Category Archives: music

RuPaul’s Drag Race goes Sisters Grimm

The problem with reality show competitions is that sometimes the show runners struggle to come up with meaningful challenges, but often fail, coming up with stupid ideas, instead. Project Runway is a repeat offender (making dresses out of garbage, designing mail carrier uniforms, using material from hardware stores). RuPaul’s Drag Race has some goofy challenges, too – and “Draggily Ever After” is pret-ty goofy. The queens are tasked to create fairy tale princesses, and in a nod toward Disney (though I don’t think the House of Mouse was ever mentioned in the episode), each princess gets a sassy sidekick, too – sort of like the singing rodent or bird that keeps Disney princesses company.

So the queens have to be creative as well as glamorous, and not surprisingly, some queens fail, most do okay, and a couple hit the mark. During the workroom scenes, the queens chat about makeup, until the talk turns to the tragic Orlando Pulse shooting. I was nervous about the inclusion of the tragedy because often reality shows exploit tragic events to manufacture emotion; I also worry when people bring up tragic events and try to center themselves into the narrative, however tenuous their connection is to the tragedy.

It was a relief then, when the queens shared their feelings of Orlando, and it became about how the tragedy impacted the queer community. Cynthia has real, concrete stakes in the tragedy, having lost a good friend. The discussion turns to the feelings of empowerment that is integral to drag. These ladies are flouting societal rules, thumbing their noses at the patriarchy, and as Sasha Velour so sagely said, “It’s so important as queer entertainers to lead the way. We need to come together and be proudly, visibly queer.” I’ll be curious to see if the election will find its way in the show, as well, seeing how political RuPaul has been during the election year.

And even though Orlando has imbued the show some gravitas, the show is still a competition with drag queens, so there were huge doses of absurdity. When the queens were given templates to create their sidekick characters, the challenge took on a Mad Libs kind of tone, with Kimora struggling with the assignment, wondering aloud what an adjective is (Cynthia, putting on her teacher’s cap, did a great job explaining what the word meant). Kimora smugly said, “Thank god I’m pretty…”

Kimora is gorgeous, but she isn’t suited for the competition. She seems a touch bored and not up to the challenge. That she’s in the bottom two is not surprising, and I think that it should’ve been she not Jaymes that should’ve gone home last week. Jaymes was a nervous wreck last week, but I think she would’ve done better with this challenge, at least in creating the sidekick.

But Kimora’s sidekick character to her Tarzan-inspired princess was a boring, robotic mess; she read her nonsensical spiel like she was reading a ransom note.

The other queen on the bottom was Aja, who like Kimora, struggled to make any sense with her sidekick story. Choosing to be some kind of volcano princess. Though she was livelier than Kimora (which isn’t saying much, ‘cuz the RuPaul wax figure was more lively), her makeup was awful – too dark and messy – and she made the tacky mistake of wearing chaps.

The two lip synch to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” a choice pick. Neither queen did great, though, Kimora’s phoned-in performance sent her home. It’s always funny when gorgeous, snotty, know-it-alls go home early.

As for the winner, Trinity wins with an under the sea outfit, topped by an impressive headdress of seaside paraphernalia.

I have to say that even though Kimora’s cartoon was a disaster, none of the characters were good because the premise was destined to fail: these computer cartoons had the queen’s face inserted, and each had to give a stupid monologue to explain the relationship each sidekick has with its princess. None of the queens have displayed the kind of comedic talent of Bianca Del Rio or Pandora Boxx, but Charlie Hides’ British fairy godmother comes close to the wit the challenge was hoping to achieve.

The guest judges this week were singer/actor Cheyenne Jackson and YouTube sensation Todrick Hall, whose made a career out of creating Disney-inspired music videos, so it’s super appropriate that he’s a judge, though both Hall and Jackson have such limited screen time, that neither makes a big impression. (which is a shame, because Hall is a fabulous talent, and should be tapped to be a permanent judge)

“Draggily Ever After” is the kind of Drag Race that highlights the show at its best and its worst, and it shows off its contestants at their best and worst. The runway, for the most part, was serviceable and eye-popping, and the creative part of the challenge was a messy hot mess.

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‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ eliminates its first contestant, gives viewers a cheer, and teases us with Lisa Kudrow

When the trailer for the ninth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race aired, I was very excited to see Lisa Kudrow. I was looking forward to see how she’d do on the show – I assumed she’d probably be some kind of mentor or coach for the comedy challenge (Cheri Oteri and Kudrow’s Groundlings pal Kathy Griffen were great teaching the girls the ins and  outs of being funny).

