Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck, in Manchester by the Sea. Credit: Claire Folger, courtesy Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions.

One of the year’s best films, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea follows Lee (Casey Affleck) as he copes with his late brother’s request that he serve as his 16-year-old nephew Patrick’s guardian. Lonergan jumps back and forth in time to paint a fully formed picture of this emotionally scarred handyman/janitor, who has been living in Quincy, a working-class neighbourhood of Boston, since he moved down the road from the fishing village of Manchester after a personal tragedy.

The utter naturalism of the characters as they interact is characteristic Lonergan – real characters, real situations, real interactions – but now we’re in the orbit of a mature filmmaker at ease with a world where tragedy doesn’t preclude humour (and with the technical skills to convey it). Lucas Hedges as Patrick is one fount of situational comedy; the extraordinary Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, is another.

Mirroring the action (and the evocative cinematography – especially of Manchester’s rows of small hillside houses lit up in the flickering night) is an original score by Toronto-born Lesley Barber (who worked with Lonergan on You Can Count on Me). Uncannily, her score can suggest an element of uncertainty or trepidation at the same time as it expresses calm or warmth; as Affleck’s emotions are reined in, unleashed or in a holding pattern, as the case may be. It’s an award-worthy performance.

Barber, who began writing the music at the script stage, was inspired in part by 17th-century New England Puritan hymns and threnodies. One element she uses is a haunting, ethereal, soprano a cappella tune (sung by Barber’s daughter Jacoba, a third-year music student at McGill who sings in Opera McGill). Another is a minimalist piece for piano and strings with repetitive broken chords reminiscent of Philip Glass, suddenly interrupted by painful sonic dagger thrusts that reflect what Lee is going through in the film.

Lonergan likes to use music as counterpoint. “It always feels right to have the music help you step back a little and look at the whole environment, not just the characters’ experience,” he told Variety. In that vein, Lonergan supplemented Barber’s score with excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and Oboe Sonata and a resonant cover of I’m Beginning to See the Light by the Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald.

Members of The National Theatre in London Road.

Rufus Norris’ London Road is a film adaptation of The National Theatre’s groundbreaking musical by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork about the “Suffolk Strangler” murders in Ipswich in 2006. London Road uses the townspeople’s own words describing the events they lived through as the basis for the show’s lyrics, creating a fresh and arresting re-imagining of the form. The emotionally empathetic Tom Hardy is one of the townspeople. Watching London Road was an exhilarating experience to the point of walking out of the theatre humming the catchy tunes. This mesmerizing musical hybrid, as satisfying as it was innovative, is at its core a hymn to humanity.

Manchester by the Sea is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP. London Road can be seen at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas & VIP.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Iggy and the Stooges

Gimme Danger is iconoclastic American indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s scrupulous two-pronged documentary look at the Iggy and the Stooges phenomenon. Iggy (aka Jim Osterberg) provides a detailed historical chronology, paying particular attention to the band’s musical origins and influences. From the 1950s TV show Lunch With Soupy Sales to the idiosyncratic American composer Harry Partch, from Iggy’s brief, meaningful relationship with Nico (on the rebound from Lou Reed) to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, James Brown and Maceo Parker, the film drops one memorable nugget after another. At his press conference in Cannes (where the film premiered) Iggy also mentioned his indebtedness to Bo Diddley, Link Wray, Frank Zappa and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Fascinating.

As a child, Osterberg was fascinated by Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody show. Soupy Sales would solicit his fans to write to him “in 25 words or less.” Osterberg thought that was a good length for a song and kept to it as his songwriting developed. Ann Arbor, where Osterberg grew up, was a hotbed of new music. The young Iggy worked in a record store and played with the MC5 when they were a high energy cover band. Before that he played behind the Four Tops and the Shangri-Las. At the same time Partch was “huge for me.” He would turn off all lights after smoking pot or taking LSD and soak in his music.

Jarmusch presents it straightforwardly, judiciously including pop culture touchstones from his subject’s formative years as well as key video evidence of the band’s iconic career. Osterberg’s chronicle of Iggy and the Stooges’ formation and brief meteoric rise (1967-74) is told with matter-of-fact hindsight and a survivor’s instincts. The band that Jarmusch calls the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll band ever” in the film’s opening minutes became an inspirational template for the punk movement that followed. I Wanna Be Your Dog, indeed.

Gimme Danger opened its Toronto exclusive engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox, November 4.

Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep walks the finest of fine lines between send-up and sincerity in her inspired portrait of the socialite and patron of the arts, Florence Foster Jenkins (Toscanini was a beneficiary and friend), in this nuanced and enjoyable biopic directed by Stephen Frears: a bon mot here, a visual joke there. For 25 years, the matronly Jenkins promoted classical music through her Verdi Club with annual presentations of vivid tableaux set to the likes of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, in which she would invariably appear, for example, as “the angel of inspiration sent from on high to inspire.”

“We’d rather go without bread than Mozart,” she said.

