of Selena performing one of her new English language songs, Dreaming of You, we see the aftermath of a murder. Yolanda has shot Selena in a hotel. Selena is rushed to the hospital, where she's pronounced dead. There are some shots of the family mourning, a montage of the actual Selena performing, and a candlelight vigil. Credits and tears run simultaneously.

What Really Happens:

If that ending seemed rushed and abrupt, it was. I'll get to that a bit later.

First, let's talk about what elements every good musical biopic should contain, and how Selena handles those elements.

1. Believable Actors
I can't stress this one enough. The actors you choose need to inhabit the spirit of the person they're playing. Physical resemblance is nice, but unnecessary. The Selena actors, for the most part, had an easier time of it than usual, because their counterparts weren't fantastically famous. Even so, they ALL do well, especially Edward James Olmos as Abraham.

Jennifer Lopez had the most daunting task. Selena may not have been well known to white audience, but Latino audiences were sure to scrutinize. By most accounts, she handled it admirably. The most interesting subplot here, of course, is the fact that J.Lo became a pop star not long after the film. Was it the chicken or the egg? Either way this is one of the very few times a pop star played another pop star. Even more interesting? The film's creators wisely chose not to use Lopez's thin voice and instead had her lip-synch to actual recordings of Selena.

2. Truth
Okay, by nature, a film can never really tell the whole story. Most viewers will take every detail as gospel, but this is rarely the case. What you hope is that the filmmakers only change small details to facilitate storytelling and avoid anything that could be labeled fabrication.

Selena's story was not one that a lot of people knew so director/writer Gregory Nava had some leeway here. However, to ensure accuracy, Abraham himself was executive producer (which is funny if you consider that he easily comes off the worst of anyone else in the film; at various points in the film he's clumsy, overbearing, and irrational). As far as I can tell, nothing major was fabricated, but there are details in the film that are misleading.

Selena does an admirable job overall, and it's only factual mistakes (or omissions) are minor. For example, in the film it appears that Chris and Selena met for the first time when he auditioned for her band. In fact, they already knew each other.

Additionally, the film fudges a bit with the timeline of Selena's success. Perhaps understandably, we aren't shown everything about her rise to the top. When the movie jump to 1989, we know the band is popular, but what we aren't told is that they've already recorded three albums! Usually these types of films make a huge deal about getting to cut a record, because that's what allows your music to live on. Similarly, we're asked to infer a lot of information, such as the fact that Selena's brother A.B. writes and arranges most of her songs! It's probably the music geek in me, but I find that stuff interesting.

3. Defining Moments
Being famous and popular does not automatically guarantee a musician a biopic. There have to be defining moments in their story. The Beatles are considered the greatest band ever because their story has so many of these moments: The death of John and Paul's mothers, Hamburg, The firing of Pete Best, George Martin having never produced a rock record in his life, Ed Sullivan, and so on.

Selena's story doesn't have many, mostly because it's so short, but the film makes the most of what's there. The Dinos, the family band driven by their father, the forbidden love between Chris and Selena, the Astrodome concert, and her death. In between are moments that feel like genuine remembrances of a very tight family unit. There are tender scenes between Selena and her parents (such as the one I mentioned earlier where her mother teachers her the cumbia). The romance between her and Chris is played out very sweetly and realistically. There are also depictions of life on the road and Selena's growing fame that make the film feel more personal than than your average biopic. In one particular scene, the kids take the tour bus to get gas and end up stuck in a ditch. A couple of tough-looking Latino men stop to help when they recognize Selena (or Selenas, as they call her). Despite their boasts, their car is not powerful enough to pull the bus out of the ditch. In fact, it yanks the bumper off their car. A.B. apologizes profusely and offers to pay, but the man won't hear it. He claims he's going to hang it on his wall with a plaque underneath, because it came from an encounter with "Selenas"). Later, the siblings retell the story to their parents, and tease Selena mercilessly about it. It has the ring of truth to it.

Selena's death is, unfortunately, the most intriguing aspect of her story. It has the tragedy element as well as the psychological intrigue. The movie doesn't completely give in to morbid fascination, but doesn't ignore it either. I had a slight problem with this, and honestly I think the filmmakers didn't really know how to handle it. You don't want to give Yolanda too much screen time and risk glorifying her in any way, and yet you can't completely ignore Selena's murder. So the movie tried to balance that and ended up obscuring what really happened. Why were Selena and Yolanda at the hotel? What led to the shooting? What kind of psychological problems was Yolanda battling that would lead her to kill her idol? The first two questions should definitely have been answered by the film.

