Singular (2019)

I first fell in love with jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant at her 2015 Jazz Fest performance, where her unpretentious, playful stage presence felt like a once-in-a-lifetime gift I didn’t deserve. It says a lot about her accessibility that she affected me at all, given that I listen to essentially zero modern jazz. Yet, there was a sinisterly subversive, rawly sexual prankishness to her art that read as being punk-as-fuck to me across that genre divide. Salvant has also been a hit among people who actually are in tune with the current state of jazz, winning multiple consecutive Grammys in the few years since that performance and many other accolades besides. Part of her rise-to-legend path now includes the PR-boosting documentary Singular, which premiered in her hometown of Miami this year before screening at The New Orleans Film Festival to an audibly delighted crowd. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite live up to Salvant’s subversive, audience-rattling stage presence, but I’m not sure it ever had a fighting chance to do so.

Smartly, Singular anchors its recap of Salvant’s quick rise to relative fame on a Miami concert where the genius of her art is on full, open display. Talking-head interviews & home video footage of her pre-fame years interrupt the concert at regular intervals, but you do get just enough of a taste of what she’s up to onstage to understand why she’s so distinct in her field. The problem is that it’s difficult to not want more, especially if you’re hearing her music for the very first time. I’d usually be thankful for a film with this straightforward of a subject sticking to a slim 68min runtime, but here that compression means that Salvant’s performances are frequently disrupted by the commentariat, with interviewees talking over her art about how great that art supposedly is, as opposed to letting the work speak for itself. It’s probably unfair of me to wish this were a full-on concert film instead of a documentary, but in all honesty the story of Salvant’s life (as presented here) isn’t nearly as interesting as the story her work tells onstage. Few things are.

This is ultimately a very polite, well-behaved documentary for a subversively raunchy, confrontational performer who deserves something with much sharper teeth. Salvant’s backstory of training with an intimidating French professor at her “momager’s” insistence before returning to America to wow jazz snobs who didn’t know what to expect from her is endearing, but not especially eye-opening. As the narrative approaches her modern day interests—confronting the performance of racial caricature in jazz history, drawing psychedelic cartoons of a “lobster woman” in her free time, modeling some world-class couture glasses-frames, etc.—the story starts to get more interesting but then abruptly shuts down as if those were footnotes & addendums instead of the central text. Part of the issue might be that these legend-building docs usually arrive posthumously or late in an artist’s career, while Salvant’s story is still very much unfolding. At this point, anything but a proper concert film is bound to feel a little premature.

Whatever faults Singular might have as an overly reserved document of a wild, punches-throwing artist, it does have plenty of net benefits in pushing Salvant in front of an even wider audience. I imagine if you’ve never heard of her before this doc could play as a revelation that a Nina Simone-level genius is alive & working in plain sight, waiting for your eyes & ears. The contrast between her work & the doc’s reserved nature might even unintentionally emphasize her art’s subversive playfulness, which seeps through the concert footage despite the buttoned-up style of the interviews. The movie also does convey a kind of lighting-in-a-bottle aspect of her current work by contrasting it with her life & career as a whole. In early footage of her amateur concerts & competitions, Salvant is obviously talented, but feels like a relatable, pedestrian nerd from Miami. In her contemporary performances, she’s a ferociously confident, once-in-a-lifetime persona, as if something magical within her had clicked into place that cannot be fully explained. It’s difficult to not yearn for more of that modern, magical footage in a feature-length concert film, but this document of that trajectory from green talent to world-conquering confidence is still worthwhile on its own merits – even if barely so.

-Brandon Ledet

Witchcraft Through the Ages (1968)

As a huge sucker for both cinematic depictions of witches and the surrealist horrors of beat generation author William S. Burroughs, I was always predestined to enjoy Witchcraft Through the Ages at least a little bit. An experimental work assembled by beat filmmaker Antony Balch, Witchcraft Through the Ages re-interprets the landmark 1922 documentary Häxan for the druggy counterculture crowd of the late 60s. Satanism has a long history with hippie culture thanks to folks like Anton LaVey, so it makes sense that Balch would want to revive one of the great early cinematic works that depicts the Devil in the flesh for the stoners of his era. The spirit of Witchcraft Through the Ages is closely aligned with the dark times of the 1990s when outlets like Turner Classic Movies “colorized” black & white films to appeal to young audiences’ disinterest in outdated formats. Balch similarly punches up Häxan by shortening its runtime, soundtracking its imagery with the weirdo jazz of Daniel Humair, and lessening its challenge as a silent film by employing Burroughs, one of history’s greatest voices, to narrate. With jazzed up dialogue in its updated intertitles and a 77min runtime designed to maintain even the most drugged out of attention spans, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels like Balch tricking young weirdos into eating their Landmark Cinema vegetables by emphasizing the already-present exploitation film pleasures of its imagery. Häxan already openly gawks at the visual stimulation of witchy & Satanic iconography; Witchcraft Through the Ages pushes those cheap thrills just slightly further to de-emphasize its more educational endeavors. The only shame is that with Burroughs on hand to enhance Haxan director Ben Christensen’s already potent imagery, it could have done so much more than that.

