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Screen and Screen Again:
Movies Where Music is the Star
By David O'Grady
Out the windows of the Noe Valley Ministry, over the heads of children dancing at our neighborhood farmers' market, from the doorways of Noe Valley Music and Streetlight Records, music is in the air.
Just walking down 24th Street on your way to rent a movie, the music you hear may steer you to the musicals or concert movie section of your video store. Given this likely hazard, here are a few films where music is the star, all available for rent from Noe Valley video stores.
Love Can Make You All Wet
Singing in the Rain, Prince's Purple Rain...rain, movies, and music go together. It only makes sense that umbrellas should get their due, and in the French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), director Jacques Demy takes a novel approach: the characters sing every word of dialogue in a natural, conversational style. Demy turns this contrived challenge into a masterpiece, starring Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève, a young lover torn between Nino, a working man completing his military service in Algeria, and a rich jeweler her mother wants her to marry.
Music, story, and cinematography work in harmony in Umbrellas, especially in the heartbreaking scene where Geneviève and Nino must say goodbye on the train platform. As Nino's train pulls away from Geneviève, the camera pulls away from both of them, leaving us as separated and alone as they feel. Geneviève's tearful farewell, "Je t'aime...Je t'aime...," echoes throughout this vibrant movie of music and color, despair and hope.
Rock Opera for the Surround Sound
For all the owners of scooters and motorcycles parked outside our neighborhood cafes--and for those who admire the two-wheeled life--Quadrophenia (1979) offers a blood-stirring story based on the Who's epic album of the same name.
Quadrophenia chronicles the frustrations of Jimmy, a young man with a chromed-out scooter, struggling to find himself amidst the hard-partying, pill-popping times of mod London in the mid-1960s. "You got to be somebody, ain't ya?" Jimmy says. "Otherwise, you might as well jump in the sea and drown."
But Jimmy's mod facade is cracking as he heads to a big weekend rally in Brighton. Led by the combative Ace Face (played by a young Sting), Jimmy and his friends turn the seaside resort into a battleground. Not even a scooter can outrun the contradictions of adult life, and in the movie's memorable finish Jimmy must confront his destiny.
Stuck in the shadow of the Who's rock-opera masterpiece Tommy, Quadrophenia deserves a look--and a listen--as the band's angry-young-man music reaches its peak of sophistication. Just hearing the line "I ride a GS scooter with my hair cut neat/Wear my wartime coat in the wind and sleet" will have you longing for the smell of two-stroke exhaust.
No Shelter for the Sixties
Some say the Summer of Love ended in the winter of 1969, when a young man brandishing a gun was killed by a Hell's Angel during a Rolling Stones performance at a free concert at Altamont Speedway. Watching the Stones documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), which captures the murder on film, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that those reckless, unhinged times were headed for a crash.
Using a film-within-a-film approach, Gimme Shelter brings Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts into the editing studio to review the footage of the ill-fated Altamont concert. We see Jagger, grim and silent, watching himself as he vainly tries to placate more than 300,000 mind-altered fans.
But even without tragedy's dark edge, Gimme Shelter is a compelling chronicle of the Stones. As the movie traces the band's 1969 U.S. tour, it shows not only what we love about the band--a quiet, contemplative moment finds the Stones listening to tapes of their beautiful ballad "Wild Horses"--but also what we hate about them. Never has Jagger seemed more preening, self-absorbed, and out of touch. With the eternally touring Stones returning to San Francisco this November, Gimme Shelter is worth another look.
Glenn Gould's Mysterious Variations
The documentary Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) opens with a lone figure--piano virtuoso Glenn Gould, here played by Colm Feore--standing on the horizon of a frozen Canadian landscape. Only the sound of the wind greets our ears, until the faint elusive notes of a piano begin to emerge. It's a perfect introduction to the mysterious genius of Gould, a man whose technically transcendent performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations in 1955 made him a sensation. But by age 32 (same as the number of Variations), Gould became a recluse, and renounced live performance for the benefits of studio recording, which provided him the anonymity he felt was crucial to making art.
Director François Girard avoids bio-pic clichés in this collection of meditations on the obsessive Gould, including one "variation" that poses a series of questions--some insightful, some humorously banal--for which we'll never know the answers. Shortly before Gould's death in 1982, he re-recorded the Goldberg Variations in a more personal, interpretive style. It's wonderful to listen to both of Gould's versions and decide for yourself which is more sublime: Gould the public technician, or Gould the private interpreter.
Extra! Extra! A Musical for Boys
Before Christian Bale became the latest Batman, he was a street kid named Jack "Cowboy" Kelly selling newspapers in the Disney musical Newsies (1992). The film is a delightful story based on actual events: the 1899 newsboy strike in New York at the height of the Joseph Pulitzer William Randolph Hearst newspaper war.
The best newsie in the business, Jack leads a ragtag bunch of orphaned boys against the biggest powers in the city. But Pulitzer, played with relish by Robert Duvall, is out to stop him by any means necessary. If the newsies are going to prevail, Jack will have to outrun his checkered past, beat Pulitzer at his own game, and put his dream of escaping the city on hold.
With its all-boy cast--the only woman is Ann-Margret as a burlesque performer--and its rough-and-tumble dance numbers, Newsies may be the first musical aimed squarely at boys. But the movie also offers clever lyrics for older audiences, as in this verse about what sells papers: "We need a good assassination./We need an earthquake or a war. /How about a crooked politician?/Hey, stupid, that ain't news no more." Although the music and dancing give way to the story in the last third of Newsies, the movie will leave you humming a happy tune.
David O'Grady is a writer, communications manager, and film enthusiast who lives on Noe Street.