Monday, May 28, 2018

Musical May Quick Picks and Pans

Tommy (1975) Writer/director Ken Russell’s hallucinatory adaptation of The Who’s seminal rock opera engages your senses and intellect. Roger Daltrey plays the title character, a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball,” and becomes a latter-day messiah. After suffering the trauma of watching his father die before his eyes, young Tommy becomes closed off to any sensory input. Ann-Margret and Russell-regular Oliver Reed play Tommy’s mother and stepfather, who try in vain to bring Tommy back from his sensory-deprived state. Some standout sequences/songs are “Cousin Kevin,” with Paul Nicholas (played with sadistic glee), “The Acid Queen,” performed by Tina Turner, “Pinball Wizard” with Elton John (wearing impossibly enormous boots), and “Sally Simpson,” featuring Russell’s daughter Victoria. Watch for Jack Nicholson in a small role as a psychiatrist (yes, he sings, too).

Tommy was originally released in Quintaphonic sound (a forerunner of Dolby Digital and other multichannel formats), which was exclusive to the film, and re-created for the Blu-ray and DVD. The best way to watch this is to let the music and imagery flow. Don’t get hung up on deciphering the minutiae. Retro gaming enthusiasts take note: unfortunately, several pinball machines were harmed in the making of this film.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (aka: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964) This endearing, melancholy musical from director Jacques Demy captures the ephemeral quality of young love. Catherine Deneuve is enchanting as 16-year-old Geneviève, who works in her mother’s run-down umbrella shop. She meets Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic. He becomes the love of her life, but fate intervenes when he’s drafted into the army and sent to Algiers. While Guy is out of the picture, she captures the fancy of a wealthy benefactor. It might be heretical, but I opine it’s not the music that’s the main draw, but the gorgeous cinematography and art design. Each scene is immersed in a beautiful palette of colors, which skillfully complement the mood and characters. It’s a timeless story of joy and anguish, with a final scene that’s at once heartbreaking and life-affirming.  

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

1776 (1972) Your high school history class was probably never as interesting as this witty musical, directed and written by Peter H. Hunt, and based on the 1969 stage production by Sherman Edwards. History buffs might take pause, but it’s a fine introduction to the arduous process that birthed the Declaration of Independence. The film boasts some wonderful performances, including William Daniels as a fiery John Adams (“I’m obnoxious and disliked”) and Howard Da Silva as a quick-tongued Benjamin Franklin. Watching the members of the Continental Congress hemming and hawing, bickering, and fraught with indecision and concessions, we’re reminded how little has changed when it comes to our elected representatives. On a side note, it’s amusing to observe when a “G” rating meant something quite different. It’s peppered with sexual innuendos that would likely fly over the heads of the kids in the audience, and we’re provided a unique explanation for Thomas Jefferson’s writer’s block. It might not replace that U.S. History class you slept through, but it’s a good launching point for discussion of the events that launched a revolution.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Lure (aka: Córki Dancing) (2015) This Polish mermaid musical marks the audacious feature film debut of director Agnieszka Smoczynska, blending ancient folklore with a modern soundtrack. Mermaid sisters Silver and Golden (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska) leave the water to explore life on land and get a taste for the human world. They become instant sensations at a strip club, but old habits die as their nature takes over. Golden lures men to their death, and devours them. Silver falls in love with Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), a young musician at the club, but there’s a catch (pardon the bad pun), which could mean her demise. The Lure is filled with energetic songs, visually engaging, and ultimately tragic. It’s also unlike any other musical I’ve seen, making Smoczynska one to watch.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) Christopher Lee sings (more on this in a moment)! Philippe Mora directs this Australian-produced comedy/musical, starring Alan Arkin as the titular character, a washed-up, alcoholic ex-superhero. A lengthy newsreel-style prologue explains Captain Invincible’s rise during WWII and fall after McCarthy hearings, followed by his self-exile in Australia. Arkin isn’t very likeable as Captain Invincible, the jokes rarely work, and the songs are terrible to almost passable (one aptly titled song, “Bullshit,” consists solely of the BS word repeated multiple times), but it has its brief moments. Christopher Lee seems to be having fun as Captain Invincible’s archnemesis, Mr. Midnight, and belts out a couple of tunes as well, including a Richard O’Brien-penned tune “Name Your Poison.” Will Captain Invincible get his act together in time to save the world? Can Christopher Lee carry a tune? Will you stay awake long enough to find out? It’s an odd mixture that’s more miss than hit, but it might be worth a look, if only to confirm that someone gave this mess a green light.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD  

Rockula (1990) This ill-advised movie doesn’t work as a comedy or a musical. Dean Cameron plays Ralph, a 400-year-old vampire who lives with his lusty, overbearing mom (Toni Basil). He falls into a rock career while pursuing Mona (Tawny Fere), an old, reincarnated love who was killed by pirates hundreds of years ago. Despite being an ancient vampire, he never attacks anyone, and doesn’t appear to possess any superhuman abilities, except for transforming into a weird squashy bat-thing. The climax includes one of the most awkwardly choreographed fight scenes between Ralph and Mona’s ex-boyfriend Stanley (Tomas Dolby). Bo Diddley appears in the film as well, but he doesn’t have much to do. Rockula has a weak vampire, lame songs and bland leads. It’s innocuous and good-natured enough, but not worth your time. Don’t bother. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime


  1. TOMMY is another fave of mine, Barry!
    Tragically, I've suffered through ROCKULA. Forgettable, even with 80's pop stars.
    However, THE LURE sounds entertaining!!

    1. I'm glad you're a fan of Tommy, as well! :) Misery loves company, with regard to Rockula. I think you'd really like The Lure. Looking forward to seeing what the director does next.