You must know by now that we here at SportsAlcohol.com love a good list. And while some of our recent comprehensive career-spanning list projects have addressed legends or beloved modern masters, we also have plenty of indie rock cult favorites who we love and obsess over just as much. So when Los Campesinos! emerged from their longest band hiatus ever to put out their new record Sick Scenes and do a proper U.S. tour, the first thing we knew… well, OK, the first thing we knew was that Rob, Jesse, and Marisa were going to listen to Sick Scenes at least a thousand times collectively over the next year, and the second thing we knew was that we were going to get in the ol’ soft mosh pit for their New York City tourdate. But the third thing we knew was that we were going to enlist some fellow fans of this seven-piece English indie-punk-tweemocore band and put together a list of their best tunes. Because they have so many, and because we perpetually wish more people would pay attention to them. Then again, I won’t deny that it sometimes feels good to flat-out worship some obscure-by-top-40-standards indie rock outfit and glory in their continuing existence. As one of the write-ups mentions below: People who don’t dislike or ignore this band tend to love the ever-loving fuck out of this band. This, I think, is how indie rock stays alive – not by selling out Radio City Music Hall.
Though they’ve only been around for about a decade, Los Campesinos! have released six studio albums as well as at least an album’s worth of B-sides, rarities, EP tracks, and Christmas songs. And honestly, even if they weren’t closing in on 100 to choose from, many of their songs have such an explosion of wordflow, energy, vocal byplay, and shout-along hooks that a mere 10 or 15 would seem too few. So we decided to make this list a muscular 20 songs long. Happily, the results reflect our LC! fandom at their every stage, from the youthful brio of 2008’s Hold On Now, Youngster… to the dire break-up stories of Hello Sadness to their more reflective, but still exuberant, 2017 incarnation. So get to reading and get to listening and maybe get to weeping angrily, if that’s your thing. We also have a podcast about our experiences with this band in general and at their recent live show in particular, as well as some discussion of other indie rock that popped out back in 2008. But first, our day in lists. Continue reading The 20 Best Los Campesinos! Songs (So Far): Our Post in Lists→
Everyone who’s heard of him knows the answer is “big,” but the real answer is, “it depends.” Because in his seven film appearances (including this week’s Kong: Skull Island) his height has varied dramatically, at times within the same film. So if we’re going to look at the history of life-sized King Kongs, we’ve got to talk about what “life-sized” means. Continue reading King-Size Kong→
Friends, we’ve talked about the sequels and knock-offs of King Kong. And you can probably guess how excited we are to see Kong: Skull Island when it opens this weekend. But I’m here today to talk about a world of new King Kong stories you can read right now! I’m talking about the work of Joe Devito, Brad Strickland, and Will Murray chronicling the authorized history of “King Kong of Skull Island.” Continue reading Kong: Pulp Fiction→
– The pictures? Yeah. Are you going on this crazy voyage?
– What’s crazy about it?
– I don’t know, but everybody around here is talking about that crazy fella that’s running it.
– Carl Denham?
– Guess that’s the name. They say he ain’t scared of nothin’. If he wants a picture of a lion, he just goes up to him and tells him to look pleasant.
– He’s a tough egg all right.
