WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was originally written ten years ago.
On June 27, 2012, singer and songwriter Paul Williams along with filmmaker Stephen Kessler appeared at the Nuart Theatre in support of their documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive.” After its conclusion, both men were greeted by a packed audience that had been deeply moved by what they just witnessed. The documentary follows up with Williams years after his enormous success back in the 1970s, and it finds him experiencing happiness and fulfillment in life he didn’t have back then.
Kessler has described making this documentary as “a labor of love,” but Williams quickly pointed out that it didn’t start that way. Their relationship when filming began was an uncomfortable one, but Williams eventually warmed up to Kessler, and their strong friendship proved to be very authentic as they talked with the audience at the Nuart. Kessler even went out of his way to say the following:
“I’ve never said this in front of people before, but you (Williams) were brave to do this movie.”
No one in the audience disagreed with this assessment. Williams described this as a “warts and all documentary” that shows him at his best and worst. One particular sequence, when he was co-hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show while on drugs, was one he originally wanted to be cut out as he was terribly afraid of what his kids would think about him. His son Cole, however, was in the audience, and when asked about what he thought of the documentary, he said, “It’s great dad!”
Kessler made it clear he had no intention of putting himself in this documentary, and he even said he “can’t stand movies that do that;” directors becoming the subject of their own films. His increased participation in “Paul Williams Still Alive,” however, helped to illuminate the songwriter much more than it would have without him. While Kessler keeps going back to the past, Williams looks to the future instead.
When Williams was asked when he reached his bottom as an alcoholic, he responded it happened when he started looking out the window for what he called the “tree police.” He even joked and said, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you’ve misplaced an entire decade.” What made him say this was the embarrassing truth that he forgot for a time that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States.
Since becoming sober, Williams says he now knows what it feels like to be around people he feels safe with. He has also entered into what he calls his “Paulie Lama” period of life as he goes out of his way to pull people off of bar stools, and that he would be thrilled to work at the Betty Ford Center if asked.
1992’s “A Muppet Christmas Carol” marked the first project Williams ever did sober, and he remembered going into it feeling very scared. But after he finished working on it, he found he was able to approach his work in a more productive way:
“Success for me has to be about authenticity and honesty. Today I have to trust that I am enough. Never again will I ever let tension and my ego keep me from writing songs.” The emcee of the Nuart told us not to ask either of the two how much “Paul Williams Still Alive” cost to make or when it will come out on DVD. This is because he wants to see it again with as a big an audience in the midst of all these summer blockbusters being thrust at us. It is certainly one of the sweetest documentaries you will ever see, and to see Williams today is to see a man very comfortable with who he is and who does not need another cup of fame to feel better about himself.
Going into this documentary, I thought it would be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while filmmaker Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of documentary. Instead, it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey back to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This is not an artist looking to make a comeback, but of one who appreciates what they have to where not much more is needed than that. As a result, this makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries I have seen in some time.
Kessler is best known for having directed many popular television commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which rated high in test screenings, but still turned out to be a dud. Kessler starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on television shows such as “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, he composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”
Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of Williams’ albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that the singer and songwriter is still very much alive and continues to create and perform music throughout the world. From there, Kessler makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams in an effort to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on all of us and still does to this day. Remember, he was a featured artist on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”
Kessler started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where he is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. As for Kessler, his solution to this problem provides this documentary with one of its funniest moments.
In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because, in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous just for the sake of being famous, he is not keen about being part of this. In fact, it doesn’t take long to see he is not the least bit interested in becoming famous again like he once was as he has described the pursuit of fame as being in his own words, “pathetic.” As this documentary goes on, the narrative focuses much more on the person he is today, a much healthier human being who is humble and thankful for what he has.
“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter and of how he grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and that his being so short ended up ostracizing him from his classmates at school. He comes to blame his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in life. This was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which eventually turned him into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he came to live for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction for him than drugs.
As time goes on, Williams eventually warms up to Kessler, and this becomes clear during a trip to the Philippines. Williams even encourages Kessler to join him in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it, and that is saying a lot. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today.
While Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward. The one scene which makes this clear is when Williams watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain which crosses his face over his embarrassing past deeds is impossible to hide.
Near the end, Williams gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.
