The Cotton Club (US, 1984)

The Mob

I remember walking out of a screening of The Cotton Club when it was first released, though that wasn’t entirely due to the film, and was surprised by actually how good the film is. I hadn’t noticed that director Francis Coppola had financed a ‘director’s cut’ (called ‘Encore’) that appeared last year, however it seems the version I’ve seen (on Talking Pictures) is the original version so that doesn’t explain the discrepant responses. Coppola made his name with the The Godfather (US, 1972) but, as the title suggests, The Cotton Club is more than a gangster movie. As the legendary venue in Harlem, that hosted Duke Ellington amongst others, in the pre-World War II period, it had a massive impact on popular music. Fascinatingly, what Coppola did, with his co-screenwriter William Kennedy (and story contribution from Mario Puzo), is make a hybrid musical-gangster film; two genres that, in terms of mood, are essentially polar opposites. Bugsy Malone (UK, 1976) did the same but it was a pastiche.

Even more interesting is the narrative which barely entwines the genre; it is, in effect, two films in one united by characters and location. Richard Gere’s Dixie is a cornet player (Gere showing his chops with some elan) who gets mixed up with James Remar’s Dutch Schultz, but much of the musical narrative centres on Gregory Hines’ Sandman who has nothing to do with the gangster and little to do with Dixie. This clearly spooked the financiers in 1984 as apparently many song and dance sequences were cut and the ‘black’ storyline, featuring Hines and Lonette McKee as Lila who can pass for white, severely downgraded. As is so often the case, in the re-edit the black characters were subservient to the white experience whereas (presumably) Coppola’s original, even though the lead was Gere, balanced the narratives much more.

The Musical

In the musical genre song and dance sequences usually serve to move the narrative forward by, for example, bringing together the romantic leads. In The Cotton Club they are shown for their own sake and hence slow the narrative’s momentum, something anathema to Classical Hollywood. But bloody hell aren’t they good; particularly the Hines’ brothers’ (above) routines! The Encore version doesn’t seem to be available in the UK but I’d love to see it.

Coppola was one of the most interesting directors of the 1970s and 1980s: in addition to the first two Godfather films (Part II, 1974), there was The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now(in several versions, originally 1979), One From the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Ultimately he was too arty for the box office and his big imagination demanded big budgets. Maybe Christopher Nolan is today’s equivalent with grandiose, thoughtful films but Coppola worked in numerous genres giving greater variety to his work.

Expresso Bongo (UK 1959)

Thoroughly modern British

Expresso Bongo was based on a hit stage musical, though BFI Screenonline tells us that only two of the original 17 numbers survived. It takes a while for the numbers to start, it didn’t appear to be a musical at first, and for some the main interest will be the casting of Cliff Richard as a burgeoning pop star wondering what will happen to him when he’s 20 (Richard’s okay in the role). I was surprised by the nudity at the strip club; no doubt the tassles saved the censor’s blushes but the film does strike me as very risqué for its time. Similarly surprising was Sylvia Sims playing the lead stripper (above centre) a year after playing the ‘good girl’ beloved of British cinema at the time, in Ice Cold in Alex.

Although obviously dated now through its music, the film was clearly ‘hep’ at the time with its cynical take on the recording industry; something that hasn’t dated at all. Laurence Harvey plays the unscrupulous agent who ‘discovers’ Richard’s Bongo Herbert. Harvey plays Johnny Jackson as a Jewish shyster and Meier Tzelniker’s record company executive is a similarly unappealing stereotype. The women are passive, sex objects (Sims’ faithful girlfriend is annoying faithful) with the exception of Yolande Donlan’s ‘has been’ American movie star trying to reinvigorate her career on the back of London and Bongo.

Gilbert Harding, a well-known ‘television personality’ of the time, parodies himself examining the ‘teenage phenomenon’ for the BBC. There are uncredited appearances by Kenneth Griffith and Susan Hampshire, two actors that became very well known in the following decade.

The milieux of Soho is well presented, even if studio based. It was still the centre of the London sex industry in the ’70s, when I first visited London, but it has been ‘cleaned up’/’cleansed of character’ now.