For all the remakes, sequels, and knock-offs that followed in its wake, the original King Kong still stands apart as something special. Now sure, some of that is down to the tremendous craft involved in its creation. And some of it is down to its trailblazing place in cinema history. And some of it is down to just the dumb luck confluence of right-place-and-right-time grouping of people and resources that can be found behind the scenes of so many truly classic movies. But I think the real secret to King Kong is how personal it is. That’s right, the fantastical story of an ape-god lording over a mysterious lost world also happens to feature a fair amount of autobiography, a fact perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Carl Denham, the adventurer and filmmaker who is essentially responsible for all of the destructive events in the film, is also its hero. And that’s because Carl Denham is basically King Kong‘s director, Merian C. Cooper. Continue reading Merian C. Cooper, King Kong, and the Carl Denham Connection→
A few years ago when we were talking about Godzilla here at SportsAlcohol.com, in the run-up to Legendary’s 2014 film, we talked about which of Godzilla’s famous opponents we’d like to see in a future sequel. That approach doesn’t seem quite appropriate here, since King Kong doesn’t have quite as extensive or established a rogues gallery as Godzilla. Still, the trailers for Kong: Skull Island have certainly promised plenty of monster fights, so instead of suggestions for a sequel I thought we might just run down a complete list of the creatures Kong has already fought on film.*
Kong: Skull Island marks the return to theaters of one of the greatest American screen monsters, 84 years (and three days) after he changed movie history in the original King Kong. He’s never had a long-running series like the ones we’ve covered for Planet of the Apes or his chief rival to the monster monarchy, Godzilla. But he’s still appeared in a handful of movies, remakes, and sequels, and spawned cartoons, books, comics, ripoffs, and even a stage musical. So it’s still worthwhile to kick off our week of King Kongtent with an overview of the career of Skull Island’s most famous resident. Continue reading King Kong Primer→
Seriously, though, if you don’t believe my Table 19 review, I am invested in Anna Kendrick’s career. Journey back in time with me, won’t you?
“Kendrick and Plaza are particularly charming in their freedom to act like dummies and subvert the usual ‘nice girl’ of a wedding-centric romantic comedy.” Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates
“But Kendrick still throws the movie off, mostly by giving it her best: She’s so likable, and plays the stock concerned-girlfriend part with so much sweetness and honesty, that the quirky family dramedy material plays even more false in her presence.” The Hollars
“…a nice fit for a screenplay written by 30 Rock’s Kay Cannon, especially in a runner about her inability to formulate any nasty rejoinders to the beautiful, taunting leader of the Germans.” Pitch Perfect 2
“When Christian and Dana engage in some cute math-flirting, it’s charming enough to pass for funny on purpose, especially when director Gavin O’Connor places a particularly hulking-looking Affleck next to the diminutive, chirpy Kendrick.” The Accountant
“The success of future Marshall musicals is assured, as long as he keeps working from Sondheim and re-hires Streep, Blunt, Kendrick, and Pine.” Into the Woods
“Kendrick sings her heart out and also proves a great reactor, managing to steal a couple of scenes from Jordan even when he’s the one singing.” The Last Five Years
“The effect could be maddening, a feature-length avoidance of the elephant in the room. But Wilde, Johnson, and Kendrick make that avoidance appealing.” Drinking Buddies
“Anna Kendrick, delightful as always, [plays] Taylor’s sweet girlfriend Janet.” End of Watch
Is Anna Kendrick America’s Sweetheart? Sub-question: If she isn’t, does America deserve a sweetheart at all? We may not have one; Hollywood studios have written off romantic comedies, traditionally a chief incubator of big-screen sweethearts, as, I guess, not profitable enough, despite their relatively low budgets and relatively high rate of financial success (how did producers not look at The Ugly Truth’s box office and think, OK, literally any of these could make money?). But Kendrick has the chops – the instant likability, the comic prowess, the willingness to look ridiculous and sound either sincere or snarky about it, depending on the scene – despite never having actually starred in a rom-com.
She’s come close: Last summer’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is more of a Step Brothers knockoff than a vehicle for the Julia Robertses of today, but she is the romantic lead in it, as well as enormously winning and funny. The Last Five Years is all about a relationship, but it’s not especially comedic and, actually, not very romantic, either. Drinking Buddies is a pretty great rom-com, but Kendrick is in second position for most of it (Jake Johnson and Olivia Wilde are at the center). Kendrick is good in all of these movies, and they’re all more enjoyable than, say, The Proposal, so maybe it’s not a problem that she’s come into her own as a star at a time when this particular genre is on the wane. Kendrick has kept to her indie roots even following the enormous success of the Pitch Perfect series, remaining open to tiny budgets and/or costarring with Sam Rockwell. But this can make watching her in an indie rom-com substitute like this week’s Table 19 a frustrating experience. If you’re going to make a bad movie set at a wedding – and Table 19 is both of those things – why not at least go with enjoyably hokey, rather than self-consciously quirky?
