Throwback Thursday: Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol (1999)

Though it may seem that the concept of the teen idol is an old one, it is actually rather new in terms of cultural history.

The 1999 TV movie, Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol, tells the story of the late actor/singer Ricky Nelson (Gregory Calpakis). The younger son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson (Jamey Sheridan and Sara Botsford), Ricky was a performer from a young age. Starring with his family first on radio and then on television on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, he was sold to the then young audience as a heartthrob. Then as he aged (as many young performers experience), his name fades from the headlines and he has to deal with no longer being in the spotlight.

Though the narrative is by the book, the story is familiar to anyone who has seen the trajectory of many young actors and singers. After being in the limelight and dealing with everything that comes with that while growing up, they become an afterthought or a piece of nostalgia when the newer model comes along.

Do I recommend it? Maybe.

Elvis Movie Review

There are only a handful of artists who are known by a singular name. Their image and influence have permeated the culture in a way that everyone knows who they are and what they represent. Elvis Presley is one of these artists.

The new biopic, Elvis, hit theaters last week. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the film stars newcomer Austin Butler as the title character and Tom Hanks as his manager with sometimes questionable intentions, Colonel Tom Parker. The narrative follows both of them from the early days of Presley’s career until his death in 1977 at the age of 42. The Colonel tells the story, casting himself as the manager who saw the potential of an unknown artist. As Elvis becomes a megastar, he faces criticism for his supposedly “wild race music” and its effect on the nation’s young people.

As the years pass and he becomes a has-been, Presley, and the Colonel pivot. After a very successful television special, he becomes a Las Vegas regular. But while his client is on stage, the Colonel is enriching himself. When everything comes to a head, Elvis has to choose between staying with his manager or trying to go his own way.

Though Butler does not look exactly like the King, he completely inhabits the man and the legend. Playing him from his teenage years until his early 40s, Butler is enigmatic and completely convinces the audience that he is Presley. Hanks, as usual, is up to the task. His character is a man who sees an opportunity and takes it, even if means crossing some boundaries.

What made the movie work for me was the man behind the icon. Presley was a devoted son to his parents, Gladys and Vernon (Helen Thomson and Richard Roxburgh). He was also madly in love with his wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) and a devoted father to their daughter. He respected the black artists whose music he “borrowed” (depending on your perspective) from. What Luhrmann does brilliantly as a filmmaker is to point out that while African-American musicians of the era were largely ignored outside of their community, Presley made a fortune singing the same songs.

My only complaint is that the middle of the narrative could have been trimmed down a bit. Other than that, the film is incredibly good and definitely worth the price of a movie ticket.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Elvis is presently in theaters.

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Throwback Thursday: Amelia (2009)

The standard narrative of the biopic is as follows: the person was born on x date, they accomplished a,b, and c, and died on y date. They are known for (fill in the blank). The final product can go one of two ways. It can be an exciting and entertaining deep dive into the subject. Or, it can turn it into a paint-by-numbers story that comes straight out of a basic internet search.

The 2009 film, Amelia is based on the book East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart by Susan Butler. Starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart and Richard Gere as her husband, George Putnam, the movie tell the story of the life and legend of the groundbreaking pilot.

The problem with this film is that it is boring. The inspiration and pride that should come from the tale is non-existent. Though the actors do their best, their best is not enough to save this tepid chronicle of an American legend.

Do I recommend it? Not really.

Flashback Friday: Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (2000)

No one gets through life without a few bumps in the road. The only question is if it holds up back or makes us stronger.

The TV movie biopic, Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (2000), tells the story of the late singer and actor. Marvin Lee “Meat Loaf” Aday (W. Earl Brown) was born in Texas to a loving mother dying of cancer and a father who was far from parent of the year. As a young man, tormented by his father and peers due to his size and decided to strike out on his own.

Fate would lead him to an audition for a musical where he met future music partner Jim Steinman (Zachary Throne). Together, they would create Bat Out of Hell, which has become one of the best-selling and most respected albums of all time. But while Meat Loaf had incredible career success and a happy family life, his demons were not too far behind him.