4. Musical Performances
Finally, if you're going to show us the life of a musician, then you need to show lots of musical performances that feel accurate. Selena does this very well. There are tons of performing sequences, and J.Lo does a top-notch job lip-synching (which is not as easy as it might seem). When you see the footage of the real Selena at the end of the film, it's especially apparent that the filmmakers worked hard to recreate her dance moves and her costumes.

Questions and Comments:

Selena was released a mere 2 years after the singer's death, which means it was written and filmed in 1996. That makes it the fastest turnaround for a biopic in the history of the genre.

Did you know that Selena's favorite singer was Donna Summer? At the Astrodome concert she performs a disco medly with two Summer songs, and then in the flashback sequence where Abraham wants her to start singing in Spanish, she says she'd rather be Donna Summer.

Look for the scene where Abraham goes into an extended riff on what it's like to be Mexican-American and have to live up to the expectations of both cultures. "We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans." He goes on and on about it. It's a definite "dad" moment, but also sheds light on living bi-culturally.

Director and writer Gregory Nava doesn't have a long resume, but he must have a good relationship with his actors. He had woked with Constance Marie (Gorge Lopez and several other TV appearances) and Edward James Olmos previous to Selena, and he made Bordertown with Lopez in 2006.

Did you know there was a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album? Selena won it in the film, and it sounded strange to me, so I looked it up. Yep, it's real. I suppose that is a large genre of music, but does anyone really call it Mexican-American music? Isn't that strangely specific? And how on earth did Linda Ronstadt win it in 1989 AND 1993? Someone please enlighten me.

Have you ever seen a crowd get so upset over the lack of dance music that they physically threaten musicians, as happens to Los Dinos? In Minnesota, we would just listen politely and then talk bad about them behind their backs after they left the stage.

In Conclusion:

Selena is not a perfect musical biopic, but it gets a lot of things right, and it's especially notable for how personal the story feels. It also manages to be a loving tribute without sacrificing truth.

If you feel like a good temporary heartbreak, queue this one up sometime.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rock Around the Clock (1956)

But where are Richie, Potsie, Ralph Malph, and the Fonz?

Rock Around the Clock, as you can see on the poster, claims to tell "the whole story of rock and roll!" but that isn't exactly true. In fact, it's barely even the story of its lead attraction Bill Haley and His Comets. That said, it's a fascinating artifact from the infancy of rock, and also a well-scripted, performance-heavy musical.

What Happens:

Our story begins with George Hiller and His Band (apologies to Glenn Miller, I suppose) playing for a crowd of roughly nine people. Their manager, Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnston), confronts Hiller at the end of the set and tells him the obvious: Big band music is not drawing crowds anymore. He says that people want to hear "small groups, vocalists, and novelty combos." He adds, "the only thing that's stayed up to date in this band is your watch." George blames Steve for not doing a good enough job promoting the group. The argument escalates, and Steve quits, taking bassist Corny LaSalle (Henry Slate) with him.

The two decide to head back to New York to look for new opportunities, but Steve takes a shortcut that leads them to the small burg of Strawberry Springs (pop. 1,472), where they decide to stop for the night. It turns out the town is hoppin' on Saturday night, and Steve and Corny end up at a local dance, where Bill Haley and His Comets are playing See Ya Later, Alligator to a group of rapturous teens. Steve, a music industry vet remember, is baffled by this new sound: "It isn't boogie, it isn't jive, and it isn't swing," he says. "It's kinda all of them." Corny asks a dancing teen what they call this music and she responds, "It's rock and roll, brother, and we're rockin' tonight!"

Of course you can see where this is going. Steve and Corny arrange to manage the band (who it turns out are all just local boys playing for a lark), but not without some haggling over percentages, thanks to the band's dancer, Lisa Johns (Lisa Gaye). Lisa's a savvy beauty who Steve tries to manipulate by making her fall in love with him, but the opposite happens.

