Friday, April 22, 2016

Taxi Driver: Still dangerous, still remarkable 40 years later

Harvey Keitel (left to right), Michael Phillips, Paul Schrader, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Kent Jones gathered for a 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Tribeca Film Festival. (photo credit: Getty Images)

The day Taxi Driver opened, Feb. 8, 1976, screenwriter Paul Schrader went to a theater across town and saw a line around the corner still as the first showing was to begin. He worried something had gone wrong with the projector or, god forbid, the print. He asked the girl working at the theater what all those people were doing there. She told him they were here for Taxi Driver. He asked if it had not already started, and she said they were lined up for the next showing.

“I walked up [into] the theater,” said Schrader. “It was the very first screening in New York, and the cab pulls out of the steam, and it says ‘Taxi Driver,’ and people in the audience applaud. The film had never been projected before. It was some kind of New York groundswell that just was there.”

To this story, director Martin Scorsese responded: “Incredible. I had no idea. None.”

The scene outside the Beacon Theatre
So went the 40th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Beacon Theatre on the Upper-West Side of Manhattan. Robert De Niro pulled together a reunion of the filmmakers behind the cinematic classic as one of the centerpieces of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which he co-founded. Onstage were Scorsese, De Niro, Schrader, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, producer Michael Phillips, and moderator Kent Jones, who is program director of the New York Film Festival.

The overwhelming feeling of the moment was awe – from an audience with a group of legendary actors and filmmakers assembled before them and from those onstage who still seemed stunned their little film found any success at all.

“What I saw [in the script], I can’t articulate,” said Scorsese. “It just had to be done, that’s all. I think Bob and I, we never really spoke about meaning or theory of any kind. Paul is the one who expresses it. I just had a kind of determination to make it, and I said earlier, I didn’t think it was a film that anybody was going to see. I felt it was just made out of the passion of the situation.”

That passion drips down the screen. It explodes out of the speakers. It demands your attention even when the only thing on screen is an empty hallway, one of the film’s many signature shots. On the big screen, the steam seems to pour out into the theater, and characters that have become larger than life through pop culture and critical appreciation feel more real but still larger than life. This is how this film was meant to be seen – in a packed house with that gorgeous yet ominous Bernard Herrmann score booming throughout the auditorium.

“It’s part of being in the city at night in the summer,” said Scorsese. “You can feel it in the film, Michael Chapman’s photography. You can get a sense of – you can taste – you can taste the humidity, and you can taste the sense of sometimes a kind of anger and violence that was emanating from the streets themselves. It was crazy.”

The city is nothing like that anymore. One imagines that is for the best. The world Taxi Driver depicts feels divorced from reality, like a metaphor for something darker in the human experiment, and it is those things, too, but to a person, the filmmakers assured us life in the city was like that and that people like Travis Bickle and worse were all around.

“When I read it, I identified with it, as I think we all did,” said De Niro. “Even though Marty’s from the heart of New York, I’m from the heart of New York, not far from each other in Manhattan, we just identified with the character.”

Ultimately, the character is the film, as is De Niro’s remarkable, terrifying performance. Pop culture, in some ways, has reduced Travis to a Mohawk and “Are you talkin’ to me?” However, when you see the performance again, in its proper context, it is hard to imagine a more thorough examination of psychosis, of a man on the brink of madness, capable of committing any number of terrible acts, and just waiting for the moment to strike.

“This script began in the best possible way,” said Schrader. “It began as a kind of self-therapy. There was a person who I was afraid of, who I was afraid of becoming, and that person was the taxi driver, and I felt like if I wrote about him, I could distance him from me, and it worked. … After 40 years, that therapeutic power is still imbued in the film.”

A film written as therapy, made out of necessity, depicting a hellscape at the heart of the American soul, one understands the filmmakers’ bafflement at its success. When it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Scorsese got wind the jury president, Tennessee Williams, was not a fan. Believing they had no chance to win, Scorsese and the cast did their required interviews and promotions, got on a plane, and came back home.

Phillips stayed behind to represent the film just in case. Well, just in case arrived and the film was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or, the highest award of the festival and one of the highest honors in all filmmaking. To his shock, Phillips said, when he went onstage to accept the award, half the audience celebrated. The other half booed. After Phillips told the story, Scorsese just shook his head.