As I recall, I enjoyed watching it. It reveals both the highs and the lows in a way that is entertaining without being too heavy, kitschy, or predictable. In telling Meat Loaf’s story, I would hope that members of the audience find the courage to overcome their own demons.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Helen Mirren, Golda Meir, and the Question of Jewface

Representation both on the screen and on the page is a powerful thing. For those who feel maligned or ignored, seeing themselves in the media as fleshed-out human beings is an experience that can only be described as life-changing. It also changes minds and hopefully opens the door to understanding one another.

When it was recently announced that Helen Mirren is starring in an upcoming Golda Meir biopic, some people accused her of playing Jewface.

I have mixed feelings about this. Golda Meir was Israel‘s first female Prime Minister and a woman to be reckoned with. The actress who plays her has to have that same energy and presence. Mirren is clearly up for the job.

The problem (which I understand) is that Mirren is not Jewish. When she spoke to the director before she took the role, she understood the criticism that was potentially coming her way.

“[Meir] is a very important person in Israeli history,” Mirren continued. “I said, ‘Look Guy, I’m not Jewish, and if you want to think about that, and decide to go in a different direction, no hard feelings. I will absolutely understand.’ But he very much wanted me to play the role, and off we went.”

“I do believe it is a discussion that has to be had – it’s utterly legitimate. [But] You know, if someone who’s not Jewish can’t play Jewish, does someone who’s Jewish play someone who’s not Jewish?”

This is not the first time that she has played a Jewish character. In both The Debt and Woman in Gold, the women she played were of the faith. But neither of the women who she temporarily inhabited were in the position that Meir was in. What I think makes this question of Jewface more complicated is that Ashkenazi Jews (for the most part) are Caucasian. The question of the entertainers’ skin color is less important than their ethnicity or family heritage.

I have no doubt that Helen Mirren will be nothing short of fantastic. I have been a fan of hers for a number of years. My hope is that she will do Golda justice. But for now, we can only wait and see how the movie is received when it hits theaters.

Being the Ricardos Movie Review

I Love Lucy is one of those television programs we have all seen. The antics of wannabe performer Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) have kept audiences howling with laughter for seventy years.

The new movie, Being the Ricardos, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, is a biopic that takes audiences into one turbulent week of the personal and professional lives of Ball (Nicole Kidman) and her then-husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). While trying to go through the weekly process of putting together a show, issues in Ball and Arnaz’s home lives complicate matters. Lucy is pregnant again and trying to figure out how this change will be worked into the program, if at all. She also suspects that her husband is (again) cheating on her. To make matters infinitely worse, the McCarthy witch hunts have accused her of being a communist. If these allegations are proven true, everything that Lucy and Desi have worked for will be destroyed.

When I originally saw the trailer, I thought that Debra Messing would have been a better choice to play Lucille Ball. I was wrong. Kidman is fantastic in the role. We mostly see the woman behind the iconic role with snippets of her on-screen persona. She is tough, driven, intelligent, and able to succeed in a world dominated by men. Bardem is as close to the real Arnaz as this biopic could have gotten. He does not look like Arnaz, but the spirit of the man and his work is evident in Bardem’s transformation.

One thing that I greatly appreciated is the conversation between Ball and co-writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat). Pugh points out that Lucy Ricardo is often infantilized, needing Ricky’s permission as if she was his daughter and not his spouse. The character is both a product of her era and an early feminist, pushing boundaries in a time when the ideal life of a woman was that of a wife and mother.

My main issue is not that Sorkin took liberties with the timeline of events. He is not the first and will not be the last screenwriter to do so. It is that this film is not as good as it could have been. It started to drag in at about the 2/3rds mark. By that point, I was starting to get a little antsy. Is this film entertaining and engaging? I would say so. Is it spectacular? No.

Do I recommend it? I am leaning toward yes.

Being the Ricardos is in theaters and available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Throwback Thursday: In Search of the Brontës (2003)

A good biopic does more than lay out the basic facts about the life and work of the subject(s). It brings that story and the subject(s) to life, creating a connection between the audience and the characters.

In Search of the Brontës (2003) is a one-hour TV movie that told the story of the Bronte sisters, their work, and their family. Starring as the sisters are Victoria Hamilton (Charlotte Bronte), Elizabeth Hurran (Emily Bronte), and Alexandra Milman (Anne Bronte). Behind them is Patrick Malahide as their widower father Patrick and Jonathan McGuiness as their only brother, Branwell.