It should be clear by now that Kessler is not out to embarrass Williams in the slightest. Instead, his intention is to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention, and this is a noble intention indeed. Williams is the same man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, and “An Old-Fashioned Song” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for himself. Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday specials ever.
Today, Williams continues to make beautiful music which deals with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of what he has created.
Now some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of his music, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. In actuality, it becomes more about how Williams is a better, not to mention a far more interesting, human being today compared to when he was an overindulgent celebrity. He has been clean and sober for over 20 years, and he is even a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Looking back, it seems as though he lives to be a counselor more than he wants to create new music, and that is saying a lot.
With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He has given us an individual worth appreciating who, while having made some serious mistakes in life, has come out of it on the other side a proud and happy person. All of this is all accomplished without Kessler ever trying to be manipulative or play at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts-and-all documentary which doesn’t hide anything, and I came out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams, but also for his healthy perspective on life.
During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is available to them, here is one who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought we would get when we became a super star in everyone’s eyes. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today. Like he says, he does not need “another cup of fame” to make him a satisfied man.
I have never been to a Rolling Stones concert before. Shame on me for constantly missing out on the opportunity to see them live. Every tour they go on always feel like it will be their last. Even if no one gets all that excited about their recent albums, no one would dare miss seeing them perform onstage. Years after they formed, they still sell out seats like crazy in concert, and some are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to get a decent seat. Heck, as long I have my binoculars with me, I am confident I can get a good view for less than what most people pay. But then again, I still have to spend a lot of money for even a crappy seat at a concert. Come to think of it, I haven’t been to a concert in a long time. Maybe I am saving up too much money!
Anyway, I caught the Rolling Stones documentary entitled “Shine A Light” which was directed by Martin Scorsese. Not only that, but I saw it in IMAX where movie screens don’t get much larger, visuals are never more visually extraordinary, and sound systems capture every single sound no matter how small. At I write this, this may be the closest I ever come to seeing a Rolling Stones concert, but it was still quite the experience. Even after being around for 40 or 50 years, they still put on one hell of a show like few others can. The band members have been beset in the last few years with legal and medical problems. Drummer Charlie Watts had a cancer scare, Mick Jagger continues to father too many children, and Keith Richards continues to astound medical experts everywhere who expected him to be dead by now. But here they are, and they are rocking as hard and with as much love as ever.
Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (it is so nice to finally say this) is a master of musical documentaries, having directed one of the greatest ever with “The Last Waltz” which was about The Band at their very last concert ever and of how they (or Robbie Robertson anyway) wanted to get off the road before the road claimed their lives. “Shine A Light,” however, is not at a film about a band on its last legs. Instead, it is about a band which continues to play with the same love, passion and excitement they had when they started making music so many years ago. It is not an in-depth documentary about the band, but instead a celebration of one of the greatest rock bands ever and their music which even I cannot ever get sick of.
We see the band and Scorsese going over the details and where the cameras are going to be at this documentary’s start. There is even a moment where Scorsese is talking with Jagger via speakerphone and of how Jagger is worried all the cameras will be distracting not just to him but to the audience as well. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson don’t even get the set list of songs until just seconds before the show begins. Jagger and the band keep going over what songs to play, having so many to choose from. The one thing I have to give them credit for is how they don’t start off the show with one of their most well-known hits like “Start Me Up” or “Sympathy for The Devil.” I guess you could say it makes this more unique than hundreds of other concerts they have performed.
This particular concert was filmed at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, New York over a two-night period. When “Shine a Light” starts, it only appears as a small square on the enormous IMAX screen. I thought to myself, why did I spend $16 dollars to see this in IMAX? I could have seen it on a regular movie screen and saved myself a couple of bucks, you know? We see the band meeting with Bill and Hillary Clinton and also with Hillary’s mom. Hillary looks very happy here, so this all happened before her current presidential election. This turns out to be quite the star-studded event as Bill Clinton introduces the band himself, as this concert is actually a benefit for the awareness of climate change (which is very real everybody). If you look closely enough, you can see Bruce Willis out in the audience wearing a yellow hat.
