“Rocketman”: Elton John’s Story Transcends the Biopic Genre

June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments

Elton John’s U.S. Debut Concert at the Troubadour, August 25, 1970
Taron Egerton as Elton John at the Troubadour, in “Rocketman”

When I arrived at ArcLight Hollywood for a member preview of “Rocketman” last Wednesday, my expectations were high. In the trailers the uncanny physical resemblance between Taron Egerton and the young Elton John impressed me, as did the faithful renderings of John’s wardrobe, both street and stage. Most amazing of all, Egerton’s singing voice approximated the younger Elton John’s without lapsing into mimicry.

With me was my older sister, whose purchase of John’s eponymous album in 1970 was my gateway to his music. Significantly, we’d both seen Elton in concert early in his career: she in Tokyo in October, 1971, during his first Japanese tour; and both of us two years later, when he played U.D. Arena in Dayton, Ohio. It was my first big concert, a sold out show in a basketball stadium. In contrast to my sister’s Tokyo experience, which she remembers as “him and a piano in a concert hall,” this one featured Elton’s famous costumes, flashing eyeglasses and my first contact high. It was spectacular, though, like Bernie Taupin in the film, I would have preferred to see Elton alone with his piano.

All of this was going through my mind as my sister and I waited, in our Arclight-issued star-shaped sunglasses, for “Rocketman” to begin. I expected something along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it soon became clear that “Rocketman” would be a very different experience: more musical than biopic, and a very ambitious musical at that. The first big number, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, features Matthew Illesley (one of two excellent actors who play Elton as a child) in a carnival setting with a large group of singing dancers. In a Broadway show, this would have been the climax; in “Rocketman” it’s merely the opening salvo. Along the way to other big musical pieces, the movie compellingly recounts John’s piano lessons, family strife, struggles to break into the music business, and his fateful pairing with the lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, superb). Fame and fortune follow, but long before they arrive “Rocketman” had me in its grip.

Various critics have pointed out the many liberties John takes with events and the timeline. “Saturday Night’s Alright” was years in the future for young Reggie, but suspending disbelief is easy during a big song-and-dance number. Far more jarring is Elton’s playing “Crocodile Rock,” a song he didn’t write until 1972, at the 1970 Troubadour concert that made him an overnight star. Why not “Take Me To The Pilot,” a barnburner he actually did play that night? Because, apparently, “Take Me To The Pilot” fit the sequence with John on his private jet. Another quibble: Taupin’s giving John the lyrics for “Border Song” as an initial offering, when it happened a couple of years later. But details like this can’t detract from the emotional truth of the story: a brilliant musician’s journey through the crucible of world-wide fame.

Much as there is to love about “Rocketman,” the thing that moved me (and my sister) most is the brotherly, highly creative relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Thrown together at random by their music publisher, the two men develop an instant, unbreakable bond that endures through life’s highs and lows; it has now spanned 50 years. Though there are other love stories in “Rocketman,” the one between John and Taupin is the most touching and enduring. A week later, as I contemplate seeing “Rocketman” again, I’m still thinking about it.

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“Echo in the Canyon”: A Flawed, Fascinating Documentary about the California Sound

June 1, 2019 § 2 Comments

Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan at ArcLight Hollywood 5/23/19/Hope Anderson Productions

Though Laurel Canyon has been home to musicians for more than a century, its musical reputation peaked in the mid-to late-1960’s, when the Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, Carol King, Buffalo Springfield, Canned Heat, John Mayal, Neil Young and The Doors all lived there. The Canyon gave these musicians the perfect atmosphere for collaboration and creative ferment: close proximity to one another, a casual drop-in policy and sanctuary from urban distractions. The resulting songs have become classics.

Andrew Slater’s new documentary “Echo in the Canyon” is a chronicle of that heady time that features, among others, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Brian Wilson and Michelle Phillips. But the heart of the project is Jakob Dylan, who skillfully conducts the interviews, plays versions of the songs with his excellent band and, according to the Q&A after the screening, secured the licensing of songs that otherwise would have been prohibitively expensive, if not unavailable. Born in 1969, Dylan is not only the bridge between older and younger musicians but rock-and-royal royalty and a true heir to the California sound. Perceptive and humble throughout, he also provides the biggest laugh of the film. When David Crosby recounts, “Dylan was there,” Jakob says, “You have to be more specific.” Crosby smiles. “Bob was there,” he says, instead of the obvious “Your dad.”

