Posts Tagged: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

West Coast Story

La La Land is a movie I should have enjoyed, what with the singing and the dancing and its many references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and 60’s French jazz style – my very bread and butter! And occasionally I did enjoy it, but most of the time I just had this nagging feeling that something, or a lot of things rather, were missing.

There’s two basic approaches to a movie that trades in this brand of nostalgia:

  1. you tell a deeply felt story using an anachronistic style enriched with contemporary detail/sensibility to give it a new texture and a timeless feel or
  2. you do a loving, high camp homage that is all about style, recontextualizing/repurposing/juxtaposing it as the very clay in your hands.

or you know, some combination of both. Which is what I think La La Land was trying to do, but ended up doing neither, or, perhaps more charitably, did such a watered-down version of both that it canceled itself out and left us clad in GAP khakis when we’d rather be swaddled in mink stoles.

Strategy #1: historical style X contemporary detail = a new story imbued with a sense of timelessness

If you’re going to do this, you have to put a lot of thought into the details, because therein lies the interest and texture of the film (/play/opera/musical/project). Almodóvar does this even when he’s nominally going for the campier (#2) approach. He can’t help it.

So if you’re going to make a movie about a contemporary jazz pianist whose main struggle is one of artistic freedom v. societal norms and expectations it would maybe help to get the details right about what a contemporary jazz artist looks like w/r/t the realities of the music and such a career.

Now. Our protagonist’s basic musical sensibility is ‘pure jazz’ = McCoy Tynerish post-bop, ‘free jazz’ = Claude Bolling Writes a Cadenza, and ‘sell-out jazz’ = mid-career Stevie Wonder.

And you know, there are those dudes out there who are still into the post-bop purist thing, but if that’s what we’re going for, let’s go for it, especially in the music. The score, which consists of six original songs, isn’t bad but it definitely doesn’t go there. Harmonically, the songs hover in a mildly jazzy 5-to-6 chord pop fusion area, when they might instead ascend to a more complex 10-to-12 chord jazz standard territory, or even 8-to-9 chord broadway showtune territory – can someone give me a straight up secondary dominant up here??

[Cred where she be due though: the composer, Justin Hurwitz, wrote not only the songs, but the entire score, including the orchestration, a rarity in Hollywood, and I loved some of his orchestrational touches, with obvious nods to Philippe Rombi (Angel, for example) and the Björk/Vincent Mendoza collaboration on Dancer in the Dark (though I longed for that score’s kaleidoscopic brilliance!)]

Our protagonist isn’t only angry with every post-Weather Report development jazz, he’s also upset that his former club is now a “tapas and samba” place – as if that didn’t sound like a veritable match made in heaven! It seems to me like a more interesting and plot-consistent take on the new place would be if it were cast as a pop/hip-hop venue, aka the music of our very time.

But mentioning hip-hop or other Contemporary Urban Musicks would veer us into a whole racial dynamic that Mr. Chazelle seems very squeamish about, and any time the film strays too far into said territory it reveals a nervous tokenism. (Two lily-white protagonists? Fill up your jazz club with black people! That’s not what most jazz clubs look like these days, but hey, you stay balanced.)

Strategy #2: historical style X heightened/deconstructed detail = high camp (which often turns out to be a potent delivery system for a serious messages about our own time)

Chazelle leans more towards this approach and he has some successful moments. My favorite was the dream ballet at the end (whatup Agnes!!) with its use of On The Town style backdrops set on a studio soundstage and its nods to Jerome Robbins choreography.

Jacques Demy is a big influence on the film too, particularly Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. But it’s like, whatever you use as your starting point, you gotta Next Level that shit, and that’s hard to do with Demy, because his approach to film style and fantasy are already pretty gonzo (have you seen, par example, Peau d’âne??)

François Ozon is a director who loves to play pastiche with the likes of Demy and Minelli and these old Hollywood musicals and it’s worth comparing his work with Chazelle’s. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks8 Femmes, and Angel, Ozon imbues his stylistic allusions with a zany irreverence and a free spirit that makes La La Land look clichéd.

