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Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

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This is an utterly frivolous post that would not have occurred to me even two hours ago. Turning on the idiot box this evening and zapping with the remote, I came across the Eurovision contest on France 2, which I have no recollection of having ever watched in the past but decided to linger on, in view of the controversy over it taking place in Israel (which, not being a BDSer, I could not care less about myself). The pop songs of the different national contestants not being bad at all, one watches, and along the way there was the popular Israeli singer Idan Raichel, who performed an interval act. I hadn’t heard of him. His song is terrific (here). He is apparently of Eastern European heritage but his music has a lot of Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, and Roma influence. Such has been the case with Israeli music for decades now.

One may deplore Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and the right-wing lurch of the electorate there but Israel remains a strikingly multiracial, multicultural society, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Then there was the Swedish singer John Lundvik, who narrowly missed winning. Really nice song (here). As for his ethnic origins, they’re uncertain (he’s adopted), but he’s the face of Sweden today.

Likewise with Italy’s contestant, Alessandro Mahmood (half Egyptian)—simply known as Mahmood—whose song (here) almost won.

The Washington Post’s fine Paris correspondant, James McAuley, had a dispatch dated March 12th on France’s Eurovision nominee, Bilal Hassani, a gay 19-year-old of Moroccan origin.

As for who won: Duncan Laurence of the Netherlands (here). Pourquoi pas?

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as everyone knows, has been a huge hit since its release 3½ months ago—in the US (making over $200M), France (where it’s had 4.3 million box office entrées—which is a lot—and is still playing in several Paris theaters), and elsewhere—and despite the decidedly mixed reviews (French ones were a little more positive than American). And now the pic—and notably lead actor Rami Malek—is winning a slew of awards (Golden Globes and BAFTA, among others) and has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

As a film, I thought it was okay. I had never been a big fan of Queen and probably wouldn’t have bothered with the pic had it not been for my wife, who has long been a Queen fan and was thus eager to see it. I almost entirely associated Queen with its stadium chant songs—’Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Will Rock You’—not to mention the inevitable ‘We Are the Champions’—played endlessly after Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup victory—and which everyone’s heard a hundred thousand times. Learning about the history of the group and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara)—e.g. I didn’t know he was a Parsi from Zanzibar and who arrived in England only in his late teens—was interesting enough (though the film, one reads, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and untruths). To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Mercury was gay and had died of AIDS in 1991. There are indeed gaps in my musical culture générale. If the film had merit in filling this cultural gap, both my wife and I felt that Rami Malek’s performance was its weakest part—that he’s not a very good actor—and are somewhat incredulous that he’s winning all these best acting awards—and may well win the big one at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. Va savoir.

Continuing with the film’s merit in filling my cultural gap, seeing it prompted me to review Queen’s musical œuvre and reassess my prior view. And I have to say, my assessment has moved up several notches. Queen was indeed a great concert band—with Mercury one hell of a stage performer—and had some very good songs. The film appropriately ends with a reenactment of the June 1985 Live Aid concert, with Queen’s performance ranked in one music industry poll as the greatest live act ever. No less (watch it here; it is indeed something). I also rediscovered ‘Under Pressure’, which Mercury created with David Bowie in 1981. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song! Check it out in this YouTube mix of Mercury and Bowie (they actually never did perform on stage together).

So yeah, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a merely okay movie, is indeed worth seeing. I’m certainly glad I did.

Another recent music-themed movie I’m glad I saw—though had planned to from the outset—is ‘A Star Is Born’, the reviews of which were decidedly superior to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the US and good in France. And it was naturally a box office hit (2 million entrées in France). As it’s the fourth remake of the film, or something like that, everyone knows the story. What to say, it’s entertaining, well-acted—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are tops—and with very good music. The soundtrack deserves every award it will receive. We (my daughter, her bf, and I) enjoyed it. Lady Gaga is a great chanteuse—that we know—but we were impressed to learn that Cooper did indeed sing his songs too. Pas mal. Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire sur le film.

On the subject of Lady Gaga, her halftime show at the 2017 Super Bowl may well be the greatest such musical performance—the act and with all the props—I have ever seen. It is quite simply incredible. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here and decide for yourself.