Jones, attempting to save the evening from that somewhat downer ending, offered: “Well, the film got the last laugh.”

With that, the assembled legends stood, clasped hands, and took a bow. Forty years and an ocean away from that divided audience in Cannes, hundreds of film lovers had gathered to show their appreciation for a work of pure genius. As the wild cheers of a grateful crowd echoed through the room, the truth was plain for anyone to see. Yeah, the film got the last laugh.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: De Niro, Scorsese, the collaboration

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

There are a few keystone actor-director collaborations in cinema history – Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune; Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni; John Ford and John Wayne; Woody Allen and Diane Keaton; Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart; and Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Those six collaborations account for at least 15 of the greatest films ever made. In each case, the artist is great as an individual, but something about their work together brings out the best in each.

Thousands of pages have been filled and tens of thousands of words spilled on all of these pairs, Scorsese-De Niro more than most. Without wanting to be just another leaf on the forest floor, I have to say it is impossible to consider Taxi Driver without looking at it in the context of its director and star’s shared body of work. From 1973 to 1995, they made eight films together, several modern masterpieces, others misunderstood classics, and one underappreciated gem that almost destroyed Scorsese.

Mean Streets (1973)

Their first film working together featured De Niro in a supporting role as the loose-cannon gambler friend of Harvey Keitel’s low-level mafia figure. Mean Streets features all the major themes they would revisit time and again in their careers – crime, the everyday violence that infects people’s lives, the push and pull of religious belief, and the brutality and barbarism of men. Before this, Scorsese had made just two features as a director, and De Niro had appeared in a handful of films, garnering some acclaim for his performance in Bang the Drum Slowly. After, both artists flourished.

Taxi Driver (1976)

By the time they reunited, De Niro had won his first Academy Award for his role as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, and Scorsese had proved he could step outside the crime genre with the wonderfully subdued and insightful Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, for which Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for Best Actress. Both men were clearly in a groove, and with Paul Schrader’s magnificent script in hand, they made the first of the three stone-cold masterpieces they would make together.

For all of the film’s sinister, lurid atmosphere, it features one scene that stands out as particularly daft, in which a psychotic man with a gun sits in the back of Travis Bickle’s cab outside his wife’s lover’s apartment. The psychotic man is played by Scorsese in his first credited onscreen role, though he had appeared uncredited in three of his previous features.

The scene is mostly ad-libbed by Scorsese, who as a director is trying to get a rise out of De Niro and as an actor just keeps piling on the gory details of the violence he plans for his cheating wife. De Niro barely moves, shifting his eyes slightly to view the man through his rearview mirror, but he never engages him. Travis is a man on the edge, and here, he meets a man who has clearly gone over the edge, and the sequence is deeply disturbing as we witness the kind of monster Travis could easily become.

New York, New York (1977)

There is really no way around saying this – by this point in his career, Scorsese had developed a drug problem. It did not interfere with his work so much as it interfered with his personal life. The film is an intentionally stylish and artificial ode to classic Hollywood musicals and features De Niro as a saxophone player who falls in love with a singer played by Liza Minelli.

It was a box-office flop – earning $13 million on a $14 million budget – and many critics were put off by the artifice of the whole enterprise, failing to grasp the intent behind it. Probably best known today for its title song, made popular by Frank Sinatra, New York, New York is often regarded as a rare misfire by Scorsese, but that assessment ignores the movie’s greatest virtue as the document of a filmmaker truly in love with film.

Raging Bull (1980)

Indisputably one of the greatest films of all time, it is the peak of both artists’ careers, though it might be more fair to characterize it as a plateau for Scorsese, who in 36 years since has rarely come down much from these heights. It is also the film Scorsese credits with saving his life. After the failure of New York, New York, Scorsese’s drug addiction spiraled out of control, ultimately landing him in the hospital.

While Scorsese was bedridden, De Niro brought him the story of Jake La Motta. The director was unsure if he had the energy or creative passion to make another film, but De Niro insisted. In bringing the rise and fall of La Motta to the screen, Scorsese found an outlet for all the rage and frustration that had built up inside him over the years. He found the creative spirit that had left him in his drugged-out haze. And he found the will to shoot one of the most devastating portraits of a man at war with himself ever put to celluloid.