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are not great singers. Not in the Broadway or even rock and roll senses of the word, anyway. They’re also not great dancers in the Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers senses of the word. They can both carry a tune and make graceful moves, as they prove in the musical La La Land, current Oscar frontrunner and film-nerd debate flashpoint, but their performances in the movie tend to be more of the hushed, lilting, or gentle (if you’re less kind, “reedy”) variety. As it has amassed acclaim, awards, and cash, the movie’s show of technical limitations have been thrown back at it through a number of different criticisms: the music isn’t memorable, the stars can’t sing, the stars can’t dance; this is pastiche without a soul; what business does Gosling have pretending to be a jazzman; what kind of musical is this, anyway?
Issues about representation and whiteness in La La Land make particular sense in the current cultural moment, when more people are speaking up more forcefully about inequality in Hollywood. If those knocks against the movie are up-to-the-minute, though, complaints about Stone and Gosling’s abilities as singers and dancers, echo plenty of others about modern movie musicals from the recent past. Almost every time a movie star appears in a musical, someone will point out that Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Johnny Depp, or whoever else can’t complete with the technical best of Broadway or the golden age of the cinematic form. But movie musicals have changed since that golden age. Virtuosic displays of singing and/or dancing can still be dazzling – maybe moreso than ever, considering how few movies are able to offer it – but many of the best recent movie musicals use a lack of virtuosity as an advantage. Collectively, they point the way through what has arguably become a post-singing, post-dancing, post-stage world.
This is not to denigrate the classic movie musicals of yore. Time has not dimmed the splendor of Singin’ In The Rain (it’s arguably made it shine all the brighter), and even less iconic, less specifically timeless individual films like the Astaire-Rogers musicals (from which La La Land lightly cribs some bits of choreography) make the business of entertaining and delighting an audience appear far easier than it probably is. But genres evolve with their medium, and musicals are not honor-bound to replicate the values of the past. This doesn’t make contemporary musicals automatically better than their ancestors; indeed, many of them are much, much worse. But nor does it mean they all fail to measure up just because they don’t value the same techniques as their forbearers.
Though in retrospect it’s a major pivot point in the genre, Moulin Rouge! was far from the first musical to de-emphasize either singing or dancing. Astaire movies certainly have better examples of the latter than the former, and some musicals toyed with these genre conventions as a means of experimenting. Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, for example, has a central conceit that at the time was written about almost as a gimmick: Every actor in it does their own singing, regardless of ability (except for Drew Barrymore, who was apparently too mortified and/or mortifyingly weak to get a pass). This means listening to actors with singing voices that range from pleasant (Edward Norton) to barely there (Allen himself), with plenty of awkward middle ground. Moulin Rouge!, though, stuck in a lot of craws at the time of its 2001 release for combining non-Broadway singing with aggressive, MTV-style cutting. In short, it’s a musical where non-pro singers perform musical numbers cut together in a way that does not place high priority on showcasing athletic dancing.
That might sound like a nightmare, but as it turns out, director Baz Luhrmann is the rare contemporary filmmaker who loves musicals yet also understands how they might work cinematically following MTV’s de facto takeover of the genre (audience members who roll their eyes at the idea of characters “breaking into song” rarely seem to have that trouble with the concept of a music video, perhaps because the music video was starting to replace the film musical before MTV even existed). The stars’ limitations – McGregor has a nice rock and roll but decidedly non-operatic voice; Kidman’s is a little thin – don’t limit the film, because Luhrmann is performing with the camera. Plenty of old musicals have camera movement and editing: Singin’ In The Rain, to return to an obvious example, captures its dance numbers without limiting itself to locked-down set-ups. In those and many other great musical sequences, the camera is a silent partner; in Luhrmann’s, it’s more of an active participant, not complementing the rhythm of singers and dancers but helping to create it.