Thus begins Steve's journey to find fame for the band and his new girlfriend. But it isn't exactly easy. According to the film, the only way to get club bookings in New York is through the Talbot Agency, which is run by the playfully ruthless Corinne Talbot (Alix Talton). Steve and Corinne have a history: She proposed marriage and a partnership in her agency, he declined. So when Steve comes to her office with this new thing called rock and roll, she sees an opportunity, but not in the way you'd expect. Her logic is as follows. If he fails at his new venture, he'll have no choice but to accept her offer. She even says the following line: "When Steve hates me enough he'll realize he can't live without me."

So she agrees to help Steve, but immediately attempts to sabotage him by setting up a gig for the band at a conservative, upscale girl's school in Connecticut. What she doesn't bank on is the power of rock and roll, man. Haley and His Comets go over like gangbusters! Undeterred by Steve's failure to fail and angry about his new girlfriend, Corinne simply goes cold and says there's no future in rock and roll. When Steve once again turns down her proposal, she blacklists him and his group.

Fortunately, Steve is owed a favor by DJ Alan Freed (playing himself), who happens to own a club and is willing to ignore Talbot's mandate. So Bill Haley and the Comets play there, and become a sensation! They get on the cover of Variety, and make oodles of money for Freed. Talbot stubbornly refuses to admit defeat, but then comes up with one last masterstroke: She'll offer a three year deal to Steve, Corny, Lisa, and the band, but with one little addendum to the deal: Lisa can't get married for the duration of the contract. Lisa agrees.

The band heads out to San Fransisco and continues to make headlines, this time landing on the cover of Billboard, while Steve and Corinne work out the details of a televised Rock and Roll Jamboree. The film ends with the taping of the Jamboree, and Lisa coming out to thank "my husband, Steve Hollis." It turns out they got married BEFORE she signed the contract. Corinne admits defeat graciously, and the band strike up the title song. And that's the living end.

What Really Happens:

If that synopsis makes the movie sound especially heavy on an ancillary storyline with little actual focus on Haley and the Comets, that's because it is. Perhaps the filmmakers realized that Haley himself didn't have the charisma or acting chops to carry the film, or perhaps they couldn't even conceive of making him the lead in those pre-Jailhouse Rock days. Normally a music film giving so much time to non-musicians would be a kiss of death, but Rock Around the Clock makes it work. How? I'm not quite sure, but for a short film (it only runs 77 minutes) it manages to pack in all the above-mentioned story along with no less than 15 performances by Haley and several other acts. And if there's anything we've learned, pop music movies live and die by performances.

Some of the other groups featured in the film are Freddie Bell and the Bellboys (a lively white R & B outfit, often tuxedoed, who reportedly inspired Elvis to record his own version of Hound Dog), Tony Martinez and His Band (think of any I Love Lucy episode where Desi's band is featured), and the Platters (a black singing combo with the hits Only You and The Great Pretender, both of which are performed in the film).

1956 was they year that rock and roll blew up. Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes went to number 1, Chuck Berry released Roll Over Beethoven, Elvis broke through with Heartbreak Hotel, and Little Richard had Tutti Frutti on the charts. Rock Around the Clock was obviously meant to capitalize on a fad. It's surprisingly high-quality considering that. And the film was successful enough that in retrospect it can be seen as not only a product of rock and roll's popularity, but also a cause of it. Kind of like how the film Valley Girl reflected a real speech pattern while at the same time spreading it across the country and making it even more prevalent.

There's even an instructional aspect to the movie. Dancing is a huge part of the film and at one point Steve, arguing for Lisa's inclusion in the band, says "it takes a great dance team to demonstrate rock and roll." Not only that, but Haley and His Comets were not all that exciting as performers, so the dancing was cinematically and visually important. Similarly, the movie trades in a dubiously authentic beat lingo, which Steve has to master before he can communicate with the teens in Strawberry Springs. When he sees Lisa dance, he comments, "They're really good!" A young man responds: "Dig it man, when the most is on the floor, you give 'em room."

What really strikes me while watching the film is how much the definition of rock has changed in the 40 years since, or maybe how much it has narrowed. Many of the songs performed in the film would not even be defined as rock music today, certainly not Tony Martinez' mambos, Freddie Bell's horn-heavy rave-ups, or the Platter's mannered harmonies. Even a Haley song like Rudy's Rock has more in common with jazz than modern rock, and tunes such as R-O-C-K and Razzle Dazzle use the call-and-response of big band and swing music.