As blasphemous (to God and to cinema) as Witchcraft Through the Ages appears to be from the surface, it’s a surprisingly tame work. Burroughs’s narration sticks fairly close to Häxan‘s original narrative, just at an accelerated pace. He even opens the film with the detailed history of how ancient Egypt believed the universe to be physically structured, just barreling through the details, maintaining the gist but wasting no time. That history lesson, along with later challenges to how The Church & The State have long used accusations of witchcraft to control & oppress, fit right in with the writer’s usual pet topics (especially in relation to his Western Lands trilogy). The disappointing thing is that Ben Christensen’s original film is already a timelessly powerful work on its own, so it feels pointless to have someone as cosmically talented as Burroughs on hand if he’s just going to color within the lines. I can happily listen to the author rattle on about Inquisitions, “old biddies,” torture, The Devil’s children, and “showing respect for Satan by kissing his ass” for hours, but Balch should have been smarter in allowing Burroughs’s voice to pervert the material. Whenever Burroughs isn’t talking & Humair’s jazz is allowed to overpower the soundtrack, Witchcraft Through the Ages feels intellectually pointless. Any personally-curated soundtrack synced up with Christensen’s original film would have the same effect, maybe even doing less to undercut the already-present sex humor & skip over minutes of Christensen’s eternally demonic imagery. Balch seems content to split the time evenly between Hunier’s jazz & Burroughs’s voice, which is just as much of a mistake as guiding his narrator to stick to the original intent of the script. In many ways, Witchcraft Through the Ages is not nearly blasphemous enough.

Theoretically, there’s a better version of this movie that plays like a 77min poem. If Burroughs were allowed to run wild with narrated, on-topic witchy versions of his cut-ups experiments like The Ticket that Exploded as a counter-balance to Christensen’s presented-as-is imagery, Witchcraft Through the Ages would stand a much better chance as a worthwhile perversion of (the far superior) Häxan instead of just a fascinating footnote. As is, it already kind of works like cut-ups: the results of the experiment are often fruitless, but when all elements at play line up just right, it feels like a work of cosmic genius. I’m not sure if Balch’s respect for Häxan dictated that he maintain its intended, educational effect in this jazzy update or if this idea was just hastily slapped together without proper thought given to the exciting ways it could go rogue. Either way, Christensen’s witchy imagery & Burroughs’s authorial voice are undeniably more impressive as separate entities than they come across as in this post-modern collaboration. That doesn’t mean that Witchcraft Through the Ages isn’t a fun, fascinating watch. A frenetic, jazzed up runthrough of Häxan featuring William S. Burroughs is just an inherently exciting idea, one that leads to many stray moments of brilliance even in its surprisingly well-behaved adherence to tradition. A more chaotic, poetic version of this same collaboration could have lead to something much more transcendent, however, a cinematic version of real life witchcraft.

-Brandon Ledet

La La Land (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

“Why do you say ‘romantic’ like it’s a dirty word?”

La La Land was a rare cinematic experience for me. In its first 20min stretch, I was outright hostile towards the film. I felt even more alienated in the two big production musical numbers that open La La Land than I did watching Moana, a movie that’s appeal I didn’t understand to the point where I had to abstain out of fairness from directly reviewing it. The emotional impact & entertainment value of a traffic jam erupting into a big budget musical number about Los Angeles sunshine reminded me of the lofty gravitas of a car commercial, specifically that one where the hamsters gather all of New York for a Central Park jam session. This adverse reaction to the material wasn’t necessarily a fault of the movie’s, but more a personal shortcoming  when it comes to appreciating musical theater, especially when a chorus sings in unison, drowning out raw emotion with the shared mediocrity of a massive collective. Something changed for me during La La Land, though. Somewhere in the first act, when the narrative got smaller and the songs became more intimate, I finally got lost in the film’s love letter to Old Hollywood musicals, particularly of the Fred & Ginger variety. La La Land manipulates its audience from both ends. It opens with a big This Is For Musical Theater Die-Hards Only spectacle to appease people already on board with its genre and then slowly works in modern modes of the medium’s potential to win over stragglers & push strict traditionalists into new, unfamiliar territory. The ultimate destination is an exciting middle ground between nostalgia & innovation and by the film’s final moments I was eating out of its hand, despite starting the journey as a hostile skeptic.