So, it was very disappointing to see the brilliant comedienne pop by the work room for a minute, throw out some great Comeback catchphrases, before dashing away, leaving the contestants in a daze. Instead of the great Lisa Kudrow, the second episode of Drag Race features the great B-52s as guest judges, joining Ross Mathews, Carson Kressley, and Michelle Visage to watch the contestants participate in a nutty cheerleading challenge, and then parade around in drag that is inspired by White Parties.

The queens are broken up into two teams, and are tasked with making a splash and stand out, despite appearing in a crowded and messy cheerleading routine. Immediately, we see that poor Jaymes Mansfield is struggling, which is a shame because she seems to be the only comedy queen (in last week’s premier, she announced her arrival with a puppet). Initially, she wants the character of Floozy, but fails to imbue the character with enough sex appeal, so she takes on Snoozy, which has unintended irony has her performance throughout episode two is a bit sleepy; it’s a bit of a wonder that she doesn’t do well, because she’s a very funny queen.

The other queen to struggle is Kimora Blac, a stunner, who has a stank attitude throughout the proceedings, especially when the queens are putting together their cheerleading costumes; she’s pissed and bored that she has to stud her uniform with jewels, and pouts throughout the activity. She also fails at the White Party runway challenge, recreating her leather Cher “Turn Back Time” look from last week, only this time in white (with a tacky Red, White & Blue bustier).

Valentina, the newbie, is the winner. She performs well during the cheerleading competition, but really rocks the White Party runway challenge by channeling a gorgeous virginal bride. Despite being a drag queen for only 10 months (she’s chosen last team captains were building their teams), she has the beauty and the confidence to be a contender.

Shea Couleé and Trinity Taylor also perform well during the cheerleading challenge. Shea is a Chicago queen (I’m from Chicago so I’m rooting for her), and she performed beautifully, doing some great tumbling

The cheerleading challenge was stupid – the kind of stupid that is a highlight of the show. The girls are jumping all over the place, trying to stick with the choreography. I find it amusing that the judges were supposed to assess who these ladies were performing, because the challenge was messy and a bit nuts, as 14 drag queens were flailing around, throwing their bodies around and launching into dodgy somersaults.

Because of the who was guest judges were, the lip sync was to “Love Shack.” Kimora Blac and Jaymes Mansfield are in the bottom, and are squaring off – both do okay, Blac manages to edge Mansfield out a bit, because she’s just more confident at this point (though Mansfield’s va-va-voom performance is fun). My partner pointed out that “Love Shack” is a silly choice because Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, and Fred Schneider each have solos, so it’s a bit unclear whose parts the queens should lip sync to. The queens just sort of mouth to all the parts, and Kimora is able to save herself.

Poor Jaymes Mansfield leaves and that’s too bad because comedy queens are often the most fun to watch: Biana Del Rio, Jinkx Monsoon, Pandora Boxx provided some of the best moments of Drag Race (they were great during the snatch games). Right now, Charlie Hides seems to be the only comedy queen left, and he was in the bottom three, so hopefully, he’ll be able to improve as he goes along.

Because I missed the first two Friday airings, I had to wake up hella early on Saturday, setting my alarm for 8 am so that I could catch the repeats (VH1 should follow FX’s rerun schedule of Feud and air Drag Race at decent times).

One thing that I noticed with this season of Drag Race is that two of the contestants are YouTubers. While the YouTube celebrity was a thing since the beginning of the show’s first season, the stars that came out of the channel have really blown up in the ensuing 9 years. That means that comedians and actors from YouTube have side-stepped due paying like summer stock, improv classes, comedy clubs, community theater. As a result, when YouTube queens like Charlie Hides and Jaymes Mansfield step outside the 10-minute online video, they have to rely on skills that may not be as fully developed, yet. Jaymes Mansfield’s videos are hi-larious, but she struggled to transfer her comedy skills to television.

Speaking of YouTube, next week, YouTube entertainer Todrick Hall – someone who has performed with RuPaul – appears with Cheyenne Jackson. What’s interesting is that if Hall wasn’t so famous at this point, he’d be a great contestant (he got strong reviews for his performance on Broadway’s Kinky Boots).

The only sour point – and this may be the latent Catholic in me – but I didn’t like how Valentina’s faith was played for kooky laughs. Not cute.

Otherwise, the second episode of the VH1 Drag Race is pretty much what I expect from the show at this point: bitchy jokes, maudlin scenes of forced poignancy, some high quality drag mixed with some amateurish failure.

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Lifetime’s remake of ‘Beaches’ is an unfunny joke

Nia Long and Idina Menzel star in ‘Beaches’

Lifetime original movies are really a trip now, aren’t they. Once a haven for out-of-work TV actresses who flexed their acting muscles playing all kinds of abused/victimized women, Lifetime has since branched out, churning out tabloid trash biopics/docudramas and is now also working on remaking campy, soapy melodramas from the 1980s. First we saw a reasonably successful take on Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, and this past season saw Lifetime’s post-millennial take on Beaches.

