Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Final Stretch

Baby, I'm a Star was always intended as a finite project - 40 essays about 40 pop movies - and the end is finally in sight. In order to properly prepare for my sprint to the finish, I'm going to be taking a short hiatus. So for the next three weeks, don't expect the usual Wednesday entry.

BUT October 7 is the beginning of the end, as we wind our way through the final 10 entries. They include the best concert film ever, an addicting rockumentary, a trio of biopics, a strung-out Bette Midler, and a generous helping of unintentional comedy.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

Act your age, not your shoe size

I first saw Prince's second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, as a rental, and I thought it was just okay. Then I attended a midnight screening of the film at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis, and my opinion completely changed. For those of you that don't know, Minneapolis is Prince's hometown, and his fans there are unparalleled in their dedication.

That's not to say the crowd was big. I don't even recall there being a line. But those that were there, decked out in Prince gear (I saw one woman in a floor length leather coat with the glyph symbol covering her entire back), were ready to have a good time. And they did, laughing lustily at every joke, catcalling during the sex scenes, singing along to the songs, and reciting favorite lines.

It colored my view of the movie, which is far from perfect, and gave it a rosy glow. Afterall, any film that could inspire such devotion must have done something right.

What Happens:

Prince (who also directed) plays Christopher Tracy, a Floridian who has moved to Nice, France to play piano at a supper club and seduce rich women in exchange for financial benefits. His partner in crime is Tricky (Jerome Benton, member of the Time, and Morris Day's sidekick in Purple Rain). As the film opens, Christopher and Tricky have spotted their latest target, a widow named Mrs.Wellington (Francesca Annis, aka Lady Jessica in Dune).

In the meantime, a bigger target emerges in the form of Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas in her film debut), the daughter of a rich shipping magnate. With Mrs.Wellington in tow, Tricky and Christopher crash Mary's 21st birthday party. Both find her fascinating. She comes out to the party naked and asks the partygoers, "How do you like my birthday suit?" and then proceeds to sit in on drums with the band. Though she finds his lifestyle abhorrent, Mary finds herself equally fascinated by Christopher.

The trio begin spending lots of time together, much to the chagrin of her powerful, humorless, domineering father, who hopes to see her married to her boyfriend Jonathan (he's away in New York for the entire film; his only "appearance" is in a phone conversation), because his family is equally rich. But soon enough Mary and Christopher fall madly in love, and the film accelerates to a tragic conclusion.

What Really Happens:

The film opens with a female narrator introducing us to Prince's character. "He lived for all women," she intones, " but he died for one." Talk about giving away the ending! It doesn't really matter though, because the movie is really all about beautiful locales and Prince's charisma, both of which if offers in spades. Shot in color, but reprocessed into black and white, the movie is visually stunning. Much of the film's tone and design has a '40s feel, though it obviously takes place in modern day, as things like boom boxes and answering machines show up. Plus, with a couple of exceptions, Prince and the Revolution's soundtrack for the film is completely modern (more on that in a bit).

It should be noted that Prince directed the film from a fairly solid screenplay by Becky Johnston (based on a basic story concept by Prince). Johnston has only two other film scripts her name, The Prince of Tides, and Seven Years In Tibet. So she doesn't do much, but she does it pretty well. Prince's direction feels natural and assured (making the disjointed Graffiti Bridge, which he also helmed, seem all the more puzzling). Apparently he took over from the original director only four days into shooting, causing Terence Stamp (aka General Zod) to vacate the role of Isaac Sharon (Mary's father).

The acting, all around, is solid. Of course, Prince has a natural sense of showmanship, which lends itself well to acting. And the character suits him as well and allows him to be a bit of a ham. Not that he chews the scenery; Christopher Tracy is partly a poet, partly a cad, and partly a mischievous little boy. Check out the scene where his landlord asks him to pay the rent and he playfully tries to intimidate her by giving her his "Bela Lugosi look." He's a far cry from The Kid in Purple Rain and Grafitti Bridge, who spent most of his time brooding. The real revelation is Kristin Scott Thomas, who is, I'll say it, luminous, as Mary.