The content matches the form nicely here, continuing Damien Chazelle’s hot streak as a gifted, bare bones storyteller after his exciting one-two punch of the jazzy thriller Whiplash and the gleeful pulp of Grand Piano. Just as the modern-minded crowd and musical theater traditionalists must find a common ground to appreciate where Chazelle is pushing the movie musical as a medium, the film’s protagonists also begin their story at odds with each other. Playing an actor and a jazz pianist who suffer several hostile meet cutes before they begin to reconcile their mutual attraction, Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are perfectly convincing as our modern equivalent of Classic Hollywood charmers. Their Adam’s Rib-style hostility at an awkward pool party is where the film started to lure me into its web. By the time their romance flourished in movie theaters, jazz clubs, and planetariums only to flounder & fizzle once realism disrupted their romantic ideal, I was already humming “City of Stars” to myself and preparing to buy a poster to hang on my imaginary dorm room wall. The couple pushes each other out of their comfort zones in order to survive an ever-changing world; the jazz musician must learn to innovate to stay relevant, the actor must risk embarrassment to achieve success. In addition to their good looks, ease with comic timing, and gorgeous costuming, the couple at the center of La La Land appeal to the audience as a useful window into what the film was trying to accomplish. When their realistically cyclical, impermanent romance clashes with a surreal movie musical reverie in the film’s final act, the full scope of Chazelle’s ambition becomes crystal clear and any complaints about taste or expectation going in feel silly & irrelevant. This is a work that graciously rewards after its initial discomfort, whether you’re a musical theater traditionalist who needs to be pushed into exploring new ideas or a cold-hearted modernist cynic who needs to be warmed up to what the medium can accomplish even in its purist form.

I think it’s worth noting that while La La Land is sometimes uncomfortable to reconcile with personal sensibilities, it’s always gorgeous to look at. The film’s intense colors, beautiful dresses, and attention to symmetry & movement amount to a carefully constructed spectacle that, like Hail Caesar!, is a welcome reminder of the scale & fantasy that only Old Hollywood productions could muster. Whether Chazelle is overlaying shots of neon signs with poured champagne as a direct nod to Hollywood musical past or he’s using that hyper real abstraction for entirely new, surreal purpose, La La Land is consistently a wonder to behold. Even when I wasn’t enjoying the film’s content in its earliest stretch, I was never turned off by its form or energeric execution. All I needed to be won over by La La Land was for that manicured spectacle to be put to a more intimate & modern use, an emotional heft that could be whispered instead of belted for the back rows to hear. I get the feeling that the film intended to not only teach me a little appreciation for the value of its medium, but also to push those on the other side of the divide over to my own modernist, heretical sensibilities. And just when those two audiences meet for a brief moment of shared appreciation, the film then disrupts & explodes its own rules, breaking down the walls of that divide for a brief glimpse of how both audiences were always of the same mind without ever being aware of it. Innovation & tradition are equally important in La La Land and when they’re done right, they’re practically the same thing. There’s a long, discomforting path to that realization, one that’s made more difficult for some than others, but once you reach its epiphanic destination, it’s a real game-changer, an eye opener, one that’s well worth the initial unease.