The intended audience for this remake will probably have already seen the movie a million times, own the DVD, and the CD, and have memorized every line of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” so I’m still a little unclear as to why there was a need to remake Beaches. Also, the Gary Marshall original – released in 1988 – is an exceedingly mediocre film, and in no way was an update needed, as the original did what it set out to do: make women viewers and gay male viewers cry.

And as absurd, tawdry, and overblown as the original was, it had a major selling point: Bette Midler, in a tailor-made vehicle. She didn’t so much chew the scenery as chop down on it, like Ms. Pacman. The C.C. Bloom character – a raucous, campy, torch singer with a bawdy sense of humor – was a perfect fit for Midler, and really it was just an extension of her concert persona. The movie gave Midler a chance to sing, vamp, crack jokes, and just be a terrifying whirlwind of emotion.

In the new version, Midler is replaced by Idina Menzel, Tony-Award winning singer-actress, known for her turn as Elphaba in Wicked. And though she has the singing chops, her C.C. is distressingly boring and blah. She lacks Midler’s queer/camp persona and screenwriters Bart Barker and Nikole Beckwith aren’t sure how to figure out their version of C.C. There are visual cues that she’s a misft – her hair is wild and crazy, and her apartment is messy. But otherwise, Menzel’s performance lacks the charisma and star power of Midler’s.

And then there’s the best friend role, Hillary. In the original, poor Barbara Hershey was hired to be beautiful and to bravely brace herself at the onset of Hurricane Midler, before dying to the bathetic strands of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In the new version, Nia Long gets saddled with the thankless job of being C.C.’s wind beneath her wings, and though the actress tries to inject some life into the role, she’s constantly thwarted by a script that wants to force her into rote cliches.

Besides the blah casting, there’s also the weird fidelity to the original. Very little is done differently in the new version of Beaches, except some shuffling of events from the original. There are even echoes of some of the lines (none of the funny ones, though). The new film does nothing to update the film, save dress its heroines in contemporary clothing and have Minzel belt some already-dated AC/pop tunes (the less said about her reaching cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings” the better)

The theme of the story is about friendship – long-lasting friendship between two women that begins in childhood. The friendship begins on a Venice Beach boardwalk, with a 10 year-old C.C. busking for coins, and an awestruck Hillary watching. In the original, we have Mayim Bialik – who seemed born just to play Bette Midler as a child. Bialik was able to mimic Midler’s Borscht Belt/Catskills schtick perfectly. In the new version, we have the pretty Gabriella Pizzolo, who kinda-sorta looks like Menzel. Pizzolo does what she can but she’s not given much – the writers rush through the childhood scenes, so that we get Menzel and Long right away. In half an hour, so much happens! Childhood, marriage, divorce, and then we finally settle into the meat of the film, in which C.C. and Hillary profess their undying love for each other.

Throughout the film, I wondered just how the producers convinced such classy actresses like Nia Long and Indina Menzel to star in such schlock (I’m hoping each got such a huge payout for this thing that they can now buy private islands). The writing is superficial, glossing over any real examination of the friendship, and there isn’t a trope that the writers can’t resist: even if you haven’t seen the original, the minute Nia Long stops for a second to catch her breath, you know not to get too closely attached to her.

Of course the ending of the movie is supposed to be this huge emotional crescendo – the one where you reach for your Kleenix. But the film as a whole is so manipulative and cheaply-made, that instead of sadness or catharsis, there’s relief – finally, the movie’s over. There’s so little to recommend in this nonredeemable exercise in mediocrity. The actresses – so much better in other projects – flounder and looked confused because of the subpar material. The writing is paper thin and the recycled bits from the original just remind viewers of how much better the older movie was (and that’s not saying a whole lot). The only thing this film has got going for it, is the sets are sometimes pretty (the beach house C.C. and Hillary share is very pretty – the Hollywood mansion C.C. enjoys as a big time pop star is a tacky monstrosity, complete with an even tackier white piano).

The original Beaches is camp – it’s hokum, but camp. The new version – strangely amateurish, and feeling like a cheapo rush job, fails as camp and merely settles into crap.

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Why Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve performance was not a disaster

Mariah Carey getting much-needed support

Mariah Carey getting much-needed support

So Mariah Carey is supposedly having a bad 2017 so far because of her “disastrous” performance at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. When “trying” to “perform” her big 1991 hit “Emotions” it was clear that she was either planning on lip syncing or at the very least, sing along with a backing tape. Either way, something went wrong because instead of miming gamely to the canned music, Carey – with a beautiful mix of bemusement and annoyance – wandered around the stage, drifting in and out of the choreography, while grousing about the sound issues.