Meanwhile, De Niro dug deeper than he ever had to find the heart of a man who is by turns disgusting and pitiable. He became the character as no other actor has ever accomplished. Much of course has been made of De Niro’s physical transformation – into the boxer first, then the bloated shell of a man later – but more impressive than that is De Niro’s spiritual transformation. He takes on the soul of La Motta in a way that is terrifying, dangerous, and awe inspiring.

The King of Comedy (1982)

A comedy in the loosest sense of the word, Scorsese has said numerous times this is his favorite performance of De Niro’s. As wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin, the actor is the simpering embodiment of the Me Generation, a self-actualized, self-important, self-assured blowhard who believes he has everything coming to him because he deserves it.

Scorsese had delved into the dark heart of man before but never with the sharp-edged sword of satire he carried into The King of Comedy. The film has only grown scarier and more honest with time, serving equally well as a rebuke of the current selfie-obsessed, fame-hungry generation and their forebears who clearly suffered the same egomania, a fact they seem all too ready to forget.

Goodfellas (1990)

Feeling they had reached the virtual limit of their artistic collaboration, Scorsese and De Niro parted ways for much of the 1980s, during which time Scorsese made the dark comedy After Hours, the sports film The Color of Money, and the still controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. De Niro went off and made other great films such as Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and Midnight Run. But it took another masterpiece to bring them back together.

If The Godfather is the mafia as an allegory for the promise of the American Dream and family loyalty, then Goodfellas is a gritty examination of the machinery that powers that dream. It is about the mafia as a business, where money is king. To quote Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the ethos is: “Fuck you. Pay me.” De Niro appears in a supporting role as Jimmy Conway, the lifelong hustler who loves the action and the money. Of course, none of it can last. American Dream or not, everyone eventually wakes up.

Cape Fear (1991)

The only remake in the Scorsese canon until he finally won an Oscar for The Departed, this was an ideal project for someone like Scorsese to take on. It does not achieve the same brilliance as its predecessor, a quintessential film noir that stood out as uniquely dark in its time (1962), but Scorsese has no trouble imposing his vision on the material and making the implied horror of the original more explicit.

De Niro takes on the role of Max Cady, originated by Robert Mitchum, an ex-con out for revenge on the defense lawyer who failed to keep him out of prison (played here by Nick Nolte, taking over for Gregory Peck). If there is a weak spot in the Scorsese-De Niro oeuvre this is probably it, but its virtue lies in its commitment to the dirty, disturbing deeds it shows and its argument that no one – neither tormentor nor tormented – is without sin.

Casino (1995)

Their final collaboration thus far, Casino has been accused of being something of a rehash of Goodfellas, but while it carries many of the same beats, it features a totally different rhythm. De Niro is Ace Rothstein, a professional hustler handed the keys to a kingdom. A man who is always in control of his own wants and desires, he wants total control over his world as well, but those closest to him lack his sense of restraint and burn the whole empire to the ground.

One hopes these two brilliant artists find their way back to each other – they of course are good friends, and rumors swirl constantly of a ninth collaboration – but if Casino stands as their final work together, it is a fitting capstone. It features all of Scorsese’s typical preoccupations – all those things we mentioned back in Mean Streets – and a De Niro performance that proves subtly captivating and stands up well alongside his best work.

Both men obviously found great success outside their working relationship, and it is probably for the best the collaboration ended before it was allowed to become stale or repetitive. However, when the modern history of film is written, scholars will talk about the work of three different artists – Scorsese, De Niro, and the unparalleled output of both men together.

Taxi Driver Week: Bernard Herrmann, musical genius

Bernard Herrmann is the musical genius behind scores for films as diverse as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver.

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

A résumé that begins with Citizen Kane and ends with Taxi Driver could reasonably be considered one of the best of all time even if it featured nothing else between. Composer-conductor Bernard Herrmann’s résumé begins and ends with those two classics but also features four Oscar nominations, including one win, an endless list of some of the greatest films of all time, and maybe the most famous musical sting in film history.

It would be impossible to list them all – and you can visit his page at IMDB for a complete list, which I encourage you to do – but here is a brief rundown of the films he worked on: The Devil and Daniel Webster (for which he won his only Oscar); The Magnificent Ambersons; The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Twilight Zone (the television series); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; and Cape Fear.