Questions and Comments:

During the school dance scene, the three bands (Martinez, Haley, Bell) switch off every song. How does this work with set up of instruments? I mean, have you been to a concert lately? It takes 25 minutes, at least, for roadies to take down one band's stuff and put up new equipment. Then the guy has to come out and strum the guitar and mumble into the microphone for awhile. Either the dance would last 6 hours or you'd only get 3 songs in before it was time to go home.

Let's face it, Corinne Talbot is an awful businesswoman. It's almost as though the film's writers were those type of guys who can't fathom the idea of a woman handling power well, the type of guys who would never vote for a woman for president because they think her mood swings during PMS would lead us to war with Iran. So on one hand, I applaud the film for depicting an uncompromising, successful woman who's unafraid to go after what she wants, but at the same time I condemn it for assuming a woman who has gotten this far in business would let a bizarre romantic conquest affect her bottom line.

Besides that, the film is well-written and full of clever snappy lines. These include:
  • Steve's cutting take-down when George Hiller challenges his promoting skills. "I'll book you at a schoolhouse during a fire drill. You might be able to clear them out with the kind of music you play."
  • Corny's puns, such as "Just let me pack my traveling clothes and a g-string for my bass" and when Steve mentions that they'll be taking a detour through Strawberry Springs, Corny replies, "Now I'm hungry for strawberry shortcut."
  • Steve's comment about the chances for rock and roll to gain popularity: "Remember what Christopher Columbus once said: 'The world is no square.'"
  • When Corny has a good idea, Steve replies, "You don't think much, but when you do, you make it count!"
  • Corinne gets off some bon mots, like her response to Steve's idea: "Men's imaginations are always faster than they are."
  • Steve tells Corinne to go after Mike, a man who is as crazy for her as she is for Steve. He remarks, "Why don't you marry the guy so he can forget you?"
  • And then there's Tony Martinez's lament about being told to tone it down during the school dance. "The professors have taken the cha out of my cha-cha," he says.
Lisa's brother (and dancing partner) is named Jimmy. That's right, Jimmy Johns. The film doesn't cover this, but he later went on to start his own sandwich shop franchise.

Also, Lisa and Jimmy as a brother-sister dance combo can't help but bring to mind the episode of Friends where Ross and Monica unleash their dance routine.

In Conclusion:

This movie doesn't tell the "whole story of rock and roll." It barely tells any of it. Maybe the plot was silly and took too much screen time away for actual musicians, but the film more than makes up for that in performances. Rock Around the Clock is a vital document of an exciting time in pop music.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cool As Ice (1991)

Deadly, like a poisonous mushroom.

I've watched some terrible films for this project. After watching Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, I was pretty darn sure that nothing could be worse. I was wrong. Cool As Ice is worse.

Well, duh, you might say. Did you really expect otherwise? Did you really think Vanilla Ice starring in a pseudo remake of Rebel Without a Cause was going to be good? But I tried, I respond. Oh how I tried to be objective about this. I divorced myself of judgment. No cracking on the clownish early '90s fashion and hairstyles. No harsh assessments of Robert Van Winkle's musical ability or questionable personal choices. No, I tried to put myself back into my junior high self, into the kid who got a little thrill every time he heard Ice, Ice Baby.

Even with the benefit of all that doubt, Cool As Ice is an awful film: the script, the musical performances, the characters, the direction, the cinematography, everything. In fact, it's so bad, it deserves a running diary (with apologies to Bill Simmons). These are my thoughts, recorded live as I watched.

0:00:00 The film opens with Vanilla Ice performing of Cool As Ice (Everbody Get Loose) as the credits roll. We're a dark smoky club and /or warehouse and people are dancing. I'm guessing this also doubled as the song's video. Naomi Campbell sings the hook and manages to get through it without assaulting anyone.

0:04:26 The movie was written by Daniel Stenn (not STERN), who had some episodes of Hill Street Blues, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 to his credit. According to the Internet Movie Database, in the 18 years since Cool As Ice, he has written a TV mini-series and a documentary, and nothing else.

0:04:50 The movie was directed by David Kellog, whose only credits previous to this film were Playboy Playmate of the Year videos. He went on to direct Michael Jackson's Jam video and the Matthew Broderick Inspector Gadget movie, and nothing else. Moral: Cool As Ice is not a film you want on your resume.

0:06:00 Ice and his 3 homies leave the gig on their crotch rockets, just like the Cobra Kai. Who are they? Where are they going? Those details were apparently deemed inconsequential by the filmmakers.

