Two films (sort of) about singing, Part 1

Lauri reviews Amazon’s “Annette”, a difficult film that includes a lot of singing and poses many problems as it creates a glorious cinematic journey.


There does seem to be some sort of cinematic convergence in the universe right now. With more and more focus being placed on vocalists of all kinds in the media, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re seeing a greater number of singing themes in film and television plots. In the last few years, I have genuinely enjoyed offerings such as the UK’s true-ish tale of Fisherman’s Friends, Nick Offerman’s heartwarming music-with-daughter story in Hearts Beat Loud and more. If you’d like to explore the genre over a longer period, here’s a list of flicks about fictional musicians, and here’s a good list that includes biopics as well.

Recent weeks have brought the debut of two streaming films that tell fictional stories about singers, and which include a lot of music in the telling: Annette, which is about a couple and their surprisingly gifted daughter, and CODA, which is about a Massachusetts teen whose deaf family not only doesn’t understand her desire to be a singer, but doesn’t really approve. The films are available on Amazon Prime and on Apple TV+, respectively.

These are two extremely different movies, and let’s be clear: I am not a film critic — just a longtime buff. Let’s take a look, and you can take or leave my very slanted viewpoints as you wish. Today, we’ll tackle Annette, and we’ll dive into CODA next week. Please do feel free to chime in in the comments — we’d love to hear your reactions, as well. (Comments are moderated, however — please do show us your best selves.)


Annette (Amazon)

This artsy-to-a-fault vehicle is directed by the almost hallowed Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and relies heavily on music helmed by pop music’s darlings-for-decades Sparks. (Read more about their enigmatic and unique half-century run in this excellent profile from NPR.)

MARION COTILLARD stars in ANNETTE

Starring current Hollywood “it boy” Adam Driver with the ethereal Marion Cotillard and the continually surprising Simon Helberg, the story centers around two very talented performers: Henry McHenry, played by Driver, is a gonzo comedian whose love-hate relationship with his audience is imploded by his own edginess. Ann Defrasnoux, played by Cotillard, is an hypnotic opera star whose signature is dying beautifully at the end of every role. They “love each other so much”, and this dynamic is hammered continually into our brains throughout the film.

Marion Cotillard’s voice is lovely, but too raw and unpolished to be convincing as a world-class opera singer. Her dubbed pro, however, is wonderful. (Big kudos to Rebecca Sjowall, who did a good chunk of the background singing on this project.) Cotillard plays her part well, from the romantic to the tragic. But as we soon find out, it’s not really about her.

SIMON HELBERG stars in ANNETTE

Pianists may get a kick out of Helberg’s aria on his existence as “The Accompanist”, the nameless, shadowed talent that makes star careers possible, yet never gets the credit he is due. (We feel you, collabs, and send you love.) The character is the most human of the three, the relatable antithesis to Henry’s devil and Ann’s angel. While the other two certainly feel and display BIG emotions, Helberg shows the most convincing depth, and steals the show in important ways. Many critics have noted the counterpoint to his previous role as accompanist to Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Frears’ 2016 film, but surely Helberg won’t make his entire post-BBT career out of playing piano guys, even if he clearly has the chops for it. This role has allowed him to show us dramatic force as a more pivotal character, leveling up from the comedic foils and the supporting nature of some of his previous work. Nicely done.

The city of Los Angeles is also a major star in this film, but there are many significant liberties taken, e.g. the proscenium and DCP-sized stage that are supposedly in the much smaller Walt Disney Concert Hall, outdoor walls erected where Grand Ave should be, and street scenes that clearly aren’t in the right sequence. All come under “artistic license”, of course, but for those of us who know and love this city, it’s an annoying if understandable storytelling distraction.

ADAM DRIVER stars in ANNETTE

But we must talk about Adam Driver. This is one of the most fascinating actors in the world, and his charisma, range and undeniable talent prove that his current “moment” is well-deserved. Driver’s acting in this film, even while singing, is nothing short of virtuosic. He is riveting, particularly in his willingness to become so dislikable, while simultaneously maintaining the character’s complexity and avoiding falling into caricature. But as he has said himself, particularly after his more appropriately raw barfly delivery of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in Noah Baumbach’s 2019 Marriage Story, he is not a singer. In that film, his lack of vocal polish is what makes the emotionally fraught performance so deeply heart-wrenching. In Annette, his simple singing is effective in some spots. He sings with heart and a certain amount of musicality. But he and the other actors are so often left with little or no sound support that the organic vocalism seems wanting, as if we’re missing a piece.

I’ve taken some time to write up my own feelings about this film because I wanted so very, very much to love it. It is brilliant in many ways, and the story is very difficult to swallow. But that’s not the biggest obstacle to embracing what will surely be considered a major directorial milestone in Carax’s career. In the end, after three complete viewings and weeks of consideration, it comes down to this: the director left the actors’ vocal performances hanging, apparently by refusing to ensure that they were mic’d at the most basic professional level. The music isn’t my cup o’ tea, but personal preference isn’t the point — it’s fine, and works well for the story that Ron and Russell Mael originally created as an epic programmatic album. But the cinematic sound simply wasn’t set up properly, and the end result is haphazard and feels like the talented primaries were criminally abandoned without the technical support that would have told a more engaging story. Even in some of the ensembles, which feature audaciously talented singers (did you catch Julia Bullock‘s little solo moment?), the voices aren’t as good as they are when heard live — and what’s “natural” about that? At each finale, I was angry, both at the director’s missteps and at his seeming disrespect for vocal potential. After speaking with several singers, composers and conductors who shared a similar reaction, it does seem that this could have been done better.

Does singing matter in cinema?

Of course it does, and it’s clear that Carax and his team were making specific decisions here, ostensibly because they believe that, too. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and we certainly don’t want to encourage the kind of auto-tuned, overproduced nonsense that is continually thrown at the world from certain parts of the music industry. But just as skin won’t look normal on film without makeup, the act of recording the voice in any medium requires some adjustment as well. The idea that Carax and Sparks didn’t recognize this, or worse, were invoking some half-assed reference to the Dogme 95 movement in the sound area alone, is frustrating and difficult to accept. Otherwise good performances become distracting and unrelatable because the artistic leaders made their agenda more important than what could have been a much more powerful musical experience. It seems that ego, not vision, caused the resulting failure of the overall work. I genuinely hope that my assumption is simply wrong, and that this was just an error in judgment that they will rectify in future.

We’ll be listening.


Photos Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Photos of Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg by Kris Dewitte / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC; © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Photos Copyright: © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

2 thoughts on “Two films (sort of) about singing, Part 1”

  1. Sharing a reader comment, with permission, that was texted privately this evening:

    “…there is always one part of me that is always trying to stay open to things being over my head; But there is another part of me that really can’t deal with empty (or lazy) art disguised as sophisticated intellectualism… Always super suspicious of the emperor’s new clothes… With the sound, it felt like a chef telling you his creations were so profound and important that he didn’t need to bother with trivial details like seasons. Yeah, you do!”

    Reply

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