London Road (UK, 2015)


Verbatim dialogue, taken from interviews with people who lived on London Road during the capture and conviction of a serial killer in Ipswich during 2005, set to music? It shouldn’t work. Documentary realism mixed with that most stylised of genres, the musical: the characters do burst into song in the street! I’m aghast at the brilliance of the concept and the superb execution it receives in this Rufus Norris directed film; Norris had directed the original National Theatre production (he also directed Broken). It’s mostly the original cast with a few added, including Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. They are uniformly brilliant particularly Kate Fleetwood, who did a marvellous Lady Macbeth in the Chichester Theatre production, as one of the surviving prostitutes who had turned London Road into a ‘red light’ district.

Adam Cork’s music is crucial to the project’s success. To my untutored ear it mixes musical conventions with minimalist techniques that allows sentences to be repeated more as refrain than a chorus; Alecky Blythe wrote the script, based on the interviews. The lines are delivered, presumably, in the way they were originally spoken. The accent is an obvious way words are personalised but the pitch too, particularly when taken out of context (I’m assuming the interviews were edited), give an unusual construction to the lines that emphasises the musicality of speech. The effect is to heighten the every day banality of speech to, along with the repetition, give it emphasis; you listen more to what these people have to say.

The focus on the street’s residents showed them to be victims, in their own minds at least, from the social problems of living in a ‘red light’ district and then from press intrusion. In the film’s finale, a street party celebrating the killer’s –who’d lived at number 79 – guilty verdict, Fleetwood’s wraith-like figure walks along the street, unseen by the neighbours, reminding us who the victims actually were.

The central character, as far as there is one, is played by the ever-sympathetic Olivia Colman so it comes as a shock when she states that she wishes she could shake the killer’s hand and thank him for getting rid of the prostitutes. Whilst this does make it clear how miserable life can be made soliciting prostitutes, and by kerb crawlers, it also speaks of a severe lack of empathy. I guess the problem was a failure of the public services to sort out the problem but then our public servants’ jobs are ever more challenging and under-resourced the long, failing ‘austerity economics’ goes on.

La La Land (USA, 2016)

Not a do-do

Not a do-do

‘Don’t believe the hype,’ rapped Chuck D, in the eponymous song, which is good advice because hype is about selling and the need to sell is often corrupting. Indeed, such is the effect of selling that I suspect most people treat hyperbole, especially if written by an estate agent or spoken by a politician, with scepticism. Film fandom tends to be resistant to scepticism, indeed it fuels the hype so, for example, all things Star Wars and Marvel are wonderful.

La La Land has been buzzing for months and is typical of the hype surrounding a film that’s unusual for mainstream cinema (in this case a musical) and yet is still (surprisingly) entertaining. For some the ‘surprise’ can make it the ‘best film I’ve ever seen’ (to quote a student) simply because they haven’t seen anything like it before. This isn’t to patronise as the ‘awe and wonder’ of discovery is the essence of film watching; if only I still had it!

So my expectations for La La Land were resisting the hype but my renaissance of enjoying film ‘insisted’ I go and see it and, I’m afraid, you need to believe the hype (in this case). The film is a tribute to ‘50s Hollywood musicals, through narrative (Singin’ in the Rain) and form (Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope framed long, flowing takes) but doesn’t forget it’s in the 21st century in its clever narrative resolution.

A distinct difference from Golden Age musicals is the limited, if perfectly utilised, song and dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they ain’t Astaire and Rogers, but that is of no matter. I even enjoyed Gosling’s taciturnity for once and Stone is entirely engaging.

Will La La Land lead audiences, not in the know, to the classics musicals or will it remain an exciting ‘one off’?

Une femme est une femme (France, 1961)

Anna Karina est une femme

I love the first half of this film where Godard’s playful modernism still doesn’t feel dated. Karina, as the ‘unfathomable’ woman of the title, winks at the camera and sings for the audience; of course, I could find this completely charming simply because it’s being performed by one of the most photogenic film stars in history. There’s playful camera trickery, a homage to silent Hollywood, as well as the tributes to the musical. The soundtrack mismatches images, drawing attention to the artifice, and the street scenes have a verite quality that look both modern and historical.

However, the second part is dominated by discussions between Angela (Karina) and Jean-Claude-Biraly, who plays her boyfriend, as to whether they should have a child. This isn’t exactly riveting 50 years on; I similarly find the long conversation in the bedroom in Breathless (1960) a longeur. However Jean-Paul Belmondo enlivens scenes as the would-be suitor, and mate of Brialy, who would happily inseminate Karina. Belmondo’s wonderfully charismatic as the ‘bad boy’ much in the same way as Vincent Cassel is today.

