Nine – A Movie Review

SINCE THIS IS A REVIEW THERE ARE PROBABLY SPOILERS!!!

The show “Nine” first appeared on Broadway in 1982, but the composer, Maury Yeston, started composing the music in 1973 as a part of the Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. Yeston describes the workshop as one that “was designed primarily as a symposium for writers of theatre songs. Composers-lyricists were urged to adapt pieces that could allow expansion of plot, character, and place, since musicals often flourish from the need to change, enlarge, and re-order the works that inspire them.” Yeston looked to Fellini’s incredible film “8 ½” as his inspiration.

Understanding the source of the music, it is easier to understand why certain songs in the show feel a little oddly placed, as they were apparently written before the actual book/script had been formed. As a result, some of the songs simply do not feel like organic, and instead feel like they are added for no other reason than the fact that they were written when the show was only a concept.

The movie “Nine” does a good job of editing out many of these songs, but the new songs which are added seem to be worse than the ones they removed. In addition, the numerous changes to the script/plot do not help make the show more interesting, rather they actually make it more boring. I never felt the original plot to “Nine” was particularly strong, but I did feel it was charming. A more modern Casanova tale where a man is juggling so many women that he eventually loses them all is entertaining, and the show was an excellent vehicle for women, as each character has a big song and dance to give before the final curtain. Rob Marshall’s film only makes one woman stand out, and it is frighteningly enough Stacy Ferguson, better known as Fergie, who gives a performance which is so incredible that the audience, me included, actually applauded at the end. I have to admit, I didn’t really think Fergie was ever worthy of public attention, but this film has certainly made me a fan. Her voice, choreography, and acting truly embody the idea of her character, and it was very clear that, although she made it look easy, Fergie worked very hard to make her 5 minutes of screen time the best 5 minutes in the entire film.

This is not to say that the other women in the film are bad, no one is truly bad, they are simply either boring or unimpressive. Nicole Kidman’s performance is lovely, and it is a little funny that her character is rejecting being cast in the role that she always plays. I felt that Nicole Kidman truly connected with her character, and the rather extreme key change to a much lower register for her song made it both sexier and easier to understand. The problem is, Kidman is barely on screen, and therefore what little work she does seems rather unimportant. I find it odd that Marshall went this route, as Kidman’s character in the play is much larger, and in this respect I wonder why he strayed from the script if he was not going offer anything more interesting. Kidman’s exit is not big enough, so there is no reason the audience feels they should care about her. One wonders why she arrived and sang in the first place.

Penelope Cruz as Carla was an excellent choice, as Cruz has made a career out of playing love crazed foreigners. Unfortunately, despite Cruz giving a rather good performance in her seduction song “A Call From the Vatican” it is not as impressive as Jane Krakowski’s version. Cruz certainly has help from musical engineering, pitch correction etc., whereas Krakowski was able to sing the same without help, include humor as well as seduction, and actually end up upside down to boot. Since Cruz did not having the burden of singing live, I expected more, but was given less.

Judi Dench does a fine job of singing “Folies Bergeres” and her somewhat seductive costume is impressively donned by the Dame. Unfortunately, Dench is not really able to pull of being French. So her performance, while good overall, is somewhat confusing due to the fact she doesn’t seem to be the Frenchwoman she is supposed to be.

Kate Hudson sings and plays her part fine. The criticism that it is a bit superficial and hollow is kind of dumb, because that is what she is singing about and is relevant to the character she is playing. To that end, Kate Hudson does great, but it is hard to applaud someone for acting like a vapid superficial person, no matter how well they do it.

Sophia Loren doesn’t actually sing the song “Nine”, but does sing. She gives a performance which is nice to watch, but the changes in the script seem weaken the importance of her character a great deal.

