Two Films by Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016) and Homecoming (2019)

There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.


Lemonade (2016)

I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.

Lemonade film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.


Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.

Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.

There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.

Homecoming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.

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Yentl (1983)

Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.


There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.

Yentl film posterCREDITS
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Cabaret (1972)

As part of my musicals themed week in honour of the BFI’s big season, today is Bob Fosse day. The restoration of Sweet Charity (1969), Fosse’s first directorial effort and an undeserved box office flop, graced the London Film Festival as the harbinger for their season, and several of his other musicals are screening. His most famous work is of course 1972’s Cabaret, which I only saw for the first time last year.


Having contrived never to have seen this, a vintage 35mm Technicolor print screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato seemed as good a way as any to experience it, and it didn’t disappoint, certainly not on the level of the glorious colours and look of the film. The staccato editing, frequently used to counterpoint a song performed in the Kit Kat Club cabaret of the title, and some other event — for example, in the opening scene, the arrival of the Eddie Redmayne of the 1970s (Michael York, not the most compelling actor), the murder by the Nazis of an over-officious bouncer who had bullied a young Nazi out of the cabaret, et al. — is only one striking method the film uses to differentiate itself from the stage musical.

Needless to say, they can’t have found a better person than Liza Minnelli to play Sally Bowles, and she really does hold the whole project together, along with Joel Grey’s lissome and gender-crossing performance as the MC. The background story of the rise of the Nazis is handled with delicacy as well — it is rarely the centre of attention (except in one Aryan youth’s rendition of a song in a picturesque countryside tavern, and the subplot involving Marisa Berenson’s Jewish heiress), but small hints of the Swastika in the background provide a constant reminder of the future that awaits the city and its characters.

Cabaret film posterCREDITS
Director Bob Fosse; Writer Jay Allen (based on the musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb, itself based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten and the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood); Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; Starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Saturday 30 June 2018.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

You can’t possible cover musicals without touching on the output of Doris Day, truly a luminous figure in the 1950s for Hollywood musicals. Today’s film marks rather an odd and startling entry into the genre, with some pretty dark themes. However, it has its share of big numbers, and Day carries it through easily.


Having gone to see this because I assumed “Doris Day” + “musical” would mean light and fluffy (thinking to her 1960s roles perhaps), I was rather taken aback by quite how dark this behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business story is. It’s a fictionalised version of a real story from the 1920s and 30s, of nightclub dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) whose career takes off as a singer and Hollywood actor thanks to some initial help from small-time gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney), but then she finds herself stuck with him. Right from the off he’s aggressive and unpleasant, believing himself to be far more than he really is and taking violent umbrage to anyone who disputes his narcissistic idea of himself. There are these occasional quiet moments where you get the sense of his inner turmoil, but he’s never anything less than utterly vile, a nasty violent spirit of pure patriarchy at work, shaping Ruth’s career and pushing her to do things he wants (and to quit the things he doesn’t want as soon as the power starts to go her way).

Day is excellent in moving between this glamorous stage presence to a woman behind the scenes who is barely able to control anything she does and lacks the will to follow it through — being a big mainstream musical, there are times when you can see how much darker this could go though the film sort of swerves to avoid some of the narratives being set up: for example, we see her starting to drink heavily as her relationship gets worse; or there’s the fade to newspaper headlines about her sudden marriage to her manager Marty just after he basically initiates a rape to extract what he think’s he’s “owed”. Truly, there is some deeply bleak stuff in what is otherwise a handsomely staged period musical, which makes it both difficult to watch at times but also fascinating.

Love Me or Leave Me film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Vidor; Writers Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; Cinematographer Arthur E. Arling; Starring Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 July 2019.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

The London Film Festival has just finished, which means it’s straight into the BFI’s recent tradition, an in-depth focus on a particular theme that will run until the end of the year. They’ve done sci-fi and Black stars recently, amongst others, and this year it’s musicals, with a big UK cinematic re-release of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) planned for the end of this week. As such, I’m going to be doing a week focusing on that genre too, although as a fan of the genre, reviews have shown up in my other theme weeks (like the Australian 2009 musical Bran Nue Dae for that week, or Been So Long for my British women directors week). Unlike many of my theme weeks, this one may end up featuring more white male directors than usual, but the form has  a long heritage, with women taking key roles more often in front of the camera, or in writing and editing, not to mention (of course) the glamorous costumes and make-up. My first film I want to feature is one I recently saw, which also has a notable  sequence focusing on the lindy hop, a dance with roots in African-American culture.


This film is undeniably a lot. It is very extra. It revels in cramming gag after gag, absurdity upon idiocy every few seconds, such that even when we get a fairly ‘straight’ sequence — the young man singing a sweet love song towards his enamorata — the filmmakers superimpose cards over the screen asking a member of the audience to go home, that culminates in everyone on-screen turning towards the camera and admonishing this young man for watching. Because, indeed, another of the film’s formal features is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, whether actors on screen are addressing us or the projectionist (who for some reason controls where the camera is pointed, though it hardly seems fair to quibble). There are throughout moments of inspiration, even as everything else is piling on in an overwhelmingly zany way. For example, there’s the sequence where a male photographer is snapping attractive young women at a pool party and asks blousy Betty (Martha Raye) to step out of the frame, before she seizes the camera and starts objectifying the men diving into the pool instead, pushing the middle-aged guys in suits out of the frame instead. And of course there’s the entire lindy hop sequence, which is almost entirely self-contained, but also just a beautiful bit of pure cinema, capped by the (white) stars and director character scaring them off and then saying they’ll definitely find space for the troupe in their next movie. It’s all so meta that it feels like something conceived in the 90s, like something that must have inspired a generation of absurdist comedians, but yet it’s very much there in the 1940s and it’s a wonder.

Hellzapoppin' film posterCREDITS
Director H. C. Potter; Writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (based on the musical by Harold Johnson, John Olsen, Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias); Cinematographer Elwood Bredell; Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 14 December 2018.

Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

LFF 2019 Day Ten: The Juniper Tree (1990) and Clemency (2019)

My two films for the third-to-last day of the London Film Festival were two dramas touching on murder, both made by American directors, although quite different in many other ways. After all, one is a Mediæval-set Icelandic folk tale based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale (i.e. the proper weird old-world stuff), and the other is set at a Death Row facility in the States, but in both settings the characters follow their own twisted logic to its murderous conclusions.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Ten: The Juniper Tree (1990) and Clemency (2019)”

LFF 2019 Day Nine: Lingua Franca and Heart (both 2019)

Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.

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Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam

Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam”

Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom

Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Documentaries by Wang Bing: Dead Souls and Beauty Lives in Freedom”