In this context, where the musical’s cinematic properties dominate any one star, less polished singing and dancing actually become an advantage. Ewan McGregor is not as “good” a singer as Whitney Houston (for that matter, he’s probably not as good a singer as Dolly Parton, either), but there’s something ecstatically moving about the way he joyfully bursts into the chorus of “I Will Always Love You” during the climax of the “Elephant Love Medley” sequence – it has a reach to it that impeccable singing chops would not replicate (even within the Houston catalog, this has applications: Isn’t “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” so much more delightful than her cover of “I Will Always Love You”?). Less joyfully, the gravel-throated Moulin Rouge! cover of The Police’s “Roxanne” is a dance number – it’s framed specifically as a tango – but Luhrmann’s assured cutting of the sequence builds tension through its juxtaposition of McGregor’s counter-vocals and the rhythm of a group of dancers, not a single dancer’s powerhouse showcase.
Many of the best post-Moulin Rouge! movie musicals also step away from musical traditionalism. Johnny Depp’s growly, rock-inflected take on the title character of Sweeney Todd didn’t please some Sondheim purists, but his voice has a roughness that matches the furrowed, barely-contained anger of his performance. It’s singing made to match close-ups and medium shots, rather than hit the back row of a theater. Some other genre highlights further dispense with bombastic theatricality: There’s a downright homemade quality to young-people-in-bands rock musicals like God Help the Girl and Sing Street. Girl has a whimsical sense of space to its simple choreography along with a low-budget music video sensibility, one that Sing Street incorporates into its narrative, which is actually, in part, about the making of music videos the way that some musicals are about putting on a big show.
In plenty of ways, La La Land positions itself as a throwback to the pre-music video period. It begins with an old-timey CinemaScope logo, it was shot on film, it pays visual homage to many classic musicals, its songs lack the now-customary pop or rock touches, and the story concerns itself with the feelings of two extremely attractive white people. One thing that keeps the movie from becoming an extended, regressive pine for nonexistent Good Old Days, though, is its approach to music and performance. Though both characters want desperately to make their living in the performing arts, the songs Stone and Gosling perform are, for the most part, aimed at each other, rather than serving as demonstrations of their boundless talents.
Though Gosling’s character Seb takes the stage in a variety of guises over the course of the movie, we never really see him perform the movie’s signature tune “City of Stars” in a public way. He warbles it by himself, and he sings it as a private duet with Stone’s Mia. Similarly, Stone and Gosling’s dance in the “A Lovely Night” number is relatively low-impact in terms of physical exertion, but it fits the casually flirtatious, tenuous nature of their relationship at that point in the film. It’s preceded by “Someone in the Crowd,” which has the trappings of a more elaborate number, but is performed largely in an apartment building and on an empty street. When the number continues at a party, including a lavish shot that dives underwater with a group of background singers/swimmers, it’s no longer Mia’s fun, messing-around song with her roommates; it escapes from “someone” to the crowd.
This fits with the movie’s treatment of Mia and Seb’s talents, which is more nuanced that it may look at first. Though Seb is depicted as a dutiful jazz obsessive who can’t bring himself to phone in even a background-music performance at a dinner joint, even if his stubbornness costs him his job (again, it’s implied), his big dream is not to cut a classic jazz record or become a famous jazz musician; it’s to open a jazz club and preserve his traditionalist vision of jazz. A little regressive, perhaps, but not a dream that necessarily aggrandizes his talent, which tends to catch Mia’s attention far more readily than anyone else’s. When he does perform in public, either in his embarrassing keytar gig at a party or as part of a very successful band led by John Legend’s character, the movie focuses on Mia’s reaction moreso than anyone else’s, making clear the ultimate value of his art. Mia herself is depicted a little more clearly as talented and worthy of success, though it’s dependent almost entirely on Emma Stone’s own talent for appearing instantly likable; her auditions are usually shown in fragments, focusing more on her not getting a chance than her powerhouse acting going to waste (the movie also smartly elides showing more than a few seconds of her one-woman show). Even Mia’s “Audition” song, while positioned as a more public performance in front of people who are not Seb, is directed to feel like a spare, lonely solo, with the lights around her darkening as her small audience falls away. It’s a moving scene, to be sure, but it doesn’t take the obvious tack of representing her audition via a showstopping barnstormer of an 11 o’clock number. There’s tension between her expressiveness and the limits of her vocal range.
