Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Tap Dancing Over the News that the Coen Brothers are Going Musical (Even Though They Really Always Have)

I don't want this site to become a place where I just "report" movie news that is essentially nothing more than marketing material like casting announcements, trailers, or plot synopsis. I have read many movie critics and writers bemoan the current state of journalism that they feel has become nothing more than a hype machine for the upcoming big films. My goal with this blog and the eventual movie site is that it becomes a place to discuss and analyze the impact, importance, and relevance of classic (and not so classic) movies and also continues the conversation of current movies long after they've been released.

I also believer modern culture has made it important to talk about trailers and press releases and the hype surrounding movies because it has become embedded into the current conversation. Part of the excitement of movies is the anticipation, which is fine as long as we remember to talk and analyze the movie long after the trailers and hype have been forgotten. The art is the most important thing, and the art is the actual living-breathing movie.

Sometimes I just can't stop myself from getting giddy over a movie that is still almost a year away. This is exactly the case with the Coen brothers latest feature (scheduled to be released next February), Hail, Caesar! I bubble with excitement over anything that has the Coens attached as directors even if I don't know anything about the plot. Prior to this morning, all I knew about the latest feature was that it was based on a story set in the 1950s about real-life Hollywood fixer, Eddie Mannix. Essentially, a fixer was someone who was responsible for covering and toning down the many scandals running rampant with high profile stars (Mannix worked for MGM and from what I know, that seems to be the studio that largely employed them -- also probably the biggest movie studio at the time).

The Coen brothers' recurring collaborators and musical composers, Carter Burwell and Skip Lievsay were present at the "Dolby Institute: Sound of the Coens" Master Class that was part of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. It was there they revealed the plot synopsis of the movie and gave a bit more info on what to expect. The fixer storyline was confirmed with additional information it would be based on a single day and Mannix will be solving major problems while walking through many of the sets of movies being filmed at the time. There is no confirmation if these will be completely fictionalized pictures, fictionalized pictures based on actual movies, or actual movies being produced at the time. The peaks into several different movies seems to be a crucial part of the picture's structure and likely the provider of a healthy dose of nostalgia and atmosphere (things the Coens had proven to be great but also subtle masters in period pieces like True Grit, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Miller's Crossing).

The big whopping news, or at least something that I was completely unaware of prior to this, is that it will be a musical comedy. Though Burwell was quick to state the bigger narrative wasn't actually a comedy but rather a very serious movie about faith. The comedy and lightness will come from the scenes of the movies being filmed. Having large chunks of comedic scenes amongst a somber and dark tale is also a really common Coen trait. Coens actually have to be one of the best directors at making drastic tonal shifts while keeping the narrative true and cohesive. Their movies always feel like a complete story despite the massive shifts in genres and style.

The thing that makes this movie really stand out from Coen canon is the fact this is being labelled as a musical. Based off the comments, you have to assume the plan is to make this a true musical, which means people working through problems through song and dance. It is a brilliant move based off it being set in the 1950s and that genre being the ultimate blockbuster powerhouse at the time. It fits with how many younger cinephiles view the 1950s. As far as I know, people actually sang to each other and danced in the rain and broke into tap-dancing during board meetings. Even if the musical numbers are stuck to the "filmed movie" sequences, it still will help elicit the feelings and emotions of the time period and pull us into the movie.

Coen brothers are known for making almost genre-less pictures. Movies that can jump from thriller to biopic to drama to slapstick comedy. True Grit was different than most of their other movies because it really was a true Western. Though they have a trademark style and it is hard to not know you're seeing a Coen brothers' movie from the cinematography, dialogue and sets, they have mastered making very different movies with varied messages, themes and plots. The brothers like to challenge themselves, which is why a musical is so compelling as it seems to be the hardest genre for a director to really throw themselves into (when they often do distinctly different pictures). Along with True Grit (and possibly Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing) be their only other true easy to label genre picture.

The crazy part is even though up to this point I'd never peg the Coen brother for a "musical comedy", they may actually be perfect for it. Music and score is one of the most important parts of the Coen filmmaking process. It is often how they draw you in and bring the atmosphere to life. You feel the movie and believe the setting often due to their musical choices. The score to Fargo is something burned into my mind and instantly pulls me into the tone and feel of that movie. You can feel and taste and be plunged into movies like No Country for Old Men or Barton Fink or O Brother, Where Art Thou? thanks to carefully crafted score and songs. I can't think of a single Coen movie where the song isn't one of the most important players.

This is also a natural progression for the Coens because in many ways, Inside Llewyn Davis was already a musical. The music was a main character in that movie and defined the movie far better than an actual labelled musical like the dull 2014 Jersey Boys. I believed music was a defining part of Davis' life and that the song choices by each character helped add to their personality and traits. It had several full length songs and every single one made you feel something like sadness or anger or laughter. The songs were marvellously crafted and blew away many of the songs from recent movie musicals for emotion and personality. I still remember watching Davis up on the stage and feeling like I'd been pulled back in time to the New York folk scene and literally being in the night club listening to him. A musical movie done well must be seen on the big screen, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a cinema experience.

Though I have to believe it will be an actual musical based on the things said, the comedy won't be central. Most musical are comedies, because singing brings a certain lightness. It is hard to do a dark and gritty musical. Sure, Les Miserables exists and isn't a giant cheerfest. It is a challenge to make a darker and somber work in the world of song and dance. I'm intrigued to see how they balance catchy tunes with a story about covering up dangerous scandals and heartbreak. Coens are the best filmmakers for tackling such a task.

The other exciting part is that musicals are potentially on a comeback thanks to the popularity of Frozen and Into the Woods. Josh Gad just recently landed a lucrative deal with Universal to make a musical movie, so it is a genre studios have renewed faith (Universal also happens to be behind the Coen movie). This also gives me hope the movie will then be positioned favourably by Universal and give the picture a fair shot at wide release. It also has the talented star power with George Clooney, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson to convince Universal they could have a hit if they promote it. Even if I'm forced to await its arrival on Netflix or have to make a road trip to see it on the big screen, this has secured the top of my most anticipated for 2016 (until it gets bumped to 2017).

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