'La La Land' leads music-themed movies

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 25, 2017
Photo by: Lionsgate Home Entertainment Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance in "La La Land."

Owls Head — La La Land (Summit/Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 128 min.). This celebrated film is both a return to the golden age of musicals -- particularly "An American in Paris" -- and a modernization of the same. The film won a record-breaking seven Golden Globe Awards and was nominated for a record-tying 14 Academy Awards. It won six, including Best Director (Damien Chazelle, who also wrote the Oscar-nominated script), Best Actress (Emma Stone), Best Cinematography (Linus Sandgren), Best Original Score (Justin Hurwitz), Best Original Song ("City of Stars" by Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul) and Best Production Design (David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco).

The film opens with a striking sequence in which a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam turns into a song and dance production number ("Another Day of Sun") and closing with a what-might-have-been epilogue that uses the extended, marvelous ballet sequence in "An American in Paris" as its template, even to being partially set in Paris. In-between highlights include the "A Lovely Night" duet between Stone's aspiring actress Mia and Ryan Gosling's jazz pianist Sebastian, and the dance sequence at the Griffith Park Observatory that literally has the two dancing among the stars. Both Gosling, who received an Oscar nomination, and Stone are wonderful dancers and fare OK as singers. They also have remarkable chemistry between them. It also is nice that the coffee shop where Mia works is set on the Warner Bros. studio lot, so there are some peeks at the movie business in process.

Mia and Sebastian keep meeting cute in the film, until the inevitable romance blossoms. Mia lives with three friends, but the story of these gals is dropped rather early. When Mia tires of being virtually ignored while auditioning, she decides to write and stage her own one-woman play. Sebastian's dream is to open his own jazz club, but he makes do playing piano at restaurants (when not being fired for abandoning the set list) or keyboards for a cover band at parties. He finally gets a chance to earn real money when an old friend (musician John Legend as Keith in his acting debut) offers him a spot in his just-signed pop fusion band, The Messengers. It is not really the pure jazz music he would rather be playing, but it is a big opportunity for him and leads to a dynamite big-production performance of Legend's "Start a Fire" that actually is hot.

For all its pluses, "La La Land" disappoints in the quality of most of the songs. Oh, for better lyrics and emotional content. Nonetheless, the staging is usually excellent. The Blu-ray comes packed with more than three hours of special features, including 70 minutes of making-of featurettes, but it apparently is too much content for my Blu-ray to handle (it would not load). The DVD version comes with audio commentary by Chazelle and Hurwitz; a look at the film as a love letter to Los Angeles (6:57); the ability to go straight to a song or musical sequence, or to just play all 15 such segments; and a look at Gosling and Stone's working relationship, called "Third Time is the Charm." (Incredibly, the other two films in which they worked together are never mentioned in the piece. Those films were "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "Gangster Squad.") The DVD extras also are on the Blu-ray. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras incomplete

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

London Town (IFC DVD, R, 93 min.). This winning coming-of-age film is set in and around 1978 London in the height of the punk days, as well as white skinhead rioting. In fact, The Clash are somewhat central to the story and Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("Velvet Goldmine") plays Clash lead vocalist Joe Strummer. However, the main story is that of Shay (Daniel Huttlestone of "Into the Woods," "Les Miserables"), who turns 15 during the narrative.

Shay (it is usually mistaken to be Che, as in Che Guevara) and his young sister are in a broken family. Their father (Dougray Scott as Nicholas Baker) sells pianos in their home tome of Wanstead and drives a taxi in London at night, as not many pianos are selling. Their mother (Natascha McElhone as Sandrine) has left for a singing career in London and hanging out with bohemian types. Her current boyfriend is Johnny (Tom Hughes of the TV miniseries "The Game"). One day, Shay receives a cassette tape of music by The Clash from his mother, and he is immediately hooked by the rebellious sounds. Then his father sends him to London to pick up some parts and he meets Vivian on the train, who is listening to The Clash on her headphones. They almost instantly become friends and she talks Shay into buying a ticket for an upcoming show by The Clash. She also suggests Shay dye his hair black, which he does and it looks much better.