If you know Herrmann’s work from anything, though, it would be from his collaborations with director Alfred Hitchcock, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, and Vertigo. The most famous piece Herrmann wrote – properly known as “The Murder” but colloquially known as the music in the shower scene in Psycho – effectively ended their working relationship.

Hitchcock worked tirelessly to get the sound of the stabbing in the shower correct and wanted no music over the scene. Herrmann wrote his instantly recognizable violin sting anyway – the entire score for the film is strings, by the way; no percussion, brass, woodwind, or anything else – and anyone familiar with the scene knows it does not work without the music. Even Hitchcock had to admit begrudgingly the music was better, which is why it appears in the film, but not one to be upstaged, Hitchcock worked with Herrmann only twice more, on Marnie and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour several years later.

It is likely you also know Herrmann’s work from his composition “Twisted Nerve” from the film of the same name. Though that film proved fairly forgettable, “Twisted Nerve” was used to great effect in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. You will know it better as the eerie tune whistled throughout the soundtrack.

I could keep running down the list of films and compositions of his that entered the cultural lexicon, but you get the idea. For me, nothing tops his work on Taxi Driver, which I consider the greatest film score ever written. Not many will share that view, but its inherent greatness cannot be denied. Famous for his swirling strings and the dynamic way he shifted between the quiet and the loud, Herrmann’s score for Martin Scorsese’s existential masterpiece is like nothing else he ever did.

The booming percussion makes it sound as though the armies of hell are marching forth on New York City. Then the brass kicks in like an assault. At its core, Taxi Driver is a film about a Vietnam War veteran who has seen the worst of humanity and is looking for any reason to lash out, and Herrmann’s music never lets us forget the war raging in the city, in the streets, and in Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) mind.

For all that, his greatest achievement, to my mind, is “Betsy’s Theme.” Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) is Travis’ salvation, or so he believes. His romantic feelings for her are tangled up in his hatred for everything else and his savior complex. He will rescue her from the filth, whether she wants to be rescued or not. Herrmann’s music, which stands out on the rest of the soundtrack as a romantic, jazzy interlude, reflects this. When the horn kicks in, a little less than a minute into the track, it is clear you are hearing not just the greatest film score of all time but a musical composition that ranks with Bach or Beethoven.

Apologies if I come across as breathlessly enamored of Herrmann’s work, but I find its beauty stunning. Perhaps I am overselling it, but the wonderful thing about music is it needs no selling. Listen for yourself. Herrmann died Dec. 24, 1975, the very night he completed work on Taxi Driver. His legacy will live on, however, as long as staccato strings have the power to terrify, an eerie whistle the power to unnerve, and a lonely horn the power to inspire awe.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Taxi Driver Week: Five best New York films of the new century

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is the definitive portrait of New York City at its lowest point.

Welcome to Taxi Driver Week at Last Cinema Standing, a week-long celebration of Martin Scorsese's bruising, beautiful modern classic in honor of the film's 40th anniversary and a special screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Two films defined the highs and lows of New York City in the 20th century. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is the black-and-white postcard image of the city. It is a gorgeous love letter filled with romantic overtures and nostalgic glimpses at a past long since gone but still informing our feelings about the world it depicts. Its upper-crust characters stroll through Central Park at night, visit soda fountains, and go to museums. The wealthy and their romantic foibles are the film’s chief concerns, but the city always buzzes with life and energy in the background.

Taxi Driver resides on the other side of the street – the dream that became a nightmare. It is the dirt and grime and hate and ugliness of a world teetering on the brink of destruction. Martin Scorsese films on the same streets Allen did, but Scorsese litters his sidewalks with trash, shows steam pouring out of every sewer grate, and envisions a city slowly circling the drain. It is an angry mess, overflowing with blood and bile. It is barely habitable. It is hell, as Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) says.

For better or worse, Manhattan and Taxi Driver are the definitive portraits of that era in New York’s history, but as with all such things, time marches on, and the city has moved beyond both depictions. The city is now high finance and culture war, gentrification and class divide, Disneyland and cemetery. As such, it seems only right to look to the new century for films to define what it is to live in New York City today. In 100 years, audiences could look back on any of these five films and understand what it once meant to be in New York.