And finally, there is Marion Cotillard, who does a fine job, but could have done better. Cotillard truly gets the audiences attention, and is probably the only person in the show who keeps it. Cotillard plays Luisa, the wife of Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis), who is trying to figure out whether or not she can continue to love a man who runs around with his mistress and promises to change but never does. Cotillard’s first song is captivating, and although I prefer Mary Stuart Masterson’s version, Cotillard’s version is equally touching. Marshall’s changes to the script make Guido’s betrayal of Luisa even more painful to watch (a woman actually gasped in the theatre when it happened), but takes Luisa to a completely different place. Instead of finally being the one woman who fights back (in the song Be On Your Own), she self-destructs instead. Both point out that what Guido does to women is intolerable, but self destruction does not seem to work as well. In addition, Luisa seems to recover too well, too fast, and potentially forgive too easily.

Daniel Day-Lewis is fine, but is not overly impressive. His singing is adequate, and he manages to sing an incredible final note in his first song (which makes one wonder why he doesn’t sing much in the film). The problem is, what little plot “Nine” had, is weakened by all of the changes in the film, and as a leading man who is barely ever off screen, it is hard not to blame him for the fact the movie feels long and boring in spots. I don’t think it is so much his fault as it is the director, but it is hard not to blame him. Thus I found his performance merely adequate.

Rob Marshall’s film is not a bad one, it is simply a film with wonderful moments and a lot of time in between. Marshall’s eye for gorgeous aesthetics is still present, and I would say that the film looks good from beginning to end. I would recommend seeing it, but not having high expectations. The best reason to go is to experience Fergie’s incredible performance on a big screen with wonderful sound. That should tell you whether or not you want to see this film.

If anyone is interested in the real plot I’d be happy to share 🙂 I reread my copy of the script before writing this review 🙂

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An album review of Rena Wren’s new CD “Sweet Mystery”

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege of having my friend, Rena Wren, who is also a big inspiration for me, perform at Café Vivaldi in New York City. She and her incredibly talented husband performed several songs off her brand new, completely self-produced, CD. I highly recommend anyone interested in good, primarily acoustic, music purchase a copy of her CD. It is even available on iTunes. Since Rena is both a friend and point of aspiration for me, I wanted to write a track by track review of her album. I kind of went a little overboard, but if you are interested in my thoughts (a mix of praise and criticisms), here they are:

Track 1 “Breakdown”: Breakdown is the introductory track of “Sweet Mystery” and is a great way to start. Rena’s strong and supported vocal skills are prominently set forward, giving you a nice big impression of exactly how talented she is as a singer. The guitar backing is a nice blend between rock and singer/songwriter acoustic, and helps this song really count as a cross-over track. Rena’s lyrics are filled with small moments that are so visually evocative that listeners can not only hear the “Breakdown” but see it as well. The chorus is beautifully crafted, and one should notice that the notes slowly slide down as the word “Breakdown” is sung. This type of lyric and musical composition mirroring is prevalent throughout the entire album, but this track is a perfect introduction of what Rena has to offer with the rest of the album.

Track 2 “The State of Things” aka The Bouncy Song: I think my favorite thing about this track is that it asks the question of “If I went to sleep for the next 6 months would I wake up having missed that much, or would I wake up staring at the same 4 walls again?” I often wonder about this exact concept, and at times I am always wishing I would wake up and it would be a new month, new season, or even a new year. As for the dynamics of the song, “The State of the Things” is an excellent example of Rena’s ability to capture the indie-rock sound. Her two-part harmonies are incredibly tight, and their use throughout the song help it shape into a piece which seems young and questioning.

Track 3 “Tell Me Ten Times”: This song uses repetition of composition and lyrics to anchor itself into minds of the listener. The idea of someone asking someone to declare something to them is something that sticks with you. “Tell me ten times you’re never gonna break my heart” speaks of a feeling many of us have.  In love, we have all been wounded, and whenever we take a chance on someone new, there can be a desire to get them to promise not to do what the previous heartbreaker did. Of course, getting them to promise such things may or may not help, but then perhaps if they said it ten times they would feel more compelled to keep their word. The emotion behind this song is what makes it a solid track, however the lack of a more evocative shape to song might lend a listening bobbing their head to the 4/4 beat instead of listening to the words involved.

