From 'Hustle' to 'Mr. Banks,' this season's movies hit musical highs

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Image Credit: Francois Duhamel; Jaap Buitendijk; Alison Rosa

When you think of the movies you really love, your memories of a great many of them are probably linked, in one way or another, to music. Yet movies and music remain, at least in our heads, beautifully complimentary yet distinct things, like food and wine, or football and big TVs. They shouldn’t, though. A musical, of course, is its own special mashup. Yet there are so many other incredible ways that movies and music can merge. The title sequence of Singin’ in the Rain is a great number — and so, in its way, is Ewan McGregor’s performance of “Your Song” in Moulin Rouge! Yet what about the opening-credits sequence of American Hustle? We hear Steely Dan’s great 1972 song “Dirty Work” laid over slow-motion images of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Amy Adams sauntering through the Plaza Hotel with a suspicious-looking briefcase. The song is reconfigured, with an irony that gently explodes in your brain, from being about an adulterous lover tired of being used as a slimy third wheel into a song about a con man tired of being used by the law. More that just a terrific song choice, this, too, is a bona fide musical number — a piece of opera, really. And it’s just one of many moments in American Hustle that remind you why movies and music, when they’re really working together, chemically and synergistically, create a sensual pop poetry all their own. Here’s a look at a few of the other memorable numbers unfolding in the big-screen operas-by-any-other-name that are ruling the megaplex this season.

The songs don’t just tell the story of Inside Llewyn Davis. They tell a different story than the one the movie is telling. There’s a sharp, funny moment in Inside Llewyn Davis where Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a morosely haunted folk singer in the Greenwich Village of 1961, goes over to the apartment of a fellow folkie, an upbeat ersatz cowboy played by Adam Driver of Girls. We’ve already seen Llewyn lug home a cardboard box of his now-worthless, remaindered albums, and at the cowboy’s apartment, he spies a nearly identical box of his remaindered albums. That throwaway joke unlocks the movie’s meaning: Llewyn is failing as a folk singer not because he lacks talent, but because there’s way too many of these guys — their dreams are far bigger than the marketplace. Llewyn is a gifted nobody slipping through the cracks of history, and the Coen brothers, being the devoted snarkers they are, take a perverse delight in kicking him when he’s down. Yet the songs in Inside Llewyn Davis provide an emotional ballast — even a compassion — for everything that’s happening that the film’s cosmically rigged tale of bottoming out does not. The opening (and closing) number, which Llewyn performs against the smoky open-mike-night blackness of the Gaslight Café, is a folk traditional called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and what its bring-on-the-gallows lyrics suggest is that Llewyn has become the bleak purist of a singer he is because he longs, on some karmic level, to fail. He doesn’t want to belong to a pop-music scene that would have him as a member — or, to put it in terms of that opening number, he’s in the grip of a kind of spiritual death wish.

Of course, what has really gripped him is the death of his singing partner, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. A lot of Llewyn’s misanthropically dickish behavior is attributable to the pain he’s still marinating in over the loss of his musical soulmate, and it’s here — and only here — that the Coens, through music, risk putting a rare completely sincere emotion on screen. The key song in the movie isn’t “Hang Me,” or the ballad that Llewyn performs in his audition for the film’s Mr. Big/Albert Grossman figure (F. Murray Abraham) — the one who tells him, with pitiless real-world acuity, “I don’t see a lot of money there.” It’s the signature track from the album that Llewyn recorded with his late singing partner, If I Had Wings. Unlike those ancient earthbound folk songs, this one has the lilt of a post-Everly Brothers, pre-Simon-and-Garfunkel grab at pop exaltation. It’s a song that walks the line between lovely and innocuous, yet its beauty, in context, is that it so exquisitely expresses the idealistic-meets-narcissistic yearnings of the ’60s generation. It’s Llewyn’s way of confessing that he doesn’t have wings, but that if he did, he would be…well, successful. He’s a gifted bird who can’t fly. Of course, it’s telling that the greatest song in Inside Llewyn Davis is one that the hero shows total contempt for: “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the outrageously catchy tongue-in-cheek Atomic Age ditty written by Llewyn’s friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), who’s a lightweight talent but who does have wings. I know the song is meant to be a joke, but here’s one case where the Coens may have out-snarked themselves: If Inside Llewyn Davis had three other numbers as show-stopping as “Please Mr. Kennedy,” I bet it would have been a $100 million picture — and it might have haunted us, even more than it does, with the life that Llewyn’s dour folk purity blots out.

Saving Mr. Banks makes you realize that you love Mary Poppins even more than you thought. When you go to see a biopic, it’s not required that you have a great investment in the subject. (I could envision Ray turning younger generations onto Ray Charles even if they’d never heard of him.) But if you didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, the wholesomely loony, studio-backlot-gone-hallucinogenic Walt Disney kiddie flick that came out in 1964, I’m not sure that Saving Mr. Banks is a movie that’s really going to speak to you. It’s a biopic about P.L. Travers, who wrote the British children’s books on which Mary Poppins was based (in my grade-school library, I would thumb through the books but never take them out, because they seemed so much less fun than the movie). Much of the film consists of Emma Thompson, who is gloriously saucy and petulant as Travers, sitting around in a rehearsal studio with the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), the Disney house composers, as the two of them try out, and tweak, the songs for Mary Poppins. The audacity of Saving Mr. Banks is that it’s a movie about the making of Mary Poppins that doesn’t include a single on-set scene in which contemporary actors play Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. (When you think about it, who could really play them? — though a part of me wonders if, say, Kirsten Dunst and Joseph Gordon-Levitt couldn’t have brought it off.) Instead, the film evokes the deeply zany, studio-bound magic of Mary Poppins by employing the film’s songs to strike chords of Proustian recognition.

