SONGBIRDS, YOUNG LIVES AND FATES ON THE EDGE

RESPECT(2021)

Sometimes it’s fate perhaps that adds sheen to a God given talent. It was then a miracle that Jennifer Hudson broke out into pop culture with an iconic rendition of a song already written in the annals of recording history by a namesake. That would be her take on Jennifer Holliday’s AND I’M TELLING YOU for the movie adaptation of Broadway sensation Dreamgirls in 2006. An Oscar and every other possible award came her way for that landmark moment along with her complete immersion in the role as a screen performer.

Now as Aretha Franklin, a role the late legend herself had entrusted her with in her lifetime, RESPECT captures Hudson as the singing diva she was born to portray. That’s the power of her voice, her performative aptitude and emotional connection with the material she has invested her soul with. It’s a role of a lifetime and Hudson owns it without making it a plain impression or characteristic beat by beat impersonation of Ms. Franklin. She imbues it with her own personality as a mirror to her talents and a tribute to the figure that has inspired generations, including her.



The direction by Liesl Tommy gives her a platform to shine in such pivotal recreations as when she is involved in the process of arranging some of her best known songs, her live stage presence for the likes of YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE A NATURAL WOMAN, RESPECT, CHAIN OF FOOLS and THINK as well as when she is at her most vulnerable. Like when she reminisces about her mother, launches into a verbal fight with her family members at the height of her fame, suffers a dangerous fall during a live concert or is headstrong in the face of her father’s interference. Or when confronting the dark ‘demon’ from her childhood that is easily one of the most revolting aspects about this influential life. It pertains to a loss of innocence spurred by forced physical exploitation when she was not even in her teens. That difficult aspect and its mental toll has been handled sensitively, in terms of suggestion and its looming shadow on her as an adult.

Of course, she is surrounded by an army of able performers embodying those who made her and others who often took her spirits down. But the spirit prevails like a halo of guileless solidarity as her history-making live recording of gospel album AMAZING GRACE closes the film. Hudson truly becomes Franklin throughout RESPECT and makes beautiful use of her musical gifts to enlighten a new generation about what it means to be blessed by the Queen of Soul’s repertoire. As a huge fan of both Ms. Franklin and Hudson, I highly recommend this work.

JUDY(2019)



In Judy, titular icon Judy Garland’s life in freefall, her last months on earthly realm, get rescued from being utterly doomed by how she is presented as this irrepressible soul with a perpetual smile and an unfazed twinkle in her eye. Of course, both these traits often belie the stigmas and personal suffering one endures. Especially if you are a child prodigy and matinee idol forced to take pills instead of a normal, healthy diet, leading further to a lifelong battle with sleep deprivation and coaxed and groomed by intimidating, inappropriate elderly moguls running studios with a supposed hand of God. It’s all there, portrayed in striking sequences that strip the veneer of a legendary career. I love how the industry is looking on the inside without being just a silent spectator, to renew the gilded age of cinema as one of manufactured illusion.

That mechanical, clinical sense of expecting icons to deliver the goods for the sake of finances, custody of children and keeping up with ways of the world at the cost of a larger mental bliss continued to dodge her in her late 40s. She was booed and heckled at live shows and mostly accommodated by managers for her value to bring profits.

It’s Renee Zellweger who embodies the soul sapping realities of her station without holding regrets and ill-will against anyone. Resistance to hate and a general goodwill are her strongest suits. She is hence able to grant us a peek into the depths of an individual who knows her battles are hard-won. All her injuries are inflicted by others. It’s just that a point of relief is elusive.

I highly recommend JUDY for its direction, overall performances and the way Zellweger herself sings and performs those iconic tunes to bring a rarefied sparkle to the screen. But you see the tragedy of her sweet, effervescent personality offset by the thanklessness of being a legend. That is why this work is an instrument that generates empathy as also acts as a cautionary tale.

I particularly loved her moments with two of her middle aged male fans whose journey as a couple goes through the rigmarole of draconian, intrusive moral laws. It’s all in one crucial scene. Their battle is won when they get to attend their idol’s show in person and see her up on stage against all odds, cheering her on and contributing to the final verse of SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW. It’s a moment I will remember for its bittersweet sense of victory.