But then the concert starts, and the picture goes from a simple box on the IMAX screen to encompassing 100% of it. From then on, we are instantly taken in at how the Rolling Stones is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. They may be eligible for senior benefits, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they perform. During this documentary or concert movie if you want to call it that, we get to see footage of the band from the past. Between songs, we see Jagger in a black and white interview in which he admits how he is surprised the band has lasted as long as it has. And that’s after the band has been together for two years, and he thinks that they will remain together for another year at best.
Seeing the band come onstage and perform their hearts out is inspiring. Age has not affected their love and passion for music, and I think it’s what makes this documentary especially good. No, it doesn’t get deep into the personalities of the band members and what makes them tick. Still, it does show how, even in their old age, they play rock and roll brilliantly. Even Keith Richards, who always looks like he might just keel over any second, still plays the guitar like a master. One too many cigarettes has not taken away from this man or his singing, and he gets his on solo and sings to us like a well-seasoned blues man.
This concert also features some well-known guests performing with the Stones. Among them are Jack White of The White Stripes who sings along with Jagger on “The Loving Cup.” White is no slouch on the guitar or on vocals, but we should have known this after the albums “Elephant” and “Get Behind Me Satan.” But the big treat was when Buddy Guy, one of the great bluesmen guitarists, came out to jam with the band. Richards was clearly a big fan because, at the end of the song, he ends up giving Buddy the guitar he was playing on. You can even hear Richards telling Guy, “It’s yours!”
Even Christina Aguilera is here singing with Jagger to a song which was first written and performed before she was even born. I haven’t bought any of her albums, but there is no doubt she has one hell of a voice. Does she even need a microphone? Her voice alone probably powered the extremely bright lights at the Beacon. That’s how good she was when she sang with Jagger and the others.
Kudos also goes out to the Rolling Stones for being backed up by an array of fantastic musicians. Among them are Darryl Jones of Living Color fame who has been the bass player for the band for over a decade now. There is also the great piano player Chuck Levell, and you may remember him brilliantly stealing the spotlight from Eric Clapton on his Unplugged session on MTV. Granted, the Rolling Stones don’t need all these people to sell out shows, but it certainly adds to this cinematic experience.
Scorsese and Richardson do a great job lighting the band and keeping up with them as they do their thing. The other thing which really added to this experience was the sound system in the IMAX theater I watched this film in. On top of the pristine visuals, the surround sound stereo system sucked you into the experience and made you feel like you were part of the crowd. You felt like people were clapping to the left and to right of you, and even behind you. There were points where I started looking around me to see if the people in the audience were applauding, or if it was just the sound from the film.
This all reminded me of when I saw “U2 3D” a couple of months earlier on the same IMAX screen. The 3D effects made you feel like you were in the middle of the concert. When people put their hands up onscreen, I almost told them to put them down so I could see. Then I realized it was all onscreen and not in the audience. Even though “Shine A Light” was not filmed in 3D, it didn’t need to be. I got sucked into this experience to where you can say you really felt like you were at this concert. It was also a loud film too, and this made me wonder why I didn’t bring any earplugs with me.
In the end, I’m glad “Shine a Light” was not a simple documentary which delved into the psychology of the band members and how they survived the record industry and drugs. The movie is about the fact of after so many years, the Rolling Stones continue to rock harder than ever. This is as certain as Johnny Depp’s character of Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of The Caribbean” movies was based largely on Richards. It does not, nor should it, matter how old these guys are, but that they rock on with the same love they always have had for rock and roll. You can hear it in their music and see it in their eyes. Jagger continues strutting across the stage as though he was still in his 30’s, Richards still plays the guitar without missing a beat, Wood plays a mean slide guitar, and Watts beats away at the drum as if nothing ever serios ever happened to him. Why does age matter when you have passion for what you do?
I hope I have the same love and passion in what I do as they do in music at their age. I’m pretty sure I won’t need a boatload of drugs to get there, and even Richards would agree with me on this. Or maybe not. I guess it doesn’t matter. Or maybe I should just shut up for now…
With Andy Summers having released his latest book, a collection of his many short stories entitled “Fretted and Moaning,” I am quickly reminded of when I met him back in 2015. The documentary “Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police” had just been released, and I got to attend its press day in Los Angeles, California. Based on Summers’ memoir “One Train Later,” it follows him from his early days as a musician where he performed with The Animals during the 1960’s to meeting Stewart Copeland and Sting which led to the formation of The Police, one of the most infinitely popular bands of the 1980’s. We also get to look at Summers’ personal life and his photography, another art form he is quite gifted at, and we get reminded of how important a guitarist is to a band even when the bassist gets the most attention.
