SEPTEBER 11 — Out of all the major movie genres out there, I’d have to say that the musical is the one I’ve explored the least, even after all these years.
And all this despite living in Malaysia, where Hindi musicals like Sangam and Bobby in the old days and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and the likes during more modern times were more or less staples in our movie viewing diet, at least among the Indian and Malay community.
Sure, I’ve seen most of what’s considered canon in the genre, from Singin’ In The Rain to West Side Story to Busby Berkeley classics like The Gang’s All Here and of course Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers staples like Swing Time, but unlike my obsession with genres like horror or screwball comedies, wherein I make it a point to track down even the less well-reviewed deep cut titles, I tend to more or less stick with mostly the major titles when it comes to musicals.
In short, it’s a genre that I’m not a huge fan of, but will always be open to watching if the opportunity presents itself, knowing full well what’s required of the viewers to fully appreciate the films’ artistry and craftsmanship, and of course the movie magic that comes with them when executed well.
It’s a genre that’s always been around throughout the history of sound films, and even to this day there are musicals being made, whether as TV series like Glee and High School Musical or as major Hollywood movies like La La Land and Chicago.
But to see two musicals released just one month apart by the same streaming platform, both more or less promoted as major releases, is something quite rare indeed these days.
Catering to two totally different cinematic taste buds, despite both films belonging to the same genre, I’d have to give props to Amazon Prime for doing so, because even if one of them (Cinderella, which was reportedly the No. 1 most-watched VOD title in the USA during its release weekend, nabbing 1.1 million US households) was a guaranteed hit, the other one, Annette, is nowhere near that level of commercial viability (courtesy of having French arthouse legend Leos Carax as its director), despite having major stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as its leads.
A modern-day mainstream musical in the usual Glee and Disney mode, your tolerance for this new version of Cinderella very much depends on how necessary you feel it was for Hollywood to make yet another version of the Cinderella fairy tale.
If you feel that you’ve already seen enough Cinderellas to last a lifetime, then I don’t think this new version from Pitch Perfect writer Kay Cannon (who also directed Blockers before this) will change your mind.
It does attempt to change things up here and there, now taking a more feminist angle with Ella wanting nothing more than to be her own girl-boss by having a successful dressmaking business.
There are plenty of choices being made by characters here, from Ella to Prince Nicholas to a more prominent Princess Gwen that stresses the importance of making your own choices and carving out your own destiny, societal norms be damned.
Even the Fabulous Godmother is a fun and wonderful way to subvert expectations of what makes a fairy godmother.
Her arrival in the film totally made the whole thing soar to new heights courtesy of the film’s sassy sense of humour.
Still, despite another attempt to change things up by having modern songs like Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, Rhythm Nation by Janet Jackson and Material Girl by Madonna in the mix here, a la Pitch Perfect, there’s still a stale air of familiarity hanging in the air courtesy of this story having been told so many times.
If Cinderella ends up feeling a bit stale due to the overfamiliarity of its building blocks, there’s no such problem like that here, as Leos Carax’s latest film exhibits everything we could hope for from a film being made with not only complete freedom of expression, but also a substantial budget.
Even the film’s beginning, in which we first see Carax asking a band (the legendary rock duo Sparks) in a studio, “So may we start”, after which the band starts playing a song called So May We Start, and then proceeds to walk out of the studio and is joined by the stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will already fill your heart with joy and exhilaration.
Telling the story of opera singer Ann (Cotillard) and provocative comedian Henry (Driver) and their whirlwind romance and marriage, Carax lets his imagination run even wilder when their daughter, Annette, arrives. Why I said it’s wilder when she arrives, I’ll leave that for you to find out.
Every bit as audacious as his last film, the much-admired Holy Motors, the film benefits tremendously from the catchiness of the songs provided by Sparks (who also wrote the original story), with the irresistible tunes providing supremely solid grounding for Carax’s many cinematic flights of fancy throughout the duration of the film, with the film’s climactic song, a duet between Henry and Annette is guaranteed to stun everyone watching into silence with not only the emotionality of the performances, but also the unforgettable strength of the song’s melodies.
One of the most beautiful films of 2021, if you have any love for cinema, please, seek this one out.
Its tone may take a bit of getting used to at first, but stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely unforgettable experience.
How I wish I could see this in the cinema!