****

THE WISE KIDS(2011)



I’m glad that my curious mind and mostly dependable instincts always bring to me profound, often unsung gems like this one. I watched Stephen Cone directed THE WISE KIDS on MUBI last Sunday and suffice to say, it was revelatory in its empathetic, no- nonsense approach to growing pains of teenage lives.

Faith, sexuality and a dissonance with belief occupy the narrative culled from Cone’s own upbringing. I love how THE WISE KIDS maintains the informal yet internally gnawing contours of a close-knit religious community to show triggers of self-enquiry on the part of its cast members. Acceptance is also found yet each flicker of doubt is a movement towards individual self-definition.

Watch it for its sense of intimacy, goodwill and a journey towards the future for three college bound kids and a young married couple. Stephen Cone’s observational input and understated unravelings are to be applauded here. A must watch, it is steeped in the commonality of day to day life.

MIDSOMMAR(2019)

Like his previous breakthrough HEREDITARY, Ari Aster’s MIDSOMMAR is preoccupied with pools of grief and familial tragedy. Also the seemingly placid spaces within a location are unearthed to reveal an almost sinister sense of civilisational fault lines. Where lines between good and evil are breached to make entry into a psychologically scarred underworld whose surface is sunny and rejuvenating. Even innocent. However, a summer solstice and eternal daytime cannot mask the darkness invested in human souls.

There are so many moments to behold here yet they come with a slow burning urgency, hypnotic and observational. Culturally decentering us from the core of myths and folklore around which we build our lives.



Aster’s screenplay hence is a slumbering beast that spends the first two hours building an inverted idyll for young individuals visiting a foreign land. The final twenty minutes or so let the ‘horror’ orchestrated by human hands gush forth like an epiphany. It’s an inverted epiphany. At a time where an American cult that worshipped its decapitated leader’s corpse has dominated international headlines, MIDSOMMAR works its slithering way into our subconscious like a snake in the grass. Florence Pugh and co. give it heft. She is implosive particularly in a scene where she breaks down along with several other women.

For me, another standout was how, within the narrative, two young men seeking a post doctoral thesis let typical, fragile ‘male egos’  define their already hollow intellectual pursuits. The film similarly lays out layers for viewers, pointing no less to the mysteries around death, grief, objectification of women and the constant gaslighting they endure at all times. Human corruption endemic to the youngest in this generation is the running thematic value that I came away with most pivotally.

****

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK(2018)



Barry Jenkins’ unusually empathetic take on the tenderness of human bonds is on full display in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Evocative cinematography and music plus the aura of its performers give due respect to James Baldwin’s original novel.

More than anything, I appreciate how Jenkins and D.O.P James Laxton’s  camera employs the caressing quality of hands, the transporting power of eyes to convey multitudes and the fibre of humanity to render the hardest sentences with due poignancy. Racism and history are twins conspiring to bring two lovers and families apart. Justice and truth make the other pair.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK is so consistent in its probe on the derailed stakes for humanity that even few minutes worth of screentime for its supporting players linger in our minds.

CLEMENCY(2019)

Another probing work of unusual moral depth, CLEMENCY is richly layered with human complexity around mortal life and impending death. Its insulated spaces with nearly no shots of an open panorama or the outside world help to locate an emotional isolation for its protagonist Bernardine ( a sublime and effective Alfre Woodard), a prison warden grappling with protocol and a sense of duty impinging on normal human interaction.

But the stakes for a man’s reversal of death sentence weighs heavily on many others including his impassioned and patient lawyer, the priest keeping him abreast with flickering hope and the warden’s own husband.



I watched CLEMENCY over three nights owing to paucity of time and I think it helped me to be immersed in the three act structure with which I viewed it. The  uncompromising silences and distance, even a sense of detachment,  allow us to gain insights into the difficult journey that seeking justice entails. It’s so penetrating on those fronts that instead of blindly adhering to racial fiats, it seeks to show these individuals as equally imprisoned within the system.

I highly recommend CLEMENCY to all discerning viewers. The final minutes with Alfre Woodard shedding tears is heartbreaking and absolutely riveting. To me, it is a vital work dealing with the wrenching reality of death by lethal injection within the prison complex and the psychological unraveling for those at the helm of this procedure, only behind 2001’s historic MONSTER’S BALL.

****

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