Songwriter


Songs are weird things says Ed Sheeran.

(2018) Music Documentary (Apple Music/Abramorama) Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco, Julia Michaels, Johnny McDaid, Matthew Sheeran, Fuse Odg, Foy Vance, Ryan Tedder, Murray Cummings, Amy Wadge. Directed by Murray Cummings

 

Some movies are meant to appeal to niche audiences. This particular documentary is going to appeal to Ed Sheeran fans, for example; it isn’t likely to win any new ones and how you receive the film is going to entirely depend on how you receive his music.

Me, I blow hot and cold on Ed Sheeran. He has written some beautiful, amazing songs. He has also written some cliché pop songs that sound like they came off an assembly line. It’s okay – nobody is ever going to write songs in which every single one appeal to you. That just isn’t possible. However, I suppose that dichotomy of admiration has colored my perception enough to make this a mixed review.

The movie takes place during Sheeran’s 2016 hiatus. He had just finished touring off his second album Multiply and was preparing to record his third album Divide. Cummings shoots this entirely on hand-held cameras giving a fly-on-the-wall immediacy but strangely it lacks intimacy. It feels like everyone there is playing to the camera and nobody is being themselves. We rarely get any conversations with any depth to them during the course of the film, which is not a good thing.

That would be all right if there was something interesting going on onscreen but I’m afraid there really isn’t. The songwriting process seems to be Sheeran and various collaborators noodling about on guitars, keyboards or to a computer-generated beat and coming up with snippets of lyrics and couplets of songs. There does seem to be a process of building each song like a child with a LEGO set but oddly Sheeran never comments on the process and even more stupefying is that Cummings never asks him.

This isn’t a Dylanesque songwriter sitting down at a piano or with a guitar and letting inspiration come; Sheeran has collaborators (as many as nine) on each song which I suppose can generate some synchronicity but to be honest, a lot of the songs lack a human kind of spark. Personally I would love to see Sheeran lock himself in a room and let his heart do the writing but given that he proclaims near the end of the film “Anyone who doesn’t want to be bigger than Adele is in the wrong business,” which leads me to retort that anyone who doesn’t want to write songs that illuminate, or touch the heart of the listener is in the wrong business as well.

Keep in mind that Sheeran is a young man who achieved extraordinary success at a young age and perhaps his priorities are skewed because of it. He seems an affable young man with an easy grin and there are at least two songs on the album that I thought were incredible but most of the others were to put it bluntly sounded alike. The problem with modern music is that too many artists rely on formulas to create hits rather than revealing something of themselves. Formulas are easy; insights are hard and the latter are almost non-existent here.

Still, some of the musical sequences are lovely (particularly a heartwarming moment when he records at Abbey Road) and some are just goofy, most of that supplied by producer/songwriter/partner-in-crime Benny Blanco whose fear of flying causes him to take a transatlantic cruise ship. Sheeran tags along and the men turn one of the larger suites into a recording studio for the voyage which sounds better on paper than it does on film. This is not a great documentary but it’s an adequate one. Maybe that’s the best we could have expected.

REASONS TO GO: Sheeran fans are going to adore this.
REASONS TO STAY: I didn’t really find any insight into the songwriting process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cummings is Sheeran’s cousin; the two have been close friends since childhood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nick Cave: One More Time With Feeling
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Minding the Gap

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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years


The Fab Four in their glory years.

The Fab Four in their glory years.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Abramorama) Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, Whoopi Goldberg, Richard Lester, George Martin, Elvis Costello, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Sigourney Weaver, Neil Aspinall, Richard Curtis, Brian Epstein, Kitty Oliver, Howard Goodall, Jon Savage, Debbie Gendler. Directed by Ron Howard

 

It is safe to say that the Beatles are one of the pop culture touchstones of the 20th century. Their influence on music and the world in general is incalculable. It has been half a century since the Fab Four played a live show and generations have been born since, some not even knowing who they are but regardless feeling the effects of their contribution on popular music.

Beatlemania is something we’re not likely to see again; the emotional effect that the Beatles had on their female fans was something that the world hadn’t seen prior to that (except maybe for Elvis) and not really since; girls would scream nearly non-stop in their presence and faint from the emotional outpouring. It was a phenomenon that had to be experienced to be believed and even just having seen it as I did on this documentary it still doesn’t carry the impact it must have to be in that presence.