If every number was performed with the brio of the movie’s biggest moments, or if the songs were sung with roof-rattling power, that tension would snap and the movie’s intimacy would, if not evaporate entirely, certainly diminish. Though La La Land is a musical about performers, it’s important to note that neither character is a professional singer or dancer, and we spend a lot more time watching them do that than we do watching them act or, uh, jazz. As much fun as it can be to see someone as athletic as Gene Kelly or graceful as Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers play a (relatively) “normal” person whose physical expressions transcend normal boundaries, it’s also neat to see actors who aren’t naturally gifted dancers attempt to float away from their default naturalism. (I have seen a lot of Step Up movies and like most of them, but I have never found myself wishing that the best dancers in the movies would have more lines, or carry more emotional weight.) Despite the surface-level homages to older movies, this is a lot closer to what Moulin Rouge! does than what Swing Time or Top Hat does. I’m sure plenty of classic musical fans would argue that there was never any need for Astaire and Rogers to be artificially floated into the air at a planetarium, and that is true. Maybe for some viewers, this sequence plays like one of those Goldblum-style just-because-they-could-they-never-stopped-to-ask-if-they-should moments of technology run amok. But I find the interplay between actual human movement and cinematically enhanced impossibility (which, let’s be real, starts with cuts and covers just about anything that movies do) stunning in its wistful expressiveness.
“Stunning” may sound like too much for such a relatively simple scene, but this balance is not as easy to strike as it may look. For examples of how it can go wrong, look to Rob Marshall’s filmed musicals Chicago and Nine, which manage to come off both stagy (with their minimalist sets seemingly designed to downplay or make narrative excuses for the songs) and cravenly hyperactive (with fast cutting out of a middling music video). The most extreme version of this divide is visible in a movie like Mamma Mia! where Pierce Brosnan cannot carry a tune on pure enthusiasm. During his duet with Meryl Streep (who is a decent singer, because of course she is) on “S.O.S.,” Brosnan struggles mightily with the relatively benign task of singing a dopey ABBA song, issuing a strangled cry of “…when you’re gone!” that has become a signature moment in a craptacular movie.
Yet at the same time, Brosnan’s vocal lurching may also be the only honest moment in the whole of Mamma Mia! The other incompetence on display in the movie – the inability to excitingly or inventively shoot big group numbers; the self-conscious overacting; the plot-lite dithering – are mere reasons that the movie is terrible in its synthetically cheesy way. Brosnan, with his game and failed attempt to sound as if he’s not being prodded with an electrical device, is terrible in an entirely human way.
Enjoyment of Brosnan’s tanking of Mamma Mia! doesn’t necessarily override the importance of choreography, blocking, and all-around talent, all of which still matter to anyone making a great musical (which Mamma is emphatically, I need to stress, not). There’s still room for traditional dazzle in the genre; La La Land opens with this very pleasure, mounting an elaborate L.A. freeway production number before it even introduces its two lead characters. But even the freeway scene, with its dozens of talented, unknown singers and dancers, is predicated as much on the camera choreography as the actual singing and dancing. I’ve heard complaints about poor audio mixing in that sequence that muffle the singing, and while this may or may not be intentional, it makes a kind of sense either way. Chazelle doesn’t construct that sequence in a way that zeroes in on amazing solos or eye-popping dance interludes or even the song’s lyrics. Instead, it overflows with color and bodies and movement in a way that a stage production probably wouldn’t – you can’t put dancers that far in the background on a stage, at least not without some pretty extreme trickery. Yet in La La Land, dancing in and around parked cars on a Los Angeles overpass seems both physically achievable and like a special effect all its own. The fantastical and the real both look better when they’re side by side.