Supposedly, Prince and Thomas had an affair during the shooting of the film, but there's not much evidence of that on screen. In fact, if the film has any large flaws, it's with Prince and Thomas' physical chemistry. They make a handsome enough couple, and their conversational chemistry is apparent in several civil and uncivil exchanges (including one that ends with Christopher calling her a "cabbage head"). But when it comes to gettin' freaky, something seems off. Maybe Prince the director had a blind spot in his own performance as a lover, but every time the two make out it looks uncomfortable, like a child pressing two dolls faces together in a clumsy approximation of kissing. Basically Thomas keeps her face still and Prince moves his back and forth like an orange on a juicer.

But what about the music? You might think that Christopher's job as a piano player would lend itself to some interesting performance scenes. It doesn't. Save for the opening sequence, there's only one performance in the film. That's not to say there aren't Prince songs. There are actually at least nine of them featured prominently throughout (all appeared on the Parade album). Notables include Kiss, which soundtracks Christopher and Mary's reunification (and yes, some of the aforementioned creepy kissing) and Anotherloverholenyohead, which accompanies Christopher's mad dash to intercept Mary's plane to New York.

Most of the songs are used this way, either as background, or to accompany montages. The two exceptions are cases where the song's appearance in the film doubled as a video. Girls and Boys finds Christopher taking over a stuffy restaurant with a boombox, dancing on a table, though not necessarily performing the song (he lip synchs some lyrics here and there). It begs the question, are we supposed to believe this is just a song he likes and that it's not him singing, or does he carry around a tape of his own songs to play whenever he feels like it? Either way, it's strange. The video for the song rehashes the scene, but cuts in some shots of the Revolution.

That brings us to the most memorable use of a song in the film, and the only peformance. Christopher dies at the end of the movie, and we're treated to a little coda where we find out what happened to Tricky (he moved back to Miami with the lady landlord and runs his own apartment building, thanks to Mary's generosity), then the camera pans to the clouds, where we find Prince and the newly-expanded Revolution playing Mountains, like psychedelic angels (and extremely apathetic ones too, in Wendy and Lisa's case). The credits roll as the band performs. It's weirdly cool. The video for the song is basically the same thing, only in color (where the fact that they're standing in front of a blue screen is much more obvious).

Overall, this makes Under the Cherry Moon less of a pop music movie than it is a starring vehicle with a soundtrack done by the star. It makes sense when you think of it this way, but considering that Purple Rain's greatest thrills were from the performance scenes, it's odd that Prince ignored his greatest strength.

Questions and Comments:

Do you know what a "wreka stow" is? It's a place where you'd go to buy a Sam Cooke album. Many of the comedy bits in the film, fittingly, appeal to an African-American sense of humor (there is a difference between white and black humor, though obviously several places where they overlap). It's an interesting juxtaposition with the white stuffy setting of the film, as well as the white-dominated style and genre (there weren't many tragic romances featuring black leads in the '40s).

Prince's fashion choices in this film are a sight to behold. In an early scene you'll find him in a bathtub wearing a bolero hat (while Jerome sits on the edge and drops rose petals into the water - was film may have been hinting that they were more than just business partners). To Mary's birthday party, he wears an open-chested, open-backed black jumpsuit. I'm not even sure how that was physically possible. Elsewhere he favors midriff-exposing military style jackets.

Is Isaac Sharon so powerful that he can have a man shot down without provocation in front of at least 10 witnesses, and not have any consequence? The film never tells us. AND, if he was willing to kill the guy, why go to the trouble of offering him a $100K payoff? That's not how you grow your portfolio.

Critics hated Under the Cherry Moon, and very few fans went see it. It made $10 million at the box office. As a comparison point, consider that Purple Rain made $7 million in its first weekend (and $68 million total).

In Conclusion:

Under the Cherry Moon is one of the most weirdly watchable, intentionally melodramatic films I've tackled for Baby, I'm a Star. It's a document of a musician at the height of his fame, power and influence, doing whatever he pleases and damning the consequences.

Seeing it with a large crowd of Prince fans is highly recommended. In all other conditions your results may vary.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

That Thing You Do! (1996)

Ladies and gentlemen, the Oh-nee-ders!