25th Hour (directed by Spike Lee; 2002)

Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 25th Hour
The only one of these films to deal directly with 9/11 (though The Visitor could only be set in a post-9/11 world), 25th Hour bravely explores the stain left on an entire city’s soul. Like Scorsese and Allen, Lee is a quintessential New York filmmaker, and it is fitting he has made perhaps the best film about living in New York City in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

Adapted by Game of Thrones creator David Benioff from his own novel, the screenplay digs deep below the surface of a city in mourning and unearths the kind of pain that flags and bumper stickers and slogans cannot mask. The story revolves around Monty (the excellent Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before a long prison sentence. To view the city through the eyes of someone who will not see it again until he is an old man is to see it anew. The sights, sounds, and emotions blend together, and the city becomes one magnificent blur.

Even now, nearly 15 years since 9/11, the city still carries those wounds right there on the surface, and the sensory overload Monty experiences has only become more pronounced. The film argues there is no one you can really trust, but if you are going to make it in this life in this city, you have to rely on someone, otherwise you will be swallowed whole.

Chop Shop (directed by Ramin Bahrani; 2007)

Alejandro Polanco in Chop Shop
By the late Roger Ebert’s favorite young director, this was Ebert’s favorite film by Bahrani, and it is easy to see why. All of Bahrani’s films are stories of American lives and what it means to exist on the fringes of the American Dream. No city represents the American Dream more than New York, whose fringes are overflowing with the forgotten, the discarded, and the disillusioned.

Ale is an orphan living with his older sister above an auto-repair shop. They both scrape together any money they can any way they can, mostly through petty crimes. They scrimp and save, get knocked down and get back up, and their only goal is to buy a van they can turn into a food truck. Like everybody else who comes to this city, they just want to make their own way, but fortunes are fickle, and there is no prize for hard work but more work. The city is tough, and so must they be, no matter what stands in their way.

The Visitor (directed by Tom McCarthy; 2008)

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor
Multicultural is a mostly meaningless word now. Where once homogeny was the rule, it is now the exception, and multicultural life is a given. That does not make it any easier for those unwilling to accept the new paradigm. However, for those willing to explore the worlds of others and embrace the melting pot, life becomes a rich tapestry of new experiences and joys. That is the truth at the heart of New York City and the core of Oscar-winning writer-director McCarthy’s superb film.

Walter (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely college professor who returns to his Manhattan apartment to find a pair of illegal immigrants squatting there, though they believed they were renting it legitimately. Of course, Walter has every right to call the authorities or throw them to the curb, but he does not. Instead, he invites them to stay, and in so doing, he drives the loneliness out of his own life and enriches his view of the world.

McCarthy’s script smartly focuses on the small indignities visited upon immigrants trying to eke out a meager existence and the post-9/11 suspicions used to divide people into categories of us and them. The Visitor points the way forward for all of us. We can either push people away based on race, religion, or whatever factor we choose and live out our miserable, lonely lives, or we can embrace change and accept the vibrancy of this world as a wonderful reality.

Shame (directed by Steve McQueen; 2011)

Michael Fassbender in Shame
For those unable or unwilling to reach out, loneliness, isolation, and alienation are facts of life. All the money, power, and beauty in the world cannot make you happy if unhappiness is at the core of your being. Featuring knockout performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and gorgeous direction by McQueen, Shame is a dark, despairing journey through the life of a man whose dissatisfaction and disaffection spring from wells running deep inside him. He spends every second of the day numbing the pain, but all that leaves him is numb.

Brandon (Fassbender) works in high finance, he lives in an impossibly opulent loft, and he is a sex addict. His sister, Sissy (Mulligan), has her own set of vaguely defined but deeply felt sexual issues. Together, they spiral into desperation and heartache. They are broken people, but as Sissy says to Brandon, that does not make them bad people. The city acts as an amplifier for their vices and allows them to indulge in all manner of self-destruction, but it also creates more noise, drowning out their cries for help.

It is a bleak but accurate depiction of life on this island. It is all too easy to push away those who love us and choose those who do not know us. If we refuse to let people get close, they cannot touch us, but that distance, that space between, leaves its own marks. The hardest part of living in New York City is letting yourself care, letting people in, and letting yourself be open to others. It is a lesson we all must learn at some point, whether or not we are willing to listen.