It was a real honor and privilege to meet Summers, talk to him, and have him autograph my personal Police box set of “Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings.” During our time together, we talked about how the internal conflicts and strong egos helped make the band more creative even as those same things eventually tore this trio apart. I also asked him about his song “Mother,” his solo contribution to The Police’s album, “Synchronicity.”
Joining him in this interview is one of the documentary’s producers, Norman Golightly, who has several decades of experience in movies, television and social media. Moreover, he remains committed to promoting positive social change. Golightly talked about the obstacles in getting this documentary made, and they seem surprising as a this one is about a band which had Sting as its most unforgettable member.
“Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving The Police” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For fans of The Police, I could not recommend this documentary more highly.
Below is my exclusive interview with Summers and Golightly, the press conference with them, and the documentary’s trailer.
WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a press day which took place in 2013.
With “About Time,” writer/director Richard Curtis once again proves that he is the master of making romantic movies. While romantic films are currently a dying breed in America, Curtis gives the genre a much-needed re-invigoration. This is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become everyone’s favorite movie to watch at Christmastime. Curtis populates his films with characters we can all relate to, and he shows us how the simplest things in life can be so wonderful.
I got to meet up with Curtis when he appeared for the “About Time” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, and he proved to be as charming and funny as many of the characters who inhabit his films. During the roundtable interview he talked about “About Time” differs from other romantic films, how he came to cast Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, and why this will be his last movie as a director.
While these questions came from several reporters, I did take the time to put my name to the questions I asked Richard. You will find them eventually.
Question: Why did you not tear Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mary (Rachel McAdams) apart in the middle of the movie only to bring them back together?
Richard Curtis: Well, I quite liked the idea in the film. There is a kind of habit in romantic films of getting people who hate each other when they meet; he’s a Nazi and she’s a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party (laughs), however will they fall in love? But most of us, when we bump into the people we are going to spend the rest of our life with, quite like them when we first meet them. I quite liked the idea that you could do something where people like each other, and then there was the time travel and then they liked each other again. I’m interested in if you can do it. I was writing about sort of a happiness in a funny way and writing about the interesting business of how things work rather than being really interested in the way things don’t work.
Q: Speaking of the time travel aspect, it’s something that people keep watching these movies for. They’re always keeping an eye out for the loophole or plot holes. Did that make it harder writing the script?
Richard Curtis: Look, you know you’re gonna fail, that’s the thing. I know where I failed in this so you just do your best and the people and the production keep you up to it, and anybody who spots anything that’s wrong will always say it to you because it’s a fun thing to spot when they’re reading the script. So, you know you’re getting closer to true without actually getting there, and it was fun to play with it. It’s also a thing where when you decide you’re going to do a time travel movie, it is something that is in your head as you’re walking around. The thing about not being able to go past the birth of your child was definitely the result of another conversation I was having with someone about how weird it is that you commit your entire life to people who you have no ability to choose, and then I thought that’s so true. And not only that, if I had sex four seconds later, I’d have a different child and then immediately I thought that would become a key plot point.
Q: This movie has two love stories in it. It has the father and son and it has the man and the woman. How were you able to find the balance so that one didn’t overshadow the other?
Richard Curtis: On the whole you try and rig films to make sure they turn out as you want them to turn out, but I think it seems as though perhaps the strength of the Bill Nighy story is more than I expected. It’s turned out to be more emotional than I expected, and I think that’s all down to the way Bill chose to play it. He chose to play it in such a sort of gentle way that I think, when you see the film, you can insert your own father into the space that Bill creates. Oddly enough, this film is in some ways less manipulative. If you’re doing a movie that ends in a big kiss and a romance, your kind of playing the cards all the way through to try and get the maximum emotion at the end. In this one I always knew that I was always aiming for this bizarrely simple final moment which was just gonna be a guy doing the most banal things in the course of an ordinary day. So, I didn’t think so much about the dynamics of the film, perhaps I have in others. But one of the ways of doing it was by getting them to get married halfway through, so that film’s done and there’s another film to rely on.