When one thinks of Tom Hanks, one doesn't necessarily think of music (except maybe the big piano scene with Robert Loggia in Big), and yet he's responsible for one of the most unabashed love letters to pop ever put to celluloid. That Thing You Do!, which came out right in the middle of the Tom-Hanks-can-do-no-wrong era (back-to-back-Oscars and Toy Story before, Saving Private Ryan after) appears to have been a very personal project for Hanks. He wrote (both the screenplay and several of the film's songs), directed, and starred.

What Happens:

Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works in his dad's appliance store in Erie, Pennsylvania, and he loves music. In fact, when the store closes, he puts jazz records on the hi-fi and plays along on his drum set. Meanwhile an local band comprised of singer/guitarist Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), lead guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn), a bassist whom the film never gives a name (Ethan Embry), and drummer Chad (Giovanni Ribisi) are preparing for a talent show. They've got a ballad called That Thing You Do (we have a title!) which they think can win them the prize money. But Chad breaks his arm the day of the show, see where this is going right? Guy agrees to sit in (but only if the boys will buy record needles and a radio from him).

The band (having decided to call themselves The Oneders) wins the talent show, mostly thanks to Guy's last-minute decision to speed up the tempo and change That Thing You Do from a ballad into a rocker. They also win a gig at a local night club/Italian restaurant out by the airport. Things snowball, as things will, and the band gains a strong local fanbase, records That Thing You Do in a church, and comes to the attention of Phil Horace (Chris Ellis), a man who lives in a camper. He offers to manage the band.

Phil gets the Oneders on the radio and a gig in Pittsburgh as part of a larger revue. This bring them to the attention of one Mr.White (Tom Hanks), a Play-Tone Records representative. He signs the band, gets them matching suits, changes the spelling of their name (to The Wonders), and puts them on his Playtone revue, which is traveling across the country playing state fairs. The band continues to gain fame and fans while That Thing You Do rises in the charts, eventually leading them to Hollywood.

There, the band appears in a movie, makes a TV appearance, and prepares to record new songs. But fate has different plans for them...

What Really Happens:

That Thing You Do! is a fine example of the rare-but-rich category of pop music film, the fake band. The Wonders are partly a Beatles analogue, especially in certain details of their story, but Hanks does a good job of giving the Wonders their own unique sensibility. The Wonders are not like the Beatles in individual personality, band dynamics, or career path.This is the tightrope that every fictional pop music film must walk. They have to blaze their own trail while still seeming truthful. That Thing You Do! does that.

Much like The Commitments, That Thing You Do! eschews the typical A Star Is Born story arc (musician starts out struggling, reaches the heights of fame, becomes too big for his/her/their britches, remembers his/her/their roots, and stages a minor comeback). Instead, it's just the first act. The band starts out, reaches fame, and then breaks up. The one-hit Wonders. Get it? The movie actually foreshadows this when Guy meets his jazz drumming idol Del Paxon (Bill Cobbs). Del says, "Ain't no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go."

Though the film is fictional, I picked up some Interweb chatter that the Wonders' story is actually loosely based on an Erie, Pennsylvania band called The Fabulous Epics, who formed in 1962 and later changed their name to Orange Colored Sky. They had some minor success (appearing in Don Knotts film, playing Vegas, and opening for Burt Bacharach and Frank Sinatra) and still perform today. However, all of this information came from their website, with no other source to verify. I couldn't find anything where Hanks himself admitted that this was his source material. So take it with a grain of salt, sugar, or pepper.

At any rate, Hanks and company have great fun conjuring up the musical spirit of the times, especially in the Play-Tone Galaxy of Stars. In addition to the Wonders, there's crooner Freddie Fredrickson, a Supremes-pattered girl group called the Chantrellines, and a Dusty Springfieldish singer named Diane Dane. Each has their own signature song, Mr.Downtown, When You Hold My Hand You Hold My Heart, and My World Is Over, respectively. In an endearing way, the Wonders don't know how to appropriately interact with these stars, and there are a few scenes to that effect.

Anyone who's seen Tom Hanks being interviewed knows he's a naturally witty guy. But it's something else entirely to put that into a film script and translate it to the screen. From the running gag that has everyone mispronouncing the band's name because of the spelling (every one says oh-nee-ders), to nearly every line that comes out of Steve Zahn's mouth (my favorite is when they're filming the beach movie and he reminds Jimmy: "You see, we're not the Wonders right now. We're Cap'n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters") , this is a funny movie that's not a comedy. Those are rare.