Frances Ha (directed by Noah Baumbach; 2013)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha
Every film on this list features a fairly low-concept premise. They are not overly clever or precious stories. They are not needlessly labyrinthine, nor do they seek to wow you with flash or grandeur. They are stories of real people from across the spectrum of human experience. Perhaps Baumbach and co-writer-star Greta Gerwig’s film speaks to me most because it most closely resembles my experience, if not in the details, then in the feeling.

During the events of the film, Frances (Gerwig) is the age I am now. She has the following conversation with her friend, Benji:

Frances: Do I look old to you?
Benji: No … Yes.
Frances: How old?
Benji: Older than I am.
Frances: Older than 27?
Benji: No. Twenty-seven is old though.

That brief exchange is possibly the best summation of how I feel every day. I do not feel very old – nor very accomplished – but my perception of where I am in life changes with every passing minute. Frances struggles for everything she gets, but at the beginning of the film, she sets her sights so low, the struggle is not worth it. New York City is a beautiful place for exploring who you are and who you want to be, but as Frances learns, it is not enough to figure out who you are. You have to want to be something more. That makes the struggle worth it. That makes New York City worth it.

Last Cinema Standing presents: Taxi Driver Week

Robert De Niro is Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was released Feb. 8, 1976. Three month later, Scorsese won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Less than a year after that, it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Now, 40 years on, its place as one of the greatest films ever made is set in stone. It is an unimpeachable classic that still has the power to shock, disturb, and provoke.

To commemorate this landmark achievement and in anticipation of a special 40th anniversary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Last Cinema Standing is devoting this week to Taxi Driver. We will have a number of features and reflections over the next several days, all culminating in our coverage of the anniversary screening, where Scorsese, stars Robert De Niro, Jodi Foster, and Cybill Shepherd, and screenwriter Paul Schrader will gather to discuss the film.

This will be an opportunity to look back through the modern history of cinema, of which Taxi Driver is an integral part. We will analyze the film’s legacy and lasting influence, the controversy surrounding its depictions of violence and insanity, and the ways it has seeped into our cultural consciousness. My hope is we will have a lot of fun along the way, too.

Taxi Driver is among my favorite films of all time – there were several years where I would have put it right at the top of the list – and I could not be more excited to see the cast and filmmakers present it on the big screen. If I can translate even a fraction of the joy I take in discussing and viewing this film into the words I write in this space, it will be worth it. So please, join me here over the next few days as we dive into one of the undisputed treasures of cinema.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New movie review: Sing Street

Sing Street is writer-director John Carney's latest musical masterpiece about discovering yourself by discovering your art.

I cannot say precisely why I first picked up a guitar. I had lyrics in need of music but nothing really to say. I had no dreams of rock stardom. It was not to get girls. I liked the noise, I suppose, but since picking up that first guitar, banging out a few hesitant chords, and whispering a couple quiet songs into a microphone in the corner of my room, I know there is no way to go back to the time before. Music is like that. It finds you. It gets inside you. It is something your body and soul require in a way your mind cannot conceive. One simply must have music.

No filmmaker knows this need better than writer-director John Carney, who captured lightning in a bottle before with his superb 2007 musical Once. If his new film, Sing Street, does not quite match that achievement, it is only because it rides in on a different storm. A semi-autobiographical ode to all the kids the world knocks around just because it can, Carney’s latest is a bittersweet hymn of rebellion that cries out with optimism amid the darkness at all its edges.

Set in Dublin in 1986, 15-year-old Cosmo, né Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is growing up in a broken home. Oh, his parents are together – Catholic rules and Irish mores about divorce being what they were – but their family is a slowly sinking shipwreck just the same. When the film begins, Cosmo is told he will be sent to the Synge Street Christian Brothers School as a way to save money. The school is known among those willing to speak such truths as a dead end for education where you are more likely to be molested by the priests than taught anything of value.