An incredible burden is played on Shay when his father breaks his leg and sustains other injuries when a piano falls on him. With Nicholas hospitalized for weeks, it is up to Shay to take care of his sister, run the piano store and try to pay the bills. As debt mounts, Vivian teaches him to drive his father's taxi and he eventually takes it out for income, albeit dressed like a woman so people will not realize how young he is. One of Shay's early fares turns out to be Strummer, and when they encounter each other a second time, a friendship is formed and Shay is even invited to a Clash rehearsal. The film version of The Clash perform four songs -- the best is the rehearsal version of "The Clampdown" -- and Strummer has one solo song. Shay really grows up during the film, which has a very satisfying ending. The only bonus feature is an interview with Meyers (6:53). Grade: film 3.25 stars; extra 1 star

Teenage Ghost Punk (Midnight Releasing, VOD or Amazon MOD, NR, 93 min.). Music is less of a key element in this amiable family-oriented comedy. Nonetheless, the title ghost (Jack Cramer as Brian B. Flynn) does play his guitar when it rains and he turns high school junior Amanda (Grace Madigan) on to The Clash. (The first of many connections between films reviewed in this column.)

Amanda, her younger brother Adam (Noah Kitsos) and mother Carol (Adria Dawn of TV's "Popular") have relocated to the Chicago suburbs -- Amanda attends Oak Park and Forest River High School -- as Carol was unable to find work for six months in Michigan, after her husband took off. Carol accepts a job with Cousin Barry (Darren Stephens). Cousin Barry is what I hate most about the film; he is a vacuous character, totally blind to workplace sexual harassment and who makes the worst jokes -- and never stops. While Adam seems to fit in to the new surroundings seamlessly -- and he has quite the vocabulary -- Amanda has a harder time, until the strange noises and things moving in the house resolve themselves into ghost Brian. (By the way, I thought ghosts would not have a shadow.)

Other comic entities in the film are Medium Madame Lidnar (Lynda Shadrake; Jake Shadrake plays large high schooler Squatchie), who is a bit over the top, and the SPIT (Super Paranormal Investigative Team) group of five, which has some funny ghost-busting moments. Billy (Brian Wohl) is the SPIT leader. Ghost Brian introduces Amanda to his fellow ghost friends, with whom he plays spirited (pun intended) poker games. The ghosts are all from different eras. There also are several adult ghosts as well, led by Vladimir (Brian Shaw), the most badass spirit of them all. The film picks up a lot when Brian finally reveals himself; the other solid actor is the high school English teacher. Overall, the film is way too mild. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2.25 stars

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Criterion Blu-ray, NR, 92 min.). In many ways, including color pallet and style, "La La Land" recalls the two completely- or mostly-sung films of Jacques Demy that starred Catherine Deneuve. About three years ago, both films made their Blu-ray debut as part of Criterion's "The Essential Jacques Demy" collection, but now both have been released as individual Blu-rays. "Umbrellas" features a beautiful score by Michel Legrand and is a homage to the Hollywood musical. It starts Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as young star-crossed lovers, hindered by both her mother, who owns an umbrella shop that is in financial difficulty, and the Army, which drafts the garage mechanic for two years. All the dialogue in the film is sung. The film also is notable for its use of light and color, often looking like a painting. Jean Rabier was the cinematographer. Extras include a 55-minute documentary from 2008 on the film's production; an interview with film scholar Rodney Hill (23 min.); an archival interview with Demy and Legrand (12 min. from 1964); and audio excerpts of separate interviews with Deneuve and Legrand. The booklet has an essay by critic Jim Ridley. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 3.5 stars

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Criterion Blu-ray, NR, 126 min.). Three years later came this second collaboration by Jacques Demy with Michel Legrand. Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac play sisters who dream of meeting their ideal man. Gene Kelly plays a famous Hollywood composer, whose friend Simon (Michel Piccoli) has returned to Rochefort to open a music store. George Chakiris ("West Side Story") and Grover Dale play two carnies. The film is longer and the story is more complicated than in "Umbrellas." There also are elaborate dance numbers linked by brief spoken interludes. "Umbrellas" also featured the cast singing their own numbers, but here, all but one actress are dubbed. The music score was nominated for an Oscar. Extras include a 1966 archival interview with Demy and Legrand discussing the music (11 min.); an interview with costume designer Jacqueline Moreau (26 min.); part of a 1966 documentary about the film (35 min.) from Belgian television; and a 67-minute documentary on the film's production (1993, by Agnes Varda. The booklet has an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Grade: film 5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Gimme Danger (Sony DVD, R, 109 min.). Directed by Jim Jarmusch ("Only Lovers Left Alive," "Broken Flowers," "Mystery Train"), this documentary is an affectionate look at the history of The Stooges, arguably the first punk band. The film opens, and continues throughout, with an "interrogation" of lead singer Jim Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who is very open and relaxed. With lots of pictures from the early 1970s, the film goes through the history of the Ann Arbor, Mich. band that created three ground-breaking albums from 1973 to 1977 and then fell apart. Those albums were "The Stooges" and "Fun House," both released on Elektra Records, and "Raw Power," released on Columbia Records, after Elektra refused to pick up the band's option. During this early period, the band was managed by Danny Fields (see "Danny Says" below).

In humorous fashion, Iggy talks about his youth and watching Buffalo Bill on TV (he calls Buffalo Bill a Timothy Leary for young kids) and what a big impression Soupy Sales made on him. The very illuminating documentary goes on to show how Iggy hooked up with the Asheton brothers (Ron on guitar and Scott on drums) along with Mike Watt on bass to form The Psychedelic Stooges. Iggy had grown up learning the drums and practicing constantly in his parents' trailer. Eventually, James Williamson would join on guitar. In 1968, when The Stooges were opening for the MC5, Fields got both bands signed to Elektra on the same day. John Cale, from the Velvet Underground, produced their first album. Sax player Steve Mackay joined for the second album.

Director Jarmusch often uses animation to illustrate some of Iggy's tales, such as a pre-Stooges marijuana  story, a visit to the MC5 and the famous destruction of their van and an overpass when the van was too tall for the clearance. (By the way, in "Danny Says," Fields says the van incident is when he gave up on managing the band.) When Iggy talks about being disoriented by drug use at a music festival, Jarmusch has the picture roll the same way Iggy is describing. The documentary touches on the time the band spent with singer Nico and Iggy's meeting David Bowie, with whom he worked on the "Raw Power" album in London, before The Stooges disintegrated. Prior to Iggy's signing with MainMan and manager Tony DeFries, it had been suggested he play Peter Pan on Broadway! The Stooges' fourth album, "Kill City," was recorded at songwriter Jimmy Webb's home studio. (In his just released memoir, "The Cake and the Rain," published by St. Martin's Press, Webb writes on page 106 that he saw Iggy around the house a few times but he had no clue that Iggy was recording an album there.) Towards the end of the documentary, there are brief bits of a dozen or so bands covering Stooges' songs, including The Damned, Sex Pistols, Bowie and Sonic Youth. The Stooges "reunified" in 2003 and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in2010. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.5 stars

Danny Says (Magnolia DVD, NR, 102 min.). Fields, a Harvard Law dropout and an out gay man prior to Stonewall, had a hand in many of the pivotal moments of rock and roll. He became part of the scene at Andy Warhol's Silver Factory, befriending Edie Sedgwick, Nico and Lou Reed; was the Datebook Magazine editor who first published in America John Lennon's quote that The Beatles "are more popular  than Jesus"; became the Doors' press agent, leading him to create the first press department for Elektra Records; managed and had the MC5 and The Stooges signed to Elektra; introduced Iggy Pop to David Bowie; briefly managed the Modern Lovers; was an editor at 16 Magazine; introduced Patti Smith to the keyboardist who joined her band; and managed the Ramones during their early years. Fields was not one to stay long-term at any position though.