What you realize, hearing those songs even as they’re being hammered out on the piano, is that Mary Poppins has one of the most extraordinary soundtracks of any musical in Hollywood history. It’s the greatest Rogers and Hammerstein score that Rogers and Hammerstein never wrote, with half a dozen songs that could have served as mythical movie-defining numbers, from the sublime optimism of “A Spoonful of Sugar” to the wistfully bittersweet “Chim Chim Che-ree” to the gorgeously melancholy “Feed the Birds” to the gonzo happiness of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Saving Mr. Banks follows the war of wits between Travers and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who has wooed the London fussbudget to Hollywood to get her to sign over the rights to her books. The comedy of the movie is that she rejects not just Disney but the essential vulgarity of what movies are; Emma Thompson makes her weirdly sympathetic in her snobbery — she’s out to protect her precious creation from…what? She doesn’t even know. The world at large. Hanks’ performance is deeply sly: He plays Disney as the wiliest of politicians, a seducer with a vision. Yet even as Walt is trying, and failing, to get P.L. Travers to sign away her life’s work, she’s seduced, slowly but surely, by the music — especially “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the ecstatic number that arrives at the end of Mary Poppins, and that seals the movie, in all its penguin-and-chimney-sweep madcap kitsch, as a transcendent celebration of the everyday. And the inspired use of that song helps to seal Saving Mr. Banks as a majestically moving four-hankie weeper. Imperfect in ways, yet steeped in an adoration for the mysteries of pop culture, Saving Mr. Banks is a new kind of musical: a musical about a musical — about its place in our hearts.

One of the greatest scenes in 12 Years a Slave has no dialogue, but it does have a song for the ages. It comes late in the film, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has spent more years as a slave than he could possibly have imagined. After a funeral, Solomon stands with the plantation’s other slaves, who break into the classic spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Solomon, however, remains silent. His withdrawal mirrors the detachment of his survival mechanism, the wary sense that he’s a kind of double agent — a free man pretending to be a slave. He is inside the group of singers and outside it at the same time. But then, after a few moments, something breaks down in him — a resistance, a stubborness — and he begins to sing, too, first quietly, than louder, almost guiding the words until they begin to guide him: “Roll, Jordan, roll./Roll, Jordan, roll./My soul arise in Heaven, lord, for the year when Jordan roll!” At that moment, we see Solomon do something that he has never done up until that point: He joins his fellow slaves by becoming, through his own actions, “a slave,” and letting that submission roll over him. And as he now embraces that fate, he comes out the other side of it. The song is transcendent; it scalds and it heals. “Roll, Jordan, roll.” At that moment, the burden is impossible, but Solomon can bear it, because his soul has begun to rise.

American Hustle is a full-blown Scorsesean pop opera, a movie that makes you feel the music in you. There are two Martin Scorsese movies out this season, but only one of them is great. I thoroughly enjoyed the sharkishly cold-eyed can you top this? debauchery of The Wolf of Wall Street (opening tomorrow), but if, at its best, the movie is transfixing, in the end it’s not…transporting. American Hustle, on the other hand, is one of those movies, like Pulp Fiction or Boogie Nights, in which a director — in this case, David O. Russell — brings off his own version of the Scorsese sizzle, and does it with such soulful virtuoso showmanship that he makes it his own. That means, among a great many other things, that he creates electric collisions of images and pop songs that turn into storytelling epiphanies. Anyone, of course, can layer a piece of classic pop over a movie sequence. What defines the Scorsese aesthetic (ultimately derived from Kenneth Anger’s extraordinary 1963 film Scorpio Rising) is the use of a song that itches your pleasure centers, that expresses the period yet somehow steps back from it, that comments on the action in just the right sidelong way, and that does all of these things so effortlessly that it feels not just exhilarating but inevitable. In American Hustle, Russell brings this off over and over again, using music to plug us into a late-’70s moment that connects with the desperate urgency of today.

“Dirty Work” sets the tone: From the moment we hear it, we know we’re watching a movie that’s going to find a kind of rapture in sleaze. Yet that doesn’t mean the film isn’t romantic. American Hustle is very much a love story, and when the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” comes on, it seems to flood the movie with all the emotion that Christian Bale’s fraudulent, combed-over, lowlife-on-the-outside, tattered-knight-on-the-inside Irving can’t afford to show. Russell takes us back to the period in other innovative ways, using previously unheard backing tracks by the Electric Light Orchestra and, at one point, creating a startling moment for Jennifer Lawrence, as Rosalyn, when she angrily does the housework while singing along with “Live and Let Die,” laying bare the eternal cold fury of her unmendable broken heart. But if there’s a song in American Hustle that I’ll remember most, I think it’s the cover version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” performed in Arabic by the Beirut-born pop singer Mayssa Karaa. The song caps one of the film’s most outrageously entertaining scenes — a backroom meeting between Irving, Bradley Cooper’s addled FBI agent, a fake Arab sheikh, and a mobster who is Meyer Lansky’s right-hand man, played by Robert De Niro as a supremely canny dog who, it turns out, speaks Arabic. (So much for the fake sheikh’s lame dozen words, right?) As it turns out, our crew gets away with the scam they’re trying to pull off. But what the song lets us know is that even in doing so, they’ve gone down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass — that the scam is growing so big that it’s starting to scam them. It’s also American Hustle‘s way of letting us know that the movie itself is a looking glass. To go through it, all you have to do is listen.

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