And here’s the secret about these two approaches: you don’t have to pick just one! Get you a man who can do both! You know how there’s “Serious Almodóvar” and “Playful Almodóvar”? Guess what girl – she the same mofo!!!

In Conclusion

Am I being too mean? The Dream Ballet, the Observatory sequence, the opening party were all fun and interesting and good. The movie offered these and other magical moments where the combination of picture and score set sail (flute trillz be praised y’all!)

But the stakes were low, and I can only imagine the protagonists’ bland trade-offs are indicative of Damien Chazelle’s rather frictionless career. This struck me as an honest movie, just not an interesting one.

And I’m not suggesting that he should write a gritty, racially-charged story of an out-of-control artist struggling with abuse. If he had just imbued this particular story with a richer level of detail and zestier approach to style, it would have burst off the screen instead of just sitting there. For a movie about lives not lived and paths not taken, there were an awful lot of missed opportunities.

 

 

Top 10 Genre Composers

This list, #6 on our Top 10 Top 10, is kind of a free-for-all.  I wouldn’t say it’s as vaguely defined as that last list, but it’s definitely more of a game game than trying to analyze who the most influential composers were.  The idea is to pick composer whose overall output may not have been worthy of the greatest pantheon, but who did write one genre of music better than anyone else.

You’ll pick it up as you go along.

1. Johann Strauss Jr. (1825 – 1899) – Waltzes

Nothing beats a good old fashioned waltz.  I use them in my own music all the time.  And nobody ever wrote a better waltz than the great Viennese legend Johann Strauss, Jr.  He was so passionate about three-quarter time that he even defied his famous composer father – in order to follow in his very footsteps (Johann Sr. had a banking career in mind for his sohn.)

He is rightly fêted every year on New Year’s Eve by the World’s Greatest Strauss Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic:


(Rosen aus dem Süden, VPO/Boskovsky)

2. Charlies Villiers Stanford (1852 – 1924) – English Church Music

Leave it to an Irishman to best the English at their own game.  The English choral tradition is a quite specific thing.  There’s the whole issue of dueling churches, the Anglican and the Catholic.  Certain composers specialized in one or the other.  Certain composers were glad to be denominational mercenaries.

Another irony in my selecting Mr. Stanford for this particular honor is that I submit as his outstanding work a Latin Motet:


(Beati Quorum Via, Cambridge/Rutters)

3. Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950) – Cabaret Songs

What I love about Weill’s songs is how sardonic they are.  He displays a remarkably dark wit in the interplay of his spiky harmonies with the light lyrics (which he didn’t write).  His music represents the gritty world that his characters inhabit.

I also like how many of his cabaret songs are real Cabaret Songs – that is, the lyric sets them inside an actual cabaret.  It’s much like a Saloon Song.


(“Alabama Song”, Marianne Faithfull)

4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) – Opera

Puccini appears on my lists of Top 10 Melodists and Top 10 Composers for Non Concert Settings (i.e. the stage).  So, it should be pretty obvious why I would put him as the top opera man.  I’ll be interested to see if the Wagner contingent mounts a strong defense.  As much as I adore Richard’s music, I’d prefer to listen to it in smaller, concert-sized chunks.

5. Vladislav Zolotaryov (1942 – 1975) – Bayan Music

OK, so here’s a composer and an instrument that you’ve likely never heard of, but get ready, because it’s going to be way better than you expected.

First off, this is a bayan:

Basically, it’s a Russian/Eastern European accordion, which differs from the regular accordion in some way or another.

[Now, apparently there is an alternate meaning to the word ‘bayan’ of which I’m wholly unaware.  If you want to find out what it is, or what it might be, or what ‘bayan’ might autocorrect to in some bizarre google conspiracy world, you could do a google image search for ‘bayan’, but I strongly recommend against it.]