Q: Has it affected sort of the carpe diem qualities, or is that something you practiced before you started writing the script?
Richard Curtis: No. Oddly enough I think, and Bill and I talk about, because I’ve done the movie, I am thinking about that a lot more, I really am. My girlfriend, who never makes any concessions to me, says I always work far too hard and I always think that I’m not working as hard as I used to and always am. But even she is saying that she’s noticed that I seem to be creating more space and enjoying things a little bit more and making more time for normal things. So that’s why I have said I am not going to direct another film because I think that directing a movie is not a good way to have a happy life.
Richard Curtis: Anyone who says that, Steven is their hero because it means you can change your mind. It is becoming a great tradition; the great heroes like Jay-Z, doesn’t he resign? If I come back, I’m part of a noble tradition, but that is my intention at the moment.
Q: Can you talk about Comic Relief and how that came to you at a young age?
Richard Curtis: Wow, do other people know about that side of my life? Well, it started off by an almost comical mistake in that a girl I know asked if I would like to go with her to Africa, and I just said I would go to keep her company and then the charities decided to send us to different countries. They said we would cover more ground, so that was a mistake. So, I was in Ethiopia at a very bad time and that could not but change my life. That’s something I have to carry. We did a stage show and then we did a TV show, and the TV show made so much more money than was expected that I couldn’t not do it again, and I have just gone on doing it. Every time we do it, we make more money than I will earn in my entire career. I think of it as my difficult child, it takes exactly half my time, it changes its nature so I now, and after doing it now for 25 years I got a feeling that the money we’ve raised might be less important than the education or part of it. Kids in England have always grown up knowing a lot about poverty in Africa and problems at home, and that educational thing may have actually turned out to be the function of it. The next thing I’m doing is doing a year and a half trying to be part of making the new declaration by the United Nations in 2015 to end poverty, so it’s a never-ending big subject. I think the way it’s bounced off on my career is that I haven’t written my seven bad films. I do think a lot of times when people, when they finish the thing, say have I got any other ideas whereas I’m always a year behind. I thought of this film in 2005, and then I chose to do the pirate movie (“Pirate Radio”) because I wanted to be a bit older by the time I made it. It’s actually given me breathing time and let things stew longer, so I always believe quite a lot in the projects I do by the time I get to them.
Q: Fighting poverty seems like an even bigger challenge now with the gap between the rich and poor growing bigger and bigger. Do you feel sometimes like it’s a never-ending battle and how we are going to do this?
Richard Curtis: Well, you have to be realistic about that. Actually, statistically speaking, the lives of the very poorest people on the planet have never gotten better quicker than in the last 15 years. It’s been extraordinary so I’m paying more attention to that. But the rich and poor inside countries, I’d just think it increases your responsibility to try and make sure that people like me who do live in the bubble of comfort are really aware of how peoples’ lives are at the other end of the scale. I made all my children watch a documentary called “Poor Kids” the other day. It’s just a really brilliant, very sweet-natured documentary about four really poor kids in the UK, and they literally could not believe what they saw and that increases the desire to communicate this.
Q: You also focus a lot on the joy of real people like with the Heathrow Airport scenes in “Love Actually,” and then there are scenes in “About Time” that look like they had regular people in them. Where did you find those people?
Richard Curtis: Well with “Love Actually” we put up a little black box with curtains in Heathrow and just filmed and then sent assistants rushing around and saying do you mind signing this release. It’s very weird, you haven’t seen your mom for 17 years and somebody’s saying we’ve just filmed you crying embarrassingly. The strange thing is when we edited that, over half of what I wanted in that sequence I couldn’t use because it turned out we hadn’t got the permissions. The bit at the end of this one was sort of the same thing. Quite a lot of it was sort of staged. There are some things that weren’t. Most of that was directed by my girlfriend. That was the weird thing. It was the final day of the shoot. I woke up and I was in the most astonishing pain. I thought I had kidney stones or whatever, and she leapt out of bed in the highest of spirits and said she would ring a doctor on the way to the set (laughs). Some of the loveliest images there were got by her which I think sort of shows because she is full of an energy and joy about her. It was interesting how ordinary those images had to be. I didn’t shoot them at the beginning, so I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. When I thought that I would end with a series of just normal images, I took a film by a friend of mine called Kevin McDonald called “Life in a Day” which is a movie he made about YouTube, and I cut like ten favorite images from that in and showed that to friends and it was a disaster because they were good. They were so definitive, so beautiful, so picturesque, and everyone said the movie’s all been about ordinariness and you can’t then say that every day is a beautiful sunset and every day is an astonishing child framed perfectly in a window in Milan. So, I did try and keep those end bits as sort of banal as they could be, but still joyful.