0:07:00 After driving all night, the group comes across a girl riding a horse in a pasture. Ice decides to try to race her on his bike. When it looks like she might pull away from him, he jumps the fence (without using a ramp!) and lands in front of the horse, startling it and causing it to buck. The girl falls off hits the dust, but appears to avoid major injury. Ice rushes to help her up but fails to apologize. Instead, he says, "you did pretty good for a girl." Class.

0:08:40 One of the crew's bikes breaks down and they are forced to stop in the nearby small town. I smell a convenient plot device! By the way, we still don't know who these people are or where they were headed, or even where they are now.

0:09:30 Lingering first person reaction shots of the townspeople, who are utterly flabbergasted at the appearance of these four "urban youths" on motorized bikes.

0:10:00 An odd old couple who live on a large property with a series of brightly-painted buildings take them in and promise to fix the bike. Their place is like a combination of Pee-Wee's Playhouse and the set of the Fresh Prince's Parents Just Don't Understand video.

0:12:30 Remember the girl on the horse? Her name is Kathy (she's played by Kristin Minter, who later went on to several TV roles, including a long stint as Randi on ER), and she's a high school senior. She has a boyfriend, Nick (he's played by John Newton, who did time on Melrose Place) who's worried that she'll forget him when she goes away to college.

0:13:30 It just so happens that Kathy's house is on the same block as the old couple's place! Ice (we've since found out that his character's name is Johnny) spots them and approaches, brazenly interrupting their conversation. He proceeds to hit on Kathy, and then gets off the immortal line: "Drop that zero and get with the hero." He also "accidentally" calls Nick "Dick" instead. He's completely unlikeable as a character at this point.

0:15:00 A fast-motion sequence details Kathy's ideal home life. Michael Gross (the father from Family Ties) plays her father. Meanwhile, we find out that somewhere during their exchange Johnny stole her date book. He's really winning me over here.

0:16:00 Kathy is featured as an outstanding student in a local TV news profile. This causes the plot to thicken, as a man watching in a bar recognizes her father and immediately makes a phone call.

0:19:45 Kathy's little brother Tommy calls Nick a "dick" for constantly promising him a ride in his car, but never following through. You know, in case you forgot that we're not supposed to like this boyfriend.

0:21:30 The old couple who promised to fix the bike have instead dismantled it. Whimsical cartoon music accompanies their consternation.

0:22:52 More cartoon sound effects intrude as the man from the bar and his partner make their way to the town to track down Kathy's dad.

0:23:52 Johnny decides to go see Kathy again, which leads to the following exchange.
Johnny's friend: "Where you goin'?"
Johnny: "Across the street to sling a shlong."

0:24:33 Kathy's mother declines to let Johnny see Kathy, probably because he's wearing a leather jacket that says "Sex Me" on the sleeve.

0:26:30 Now we're at local hangout the Sugar Shack and a band is on stage doing a terrible atonal version of Sly and the Family Stone's 1969 hit Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). If you don't know where this is going, shame on you.

0:27:55 Nick drinks straight from a bottle of bourbon and gives Kathy shit for not loosening up. She's starting to agree with her little brother's assessment of him.

0:28:30 Meanwhile, the two men confront Kathy's dad and call him Jim (his name is supposedly Gordon). Obviously, they're bad men from his past. They want $500K, and give him 24 hours to come up with it.

0:29:50 You knew this was coming! Ice and his crew rudely take the stage from the band, and proceed to do The People's Choice, which samples the same Sly song. One question: Where did the turntables come from? Any power this scene might have had (cool band takes over for lame one is always a cinematic excuse for excitement) is dulled by the fact that the song is so obviously a studio version. The mix is awful and canned and doesn't approach a live sound at all. Even so, Kathy comes up to dance suggestively with Johnny, and then gives him a 24 hour deadline to return her planner (hmm...that sounds familiar).

0:33:40 Nick is angry about the dancing, grabs Kathy's arm and drags her out of the club. Outside, he apologizes, and then makes him a sexual overture. She's not havin' it and he gets mad again, and so for the third time in the film he gets called a dick.

0:35:45 The two thugs who threatened Kathy's father pull up on her as she walks home. It appears that they want to run her down, or at least intimidate her, but Johnny swoops in on his bike and rescues her.