I thoroughly enjoyed this hour of television. It is a fascinating and deeply moving tale of three of the most beloved writers in literary history. The acting is fantastic and the actors are perfectly cast, giving the viewer the opportunity to get to know the characters outside of the dry historical facts that we know all too well.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Flashback Friday: George Eliot: A Scandalous Life

Drawing outside of the lines requires a backbone and a belief that you can withstand the questions and the judgment coming from those around you.

The writer George Eliot was one of those people. The 2002 television program, George Eliot: A Scandalous Life, is a television biopic of the author. Starring Harriet Walter in the title role, this hour-long drama tells Eliot’s story. The daughter of a clergyman, she was a rebel at a young age. Knowing that her looks would not secure her a husband, the future writer then known as Mary Ann Evans decided to blaze her own path. That included writing books that would scandalize Victorian England and living in sin with her married boyfriend, George Henry Lewes (John Sessions).

I personally enjoyed this program. But I am a fan of Eliot. Overall I would say that it is worth watching, but only if the viewer is curious about this period or has read George Eliot’s books.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

Does Sarah Silverman Have a Point About Hollywood’s “Jewface” Problem?

In today’s media environment, representation is key. After too many years of the Caucasian, Christian, heterosexual male dominating our screens, the call for diversity has only gotten louder and will continue to do so.

Last week, comedian and actress Sarah Silverman called out Hollywood for “Jewface“. In laymen’s terms, it is when a non-Jewish actor plays a Jewish character (ala Kathryn Hahn playing Joan Rivers in the upcoming biopic). Her description of this phenomenon is as follows:

“It’s defined as when a non-Jew portrays a Jew with the Jewishness front and center, often with makeup or changing of features, big fake nose, all the New York-y or Yiddish-y inflection. And in a time when the importance of representation is seen as so essential and so front and center, why does ours constantly get breached even today in the thick of it?”

In response to Silverman’s comments, actor Tony Shalhoub, who plays Rachel Brosnahan’s father in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, (neither of whom are Jewish) said the following:

“We were trained to — at least I was — to not play myself, to play characters and so it’s troubling to me that they’re limiting actors.”

He is right. An actor’s job is to pretend to be someone else. As long as they can play the role, it shouldn’t matter what their ethnicity or family background is. The problem is that too often, a character who is a minority is either ground down to the base stereotype or the actor is Caucasian, but the person they are playing is a POC.

I think she has a point. The problem as I see it is both in casting and the writing. If every performer was hired solely based on their race, religion, or where their ancestors came from, dramatized fiction would be severely limited. While it would be nice to see a Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, I have to be realistic. For me, it comes down to the script. The person I am seeing on screen must be fully drawn. If the writer(s) rely on how they think a Jewish person (or anyone) thinks or feels without making them human, that is where the problem lies.

Respect Movie Review

When we experience trauma, the emotional scars have a tendency to last long after the event that created the trauma is over. When it resurfaces and starts to take control, there are two options. The first is to look it in the eye and stop running from it. The other is to let it take the wheel.

The new Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect, premiered last weekend. It tells the story of the late and iconic performer in two sections: her early years and the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, when her career was just taking off. Born and raised in Detroit, Aretha’s parents, C.L. and Barbara Franklin (Forest Whittaker and Audra McDonald) divorced when she was young. C.L. knew that his daughter was a musical child prodigy (played as a child by Skye Dakota Turner) and was more than willing to promote her gift to anyone who would listen. He was also controlling and unwilling to let her make her own decisions when it came to music.

In 1959, the adult Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) is eager to see her dream of becoming a professional musician turn into reality. But after multiple albums, she is at a crossroads. Aretha can either let her father dictate her career or take a chance on going her own way, musically speaking and letting her husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans) manage her. But the marriage is not all sunshine and roses. While she is on the path to becoming a global superstar, the fight for Civil Rights continues on with Aretha on the forefront.

This movie is amazing. Hudson was born to play this role. She does not merely play the part, she embodies Franklin. There points in which I had to wonder if I was watching a documentary or a fictionalized adaptation of her biography. If this film and Hudson specifically does not walk away with an Oscar, something is wrong with the voting. Though some scenes could have been cut down a little, it is a wonderful film that reminds us of the power of overcoming what holds us back.

Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

Respect is currently in theaters.

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