by Ken Bakely
Catching up with two recent musicals currently available on streaming, here are my reviews of Annette and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Leos Carax’s Annette is a steep, challenging work; a two-and-a-half hour quasi-opera where characters are deliberately kept from development or motivation in the traditional sense, and where the most accessible symbolism in it is a child mostly being played by an actual puppet. At its best, the film deftly navigates its cluttered field of ideas to bring us observations on fame and performance, in one way or another through the lens of its jarring plotline and personas. You have to be open to a certain level of bafflement, but if you are, there’s something unquestionably fascinating here – even when the movie wanders a little too far afield, it’s a singular journey of commanding artistry that’s hard to shake. Adam Driver stars as Henry, a Los Angeles comedian whose style is surreal, angry, anti-humor performance art, so steeped in irony it has become sincere again. He’s married to Ann (Marion Cotillard), a beloved opera singer. Their marriage seems loving (as they often sing the lyric “we love each other so much” to each other ad nauseum), but turns out to be much shakier than seems at first sight, harmed further by Henry’s haunted disposition. The birth of their child, Annette (the puppet), underlines this further, and serves as a catalyst for strange disappearances and characters to create even stranger art, all scored to propulsive rock tracks by Ron and Russell Mael, otherwise known as Sparks.
To dive much further into the particulars of Annette might be to deprive you of some of the surprises that come its way: suffice it to say that I haven’t even scratched the surface of where this movie goes. There are times when I felt myself lost from the movie, as if peering at its reflection through the distortions of a funhouse mirror. But much of the time, it’s purposeful disorientation works to great effect. This is a movie that can’t be judged by any particular metric – what would you possibly compare it to? It seems a bit more consciously cogent in its plotting than Carax’s last film, Holy Motors, but Annette is not about the particulars of how it tells its story as much as it is about the sensations – of confusion, of discomfort, of discovery – that it wants to impart on the viewer. The cast confidently anchors the work, with Driver’s descent from a certain level of madness to even deeper and more impenetrable ones contrasted with Cotillard’s elevated, almost misty performance; both the character’s lives also intertwine with a nameless musician, who’s played with startlingly precise and carefully-controlled energy by Simon Helberg in a phenomenal supporting turn. With his fine cast, Carax marches, full-steam-ahead, down every possible path that his story might take him, all in his deliberately alarming and stagey style. It doesn’t always work as potently as it clearly can, but in the collective, it tells the story of unshakable, haunting people in their kaleidoscopic world, and does so with staggering, and often well-placed, confidence in its vast abilities.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
A far more conventionally structured musical, adapted from the hit West End show and based on true events, Jonathan Butterell’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie follows Jamie New (Max Harwood), a sixteen-year-old boy in Sheffield, England, who longs to become a drag performer. Now feeling ready to set off on the path to realize his dream, he faces headwinds, particularly from his largely-absent father (Ralph Ineson), a school bully (Samuel Bottomley), and a haughty teacher (Sharon Horgan), who treats his declaration that he’d like to wear a dress to prom as the biggest threat to the dance this side of a bucket of pig’s blood. But he has people in his corner, encouraging and trying to help him, such as his earnest mother (Sarah Lancashire), his best friend (Lauren Patel), and an older drag queen who takes him under his wing (Richard E. Grant). Tom MacRae’s script, based on his own libretto, operates with a fixation on a particularly direct tone; though the setup of the plot implies a certain level of complexity, perhaps exploring how the people in Jamie’s life affect him, for good or ill, it’s really far more singular than that. The title here should be read very literally.
This is not necessarily a problem on its face – the movie knows the aspirational potential to this story, and Harwood is mightily effective in the lead role (in what’s remarkably a film debut), selling Jamie’s headstrong resolve while also unafraid to show how the adolescent character can express these same emotions through more huffy, selfish impulses. Instead, the film runs into trouble when trying to build itself up as a greater whole. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie rarely moves with the soaring flights that it so desperately tries to. It’s a well-meaning film, but sometimes executed without all that much panache. For every exuberant delivery of a musical number, there’s another conflict that’s introduced and resolved with an unsatisfying abruptness, or a degree to which Harwood’s performance might read more into Jamie’s inner-self than the material actually gives him. If anything, Lancashire and Grant seem to have more to grapple with in their supporting roles (and they certainly deliver). Their characters each have a solo which arguably comprise the film’s two most heartfelt songs, composed and executed with a rich soulfulness that make some of the less memorable numbers feel dully generic by comparison.
Make no mistake, there is a fiery, potent core to this movie – one that uses its themes of acceptance, motivation, and self-expression to a vivid effect that mirrors its messaging – yet the rest of the film only touches upon this on occasion; Butterell, in his own screen debut, plays things a little too plainly to fully investigate the possibilities of the script and the world within.