Ben Kenber: “Love Actually” is my family’s favorite movie to watch every Christmas Eve. I love it too but I’m always hoping we can add “Bad Santa” as a double feature though.
Richard Curtis: Lauren Graham’s in “Bad Santa!” I love her!
Ben Kenber: I’m not usually a big fan of romantic movies, but what I love about your movies is that the people and what they go through feels so real and relatable. A lot of American romantic films are manipulative but your films never feel like they are. Your movies touch on issues that most other filmmakers don’t really take seriously.
Richard Curtis: Well, thank you very much. I don’t have an answer for that, but don’t down American filmmakers because I think there’s a kind of feeling that romantic films may not be in a good place at the moment. “(500) Days of Summer” I thought was an incredible movie, “Like Crazy” is an amazing movie about love, and “Lost in Translation” is the greatest ever romantic comedy even though it’s not a romantic comedy. I’ve been looking back because I’m thinking about finishing and thinking why did I write all these films on this subject and then suddenly realizing it is because it is the context of my life and what matters to me. How your family treats you, who you love, how you get on with your kids and your friends are what fills most of your emotional time, and I’m just trying to hang on to that and write about normal things because I never, never bump into serial killers.
Q: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that “Love Actually” is a Christmas movie because the holiday gets so pushed into the background.
Richard Curtis: I think the funny thing about “Love Actually” is the casting is now out of whack. Originally it was 50% well known and 50% not, and now the naked guy is in “The Hobbit,” January Jones is Betty Draper on “Mad Men,” and even the boy is now in “Game of Thrones.” Liam Neeson is the greatest action hero in the world and Andrew Lincoln is on “The Walking Dead,” so it’s a hell of a cast now.
Q: You are obviously a believer in love. Do you have thoughts on marriage?
Richard Curtis: Well in a way “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was a long way of explaining to my mum why I wasn’t married. She always found it hard to accept. I haven’t gotten married for particular, peculiar reasons, but I’m sure that marriage is a wonderful thing.
Q: You make great use of music and songs in your movies. Can you give us an insight into what your playlists are?
Richard Curtis: Well, the insight I would say is that I really do have to use music in order to get through the process of writing. It really is part of me learning what I’m trying to do, and sometimes that takes very specific forms. When I handed this movie in, it said on the front cover “About Time” or “The Luckiest” or “Golden Lapels.” I thought about those two so much and was so sure I was going to use them, and I thought I might even name the movie after them. So, in this movie, all the cues were there as I was writing and helped me write the right scenes and work out what I wanted to say. There’s a version of “Downtown Train,” a Tom Waits song, by Everything But The Girl, an English group which was all I listened to while I was writing “Notting Hill.” That was all I was trying to do in the whole of that movie was reproduce the emotional temperature of that song which I knew could not be in the movie, but it was my sort of guide. And then I just use pop music to cheer me up, so I got different playlists on my computer. I’m trying to make my tastes more modern. My sons are pushing me hard in that direction. My 16-year-old says he can’t listen to traditional pop music anymore because the lyrics of the songs he listens to by people like Jay-Z are so much better than normal pop songs. Normal pop songs are so thin and so repetitive, he says, that he can’t listen to them anymore.
Q: The scene in the underground subway station is one of the best in this movie. Your use of music in all your movies is great.
Richard Curtis: Well, thank you. That was a really interesting day because sometimes you hope something works but you don’t know how. I couldn’t work out as I was shooting it how it was going to be possible to edit it because he’s always going to be singing the wrong words of the song. It was never going to be correctly timed so I just shot all night and hoped the editor could work it out, and the editor said there was no problem when we got to it.
Q: Can you talk about casting the two main parts? How did that come about?