0:38:30 Nick and his buddies take out their aggression by taking baseball bats to one of Johnny's crew's bikes. Having dropped Kathy off, Johnny returns in time to catch them in the act. He confronts them, and then proceeds to take out all 5 guys with his mad fighting skills. This really happened! Is there nothing Johnny can't do?

0:40:10 It's morning, and Johnny has snuck into Kathy's bedroom. He wakes her up by dripping an ice cube into her mouth (get it?!). Where did he get the ice cube? Did he wash his hands before he squeezed it?

0:42:05 He gives the planner back and Kathy tries to get rid of him by saying, "I'll see you later." His Zen response: "You're seein' me now." Before he goes, he promises little brother Tommy a ride on his bike. See the parallelism there? It's subtle, I know.

0:44:40 The film's Take Me With U (the bit in Purple Rain where Prince takes Appolonia for a ride) scene. They go to a construction site and talk. The film almost stubbornly refuses to provide us any biographical information about Johnny. He speaks in riddles. When Kathy asks him where he's from, he responds: "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at." He also gives his life philosophy: "Live your life as someone else, you ain't livin'." But if you live your life as yourself, and you're a tool, then you're livin' as a tool.

0:47:00 They caper in the skeleton of a house and eventually kiss. A montage begins wherein they ride through the desert on his bike, hang out in a field, kiss some more, and of course, Johnny eventually takes off his shirt. This is all set to the dulcet tones of Ice's own terrible song Never Wanna Be Without You.

0:52:00 They return at night and one wonders: Haven't 24 hours passed? I guess it was an empty threat. Anyway, Kathy's dad is not happy with her being gone all day, nor with her choice of company. He has seen Johnny talking to the two men who threatened him and thinks they're in cahoots (not a terrible assumption) and is worried for Kathy's safety. He tells her not to see him anymore. It's a conflicting moment, because I think we're supposed to think the dad is an ass for trying to control her life, but really he's being pragmatic. Remember, this is Steven Keaton. Defy his fatherly advice at your own risk! And let's face it, even if he wasn't worried for her safety, his dislike of Johnny would just demonstrate good character judgment.

0:54:20 In the only well-acted scene of the film, Kathy's dad reveals to her that he's a former cop in the witness protection program for blowing the whistle on some crooked officers. The two men who are after him are those same officers. Here, Michael Gross somewhat redeems himself for agreeing to be in this thing at all.

0:59:20 Kathy tells Johnny she can't see him. He gets angry in his nebulously anti-authoritarian way, asking her, "Who you bein' true to now?"

1:01:30 Kathy's awful friends suggest she apologize to Nick and get back with him ASAP.

1:02:20 Kathy's little brother isn't under any mandate to avoid Johnny. Instead, he cuts his hair to imitate Johnny's and approaches him about that promise of a ride. Johnny follows through, and as they ride through town they see Nick. Tommy promptly flicks him off.

1:06:20 Tommy is back home, and the two crooked cops have snuck into the house. The film briefly threatens to turn into Home Alone as Tommy eludes them, but eventually they capture him.

1:08:17 Kathy returns home to sulk. Johnny stops by and attempts to charm her. His opening line goes like this: "So you wanna talk or what?" When she says she doesn't, instead of asking what's wrong, he responds by rhetorically asking, "Still doin' what daddy says, huh?"

1:12:32 The family discovers Tommy's absence, and a tape arrives with a ransom message. The crooked cops have set ANOTHER 24 hour deadline. Nick reappears at this time and tells about seeing Tommy and Johnny together earlier. This seems to confirm the father's view that Johnny's working with the two bad guys.

1:14:30 Kathy confronts Johnny and he delicately and sensitively tells her she needs to see a psychiatrist. But then he actually listens to her for once. In reviewing the ransom tape, he suddenly becomes a detective, and filters out construction sounds in the background. Rather than calling the police, they decide to take matters into their own hands.

1:17:20 Johnny wears his sunglasses at night.

1:18:45 Johnny drives his bike right through a wall, and takes on both thugs! After beating 5 men single-handedly earlier in the film, this is a piece of cake for him (though he does take one punch).

1:20:50 Kathy's dad thanks Johnny, who responds by saying, "It doesn't really matter." What doesn't matter? The fact that a little boy is safe and two crooks are captured? Because that matters a little bit. Maybe Johnny is a nilihist and is saying that in the great scheme of things nothing is all that significant. Or maybe he's just an ass.