Original poster

This sums up another problem with the film; a problem with Godard really. Although politically left charges of misogyny are not difficult to point at the director. This is slightly unfair as the second feminist movement had yet to get into full swing but that doesn’t negate the fault. For Godard, women are a capricious and unknowable mystery; and it suits some men to think this, so that any female upset is caused by their nature and not male (ie their) behaviour.

So the film is part a period piece (hmm that assumes society is less sexist now than it was 50 years ago and I’m not sure about that) and part a marvelous ‘new wave’ film where Godard is still in love with Hollywood but also looking beyond it.

Ill Manors (UK, 2012)

Not about rich kids

It was with trepidation I sat down to watch Plan B’s feature film debut, which he directed and scripted, after the negative reviews I’d seen. However, though it sprawls across 121 minutes it’s never boring and even if the narrative might’ve been tightened by a more experienced writer, Ben Drew has still produced a striking debut.

In recent posts (see Kill List and Dead Man’s Shoes) I’ve commented upon the difficulty of mixing realism with generic conventions. Drew does the same, though more successfully. What appears, in the first hour or so of the film, to be a collection of ‘slices of life’ on an East London Estate, turns out to be a melodrama that contrives to weave these strands into an unlikely – if typically melodramatic – web. Melodrama and realism are antithetical and maybe it’s this jarring combination that has put many off; certainly it’s not garnered much support at the box office.

Another ‘off-putting-on-paper’ aspect is the interpolation of music video sequences. However, these are used particularly well as they fill-in the characters’ back stories and Plan B’s music (he’s unsurprisingly in hip hop rather than soul mode here) is excellent. Dorian Lynskey has proclaimed the film’s title track as the best protest song for years and the video that accompanied it was similarly powerful. Its righteous, and rightful, anger probably won’t burst bourgeois complacency but that’s hardly Plan B’s fault.

The Death of Klinghoffer (UK, 2003)

Reasons for evil

Reasons for evil

Klinghoffer was a victim of Palestinean hijackers (a cruise liner the Achille Lauro) in 1985 and this is a film of John Adams opera. Mainly it’s shot in a realist fashion, with handheld camera, interspersing news footage and library footage. Well, ‘realist’ as far as opera can ever be realist.

I love Adams’ music, and the performances are terrific (particularly Christopher Maltman as the cruise liner’s captain – the moral centre), so I was always going to enjoy that. In the past I’ve found filmed opera unsuccessful, preferring filmed versions of stage performances, but Penny Woolcock’s direction is great.

The opera was controversial in America, accused by some of being anti-Semitic; this suggests that it would be, at the least, even-handed and that proves to be the case. The killing of Klinghoffer is clearly evil but the opera contextualises the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with scenes from 1948 and the creation of the Israeli state (and Britain’s role in this). So we understand why the Palestinians are being ‘terrorists’; Israeli’s attitudes are not neglected: the Nazi persecution of Jews is included. The opera manages to represent the (macro) politics without neglecting the individual’s (Klinghoffer’s wife) grief.

If everyone watched this film then understanding of this conflict in the Middle East would be much better understood and condemnation of Israel’s actions much more widespread.

West Side Story (US, 1961)

Ultra-stylised violence

Prompted by going to see this in the London revival later this week, I watched the Bernstein-Robbins-Sondheim classic again. It was even better than I remembered. Terrific music, choreography and book with stylish, often Expressionist, direction. Whilst there is a tension between the oxymoronic dancing-hoodlums, the emotion on show heightens the hackneyed narrative. Great acrobatics from Russ Tamblin and Rita Moreno’s Anita is magnificent.

It’s half a century old but knife crime’s high in the news agenda as is the position of immigrants in society. It’s a indication of failure that this musical remains timely. Let’s get all the thugs into to see the show and they’d see the futility of violence! ‘Ha bloody ha’.

42nd Street (US, 1933)

Fascinating dramatisation of the New Deal so where you might expect jealousy we see cooperation. Unbelievable that Dick Powell would, a decade later, give one of the best hard boiled detective performances. The film’s worth watching if only for the amazing Busby Berkeley finale. (DVD, 2)

One from the Heart (US, 1982)

This movie destroyed Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope studios, where he hoped to make art movies to compete with Hollywood. Critics at the time (and presumably the audiences who stayed away) moaned that the story was slight. Who cares?! The visuals (highly stylised lighting) are fantastic, as is Tom Waits score. Stands up well! A must if you like musicals. (DVD, 5)