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Coldplay in São Paulo

It’s New Year’s Eve but as both my wife and I are getting over the flu, it’s been a soirée tranquille at home. No parties (not that we were invited to any). I noted on the télé that NRJ12—a station it never even occurs to me to watch—was broadcasting a two-hour concert by Coldplay in São Paulo, from November 8th 2017. I was riveted to it from beginning to end. If one had any doubts that Coldplay is the greatest rock band of the past twenty years—and with Chris Martin one of the greatest rock singers and stage performers of all time—they will have been dispelled after watching this incredible concert. What a spectacle! And what a great band! As the concert has been made into a movie, only clips of it are available on YouTube. Just watch the four-minute one here, of ‘Viva la Vida’. The entire concert is like this: non-stop high energy and exuberance. I think I’ll buy the CD and/or DVD at FNAC come Wednesday.

With that, I wish all a Happy New Year and Bonne Année.

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Charles Aznavour, R.I.P.

His death is, not surprisingly, dominating the news here today. As I didn’t grow up in France, I was not overly familiar with his music until I started living here permanently in the early 1990s. I’ve been a big fan since, needless to say. If there is a Frenchman or woman who is not a fan of Charles Aznavour, I would like to know his or her name. I’ve had Aznavour’s greatest hits double CD, 40 chansons d’or, since it came out and which I’ve listened to countless times. I will state categorically that Charles Aznavour is France’s greatest singer (chanteur) of our era, i.e. of my lifetime—and my wife, who knows French music better than I, entirely agrees (the greatest chanteuse is, of course, Edith Piaf). If I have to choose my three favorite Aznavour songs, they would be Emmenez-moi—depending on my mood, this one can almost bring tears to my eyes; je suis un sentimental, qu’est-ce que vous voulez—Désormais, and La Bohème.

Aznavour did not retire. His last concert was in January, at age 93. Watch him here at Paris-Bercy last November. His last television interview—25 minutes—was three days ago. And he had a concert tour coming up. At age 94. Amazing.

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Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.

I grew up listening to her. Musically speaking, she was a part of my 1960s childhood and early adolescence. There are a number of Top 10 and Top 20 lists of her greatest songs out there but this is my personal no.1.

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2018 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars, if one doesn’t know. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations each are Au revoir là-haut (See You Up There) and ‘120 battements par minute’ (BPM: Beats Per Minute), followed by Le Sens de la fête (C’est la vie) with ten, ‘Barbara’ with nine, ‘Petit Paysan’ (Bloody Milk) with eight, ‘Grave’ (Raw) six, and ‘Le Redoutable’ with five. I’ve seen almost all the films in the top categories, have posts on several, and will of more, hopefully soon. For those that won’t get a post, here’s a brief mention.

Barbara, by Mathieu Amalric. A biopic of sorts of the French chanteuse—an icon in France, unknown in the US—whose heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s. I say “of sorts” as it’s a mise en abyme—a film of the making of a film about Barbara, with Jeanne Balibar (Best Actress nominee) playing the actress who plays Barbara; and Amalric (Best Director nominee) the director of the film of the film. Let me just come out and say that I disliked it. I found it insufferable and couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s the kind of film that critics praise—as they did, including in the Hollywood press—but that regular movie-goers do not. I’m fairly conventional when it comes to biopics: I like them to proceed chronologically and cover the high points in the personality’s life—unless if it’s very specifically just of a slice of the life—and if it’s of a singer, to hear his/her best known songs. ‘Barbara’ (nominated for Best Film, BTW) does not do this. As one critic put it, the pic is “dreamlike” and “opaque,” which tells you as much as you need to know. À propos, there was also a biopic last year of the Egyptian-Italian-French chanteuse Dalida—a contemporary of Barbara’s and an icon in France herself—and that was indeed a more conventional film in the genre. It has been nominated for no Césars but audiences liked it far more than ‘Barbara’ (or the critics). I found it sufficiently entertaining myself, so on this I’m with the vox populi.

Django, by Étienne Comar. Another biopic on a famous French singer: the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-53), played by the invariably excellent Reda Kateb (Best Actor nominee).This one focuses on a slice of his life, during the Nazi occupation of France, beginning in 1943, with Rienhardt, who was a Sinti Roma, playing publicly in Paris (mainly at the Folies Bergères) at the sufferance of jazz-loving officers in the German high command, who could have packed him off to a concentration or death camp at any moment. Advised by his mistress, Louise (Cécile de France), who’s in the Resistance, that he was in danger, Reinhardt flees with his family to Thonon-les-Bains on Lake Geneva—and where there’s a Roma encampment—to await clandestine passage to Switzerland. While in Thonon, he is forced to deal with German officers, some of whom like jazz, others who—being better Nazis—do not. It’s unclear in the film if he actually makes it into Switzerland but he did survive the war, with the final scene of him in Paris in May ’45, performing a non-jazz score he composed, “Requiem pour mes frères tsiganes,” in remembrance of the Roma who perished at the hands of the Nazis. ‘Django’ is an entertaining, well-done biopic, worth seeing for Reinhardt’s great music—of which there’s a lot in the film, played by the The Rosenberg Trio—Kateb’s performance, and as it’s an interesting story about a major musician of the 20th century.

La Promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn), by Éric Barbier. Yet another biopic, this of Romain Gary (played by Pierre Niney), based on his best-selling (in France) 1960 autobiographical novel, which is as much about his strong-willed mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Best Actress nominee), who sacrifices all for her son, as about himself. Gary (1914-80) had quite a life: a Lithuanian Jew, brought to France at age 14 and converted to Catholicism; World War II aviator who flew missions for the Free French; French diplomat in the immediate postwar era; a major literary figure and who won two Goncourt prizes (under pseudonyms); and who had a tumultuous love life—he was Jean Seberg’s second husband—was a tortured soul, and ended his life with a gunshot to the head. The stuff of novels and biopics. This one is classic in its structure. It was a box office hit in France and audiences loved it. It may be seen.

Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In), by Claire Denis. Isabelle (Juliette Binoche, Best Actress nominee) is a 50-something Parisian artist from les beaux quartiers (naturally), divorced (of course), and in search of true love (what else?). And though she has no problem landing lovers—she has a string of them, of various ages and professions—she cannot settle with one, as she just doesn’t know what she wants. The pic is, to quote one review, a “delightful foray into romantic kinda-comedy.” Quoting another, it is a “grownup film, inspired by…Roland Barthes [and] a sophisticated delight.” It is indeed the kind of film that critics effuse over—as they do of anything directed by Claire Denis—but that audiences do not at all. The discrepancy between the two camps is particularly striking in France, with (most) critics giving it the thumbs way up and spectateurs the total opposite. As one may suspect, I’m with the latter. I found the movie trivial and a waste of time. I did not like Isabelle—perhaps partly because I’m not a big fan of Juliette Binoche to begin with—and couldn’t have cared less about her états d’âme. And the final scene with Gérard Depardieu, playing a radiesthesist, is ridiculous. The mere fact that the co-screenwriter was Christine Angot, who’s a complete nutcase, should have been a forewarning. A cinephile friend of mine did like the film, however—though two others shared my view—so this is one over which reasonable persons of highbrow taste may disagree.

Numéro Une (Number One), by Tonie Marshall. Emmanuelle Blachey (Emmanuelle Devos, Best Actress nominee), also 50-something, is an ambitious engineer climbing the ladder at a major French corporation in the renewable energy sector, who succeeds in breaking through the glass ceiling to become CEO. But she then runs into all sorts of problems, not a small part of which are related to her being female in what is—and certainly in France—a very male world. It’s a feminist film, thus timely in this age of #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc, but is not without problems. Devos is very good, as always, but I found the plot overly complicated. It’s hard to follow and one gets lost. The review by THR critic Jordan Mintzer gets it exactly right. The film may certainly be seen but make sure you have a scorecard and pay very close attention to who is who and who says what.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman (Mr. & Mrs. Adelman), by Nicolas Bedos. I will let THR’s Jordan Mintzer do the talking here: “Chronicling four decades in the life of a quintessentially French couple, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman reveals the highs and lows, passions and betrayals, pontifications and intellectual masturbation of a writer [Victor (Nicolas Bedos)] and his wife [Sarah (Doria Tillier, Best Actress nominee)], from the 1970s to the present day. (…) Like a bottle of supermarket red wine masquerading as a vintage Chateau Margaux, the film purports to be a classy French dramedy but winds up leaving a bad taste in your mouth. It’s filled with energy and a certain amount of wit, but its premise is so overstretched, its characters so cliched and its late third-act reversal so ridiculous, that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (…)” Tout à fait. I wasn’t bowled over by this movie, as one may surmise, though Allociné spectateurs gave it the thumbs up (as did my wife). Chacun son goût.

