Amazing, Amusing, Amazing Grace: A Review Of Three Music Movies

Image result for rocketmanFor all I’ve banged on, in this blog and elsewhere, about how much music means to me, I have an irrational dislike of musicals. Don’t know why exactly. Maybe I had an unfortunate accident with an ice cream cone when watching The Sound of Music at an early age. I really don’t remember.

Whatever the deep rooted psychology of it, unfortunately for me, it appears to make me out of step with much of the Western World, who flock to see a musical made out of anything these days. Really, anything. Got a shopping list for Asda, and you were on a reality tv show once? Hell, come on down, it’s Shopping List – The Musical!

Fortunately for me, Rocketman somehow pulls off the trick of having people doing songs in between talking without being a musical. Telling the well-known story of Elton John’s early success and subsequent battles with booze and other addictions, it benefits from a superb cast – Taron Egerton is eerily believable as the piano playing star, while solid support is provided by Jamie Bell in a much less flashy role as his lyricist, Bernie Taupin, and Richard Madden, fresh from playing the thinking (or even unthinking) woman’s beefcake in UK tv drama The Bodyguard, as baddie manager John Reid.

I actually found the early scenes, when he and Bernie are first put together and – with little or no interest from the rest of the world – start creating some of the early classics in the EJ canon – quite emotionally involving. Then they get to the States, the fabled LA venue the Troubador and things, quite literally, take off!

Really, really, if you haven’t already, go and see this film: it’s well scripted, brilliantly staged and directed, and superbly acted. It is Amazing.

Image result for yesterday filmThe Amusing bit of this review’s title is Yesterday, which I went to with some trepidation, having read some negative reviews of it in advance. For me, it wasn’t that bad at all: I think perhaps people were hoping for more from a writer/director combination of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle.

The plot is based on a great premise but is otherwise slight: struggling singer-songwriter Jack (the engaging Himesh Patel) has only one true believer in his talent: his manager Ellie (the gorgeous Lily James). He’s about to give up the whole thing when the plot McGuffin arrives with a crash as, during a mysterious global power outage, he is hit by a bus. When he comes to his senses he’s missing a front tooth and the world is missing its memory of certain things, most notably a certain pop group from Liverpool from a few years back. Apart from Jack.

The film has some genuinely funny moments, particularly I suppose if you’ve ever experienced the ups and downs of open mic nights and the dubious pleasures of strictly ‘local’ celebrity; and one scene involving one of the missing Fabs,  without giving away any plot spoilers, which I found, again, genuinely emotional. I must be going soft in my old age.

Anyway, much of the criticism surrounds the fact that the film, in the end, follows the same Richard Curtis tropes in terms of soppy love story as, well, Love Actually, and just about any other Richard Curtis film you care to mention. To which I say, it’s a Richard Curtis film, get over it! Although I do note that it was ‘based on’ an initial screenplay by Jack Barth (who has apparently written a Simpsons episode) and Mackenzie Crook, the actor whose credits include The Office, so it might have been interesting to see what the original version did. Certainly the happy ending (no spoilers there: it’s Richard Curtis film, remember?) didn’t need underlined in triplicate black marker pen the way it was.

But in general, it’s a feelgood way to spend a wet afternoon. And the music’s well done. After all, those Liverpool lads had a bit of a way with a tune. Amusing, then.

Image result for amazing grace filmLastly, but by no means leastly, we went last weekend to the Filmhouse to see Amazing Grace, and boy, was it amazing. If you don’t know, the back story to this is that in 1972, Aretha Franklin, at the height of her powers, decided to record an album of gospel songs over two nights at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

The album was a hit, apparently outselling any other gospel album ever: but the more ambitious project, of marrying up the sound recording to the film Sydney Pollack directed of its making, hit technical issues (short version: the sound guys didn’t talk to the film guys, or vice versa) and ended up not being released until this year.

Neither soul nor gospel are my heartland area of music. However, if you have a musical bone in your body, you should go and see this film. It is just extraordinary. It’s like … it’s like … waugghhhhhh I can’t describe it. It’s like a semi-religious experience, even if you don’t believe in any of the conventional religions, because music is the religion. It’s as if the church has been sneakily taken over by another religion, the Church of the Secret Chord, hiding their beliefs in plain sight, because the agony, the ecstasy, and the sheer majesty of the experience has music at its core.

Of course Aretha’s singing gospel songs. Of course there’s a gospel choir, and her friend and mentor is the Reverend James Cleveland, and her daddy, the supremely cool Reverend CL Franklin, puts in an appearance. Of course one particular version of the big fella (or fella-ess) upstairs gets a namecheck or two. But the passion, the intensity, is in the act of creation of sublime music.

And, boy, is it intense. At one point Aretha and Cleveland, no mean singer himself and an excellent piano player, mash up Carole King’s ‘You’ve got a Friend’ with some gospel song or other, and the whole thing takes about ten minutes. Songs you kind of half recognise enter some form of exalted state, where improvisations, and improvisations on top of the improvisations, build timelessly towards some form of rapturous climax. The choir members, tears in their eyes, back Aretha flawlessly, and somewhere in the engine room is Aretha’s house band, somehow, any how, anticipating her every divine syllable. Apparently Aretha, the band and the choir rehearsed for a Biblical 30 days and 30 nights solid, and it shows.

Of the three, I’d recommend Rocketman, because Amazing Grace won’t be for everyone. There’s no story as such. But if you want to see a group of musicians and one of the world’s greatest singers ever trying to build a new Jerusalem out of music, and succeeding, go and see Amazing Grace.

The Church of the Secret Chord. I kind of like that, actually. Although I might face opposition from the Cohen-ites, if I use it when I found my own religious cult. But that’s next week.

































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