Track 4 “So Close”: The song “So Close” seems to be one of those songs which really scream “Rena.” There are a lot of very specific images and emotions, which allow the listener to truly glimpse into the soul of Mrs. Wren. As a friend, I can tell you that these moments she sings of are certainly every bit as real as they feel. This song is a celebration of the small things two people in love share, and how even the smallest thing, such as saying her name, can truly make the terrors of the outside world melt away. Lovers are, by nature, close to one another, but with each day, each battle, each year, they find themselves closer, and recognizing what this new “closeness” is always worthy of a song.

Track 5 “Sweet Mystery”: The track that is also the title of the album. “Sweet Mystery”  feels like a road trip, it is relaxing, and has a strong sense of movement. Rena’s wonderfully supported voice gets to use these aspects of her song to truly show off her range as a vocalist, without providing such a complicated composition that would make it difficult to sing along with her. This song seems to be an official invitation from the singer to come along, and explore the mysteries of the album. Thus, it seems like a perfect song for the road.

Track 6 “Red Dress”: The track of “Red Dress” starts off with a very strong Liz Phair vibe, that I was shocked and happy to hear come out of Rena. However, the song’s chorus shifts the song into different style song, which feels more like acoustic rock. Whereas I think that is fine, I was so excited by the first minute of this song, that I wished I had heard more of that style, since it seemed such a fun departure from the heavy acoustic sing/songwriter vibe that is so prevalent on this album. The chorus also tends to be repetitive to the point that it is about all you remember about the track.

Track 7 “Pushing me Away”: Pushing Away is a song that really presents Rena and her band as a single entity. The vocal and lyrics seem to be share the stage with the instrumentation to a point that made me have to listen to this track more than once to even realize that there were lyrics at all. It was a song that invited me to sway along with, instead of sing a long.

Track 8 “Wrapped Up In You”: I have heard this song come a long way over the years, and remains one of my all time Rena Wren favorites. The current, and I assume final, version that is on this album is an excellent rendition. I always assumed that this is how Rena envisioned this song sounding, and is perhaps one of the best tracks on the entire CD. It is a love song, but, unlike so many love songs which focus on the emotions of new love, Rena poetically express the emotions and desires that timeless love brings about. This expert crafting surely makes this song stand out for all of the right reasons.

Track 9 “I Left You”: There is a lot one can say for this particular track. The topic of the difficulties found in an “on and off again” romance is normally one that has the singer singing of his/her triumph of finally getting away, or a tragic bemoaning of the damage that was done to them. Rena manages to avoid these cliché topics, and instead capture the complex emotions of someone maintaining their resolve to stay away for good. Musically, this song has many exciting elements. The easiest to identify would be the addition of a male back-up vocal. Given the subject matter of this song, it is entertaining that the person joining her would be her husband. The other musical gem that shines in this song is that of Rena’s “woah-oh-oh” which is repeated several times throughout the song, and will certainly stick in your head long after the track has ended.

Track 10 “Random Matter”: This is perhaps my favorite song Rena has ever written, and I have heard it evolve from a solo acoustic song to the musically layered version that is on this CD. Personally, I think this song has such brilliant lyrics that a simple acoustic accompaniment is all that is necessary. The simple acoustic version made the lyrics more prominent, and actually enhanced the simple concept and yet deep meaning of the song. That being said, if one had never heard the original, they would still be blown away by the fuller instrumentation that Rena offers us. The new version certainly has elements I enjoy, the backing vocals and percussion give the song a more forward momentum than the acoustic version, but I still maintain my preference for the original. Perhaps Rena will grace us with an acoustic version we can download as a bonus?

Track 11 “Take It Back”: Rena’s exploration of the desire to take something, be it words or actions, back in this song is one that we all can relate to. This song seems to be an apology in itself, and to that end I enjoyed it. However, this song does not really seem to hold up against many of the other songs, and seems to repeat itself more than feels unnecessary. The brilliance I find is mainly in the few lyrics we are given, which seems to focus on not rationalizing the infraction, but simply state, albeit perhaps too much, that there is no good reason. This type of maturity is what makes this song a perfect apology.