Their popularity can’t be underestimated either. They are the only band to hold the top five position on the Billboard singles chart in the same week and given how the music industry is today that is extremely unlikely to ever happen again. They ushered in the British invasion and paved the way for bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who, among others.

The Beatles had a very limited shelf life; essentially they were only making a global impact for seven years before going their separate ways. They only toured for four of those years, and after giving up touring only played together publicly just once – on the rooftop of their Apple Records office in London, which the film appropriately closes with.

Still their touring years were some of their most productive and it was a grueling schedule. They made two movies during those years on top of the grueling tour schedules that would take them to 25 cities in 30 days. It was certainly a different era; their concerts generally lasted about 30 minutes long, including encores. They were the first band to play in stadium-sized venues and often their amplifiers went through the stadium sound system. The screaming of their female fans would be so loud that the band couldn’t hear themselves play; drummer Ringo Starr kept the beat by watching his bandmates sway at the microphone so that he’d know where they were in the song.

Director Ron Howard, an Oscar winner in his own right, has compiled archival interviews as well as contemporary ones with the surviving Beatles (Starr and McCartney) and with celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, both of whom were at the historic 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York City – Goldberg recalls not thinking of the band in terms of black or white but just as “guys” who gave her a feeling of empowerment that helped her determine her course in life. New Wave legend Elvis Costello remembers not liking the Rubber Soul album because it didn’t sound anything like their previous music, only appreciating what it represented years after the fact. Some of the best insights though come from Larry Kane, a Miami-based reporter who accompanied the band on two of their tours and filed regular reports from the front lines of Beatlemania. His take on the phenomenon is fascinating to say the least.

There is also home movies that the Beatles themselves took, backstage and rehearsal studio audio that shows us how some of their classic songs evolved. And of course plenty of concert footage; we never get a sense at how accomplished musicians they were (and Starr and Harrison were both much underrated in that regard) but we get more of a sense of the power they had over their audience. That power was considerable, too; the band was literally under siege from the press, their fans and their record label for that entire period. Starr remembers not getting a moment to relax for three years and the toll it took, but nearly everyone who was there comments on how unified the band was and how they looked after each other like brothers. That was a far cry from how they ended up, acrimonious and sniping at one another through the press.

I will admit that this is a bit of a puff piece. There isn’t a lot here that is negative and maybe it wasn’t Howard’s intention to look at the band objectively. We do get a sense of their impish sense of humor as well as their resolve; when they found out that the venue in Jacksonville they were going to play at was segregated, they refused to play unless it was full integrated. Manager Brian Epstein had that written into all of their performing contracts from that point forward. They were one of the first performers in history to make that a standard clause in their contract.

Their last concert other than the one-off Apple rooftop concert was at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The band was tired and frustrated; Harrison had been expressing dissatisfaction with the live shows and now all of them were picking up on it. They were taken out of their last concert in an armored car with no seats in the back. As the car drove recklessly out of the park the band were jostled about in the back and that was the final straw; they chose as a group to stop touring, even though that was their primary source of income. Canny Brian Epstein, their manager, formed a corporation with him and his four charges as co-chairs; it was the first of its kind and would set the stage for other artist-owned production companies in the performing arts. They would get more control over their career than any entertainer before them.

I will admit to having been a fan of the Beatles since childhood; my parents listened to their music and they were my favorite group from day one. This is a film tailor-made for fans like me and if you love the Beatles, this is pretty much required viewing. It gives you a bit of an insight as to the pressures they were under, their lives on the road and how it drew them closer together. It’s no coincidence that the band began to fracture only after they stopped touring. Still, this is a reminder of a much simpler era, when something like this could happen. We will never see the like of the Beatles again.

REASONS TO GO: Definitely will send you on a trip down memory lane. Amazing footage and amazing music throughout the film. There are some insights into Beatlemania that you may not have had otherwise.
REASONS TO STAY: It is something of a puff piece.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital remastering of the songs for the soundtrack was engineered by Giles Martin, son of the legendary George Martin who produced the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Meat

Mere Brother Ki Dulhan


Mere Brother Ki Dulhan

Katrina Kaif comforts Imran Khan who has a pathological fear of lightbulbs.