The documentary, which features interviews with Alice Cooper, Iggy, Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, Judy Collins, David Peel (of the infamous David Peel and the Lower East Side), Jonathan Richman (of the Modern Lovers),Tommy Ramone and Seymour Stein (head of Sire Records), among others, also features lengthy segments with Fields himself, who is interviewed in his apartment. Fields is always candid and starts by making fun of his bar mitzvah home video. He leads us through his life throughout the film. In a bonus interview with director Brendan Toller, Toller says he taped about 100 hours on interviews with Fields, and interviewed some 60 other people, although only 12 of them made it into the final film. Toller also uses some animation, mainly to recreate some of Fields' stories; this animation is more artistic and impressionistic.

Fields, who announced himself the Doors' press agent, was hired by Elektra Records to head start its press department after he suggested to label head Jac  Holtzman (he also is interviewed) that "Light My Fire" be the Doors' first single instead of "Break on Through." When the label balked at the song's 7-minute length, Fields suggested they edit the song down, which they did and it became a huge hit. Fields said Doors singer-songwriter Jim Morrison came to hate him, after he "kidnapped" Morrison so he could meet Nico. Much of the vintage photos and other archival material is from Fields' own collection. Fields also made available hours of recorded telephone conversations, including one in which Lou Reed discusses his reaction to the first Ramones' album.

Bonus features include the interview with Toller (the film took 7 years to make; 13:54); a Q&A between Fields and Byron Coley (52:39); the 1975 audio recording of Fields and Reed (38 min.); Michael Alago telling a story about Fields and Henry Rollins (then in Black Flag; 1:35); Justin Vivian Bond talking about the gift of the Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat (made famous by Bob Dylan; 3:40); and Nico's "Evening of Light" promo video that features The Stooges (very weird; 6:08). grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy (MVD DVD, NR, 94 min.). This is director Danny Garcia's ("The Rise and Fall of The Clash") new documentary on the lives and deaths of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen. In October 1978, Spungen,20, bled to death after being stabbed in the abdomen and Vicious was accused of murder. After a couple of failed suicide attempts while out on parole, Vicious, 21, died in February 1979 from an overdose of drugs supplied by his mother. Vicious and Spungen had been a couple for 17 months.

The documentary includes interviews with friends and neighbors of the couple, who took up residence at New York City's Chelsea Hotel in August 1978. Interviewees include Roberta Bailey, Steve "Roadent" Conolly, Donna Destri, Kenny "Stinker" Gordon, Bob Gruen, John Holmstrom, Hellin Killer, Walter Lure (of The Heartbreakers), Honest John Plain, Howie Pyro (D generation), Cynthia Ross (The B-Girls), Andy Shernoff, Gaye Black, Casino Steel, Phylilis Stein, Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), the late Leee Black Childers and three residents of the Chelsea -- Victor Colicchio, "Neon" Leon Matthews and Ned Van Zandt. The film uses their recollections and newly-released Grand Jury documents. The main argument that Vicious did not kill Spungen is that the wound was so shallow, that it was only meant to cut (something addicts and depressives sometimes do) and perhaps was self-inflicted. One of the interviewees says Vicious told him repeatedly that Spungen wanted them both to commit suicide, but Vicious wanted no part of that.

The film is narrated by Huey Morgan of Fun Lovin' Criminals and contains unseen photography of Vicious and Spungen, plus music by The Heartbreakers, The Boys, The Members, Neon Leon, Pure Hell, Sami Yaffa, Lugi & the Wiseguys, Skafish, Corazones Muertos, The PrimaDonna Reeds, Supla, Silke Berlinn &The Addictions and Vicious himself. There are six bonus interviews (18:05) and The Heartbreakers' "Take a Chance" music video (3:59). The DVD comes with a poster. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 1.5 stars

Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005, Lionsgate Blu-ray, PG-13, 103 min.). This examination of Cohen's life and music is centered around a January 2005 concert that was a tribute to Cohen. The Canadian poet/singer-songwriter died on Nov. 7, 2016 at age 82. Cohen himself narrates and tells of his growing up, losing his father at age 9 and moving to New York City and staying at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. He tells the story behind his great song "Suzanne," which Nick Cave sings in the concert, and how he became a monk after studying with Zen Master Roshi. Another highlight is the closing music video of Cohen performing his "Tower of Song," with U2 as his back-up band. Both Bono and The Edge of U2 are interviewed in the film. Others who perform Cohen songs are Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Antony, Martha Wainwright, Beth Orton, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Kate is the Wainwrights' mother). Often the performances are interrupted by documentary bits. While I prefer Cohen himself singing, several of the performances are quite good and they do show the range of Cohen's writing.

This is the first Blu-ray release of the film, directed by Lian Lunson, who provides audio commentary. There also is a brief conversation with Cohen (3:58) and four bonus musical performances (about 20 min.) by Teddy Thompson (son of Linda and Richard Thompson), The Handsome Family, Perla Batalla and Martha Wainwright. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars

We Are X (Magnolia, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 95 min.). This is not the X you might be familiar with, the Los Angeles punk band that included vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake. That band recorded seven albums from  1980 to 1993, then reunited in the 2000s. No, this is the Japanese punk rock/metal band X Japan, formed in 1982 when creative force/composer/wild drummer Yoshiki and vocalist Yoshi were 14 and 15. The band signed to Sony Records in Japan in 1987. The band broke up in 1997 for 10 years, when Yoshi, according to Yoshiki, was "brainwashed" and left.

The documentary, from the producers of the Oscar-winning film, "Searching for Sugar Man," is about one of the biggest and most successful bands the world has never heard of. X Japan has sold more than 30 million singles and albums combined. Admirers include Sir George Martin, KISS, Stan Lee and the Japanese Emperor. Those interviewed in the film include Marvel Comic impresario Lee, Gene Simmons of KISS and singer Marilyn Manson. The documentary is centered around the band's first concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the four days prior to the concert. Through interviews and archival photos and home video, Yoshiki, who also is a classically trained pianist, tells of his sickly youth and losing his father at age 10, and how his mother destroyed or gave everything away of his father, except for one picture that Yoshiki has. In fact, Yoshiki, who gets so weak during performances that he collapses at the end and needs to be given oxygen, was not supposed to live past childhood, according to doctors. Also discussed is the tension between Yoshiki and bassist Taiji, who was with the band from 1986 through 1992.

The film is directed by Stephen Kijak ("Stones in Exile") and includes concert footage (including a 1988 show), band interviews and fan photos. Extras include deleted scenes featuring Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi and clips from Kitty Con, the New Economy Summit, Tateyama and the X Museum, as well as deleted interviews with members of X Japan. There also are seven interview vignettes with Yoshiki about the film and live performances of "Forever Love" and "Kurenai" from the band's "The Last Live" concert in 1997 at the Tokyo Dome. A tribute to the band, which mostly sings in English, is the "Born To Be Free" fan video, featuring concert footage and global fan interviews, that is included as well. Grade: film  3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Lonestar: Stevie Ray Vaughan 1984-1989 (Sexy Intellectual/MVD DVD, NR, 108 min.). This is one of those unsanctioned or not-affiliated-with documentaries. It centers on the period after Vaughan released his debut album, "Texas Flood," in 1983. It covers the glory years, up until his tragic death in a 1989 helicopter crash outside East Troy, Wisc. The documentary uses rare film footage, exclusive interviews with close friends (including his last girlfriend, Janna Lapidus LeBlanc) and confidantes, contributions from industry professionals and music writers who documented Vaughan's career as it unfolded, as well as seldom seen photographs. Vaughan himself is featured in archival interviews talking about his overcoming drug and alcohol addiction and then living a sober life. This serves as a companion feature to Sexy Intellectual's previous documentary, "Rise of a Texas Bluesman -- Stevie Ray Vaughan 1954-1983." Grade: film 3 stars

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