Even for those familiar with the musicians and their work, “Echo in the Canyon” offers some surprises. I learned that the Byrds were the center of everything, influencing, and being influenced by, Eric Clapton and the Beatles, among many others. According to Ringo Starr, the Byrds were the Beatles’ favorite band, and Roger McGuinn confirms that the Beatles were the Byrds’. Seeing Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton and Steven Stills laying down tracks for new versions of their songs was another highlight. And Michelle Phillips’ delight at the new version of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” was heartwarming, much as I would have preferred her to sing it.

But “Echo in the Canyon” has notable problems. The structure is haphazard, and interviews are juxtaposed with long shots of Jakob Dylan driving around Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, cut with mysterious footage of a young man walking the same streets in the late-1960’s. Though the source of the archival footage isn’t revealed until later in the documentary, it’s “Model Shop,”a 1969 film by Jacques Demy starring Gary Lockwood and Anouk Aimee. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody describes the film:

…George follows [Lola’s] car throughout the city—and Demy daringly films that pursuit, and a wide range of George’s other jaunts by auto through Los Angeles, in the cinematic interest of showing not George but L.A. The movie is a virtual documentary about the city, a visual love poem to Demy’s new world.

While nostalgic, “Model Shop” has nothing to do with the music of its era, and its inclusion is merely atmospheric padding. Another drawback is some of Dylan’s choices of singers. Fiona Apple, Regina Specktor and Cat Power lack the style–and in the case of Power, the range–to sing these songs well. Beck is ill at ease singing harmonies, though he rallies on the solos. Apart from Jakob Dylan, a superb cover artist, only Jade Castrinos, who delivers the soaring high notes of “Go Where You Wanna Go,” succeeds in capturing the California Sound.

Then there are the film’s omissions. Jim Morrison, the most notorious Laurel Canyon denizen, goes entirely unmentioned, along with the rest of The Doors. While it’s true that The Doors’ music didn’t influence that of their musical neighbors, their absence is striking. A far more egregious omission is Joni Mitchell, who not only lived in Laurel Canyon during its heyday but is the only one of its musicians whose stature is still growing. (Among the myriad artists who’ve cited her influence on their music are Elvis Costello and Prince.) Yet Mitchell isn’t mentioned even by her ex-partner Graham Nash, a less important musician who contributes one of “Echo”‘s least interesting interviews. The fact that Nash’s most famous song, “Our House,” memorializes his and Mitchell’s domestic life in Laurel Canyon only makes matters worse.

After the screening and the Q & A, Jakob Dylan and his band, including Jade Castrinos, put on an excellent performance of songs from the film. (The soundtrack of the same name was released concurrently.) But the real surprise was the appearance of Steven Stills and Roger McGuinn, who performed with gusto. As Stills launched into a smoking rendition of “Questions,” my jaw hit the floor; I never would have expected to see him live, let alone for free. Unfortunately, my fellow Angelenos were less impressed: a sizeable number left  before and during the concert, apparently too jaded to appreciate such a rare gift.

Finally, A Film Worth Seeing: Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir”

May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir”

Note: This post contains plot spoilers.

Normally I see scores of movies in theaters each year, so it was odd to realize I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen one on a big screen. Comfort and convenience were part of my reason for staying in, but mainly there was nothing I wanted to see. Superhero movies bore me; horror isn’t my thing, and the rest of the offerings were far less compelling than HBO’s “Barry,” or any number of shows streaming on Netflix and Amazon.

ArcLight Hollywood, for many years my second home, apparently took note of my absence. In March I got an email reading, “We notice that you haven’t used your ArcLight membership recently,” but their offer of a discount in the cafe wasn’t inducement enough to return when there was nothing to see.

Then last week, as I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever go to the movies again, a film opened that actually interested me. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” about a doomed first relationship, is a romance like no other, an autobiographical story layered with documentary footage and stills, historical and cultural markers and echos of earlier psychological dramas. The result is a far richer and more complex film than the well-trod story line–naive young woman gets involved with older, troubled man–would suggest. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.

Set in England in the early to mid-1980’s, “The Souvenir” follows Julie, a privileged, unworldly young film student, through a multi-year affair with Anthony, a worldly, decade older art historian (and Foreign Office employee, or so he says) who casts himself as her intellectual and sexual mentor. Anthony is pompous toff imbued with the confidence of a first-class education (Cambridge and, before that, Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school whose silver-buttoned blue uniform coat he ostentatiously wears as a robe around Julie’s fancy Knightsbridge flat). Despite his generally condescending attitude, Julie is smitten.