1:21:40 As Johnny drives off with Kathy, he uses Nick's car as a ramp and jumps right over it.

1:22:43 The film wraps up in another disconnected club scene. Ice performs Get Wit' It and does some Chinese acrobat moves while Kathy dances in the audience. The song's final verse seems to address the film's love story somewhat:

"I'll love a girl and then dis the same one /
'Cause you know that there's more where that came from /
Yo, the one I want just walked through the threshold /
So all you other girls are out in the cold for now /
She's the only one for me /
Who knows if we were meant to be /
Together forever and that's a real long time /
And you can tell I'm in the house by my dope rhyme /
Man, I'm glad she came to her senses /
And that she put down all her defenses /
And finally gave her heart & soul /
To the man behind the mic control /
I'm here with her now I'm ready for fun."

I'll just let that speak for itself.

Of more concern than that is the fact that it's never clear who or what Johnny is. Is he a professional rapper on a very minimalist tour? Is he just a wanderer who happens to have mad rappin', bikin', and fightin' skills? Though Rebel Without a Cause (the plot of which really has few connections to Cool As Ice beyond the general premise) held that title, James Dean's character at least had a complex family relationship to blame for his rebellion. Vanilla Ice's Johnny truly is without a cause. He's rebellious for rebellion's sake.

For a film banking on its star's musical popularity and personal charisma, there's not enough focus on the actual music or the story behind Ice's character. Nearly every other pop music film uses the forum to show some depth and vulnerability in their lead. Not Cool As Ice. Then again, I guess you can't show what isn't there.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Pure Country (1992)

Puritan Country?

Ideally, pop music movies serve two purposes. Not only are they a cash-in on a musician's popularity, but they have the potential to drive that popularity to a previously unseen level. With Pure Country and George Strait, that's exactly what happened.

In 1992, Strait was on an impressive 11-year winning streak. Of his 12 albums, 8 had gone to number one on the country album chart. 22 of his singles had reached the top spot on the country song chart. The soundtrack album to Pure Country, featuring all Strait songs, sold 6 million copies and became the biggest success of his career. And this was in spite of the fact that the movie itself performed poorly - it grossed about $15 million at the box office. If you did the math with me then you know that means that people spent more money on the soundtrack than they did on the film.

What's strange is that despite starring in a Hollywood film and selling so many many records, Strait has never even had a sniff of mainstream pop success. It's just further evidence that the world of country music might as well be in an alternate universe...

What Happens:

Strait plays Dusty Chandler, a bearded and ponytailed country music star at the height of this fame (sound familiar?). He's got a slick stage show, thousands of adoring fans, and a sequined white leather jacket with his name spelled in cursive on the back, but we quickly discover that he's disillusioned with the smoke and lights and deafening volume. He feels like he's playing a part that isn't true to himself. His real name isn't even Dusty, it's Wyatt. He tells his cutthroat manager Lula (played by Miss Scarlet herself, Lesly Ann Warren) that he wants to simplify the arrangements for his next album.

Meanwhile, Lula has struck it up with dashing Buddy Jackson (played by our favorite coach of the Dillon Panthers, Kyle Chandler), a stage hand and aspiring songwriter. In exchange for a little lovin' she's agreed to promote the song, a clever double-entendre heavy rocker called Overnight Male, to Dusty. At the very next show, Dusty performs the song with no problem. However, during the next song, Where the Sidewalk Ends, he appears falls into a dreamlike revelry and stops singing altogether, except no one notices, not his band and not the fans.

After telling Lula that he no longer wants to be her dancing chicken, she coldly asserts that she can replace him easily. He takes a walk and ends up hitchhiking away. Thus begins his own "lost weekend" voyage of discovery, moving from a shave and a haircut to a visit with his grandmother and to the honky tonk where he first cut his teeth as a musician, and finally into the arms of a plucky cowgirl named Harley (Isabel Glasser).

Meanwhile, Lula brazenly puts Buddy Jackson into Dusty's outfit and has him lip-synch his way through the next concert, and - amazingly - nobody notices. Buddy (who clearly isn't too bright) begins to get too big for his britches and demands a recording contract and signing bonus. When Lula balks, Buddy reveals the deception to the media, and all hell breaks loose.

Lula tracks Dusty down, and will do whatever it takes to get him back for the next show in Vegas. Can Dusty resist the siren call of fame, or will the simple life call him home? The film's title might give you a clue to that answer...