Richard Curtis: There are completely different ways that casting works. My friend, Mike Newell, said to me, “When the movie is cast, the movie is made.” He was extraordinary when we were casting Vicar #3 in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The guy came in and Mike said, “So tell him about Vicar #3,” and I said, “Well the leading character is trying to decide whether to get married and the vicar comes in and…” And Mike said, “No, no, tell me why did he join the church” (laughs). That level of detail and three dimensionality, I think that casting is hugely important. Rachel, having always loved her work and having picked up a sort of vibe about her as a human being and being very interested in this part about sort of contentment and in the idea of going from someone you meet on the first date and, by the end of the film, she is the mother of three, was based on trust and faith and things that she had seen and things I had also heard about her from the people who had worked with her. Domhnall on the other hand was seen as one of the top 25 young actors in the country, and I saw lots of them as often happens when I audition. Unless it’s the right actor, there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all. That was very much the case with the sister’s part until we found Lydia Wilson. It seemed as though there wasn’t anything there, and then we got Lydia with all her complicated emotions and Domhnall instantly made it funny which is absolutely key because he’s actually interested in comedy. So many young actors, you know, aren’t. They’re actually trying not to be funny and they’re trying to make people take them more seriously and think them cool or attractive, and he was really happy to be stupid and loving. He’s a lovely actor and a very sweet man. It was complicated because he was wearing his “Anna Karenina” beard so he looked like he’d stumbled out of the woods in “Deliverance” (laughs). The beard looked great if you’re wearing a military uniform, but if you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans you look like you’re too fond of farmyard animals. It was a real act of faith, and then I made him do a whole day on camera, still with the beard, actually acting out the part and stuff. So, he worked very hard for it and was then sort of perfect.
Q: There’s a lot of Hugh Grant in Domhnall’s role, sort of like the younger version of him in “Notting Hill.” Was there any kind of connection made there?
Richard Curtis: I wasn’t aiming for Hugh at all. It’s obviously a voice that comes out when I write that part. I actually voted against Hugh in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” when it came down to it and I was, thank God, defeated 2 to 1 because Hugh was brilliant. But I think there’s something about Domhnall that’s much closer to my original inspiration when I started writing films. I was really inspired by “Gregory’s Girl,” “Breaking Away,” “Diner” and the guys in that except Mickey Rourke, and Woody Allen really. I was always looking for awkward, normal people, and I think when you first sit down with him at the party you don’t think that he’s the guy. You think he’ll be lucky to ever get a girlfriend. I like that side of him whereas with Hugh, girls would like him.
“About Time” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Please feel free to check out some other “About Time” interviews I covered for the website We Got This Covered by clicking on the names below:
After a year and three months, I finally got the opportunity to sit in a movie theater, in this case the Nuart in West Los Angeles. While many seats were taped off as social distancing rules are still in effect, it was nice to sit down in one of my favorite places to be as I have been away from it for far too long. Furthermore, being able to take my mask off to enjoy buttered popcorn along with a Barqs Root Beer made the experience even more special as I had ever reason not to indulge myself in these things as I am trying to lose a few pounds to say the least.
The movie which finally brought me back into a movie theater was “Moby Doc,” a documentary about, and I quote IMDB’s description here, the “trailblazing electronic musician and animal rights activist” whose music we hear on the radio, in TV commercials and in movies, several of them directed by Michael Maan, every day, Moby. But while I went into this documentary thinking it would be the average kind of its genre, both Moby and director Rob Gordon Bralver have given us one which is intentionally defiant of normal documentary rules, and what results is something which goes far deeper than the average episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
“Moby Doc” starts off with Moby in the present day talking directly to the camera about how we think if we have “the right amount of money, the right amount of recognition, you will find perfect human happiness. But I tried, and it didn’t work.” Not many artists who have been through what he has experienced in terms of finding fame and then suffering a precipitous drop from it can say this as their lives often get cut short at such a young age. Moby, however, has come out on the other side a humbled human being who has found a peacefulness and happiness in life which, as we learn, has often eluded him.