As weekend visits to their families make clear, Julie’s background is considerably wealthier than Anthony’s, but her lack of confidence and sophistication make her his social inferior. Though 21 or 22, Julie is so green that she tries to make a film about a subject she knows nothing about: an impoverished, soon-to-be orphaned boy in Sunderland, a northern city hollowed out by the demise of its shipbuilding industry. Her cluelessness extends to Anthony, whose deceit and drug addiction Julie fails to notice even after seeing track marks on his arm. Not until a friend of Anthony’s explicitly says so does Julie realize her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and even then she seems in need of a diagram.

From that point, things go from bad to worse before reaching a predictable conclusion, but Julie and Anthony’s dysfunctional love story is not what makes “The Souvenir” remarkable. Rather, it’s the details: snippets of radio broadcasts that firmly place the film in the Thatcher years; the archival footage and stills of London and Sunderland, shot by Hogg herself; Julie’s brief punk rock interruption of Anthony’s classical music; the IRA bombing of Harrod’s, whose lighted facade Julie can see from her window. At other times, “The Souvenir” skillfully evokes past eras: in London Julie and Anthony dine among older couples in elegant rooms untouched by time, and travel to Venice by train. In the beautiful Venetian sequence–which Hitchcock would have loved–Julie wears a custom-made silk travel suit and a taffeta ballgown straight out of the 1930’s.

The other reason to see “The Souvenir” is the acting. Though Tom Burke is excellent as Anthony, he’s outshone by Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie in a watchful, nuanced way that is all the more impressive given her lack of previous acting experience. While it’s true that she is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Swinton Byrne doesn’t resemble her mother physically or technically. She is distinct, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.

Yet the greatest revelation of “The Souvenir” is Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind. When I last saw her, in “Suspiria,” Swinton played three major roles: a Pina Bausch-like dance teacher, an elderly male psychiatrist and the monstrous un-dead founder of the German dance company where the story takes place. In the latter two roles she was completely unrecognizable, but in “The Souvenir” Swinton plays a character from her own aristocratic world: a wealthy wife and mother with beautiful manners, a large country house and a London pied-à-terre. She’s kind of woman who, when she comes up to London to visit her daughter, casually brings along one of her dogs. With her ladylike voice, gently curled grey hair, cashmere sweaters and tartan skirts, Swinton transforms herself into someone we haven’t seen her play before: the woman she was brought up to be, and whom she rejected. In a career full of acting feats, Rosalind might be one of Swinton’s greatest creations.

It’s in the Genes: The Importance of Hollywood’s Multi-Generational Film Workers

May 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

Jessie Giacomazzi (top), Bill Hader and Stephen Root in “Barry,” Season 2, Episode 5

In the 1990’s, as studios and networks moved productions from Los Angeles to cheaper locations in other states and abroad, I asked an actress friend how she liked shooting in Vancouver. “Everything takes so much longer,” she sighed. “In LA the crews have worked in movies for generations, but there everyone’s new to the job.” She went to explain that a grip or cameraman whose father and grandfather worked on movies, often in the same job, had an inbred knowledge of the craft that a first-generation worker didn’t. Less efficient sets and longer workdays were the latter’s result.

I was reminded of this conversation last Sunday night, while watching the latest installment of Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO. A brilliant, almost entirely action-oriented episode, “ronny/lily” depicts Barry’s attempt to persuade the Tae Kwon Do expert he was blackmailed into killing to flee to Chicago instead. After pretending to agree to his would-be assassin’s scheme, Ronny attacks Barry in an extended fight that ends in Barry snapping his windpipe. Bloodied and reeling from the struggle, Barry is then confronted by Ronnny’s daughter Lily, a martial arts fighter so fierce that she stabs Barry and later takes a chunk out of the cheek of Fuchs (Stephen Root), his business manager. “What are you?” screams Fuchs, as Lily scampers up a tree. The girl then leaps onto a roof where she crouches like a gargoyle, snarling at her terrified victims.

The next day I read Hader’s account in the New York Times of discovering Jessie Giacomezzi, the young actress/stuntperson who plays Lily:

Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, told me: “Hey, if you ever need a little girl to do stunts, I know this girl Jessie. Her parents are both stunt people, and she’s amazing. I just worked with her on a commercial, and she can do fights, and she’s a gymnast.”

It didn’t surprise me that both of Jessie’s parents did stunt work; in fact, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. In an industry filled with multi-generational experts, stunt people are most likely to follow their family’s occupation. In doing so, they carry not only their forebearers’ talent and experience but also the history of filmmaking.