The only true fault of the film is the rushed ending. Apparently there's a director's cut that adds several character development moments, which would make sense. Two things are sort of subtly built up and then abruptly jump to full-blown conclusions. One is Jimmy's artistic dissatisfaction within the band, the other is the relationship between Faye (Liv Tyler) and Guy. On the first one, it makes sense that a songwriter would be raring to get more material on record, and to avoid what he sees as extraneous, so when Jimmy complains about that, it seems natural. But when he becomes an all-out asshole (he breaks up with Faye and quits the band, each after one argument) in the film's final 20 minutes, it doesn't seem to flow exactly. As for the love story between Faye and Guy, I don't have a problem with the fact of them together, it's just how quickly it happens that bothers me. It makes sense within the flow of the story because it's obvious there's an attraction between them for the entire film. But the admission of mutual attraction/first kiss/first sex happens in one scene!

The ending is done Fast Times at Ridgemont High style, where we find out the fates of each character. The only one to truly make it in the music business is Jimmy, which is a slap in the face of karma, but is probably realistic. He had the drive and the talent and the ruthlessness to survive.

Questions and Comments:

Here's a list of the band names the group brainstorms early in the movie before settling on the Oneders: The Echoes, The Band You're About To Hear, The Corvettes, The Chord-vettes, The Tempos, and The Heardsmen (which is actually the band Jimmy later becomes famous with).

I think this movie has one of the best "band hears itself on the radio" moments ever. That has become a cliche moment in all pop music movies, but Hanks has the group all listening to different radios and when the song comes on, they run to find one another and like a domino effect soon they're all listening together in Guy's father's store, and just basically going apeshit.

A lot rested on the quality of the film's title song, considering that it's played at least 582 times throughout the movie. That it doesn't become tiresome is a testament to the song. The movie studio apparently held a songwriting contest to find the tune, and Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger (whose band was just starting out; their debut came out the same year as the film) entered on a lark and won. Mike Viola, of the Candy Butchers, sang the lead.

Though the actors in the band don't actually perform any of the recorded or live material, they did rehearse together extensively to make it look convincing.

You might notice that Liv Tyler, as Faye, plays a sort of groupie, getting together with two members of the band and following them around on tour. This is fitting considering that Liv Tyler herself is the product of a relationship between a rock star (Steven Tyler of Aerosmith) and a groupie (Bebe Buell (who also had relationships with Todd Rundgrenand Elvis Costello, among others).

Charlize Theron plays Guy's self-involved girlfriend. Her name is Tina. Thus, when she meets Liv Tyler's character, it results in the following exchange: "Tina, this is Faye." Put them together and you have a bespectacled comedienne.

Tom Everett Scott looks like a young Tom Hanks, and Hanks realized and was uncomfortable with this. Apparently his wife convinced him to go ahead and cast Scott anyway.

Hanks called in some favors for this one. Look for Chris Isaak (as Guy's Uncle Bob), Alex Rocco (a veteran TV actor and Moe Greene in The Godfather) as the head of Play-Tone, Clint Howard (Ron's brother, and king of cameo appearances) as a DJ, Gedde Watanabe (Long Duck Dong, of course) as a hotel clerk, Jonathan Demme (director of Stop Making Sense, Silence of the Lambs, etc) as the director of the beach film, Weekend at Party Pier, Paul Feig (co-creator of Freaks and Geeks) as a DJ), Rita Wilson (Hanks' wife) as a waitress, Kevin Pollack as an emcee, Brian Krantz (Malcom in the Middle, Breaking Bad) as an astronaut, and Peter Scolari (Bosom Buddies reunion!) as a TV host. Whew!

In the director's cut of the film, it's revealed that Hanks' Mr.White is actually gay, just like Beatles manager Brian Epstein.

Most obscure reference in the film? Guy's remark that, "If Jimmy's a genius, I'm U Thant" (it sounds like he's saying "ooo-tantay"). U Thant was a Burmese diplomat who served as Secretary General of the United Nations in the '60s.

In Conclusion:

Despite some narrative flaws, That Thing You Do! is an enjoyable film experience. Anyone with a slight bit of nostalgia for '60s pop will find a lot to like. I myself was inspired to seek out the soundtrack. That's the ultimate quality test of a pop music movie.