-Brandon Ledet

Miles Ahead (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

“When you’re creating your own shit, man . . . even the sky ain’t the limit.” –Miles Davis, supposedly

After watching Miles Ahead in its entirety it’s difficult to tell if the above quote, which appears on an opening title card, was actually something Miles Davis said or if it’s something in the spirit of what Miles Davis would say. Either way, first-time filmmaker, longtime badass Don Cheadle holds onto the sentiment of that quote like a mission statement or a war cry. Miles Ahead is dressed up like a Miles Davis biopic, but functions much more like an expressionistic gangster film, mirroring the way Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song falls just on the art film side of blaxploitation. This Don Cheadle passion project (starring, written, and directed by Cheadle himself) pursues an over the top dedication to creative license with his subject’s life story that makes for a disjointed, but controlled variation on biopic conventions and, wouldn’t you know it, the result feels a little like jazz. I could see how someone could find Cheadle’s many eccentric decisions silly, but I found myself impressed by his cavalier ambition. In the end I believe your enjoyment of Miles Ahead boils down to whether or not you think its choices & attitude are, for lack of a better word, cool. Personally, I was buying all of the cool cat absurdism Cheadle was selling with very few reservations.

Instead of following the traditional cradle-to-grave narrative of biopic tedium, Miles Ahead focuses on two distinct points in its jazz legend’s career. In one storyline he’s the famous jazz world equivalent of a rockstar, struggling with typical music giant clichés you’d see ripped to shreds in spoofs like Walk Hard & Popstar: intense recording sessions, pressure to succeed, hedonistic lovemaking with strangers, trouble with a too-understanding spouse, etc. This lens is mostly a glimpse into the tame, by the numbers biopic Miles Ahead could’ve been. The other fixed temporal point is a highly fictionalized down period where Davis is a strung out, Howard Hughes style loner, except trading in germaphobia for depressive squalor. In this 1970s spiritual low point he teams up with a Rolling Stone reporter charged with writing his supposed comeback story to go on a guns & coke-fueled caper to maintain control of his latest unreleased recordings in the face of the record company execs & thugs desperate to rip him off (by satisfying his contract), including an eternally underutilized Michael Stuhlbarg among their ranks. This bifurcated structure recalls the genre subversion of last year’s Love & Mercy, except that Cheadle chooses not to keep his two halves separate. The haze of memory & drug fueled hallucination allow the walls of reality to break down and the two timelines bleed together, mixing the action thriller absurdism & glory days revisitation into a highly explosive cocktail that might be more interesting than essential, but is certainly much more entertaining that it would’ve been if Cheadle played the material straight.

A lot of viewers have been turned off by Miles Ahead’s gleeful tampering with its subject’s life story (with curmudgeony critic Rex Reed being the biggest whiner/detractor out there, which is usually an automatic sign of greatness), but I think the film’s gambles pay off just fine as soon as you separate the real life Miles Davis from the fictional, gun-wielding drug addict Cheadle brings to the screen. This is not a biographical portrait so much as an attempt to capture Davis’s energetic spirit in the weirdly cool & inherently tragic shape of an action cinema anti-hero. Where I find this experiment brilliant is in Cheadle’s willingness to trade in one genre’s flat, uninteresting, trope-laden formula for the much more exciting, much trashier energy of an entirely different kind of picture, one audiences usually have a much easier time focusing on. The writer-director-star has even admitted that he constructed Ewan McGregor’s Rolling Stone writer character merely because he needed a white face onscreen to sell more tickets & secure better funding, which is obviously fucked, but incredibly practical. Cheadle obviously holds tremendous adoration for Davis and wanted his film, which he believes captures the artist’s spirit, to reach the widest audience possible, presumably to spread that adoration.

Ultimately, though the results in Miles Ahead are too strange for wide commercial appeal, mirroring too many eccentric energies from Davis’s work, whether funk or jazz or subculture cool, for any hopes of runaway commercial success. The movie’s similarly unlikely to win over a large chunk of the art film crowd either, since they can be less kind to experimental, but messy debuts from actors-turned-directors, as we saw with Ryan Gosling’s better-than-its-reputation Lost River last year. I don’t want to suggest that Miles Ahead is 100% successful in capturing spirit instead of truth or bringing jazz’s idiosyncrasies to cinematic life. I do think, however, that it’s a surprisingly fun & playful marriage of fine art technique with trash genre thrills, which is more or less my favorite kind of movie magic formula. The only time Don Cheadle’s gambles don’t particularly work for me is in a closing concert sequence that bleeds into the end credits. I’m willing to overlook that discomfort, though, and mileage may vary there since, truth be told, I don’t really like jazz (sorry y’all). I mostly showed up for Miles Ahead’s dangerous, iconoclastic experiments with action-packed absurdism. Cheadle’s debut did not disappoint there. I hope he gets more chances to step behind the camera & deliver more work this confidently strange in the future, despite his first film’s muted reception.

-Brandon Ledet