Grave (Raw), by Julia Ducournau. This one’s a horror movie, which completely passed under my radar screen when it opened a year ago, and despite its very good reviews (including in the US). A mini-synopsis: Justine (Garance Marillier, Most Promising Actress nominee) is a 16-year-old overachiever from a family of militant vegetarians, who is about to enter veterinary school, where her older sister is a student. She’s never tasted meat in her life but that changes during the intense hazing of orientation week… The movie, in the words of one (tongue-in-cheek) reviewer, “tells the all-too-common tale [emphasis added] of a vegetarian woman becoming a cannibal after being forced to eat raw rabbit liver. This relatively innocent tasting quickly develops into a lust for man-flesh as…Justine turns from a naive freshman into blood-thirsty cannibal.” No less. When the pic was screened at the Toronto film festival, paramedics apparently had to be called in when members of the audience fainted. Oy vey. Reminds me of reading about George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ back when it came out, of theaters posting warnings and shell shocked persons who saw it necessitating psychiatric intervention (I first saw it with friends in college—at a midnight screening and no doubt after having smoked an illicit substance; we thought it was a hoot). If one is an aficionado of the horror genre, then ‘Grave’ may certainly be seen. If not, then it need not be seen.

Marvin ou la Belle Éducation (Reinventing Marvin), by Anne Fontaine. A touching film about a boy growing up in a trashy, lower class family in a village in the Vosges, who becomes aware of his queer identity as he hits puberty, is bullied at school, and has to confront the incomprehension of his IQ-challenged parents and siblings (his father is played by the very good Grégory Gadebois). Named Marvin Bijou, he is saved, as it were, by the school principal, who enrolls him in her theater class and which changes his life. He ends up in Paris in his late teens, changes his name to Martin Clément (Finnegan Oldfield, Most Promising Actor nominee), and joins an avant-garde theater troupe, helped along by nice people (including Isabelle Huppert in a cameo role, playing herself). The film is inspired by Édouard Louis’ best-selling 2014 autobiography En finir avec Eddie Bellegueule (in English: The End of Eddy).

I’ll have posts soon on Petit Paysan (excellent), Le Redoutable (better than expected), 120 battements par minute (very good), Ava (not bad), and Jeune Femme (mixed).

My ballot:

BEST FILM: ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
‘Patients’ and ‘Petit Paysan’ are worthy contenders but they’ve also been nominated for Best First Film. ‘120 BPM’ will probably win (for PC reasons).

BEST DIRECTOR: Albert Dupontel for ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
Logically.

BEST ACTOR: Jean-Pierre Bacri in ‘Le Sens de la Fête’.
Other nominees are worthy but Bacri is great and has never won this one.

BEST ACTRESS: Karin Viard in Jalouse.
There is no obvious choice here but Viard stands out in her role.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Laurent Lafitte in ‘Au revoir là-haut’.
He’s an excellent actor and totally convincing here.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Sara Giraudeau in ‘Petit Paysan’.
Pourquoi pas? Laure Calamy (‘Ava’) is the runner-up. Adèle Haenel (‘120 BPM’) has already won this one. Anaïs Demoustier is no doubt good in ‘La Villa’ but I did not see it.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Nahuel Pérez Biscayart in ‘120 BPM’.
Good acting in this film, by him along with all the others

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Camélia Jordana in Le Brio.
A strong category this year. Iris Bry (Les Gardiennes), Laetitia Dosch (‘Jeune Femme’), and Eye Haidara (‘Le Sens de la Fête’) are all very good but Jordana is tops.

BEST FIRST FILM: Patients and ‘Petit Paysan’ ex aequo.
A coin flip here. Both are far superior to the other three nominees.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, by Raoul Peck.
Hands down. I liked ‘Visages, Villages’ by Agnès Varda and JR—didn’t everyone?—and ‘Carré 35’ is compelling. I haven’t seen ‘À voix haute: La force de la parole’ or Raymond Depardon’s ’12 Jours’.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Le Caire confidentiel’ (The Nile Hilton Incident).
One of the best movies of 2017, period. The Russian ‘Faute d’amour’ (Loveless) is a close second. ‘Dunkerque’ (Dunkirk) and ‘La La Land’ are overrated, and ‘The Square’ does not merit all the awards it’s received or been nominated for. The Belgian ‘Noces’ (A Wedding) is flawed. I haven’t seen ‘L’Échange des princesses’ (The Royal Exchange); as it’s manifestly a French film, I have no idea what it’s doing in this category.

UPDATE: ‘120 BPM’ won six awards—including Best Film, as expected—and ‘Au revoir là-haut’ five. The Hollywood Reporter’s dispatch is here. Libération’s film critics, who are not too impressed with the whole spectacle, weigh in here.

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