Finally able to realize her childhood dream of singing after her father’s death, she began performing before her society friends and “music lovers,” ultimately making a record and playing a legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1944 at age 76. It’s quickly apparent that the voice she heard in her head was not the one that came out of her mouth; it was excruciating and inimitable. The notoriety of her high coloratura soprano is marvellously captured by Streep and Frears in the film which unfolds over the months leading up to the infamous recital.

Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Hugh Grant

The Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute from that evening was gleefully depicted in the film, brazenly off key. Yet by this point, Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin had humanized Jenkins, her husband St. Clair Bayfield (wittily underplayed by Hugh Grant) and piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg, an adept comic actor whose musical training enabled him to actually play as Streep sang, upping the verisimilitude quotient immensely).

Considering the amount of music that was inherently part of the narrative – Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus and The Bell Song from Lak (both enthusiastically and lovingly massacred by Streep and Helberg); Respighi’s Valse Caressante (surprisingly sung sweetly and straight by Streep and Helberg); Brahms’ Lullaby serenely done by Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg; Take It Easy by Fats Waller wisely used as an instrumental bridge – Alexandre Desplat’s discreet score was the model of support, lightly orchestrated contemporaneous jazz-based, even riffing on Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony at a crucial plot point.

Florence Foster Jenkins is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP and 14 other cinemas in the GTA.

Frank Zappa and Steve Allen 1963Frank Zappa

When Frank Zappa was a young teenager in high school he bought an Edgard Varèse album (The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One) that spoke to him; the Rite of Spring excited him, too, as did an album by Webern. From the age of 14 he wrote chamber music; he was 22 before he wrote a lyric. Indeed, the influence of Varèse is audible in much of his music. In Thorsten Schütte’s absorbing, revelatory documentary, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, it’s never clearer than when we hear Pedro’s Dowry (1979) with its distinctive 20th-century noodling. Schütte spent years “snuffling out Zappa truffles in television archives, finding an amazing treasure trove of interviews, TV appearances and concert recording” before celebrating the man and his extraordinary musical and political legacy through the prism of this archival footage in his finished film.

Frank Zappa and Steve Allen 1963

Excerpts from 28 of Zappa’s compositions, including the very early Improvised Piece for Two Bicycles, Pre-Recorded Noise and Orchestra he performed on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 (alongside the bemused host), make up the rich soundtrack. Fascinating archival footage ranges from two interviews from the 1980s with Chuck Ash, a Pennsylvania State Trooper in full uniform, to a remarkable reception by Czech president Vaclav Havel which formalized the state acceptance of his music by a country whose citizens first fell in love with it in 1972 causing it to be banned by the then Soviet bloc country.

Frank Zappa

With his unruly hair and soul patch, Zappa appeared to embody the 1960s generation gap, his appearance alone an affront to straight society. Yet he barely tasted cannabis and banned drug taking by his band on road trips. A master showman whose acute social observations led to lyrics that caught the zeitgeist (while mocking and offending the establishment), Zappa was an articulate defender of free speech and a self-proclaimed conservative with a wife, four children and a mortgage. A gifted guitarist who led small and large groups of musicians, he considered himself primarily a conductor who was also the music’s composer.

For a man who “always wanted to be a serious musician,” who hired the London Symphony Orchestra and the 31-year-old Kent Nagano to perform and record several of his complex scores in 1983, and who believed that “the whole body of my life is one composition,” it’s fitting that Schütte’s final images of Zappa in the film show him conducting Varèse’s Ionisation (the only music in the film Zappa didn’t write).

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words began its exclusive Toronto engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox July 8.

Yo-Yo Ma in The Music of Strangers

Morgan Neville, fresh from his Oscar-winning documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, has crafted his most personal film to date with The Music of Strangers, a joyous account of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Neville, a musician himself, found working with “these great musicians almost a religious experience.” His devotion shows in the three and a half years of work that took him all over the globe to tell the film’s uplifting story of the power of music to speak to disparate audiences and unite diverse performers.

Ma literally grew up with music and fell into being a professional musician without having found his voice (according to the composer Leon Kirchner who was one of his Harvard professors). But he would do so through his association with the worldwide collection of upwards of 50 musicians who comprise Silkroad. A constant questioner, Ma was influenced by Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Norton Lectures that sought a universal explanation of music. The cellist’s search for the origins of creativity took him to the intersections of cultures.

Cristina Pato

Neville focuses on Ma but also brings us the stories of several key Silkroad participants: Kinan Azmeh, the genial Syrian clarinetist, who found refuge in New York City from his country’s civil war; Wu Man, pipa virtuoso extraordinaire, who was part of the first class to enter the conservatory in China following the Cultural Revolution, and who benefitted from Isaac Stern’s historic master classes [see the 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart]; and Cristina Pato, the Galician bagpiper whose enthusiastic musicianship is contagious, and whose dog is named Yo-Yo.

Neville said after last September’s TIFF premiere that he thinks of culture as the plate the cake sits on -- it’s “the most essential thing, not just the frosting on the cake.” The Music of Strangers is prima facie evidence of that essence.

The Music of Strangers plays the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema [formerly the Bloor] from July 8 to 14.

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