So, we’ve established that much.  Everything I know about this composer’s biography comes from the liner notes of the one CD I’ve found with his music on it.  Apparently his parents were prisoners of the Gulag and he was born in the northernmost region of northeastern Siberia.  Great start.  He excelled at the bayan, and got some training in music at a small conservatory.  He was rejected several times from the Moscow Conservatory before he finally made it in to study composition.  He committed suicide at the age of 33.

He composed a number of pieces for other instruments, but this is where he made his mark:


(“I’m recalling instances of gloomy sorrow”, David Farmer)

6. (F.) Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) – Minuets

In many ways, I think the minuet was Haydn’s genre par excellence.  These pieces were not written for dancing.  They were written to add a dance scene into the dramatic flow of his symphonies (as I touched on in the discussion of Piazzolla in last list.)  Haydn was a wry observer of human interaction, and he humanizes his noble acquaintances in these minuets.

We might hear the heavy brocade weighing down the upper crust, or see the lush curtains and the warm glow of the gaslit ballroom.  We might sense the hesitations and embarrassments of the youth present, relishing their only opportunity for flirtation in a highly formalized milieu (then we catch them as they sneak out to the veranda.)  There are the dancers who don’t quite know the steps and their bashful apologies; then there are the big fat ladies with two left feet who couldn’t be less aware.

It’s all just so funny and charming and gemütlich:


(Symphony No. 94, LSO/Jochum)

7. Sufjan Stevens (1975 – ) – Pensive Old-Testament Banjo Ballads

OK, so there’s obviously a lot of things that Sufjan Stevens does impressively well.  And in my opinion, there’s a lot of things he does better than anyone else.  But in this category, he’s pretty much got to be the undisputed leader, right?


(The Transfiguration)

8. J. S. Bach (1685 – 1750) – Music for Solo Strings

I think Bach’s cello suites and solo violin sonatas & partitas are every bit as great an accomplishment as his works for organ and the big choral-orchestral combinations.  Not only are they shockingly original and deeply emotive, but they link him to other European masters of the solo viol, like Marin Marais and the incorrigible Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.


(B minor partita; Grumiaux)

9. W. A. Mozart (1754 – 1792)Piano Concerti

This is a genre-composer combination on many levels: that is to say, not only do I think Mozart wrote the definitive collection of piano concerti, but I think that the piano concerto was the definitive Mozart genre.  So chew on that one for a while.

For me, these are Mozart’s greatest operas.  They have the beauty, the drama, and the songfulness of his operas, but they condense the plot into about 30 minutes.  Who wouldn’t like that?


(D minor concerto, Brendel, St. Martin/Marriner)

10. Michel LeGrand (1932 – ) – Jazz Opera Film

Aside from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, just how many other Jazz Opera Films are there?  Well, there’s a least one: Les Demoiselles de Rochefort – ALSO by Michel LeGrand.  I’d say he sweeps this category.

No but seriously, he wrote such a gorgeous score for Les Parapluies.  And I know there’s a lotta h8trs out there, and h8trs gotta h8t.  And I hate that Steven Sondheim is one of them, and that he said that he thinks this “just doesn’t work” or whatever.  But then again, he was in Camp which might be the worst movie ever made, so with all due respect Steve, let’s just tone it down an notch, shall we?

I mean, come on:

Discuss

This is easily the most ridiculous list so far.  [Just you wait!]  But I think it should make for a good game, because there’s at least three ways to play:

1) Make your own damn list

2) Replace the composer for the category.
Example: Khatchaturian was a way better writer of waltzes than Johann Strauss Jr. ever was! [as if]
or Thomas Tomkins was a much finer composer of English choral music than was Charles Villiers Stanford! [perhaps…]

3) Drop one of my category-composer combos and say that your guy did his thing better than mine did his.
Example: Conlon Nancarrow was a much better writer of boogie-woogie piano rolls than Kurt Weill  was of Cabaret Songs!