The first stuntmen were Silent Era equestrians and high fallers who went on to execute feats with cars, planes and explosives. In time they passed on their skills to their children and grandchildren.The most famous example is the Epper family. Its patriarch, a former Swiss cavalry officer, supplied horses for Silent Era movies and did riding stunts for Gary Cooper and other stars of the 1930s and 40s. His six children, including three girls, grew up to ride, drive, fight and jump in movies, and include the most famous stunt people of their generation. The current crop of Eppers is the fourth generation to work in movies; presumably there will be a fifth. Incredibly, given their numbers–approaching twenty–no Epper has died in the workplace. (Not as lucky were scores of other film workers whose injuries are detailed here: spreadsheets.latimes.com/film-set-accidents/ )

TV and movie production was lured away Los Angeles because Canada and other countries–as well as states like Georgia and North Carolina–offered significant cuts in taxes and labor costs. These savings came a price. Lighting and dressing sets, setting and operating cameras and executing stunts are painstaking, laborious jobs that require expertise and experience. By discounting the importance filmmaking tradition, Hollywood bean counters reaped short term profits at the expense of many, including the very families whose work built the movie industry–and, by extension, Los Angeles.

One of the Best Films of 2018 Cost Less Than $20,000 To Make

March 10, 2019 § Leave a comment

Christian Malheiros in “Socrates”

Recently I saw (and voted for in the Independent Spirit Awards) a wonderful Brazilian film called “Socrates.” Directed by Alexandre Moratto, it’s a coming-of-age story set in São Paulo. Startlingly, it was made by a crew of 16-to-20 year-olds from local low-income neighborhoods for a budget of under $20,000.

Because this information appears on the screen before the start of the movie, I kept my expectations low. Yet I found nothing to criticize in “Socrates,” and much to admire. Beautifully shot, directed and acted, it reminded me of two towering classics: “The Four Hundred Blows” and “Bicycle Thieves.” On February 23rd, Moratto deservedly won the ISA’s Someone To Watch award, which at $25,000 exceeds “Socrates”‘s microbudget.

There have always been low-budget films, but in the past they looked it. As “Socrates” proves, that’s no longer the case: excellent visual and sound quality can be achieved for relatively little money. Lower filmmaking costs have opened the doors to new talent, and the variety and excellence of today’s films are the happy result.

Under the Hollywood Sign, Ten Years On

February 21, 2019 § Leave a comment

Interviewing Anita Gordon at the Bronson Caves, November 2006. l-r: Tjardus Greidanus, Hope Anderson, Anita Gordon, Ken Pries/Hope Anderson Productions


This week marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, which I started to promote my third documentary feature film, Under the Hollywood Sign. At that point, UTHS was in post-production, and my editor Kate Johnson and I were shaping scores of interviews, around eighty hours of footage and hundreds of archival images into a cultural history of Beachwood Canyon.

Wanting to explore the film’s many topics in greater depth, I wrote about the Theosophists, film stars and oddball characters who populated the Canyon in the early 20th century. I described Beachwood’s natural beauty and wildlife, and the California holly that blooms in the hills each December. I detailed the creation of Hollywoodland, California’s oldest hillside planned community, from its granite walls, gates and stairs to its most famous features: the Hollywood Sign and Lake Hollywood.

After exhausting Beachwood Canyon’s history, I moved on to present-day matters. By then neighborhood was becoming a mecca for GPS-guided tourism, and between 2010 and 2015 the number of visitors in search of the Hollywood Sign surged. Crowds overwhelmed the narrow streets, eroded the trails and drove the wildlife back into Griffith Park. Hollywoodland’s narrow streets, tricky to navigate in the best conditions, became chaotic and frequently gridlocked. Until permit parking was instituted a couple of years ago, residents were frequently trapped in or out of their houses by vehicular and pedestrian traffic that also blocked emergency vehicles. Writing about these issues brought me a slew of hostile comments, the gist of which was our right to use your neighborhood for recreation trumps your right to live here. Long after I stopped writing about local issues, angry and even threatening letters continued to roll in.

These days I write mostly about film–not mine but other people’s. I also write about Japan, where I grew up and whose history and culture I’ve studied for most of my life. As for documentary filmmaking, I’ve stopped. I’ll explain why in my next post.

Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”: What Was Lost in Translation

January 17, 2019 § Leave a comment

Kairi Jo and Lily Franky in “Shoplifters”

Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.

An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”

In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”

What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”

At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.

“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.

Related articles:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/like-father-like-son-what-was-lost-in-translation-and-what-wasnt/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/on-directing-children-hirokazu-kore-eda-reveals-his-secrets/

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