On his first day, he is bullied by students and faculty alike. He is forced to dance while at the wrong end of a slingshot. The headmaster upbraids him for wearing brown shoes instead of black. Then he sees the girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). A year older, she says she is a model and intends to light out for London at the first chance she gets. She is beautiful and he is smitten, so Cosmo believes every word and asks if she would not mind appearing in a music video for his band. She agrees, and because sometimes the best plans are conceived under pressure, he now must form a band and write some songs.

He puts together a group of misfits, including a guitarist with a rabbit obsession, a keyboardist who happens to be the only black kid in school, and a bassist who thinks a dime-store cowboy costume makes him look like an outlaw. They are Sing Street, and Cosmo’s first foray into songwriting is heavily influenced by the songs of Depeche Mode and Duran Duran in heavy rotation on Top of the Pops, which he and his brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), watch religiously.

His first song, “The Riddle of the Model,” is passably enjoyable, but it does not sound much like Cosmo, who crucially does not commit his band’s sound to the new wave label it so resembles but rather calls it futurist music. It is not just the music, though, that points to the future. It is Cosmo himself. While he continues to write about his infatuation with Raphina – by which she is clearly flattered – he begins to incorporate the grievances of his daily life into his songs, and that is when the music becomes his own.

Cosmo may have started his band to get Raphina to notice him, but once he has it, he can give voice to the anger and frustration he always felt but could not express. He wanted the girl, but he needed the music. Parents who fight constantly, a brother whose own dreams of music and escape eluded him, and a vicious headmaster all find their way into the musical landscape of Cosmo’s mind. It is the best way he can truly process the darkness all around him without being consumed by it.

The same could be said for the film, which is littered with despair and gloom but not preoccupied by it. Carney is smart enough to let the littlest details do the heaviest lifting while his simple coming-of-age story is carried along. We learn everything we need to know about Raphina in a beautifully written and expertly delivered line of dialogue about her now-deceased father that goes mostly unnoticed but colors everything else around it. Sing Street is filled with gems like that, subtly building the depressed world of these characters without wallowing in it.

Carney, who has always been a masterful storyteller, also seems finally to have come into his own as a filmmaker, evidenced by two scenes that could not be more different. The first is a quiet conversation on the stairs between the two brothers, and the other is a rousing song-and-dance number, the kind of showstopper musicals always seem to feature.

Jack Reynor and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in Sing Street
For a director whose films mostly revolve around music, Carney excels at showing moments of silence and reflection. When the music stops, he seems to argue, that is when the shadows of the real world creep in and threaten to expel the light. Cosmo and Brendan are sitting on the stairs, watching their mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy from that classic Dublin musical The Commitments) out on the porch. She is reading a magazine, smoking a cigarette, and basking in the sun.

Brendan tells Cosmo she has always wanted to go to Spain but their father never takes her, so she soaks in the little afternoon light she can, dreaming of another life, until the sun disappears behind the tallest tree in the yard and the darkness returns. This moment, in which Cosmo realizes the depth of his mother’s heartache, accomplishes so much while saying so little that it is remarkable. This recognition informs every decision the brothers make for the rest of the film, and it goes by so quickly and quietly you hardly notice the marks it leaves.

Later, Carney pulls out all the stops to show the audience just what it means to live in darkness and dream about the light. Like all artists, Cosmo walks a fine line between experiencing the world as it is and the way he wishes it were. Inspired by the school dance in Back to the Future, Cosmo wants to film a music video that will feature dozens of extras, 1950s costumes, matching suits for the band, a huge choreographed dance, and him as the lead who gets the girl. All he can muster is eight kids wearing shabby clothes in an empty gymnasium. Even Raphina fails to show.

As the band kicks into the song, though, we are transported into Cosmo’s world – a world in which he gets everything he wants and more. The dancers, the suits, the American-style prom decorations, it is all there. His parents are there, dancing happily together. The headmaster bursts through the doors and performs a series of backflips before joining the dance. Raphina shows up, and they run away together.

The whole sequence is gorgeously executed by Carney, who relies on the audience’s attachment to Cosmo to communicate the sadness in the dream. None of this is real. None of this is even possible – not for a kid like Cosmo in a place like Dublin. The only real thing is a group of kids playing their hearts out to an empty gym. The band is always real. That is what makes Cosmo more than just some kid in a dire city. It makes him an artist, and always flowing through his veins is the music.

See it? Yes.