Through the use of animation, crude stick puppets and a troupe of actors Moby has cast to portray his parents, we learn about traumatic his upbringing was as his father ended up committing suicide by driving his car straight into a brick wall, and the relationship he had with his mother was dysfunctional at best as he could not always reach out to her the way he wanted to. What’s even worse is how years later Moby missed her funeral because he slept in after an evening filled with drugs and alcohol. Judging from the animated images shown to us in the aftermath, lord knows if he has yet forgiven himself for this transgression. Heck, I still am haunted by a memorial service I wanted to attend but didn’t as the dates got mixed up in my head. As a result, I still have yet to find any closure on it.
One thing I really liked about “Moby Doc” is how it shows the importance of the arts in a person’s life. Moby freely admits how the act of making music was like a “form of self-healing” to where I believe how it saved him. When it comes to things like music, acting and writing, they really do lift the spirits of those who feel out of place in a society which does not automatically welcome them. I hope those school districts which are considering cutting art classes from their curriculum will watch this documentary and think second thoughts about doing so.
Seeing Moby discover music and how to mix music together is done through the use of home movies which feature him during a time when he had hair. The time when he lived in an abandoned factory seems frightening as he recounts all the horrible things which happened there including people getting murdered, but we also see how he evolved as an artist and a musician in this space to where it makes sense how it provided him with some of his happiest memories in life. This is especially the case when he compares these memories to the times when his ever so famous, and those times cannot compare despite all the wealth and attention fame brought him.
When it comes to “Play,” which is still Moby’s best-known album, its success remains astounding as it came after one of his biggest failures, “Animal Rights.” He was on the verge of quitting the music business and getting a real job, something many artists would be quick to consider as a permanent defeat to their ambitions. But while “Play” started off as a slow seller, it emerged as the equivalent of the Energizer bunny as, while that one kept going and going, the album kept selling and selling and selling…
As Moby delves into the amazing success “Play” gave him, he also is quick to describe how his follow ups did not sell anywhere as well, and this led to an increased desperation in him which many of his friends came to see as a case of complete narcissism. There’s even a scene where we see Moby getting tortured as if he were like Bruce Campbell at the beginning of “Army of Darkness,” and a lyric from Eminem’s “Without Me” song keeps getting said over and over; “Nobody listens to techno!”
Throughout this documentary, Moby and Bralver keep pulling the rug right out from under us as they want to keep the audience off-balance, and it is like John Cleese whenever he is on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and saying at any given moment, “And now for something completely different.” Things move from one scene where Moby discusses his problems with a female therapist to another visual of him standing in a desert or some other isolated place to where we are reminded of how lonely fame can be.
Some may find the use of the various visual motifs and the non-linear style distracting or perhaps too artsy fartsy, but I found it to be extremely effective in digging deeper into Moby’s life as his work as a musician takes him out of his depressive depths to extreme success and then to devastating lows which made him consider suicide even at the height of fame. Thank goodness for us and him that windows in certain upscale hotels are not big enough for a human being to fit through.
But what really hit me hard about “Moby Doc” is when he talks about how he felt much happier creating music in the abandoned factory than he was when “Play” was selling millions upon millions of records. His point of how we strive for certain things like fame and fortune, thinking it will bring us the happiness which we believe is constantly eluding us, proves to be fruitless is something we cannot deny as he has seen it all and has come out of everything as a relatively sane human being, or as sane as anyone can hope to be in this day and age. It is this state of mind which not everyone gets to as many would be, as Paul Williams once put it, asking for a second cup of fame.
These days, Moby fights for vegans and has recently released the album “Reprise” which, as Peter Gabriel did with “New Blood,” contains orchestral and acoustic arrangements of songs from his long career. Some of those arrangements are featured here in this documentary, and they force you to look at his songs in a different way as not everything about them could have been seen on the surface.
It is nice to see an artist like Moby get a second chance in life. Some get so caught up in the realm of fame and fortune to where they cannot connect with any other human being in life, and this constitutes a tragedy which I hope people in general avoid. But while some artists like Amy Winehouse met a tragic end, he still lives on doing what makes him feel happiest and most fulfilled. Here is hoping others like him can see through the clouds and not get caught up in the shallowest of things.
“Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.
Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.
We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.
Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.
Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.
“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.
WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.
Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.
Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”
One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”
Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”
Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.
One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.
Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.
Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.
After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?
Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).
We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”
Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.
Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.
Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!
“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.
Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.
Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.
Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.
It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.
Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.
Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.
Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:
I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.
When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.
We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.
Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.
While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.
Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.
I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.
Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.
Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.
“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.
I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.
Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?