Track 12 “Aftermath”: I was shocked by this song the first time I heard it, because it felt like Rena was covering a mash-up of “The Cranberries.” The track begins with shades of “Zombie” and even Rena’s vocals seem to be in the style of “The Cranberries.” The likeness in musicality was jarring, but being a fan of both bands, I was happy to listen to this track multiple times. Aftermath is certainly one of the best tracks of the album, and certainly has mass appeal, especially for the “Twilight” crowd who would probably find this a perfect song to represent Bella’s feelings of devastation when Edward leaves her. Much like “Twilight” this song is wrought with heavy emotions which flow out of Rena’s voice, first quietly, and then unleashed like a fierce storm. Truly anyone who has been hurt knows that dealing with the aftermath of heartbreak will want to sing along with Rena at full volume. “Aftermath” is a great song for catharsis.

Track 13 “Do You Wanna Talk”: I often wonder if Rena anticipated my desire for a song like this to appear on her CD. A song about the patient involved in communication, paired with a gorgeous blend of piano and guitar has always been on my wish list, and Rena has made me very happy with what she has provided. Whereas I normally hate instrumental solos, I actually found myself wishing that this song had one. This song’s delicate instrumentation reinforces how careful one needs to be in periods where communication can be a bit strained between two people. This type of lyric and musical mirroring, which is seen throughout many of Rena’s songs, is an excellent example of what identifies Rena as an artist.

Track 14 “I Am The Sun”: This song is musically engaging, and is perhaps the best back-up vocals on the entire CD. Thematically the song is somewhat confusing, and I am unsure if that is intentional. Is the seemingly grounding effect the other person has on the vocalist a good thing or not? Why does he/she love the other? It seems like the singer wants to be cut loose, and the male voice seems to be encouraging this behavior, so it is uncertain what the issue is. For these reasons the message seems unclear. Fortunately, the song is incredibly catchy, and has a killer chorus, so people may not ever notice. It is also possible that the song is intentionally confusing.

Track 15 “Light of Day”: The final track on the album is a wonderful way for Rena to go out with a beautiful bang. This track truly crystallizes the beautiful vocal work, exquisite lyrics, and creative compositions which represent Rena as an artist. Rena’s vocal work is set forward from the instrumentation in a way allows the audience to focus on the lyrics, and yet it is not so overpowering that people will fail to see the harmony and balance the timing and word choice connect to the overall composition. This track is not my favorite, but I had to play one song for a stranger to know who Rena is as an artist, this would probably be my first choice.

Phantom of the Opera…the sequel?

So when I was a teenager I was obsessed with “TPTO” which is “The Phantom of the Opera” for 99% of the world. I thought I would be the best Phantom in the world. I mean why not? I thought I was hideous. I felt that everyone disliked me because I was unattractive. I had people wrapped around my finger on-line, where no one needed to see my physical body. Plus, I thought I was a good singer, and that if I could just be a good enough singer, people wouldn’t care that I was not attractive.

Therefore, I think I listened to the OST (Original Soundtrack) to TPTO on a loop for a few years. Of course, as years went past I began to think of myself as not being ugly, and I found other musical material that I felt I had a better connection to. As a result, I kind of forgot about TPTO for a few years, until I was recently asked to sing “All I Ask of You” at a wedding. I dragged out my OST, and other recordings of that love duet, and began practicing my best Raoul. As a result of my new found interest in TPTO I happened upon the youtube video which gives us a preview of the sequel to TPTO. The sequel is called “Love Never Dies” and takes place in New York, primarily on Coney Island. It sounds stupid, but the video also gives us a preview of one a new ALW (Andrew Lloyd Webber) song. The song is called “Till I Hear You Sing (Once More)” and as much as I was prepared to hate it, I just can’t. It appears that despite the fact I think that making a sequel to a musical, especially TPTO, has got to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard of, I am a sucker when it comes to The Phantom.

The song is actually quite lovely, and Ramin Karimloo has a perfect voice to carry on the voice of the famed Phantom. He manages to support his tone a bit more than Michael Crawford did, and keeps the breathy phantom sound to a minimum. The woman who will be taking up the role of Christine, originally played by the famous Sarah Brightman (previous wife of ALW and for whom the piece was composed), will be Sierra Boggess. She played Christine in the special Vegas version, and whereas I was somewhat concerned about “The Little Mermaid” singing as Christine, I heard her sing “Think Of Me” and she didn’t ruin it. Whereas I always felt that Lisa Vroman was the best Christine, I think Sierra Boggess, is an excellent choice, and she truly looks the part.

Time, and the remainder of a soundtrack, will tell if I will actually attend the piece, if it makes it to New York, but I have to admit that right now. I’m actually excited about returning to hear more from The Phantom.

Adam Lambert – For Your Entertainment – An Album Review

So there has been a lot of hype about Adam Lambert ever since he first made himself known as a front runner on American Idol. I was a huge Adam Lambert fan last season, despite being from Arkansas, and so when his CD hit shelves I actually went to a store and purchased it. I think it is the first time I purchased a CD in a store in years, and it is a purchase I am happy I made.

Adam’s CD gives his listeners a lot of what they would most likely want/expect from his album. This is actually a pretty big accomplishment. Katharine McPhee’s first CD had nothing to do with the amazing vocals she gave us on the show, and I heard that Paris Bennett put out a terrible R&B album. So I was happy that Adam’s label was willing to let him sing what we came to love him for.

Adam’s CD seems to focus on 2 styles: Dance music & Glam Rock. There is some cross over between these, and both have pop infused in them, but for most part we are treated to a lot of material that sounds like a modern versions of Queen and David Bowie. This is not to say that Adam’s CD is not unique. It certainly feels like a CD the Adam we saw on American Idol would make. The only real problem is that the CD seems like Adam trying on a few hats, and he isn’t sure which one fits him best. Adam seems to be experimenting with several genres, and so it is uncertain what style Adam will be best known for. I think it is great that he chose to experiment, but the lack of focus does seem to make it a hard CD to listen to as a whole. If I’m in the mood to dance, I’ll certainly load the dance songs onto my mix and dance around. If I’m in the mood to listen to Adam sing those amazing high notes I’ll add the tracks from his CD to the ones I lovingly already have on my iPod from his American Idol days. Considering there are 14 tracks on his CD, I’d say 80% will be found on my iPod under one mix or another. However, because the album is so experimental, it doesn’t really lend itself to a fun listen to from start to finish.

If I had the chance, I’d go see Adam’s concert. I bet it is incredible, and I would love to just be in the room with him when he sings those soaring high notes. I hope this CD sells well, because I want to hear more from Adam in the future. Here is my brief reaction to each track:

  1. Music Again: Lots of shades of queen, but not really a memorable track.
  2. For Your Entertainment: Cannot wait to dance to this!
  3. Whataya Want From Me: Solid Vocal work. I’d sing this J
  4. Strut: Kara cannot write songs. This is a total yawn job.
  5. Soaked: My favorite vocal on the entire CD! Probably the best demonstration of how amazing Adam is.
  6. Sure Fire Winners: Sure to be a concert pleaser! Would be fun to sing refrain back to Adam.
  7. A Loaded Smile: Very slow and sexual. Good for background.
  8. If I Had You: I was shocked to know that this is not a song Adam helped write. It’s so him! Sure to be the new gay dance anthem J
  9. Pick U Up: Nice follow-up. Not as much fun as track 8.
  10. Fever: Adam owes Lady Gaga thanks. It’s a mix of Gaga and Scissor Sisters.
  11. Sleepwalker: Good not great.
  12. Aftermath: A nice new direction for Adam. Sounds like a typical idol song, which Adam sings well. Nice reminder that Adam can sing more mainstream hits and have it still feel like an Adam Lambert song.
  13. Broken Open: It’s weird, but I like it. Nice original closing track.
  14. Time For Miracles [bonus track]: As much as I love Adam this songs like a really dumb sappy ballad that you’d hear at the end of a fantasy/roleplaying game type of movie. No matter how many times Adam sings insanely high, there is just nothing he can do to make this song not suck.