(2011) Bollywood (Yash Raj) Imran Khan, Katrina Kaif, Ali Zafar, Tara D’Souza, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Arfeen Khan, Suparna Marwah, Parikshat Sahni, Kanwaljit Singh. Directed by Ali Abbas Zafar

 

We try to do the right thing by our family; when they need something, they get it no questions asked. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course, in trying to help sometimes we wind up doing more harm than good.

Luv (Zafar) is an Indian expatriate living in London as an investment banker. He has been dating fellow Indian ex-pat Piali (D’Souza) for awhile but he doesn’t really know what he wants out of life. He is habitually late for dates and is a bit miserly, despite being really well-off. She, on the other hand, has tried to be a traditional Indian girl for him and chafes at the restrictions. She wants to be free. He wants to be free. They break up.

Except Luv doesn’t really want to be free. He wants to settle down, have a wife and family but he feels like he won’t have a shot at it in London. He calls his brother Kush (Imran Khan) in Mumbai, where he is an assistant director (which director Ali Abbas Zafar was before directing this, his first feature film as a director) and begs him to find him a wife since the two of them have similar taste in women. Kush has a hit on his hands, but family comes first so he agrees to head home to Dehradun where his father, the Colonel (Sahni) awaits, bristling a bit because his son and not himself is arranging the marriage.

Kush auditions a number of ladies whose interests seem to lie more in Luv’s bank account rather than in him, but then Kush meets Dimple Dixit (Kaif) whom he knew in college; she’s outspoken, non-traditional and vivacious and Kush knows she’s the perfect woman. After a conversation via Skype, Luv agrees and the wedding is on.

Kush helps Dimple plan the wedding, taking her out on errands and assuring her that his brother is the right man for her but slowly the two find themselves attracted to each other and eventually fall in love. But what to do? To cancel the wedding would bring shame on both families but Dimple and Kush cannot be without each other. They must think up some kind of plot to turn Luv’s path in a different direction.

I have to say that I was charmed by this film. Kaif and Imran Khan, two of the biggest stars in India (roughly equivalent to Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks here) have some terrific chemistry together; they make an attractive couple even though they couldn’t be more different. Khan as Kush is easy-going, sensitive and sweet; Kaif as Dimple is a lot more of a hot pepper – bold, spicy and irresistible. She’s a bull in a china shop; he’s more of a teddy bear.

And yet it works really well. Zafar is also an appealing lead, insanely handsome and as pop stars go, surprisingly talented in the acting realm. All three of the leads could transition to American stardom which is something that hasn’t happened yet, a Bollywood star making it big in the States much as Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Jacky Chan and Jet Li have. I think it’s bound to happen and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next five years stars such as these begin to appear in American productions.

The big knock on this movie in most of the reviews I’ve read has been that the story is somewhat derivative of other movies and that’s a pretty fair complaint. Quite frankly you aren’t going to see too many surprises in the script or storyline and I think you’ll be able to see where this is going pretty much from the very first few scenes. That’s all right though, because it’s pulled off with enough charm and warmth that I didn’t really mind that this felt like I’d seen it before.

Music is important in Bollywood films, and it’s pretty good here. While mainly made up of “American Idol”-esque pop with a bit of an Indian undertone, the hooks are pretty nice and a couple of the songs were really outstanding (keep your ears peeled for “Dhunki” and “Madhubala,” both of which I enjoyed thoroughly).  The dance numbers are no more and no less annoying than those you would find in a typical episode of “Glee.”

I must admit that my experience with Bollywood cinema is rather limited but I have noticed of late that the production values have improved as have the scripts. There are some terrific actors and actresses out there as well and quite frankly the product coming out of India is every bit as good for the most part as what is coming out of the United States (in general). As romantic comedies go, this one presents enough charm and chemistry to make it a worthwhile viewing; it is available to stream on Netflix at this time for those interested in watching it. There are other Bollywood-centric sites that have it for streaming as well, but not all of them have English translations so be aware of that. In any case, it holds up pretty well among most romantic comedies coming out from Hollywood and if you don’t mind the subtitles (about two thirds of the dialogue is in Hindi but there’s a good deal of it in English) you might find yourself succumbing to the charm of this surprisingly irresistible flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Upbeat and charming with attractive leads.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bollywood is an acquired taste. The plot stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some smoking and drinking but that’s about it; pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although they have similar names, the director Ali Abbas Zafar and the actor (and popular singer) Ali Zafar aren’t related.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19M on a $5.8M production budget; this is a Hindu hit!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom