2021 is the Year of the Musical. Music, Raya and the Last Dragon, In the Heights, Vivo, Cinderella, Annette, and the upcoming Dear Evan Hanson, Everybody’s Talking About Jaime, Tick, Tick, Boom, and West Side Story update, just to name nearly a dozen. Amazon Prime has, in recent weeks, unfurled two musicals that could not be any more different or aimed at audiences any more different. They represent the high and low of the genre, and they both embrace the inherently fantastical nature of a storytelling form that, to this day, always prioritizes fantasy over reality.
Leo Carax of Holy Motors fame has delivered unto us a musical that fails at satire but succeeds at unfurling a peculiar world of song, dance, and standup comedy that washes over any viewer willing to follow it. Make no mistake, Annette is not for unsuspecting viewers or casual moviegoers. Annette is for the cinephiles among us who revel in the abstract and the absurd. Narratively speaking, the film isn’t abstract at all and refreshingly easy to follow, revolving around a controversial stage comic and Broadway opera sensation who fall in love, move in together, and eventually birth a child who will astonish the entertainment world. Thematically speaking, it’s a little more intangible in its sights until a sight for sore eyes in its final passage, an image and directorial choice so brilliant and moving so as to choke up even the most lost among us after laying witness to so many of Carax’s idiosyncratic flourishes. The child itself, for a majority of the film, happens to be one of them: a creepy-looking puppet signifying nothing until it’s everything. Adam Driver delivers a tour de force performance, able to slip effortlessly from angry performer to lovelorn boyfriend to selfish bachelor, a toxic individual who cares only for himself and, for a brief period, Marion Cotillard’s Anne. Though something of a cipher, Cotillard imbues Anne with a regretful longing even in her happiest moments. Even when in the throes of bedroom passion, there’s something amiss in her far-gone gaze. As friend and orchestra conductor, Simon Helberg proves what we’ve long suspected: he’s a talented actor in addition to being a consummate comedian. A climactic scene wherein he and Driver square off next to a pool is unnerving and frightening in its juxtaposition of their opposing sizes and body frames, as well as a nifty, subtle piece of stunt work from both actors. The music, written by Sparks, alternates between overly simple but memorable earworms and slightly more complex if unmemorable songs denoting the increasingly unhinged mental state of Driver’s Henry McHenry. If Carax was attempting musical satire, it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees among his idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, Driver and Helburg and impressive craftsmanship on display make Annette an engaging exercise about a provocateur by a provocateur, and perhaps even about the myriad of ways in which some men are continuously allowed to get away with their toxicity, until it’s too late.
A baffling re-adaptation of the classic Disney cartoon, Kay Cannon’s Cinderella is a significant step down from his spirited Pitch Perfect films. Camilla Cabelo may be a wonderful singer, but she’s no great shakes as an actress, and she’s supported by a pretty boy in Nicholas Galitzine who does well when portraying a devil-may-care prince, not so much the earnest do-gooder he eventually becomes. The elder statesmen of Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, and Idina Menzel do their damndest to try to elevate the vacuous material via good voice or great charisma, and even they fall short. The problem is Cinderella is a musical, and no musical is worth the time of day if more than half of the music are mere covers of pop songs from the 80’s, 90’s, and today. The 2021 Cinderella could belong on a cutesy CD-collection, hawked forever on daytime television circa 2003. Hearing Menzel lower herself to belting out “Material Girl” for no reason other than pandering to the lowest/youngest common denominator is a moment I wish I could forget, and never will. Cannon and co. seem to believe today’s Zoomer generation are incapable of appreciating original music, or period trappings for that matter. Speaking of, regardless of fantasy, it’s incredibly confusing why an adaptation of such a classic chose such random anachronisms when it comes to costuming, hairstyling, manner of speaking, and production design. The choice of modern music is, at the very least, intentional. It’s uncertain whether the mishmash of time periods is such or merely the result of lazy craftsmanship, or perhaps a low budget. Some characters look as if they stepped out of feudal England, others look as if they stepped out of 60’s Britain, or hell, the UK of today. It’s disorienting and denotes a lack of effort or cohesive vision. There’s even a joke regarding life expectancy reaching only mid-forties in spite of everything in their village appearing scrubbed of poverty, illness, or anything resembling history. Billy Porter is a lone stroke of genius as the Fairy Godmother, his billowing gold dress sparkling and quite dazzling, and his unique comic persona doing legwork for an abominable script. The classic fairy tale hath wrought an adaptation about the myriad of ways in which stupid men ascend, and apparently it’s a good thing.