What Really Happens:

Pure Country is an entertaining film, and gets at least one thing completely right: It knows that it lives or dies by providing lots of songs and performance scenes. These aren't skimped on, and the arena sequences are especially impressive. They were obviously filmed live during a real stage show with a massive audience, and yet still have a very controlled, cinematic quality. Elsewhere, songs are incorporated realistically, played on radios or in bars. I've never done a formal study on this, but I'd be willing to be that the more a viewer can connect to the music in a film, the better the soundtrack will sell.

As I watched, I also wondered if this film was intended to be a commentary on the over-commercialization of country music. It's no secret that in the '90s Nashville might as well have been L.A., considering the growing obsession with glitz and crossover success. The songs and the shift away from twang to shiny pop hooks and crossover success (see Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Shania Twain, etc). The movie seems to yearn for a return to the "sittin' on the porch" roots of the genre. And yet, if the film was intended as a commentary, it was remarkably prescient. Brooks was just at the beginning of his peak when the film was released, and others were still a few years away from theirs.

Questions and Comments:

The warbly version of Heartland that plays over the film's opening credits was sung by George Strait's son. I don't think he'll be going into the family business.

The acting in the movie is roundly solid. Even Strait, a non-actor, does a fine job. Granted, he doesn't have to stretch all that much.

Director Christopher Cain's only other major film was The Next Karate Kid. The less said about this the better.

Watch for the scene when Dusty silently eats breakfast with Harley, her father, and her two brothers. It's painfully awkward and overlong, which makes it akin to the dinner scene in Eraserhead, though thankfully doesn't feature any carving of game hens.

Almost casually, one of Harley's brothers mentions that she wants to earn the money to save their failing ranch by winning a rodeo (in Las Vegas, where Dusty's next show happens to be happening the same weekend - what are the odds?!). This is never properly followed up on though a lesser movie would have made it a major plot point.

Backhanded compliments you should usually avoid on a date: "So how come a beautiful girl like you isn't married?"

Pure Country puts forth the world view that all old folks are grizzled, wise, cryptic, and mentally unbalanced. There are two characters who act as whacked-out spirit guides and spout barely-comprehensible advice. The first is Dusty's Grandma Ivy. Sample wisdom: "There are no answers, only the search." The other is Harley's father (veteran western actor Rory Calhoun, in his final role), a grizzled ranch owner with a voice that sounds like he smoked 3 packs a day for at least 50 years. Sample wisdom: "You know that little white stuff on the top of chicken shit? It's still chicken shit." There's even a sly acknowledgment of the two characters' similarity, when they sit next to one another at Dusty's Vegas show. The movie missed a golden opportunity in not having them hold an actual conversation.

When the news breaks that Dusty has has been replaced by a lip-synching impersonator, the anchor calls it "Milli Vanilli in reverse." I thought that was pretty good.

Did you know that Las Vegas used to be known as "The City of Neons and Nylons"? Me neither.

Does Lula's character deserve the redemption she gets? She does and says at least 5 awful things throughout the film, and at the end she easily gains Dusty's forgiveness and stays on as his manager.

And finally, let's talk about the supposed "romance" between Dusty and Harley, because it's the worst part of the movie. She brings him home drunk from a bar after he gets his ass kicked by her ex-boyfriend. They ride horses together. He neglects to tell her that he's a famous star (I guess she has no TV, doesn't listen to the radio, and is generally ignorant of pop culture). They dance at a bar, stare into each others eyes, and then immediately have a falling-out caused by Lula. He tries to reconcile, but she won't listen to him. He arranges for her to come to his Vegas show, where he sings I Cross My Heart directly to her. At the final moment of the film they come together and...hug. Yup, hug. No kiss. It's a strange moment and leads me to wonder. Did George Strait have a "no-kissing" clause in his contract? Were the film's producers expecting a huge Morman audience? We may never know, but it kind of takes all the air out of the romance angle, and ends the movie on a bum note.

If you were Harley's brother and you had to stand next to her while Dusty sings I Cross My Heart directly to her as she sobs, wouldn't you get a little uncomfortable? If I had to make a list of situations I would not want to find myself in, this would be in the top 25.

In Conclusion:

As I said, an entertaining movie overall, and it wisely puts the focus squarely on the music. You can't ask for much more, except, maybe, just one little kiss.