Quickly fingers began to point. Carey’s people charged the show’s producers with sabotage and the producers of the show insisted that it was all on Carey.

Social media popped up with memes – one popular one has Jennifer Lopez gleefully gloating – a clap back at Carey’s infamous “I don’t know her” – and some suggested that Carey’s nonperformance was the perfect capper for 2016 – a pretty shiteous year.

But here’s the thing – the performance was not a disaster. It was sheer genius.

First of all, let’s agree on one thing before I go further: Mariah Carey is no longer a radio/hit artist. She’s amassed an impressive resume of hit records, multiplatinum albums, sold out shows, etc.  But the days when kids would want to hear the latest Mariah Carey song are gone.

But that’s okay, because in place of the top 40 artist is the new Carey: eccentric and volatile diva.

The word diva is thrown around so much, that it no longer means much. It seems like every female artist is called a diva. But Mariah Carey is the epitome of diva.

Since 2001, her one unassailable feature: her fantastic voice, had come into question. There were pitchy moments during concerts, and her whole 2002 post-Glitter album Charmbracelet is a sad testament to Carey’s degrading voice. So because of these moments, Carey’s concerts suddenly became high-stakes events, where fans waited with abated breath to hear if she’ll be able to hit those crazy high notes. Her performances now are similar to the late-in-life performances of divas of yore like Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf.

What’s even better about Carey’s performance was her “I couldn’t give enough fucks” attitude. Instead of playing the kind-hearted trouper (‘cuz that would be boring), she immediately starting throwing all kinds of shade.

That’s what I love about post-Glitter Mariah Carey. Let’s face it: she hasn’t really made any good music in about ten, fifteen years, but she’s never been more entertaining. The too-tight dresses, the young boyfriends, the crazy, rambling speeches. It’s all part of this fabulous package – she out drags drag queens.

When she started out in 1990, she was a fresh-faced ingenue with a gigantic voice and model good looks. She was chaste and pretty – she was going to be the poor man’s Whitney. She was also kinda boring. But we can blame that on her label and its executive, Tommy Mottola, who was Carey’s Svengali. He micromanaged her career and image, offering up Carey as a shiny, perfect pop princess.

But once she ditched Mottola, the real Carey came out. And thank goodness. Even though the record sales slipped (as did the quality of her music), she emerged as this supremely ridiculous pop queen, who looks and acts like a cartoon rich lady.

The latest fracas is just another notch in her ridiculous belt. Something that she’ll simply shrug off, as she counts her gagillion dollars in her Manhattan penthouse, surrounded by her gold and diamonds.

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Miranda Sings offers a fun – and empowering – evening

YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger has taken her now-iconic alter ego, Miranda Sings, on the road, in a fantastic and often-empowering show that highlights comedy as well as some sneaky progressive politics. Performing at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL, Ballinger has done a great job in transferring her creation from the short, five-minute videos she posts on YouTube, to a fleshed-out, 9o-minute show. The performance was a great showcase for Ballinger’s many talents, including a beautiful singing voice, but more importantly, her sharp wit and comedic vision.

The show starts off with Ballinger performing as herself. First dancing to Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” (joined by two dancers, one being her best friend Kory DeSoto, a fellow YouTube personality), then belting “Gay Best Friend” a reworking of a Frozen number that she sang with DeSoto, the strongest moment came when Ballinger brought out her ukulele to warble a neat little ditty that slammed all of the hate comments she got on her videos (some of the comments are brutal). The hate comment song is an important part of the show because it highlights much of what Ballinger – and Miranda Sings – stands for: self-empowerment. Like many performers with large tween fanbases, Ballinger does a good amount of work on anti-bullying, and making light of the horrible comments is a way for Ballinger to inspire others who may also be suffering from cyber bullying (though it has to be said, being a famous and wealthy celebrity may take some of the sting out of the meanness).

And as appealing a performer as Ballinger is, it’s her character Miranda Sings that is the real attraction for the audiences, as Ballinger has an inventive way of introducing her creation. She begins by singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, and in the middle of the song, she does a quick-change on stage, before finishing the song as Miranda Sings, smoothly segueing from Ballinger’s pretty, trained voice to Miranda’s strangled yowl.

Part of Miranda’s appeal is her self-confidence – she has a lot of it. Ballinger’s inspiration was the glut of self-deluded wannabe singers who clog up YouTube with terrible performances. But what was once merely satire has grown into an entity in itself. Miranda Sings is deluded – she cannot sing and she’s a grotesque (Ballinger slathers on an obscene amount of lipstick and twists her face into sneers, grimaces, pouts, and scowls), but she’s still the heroine of the story. While she rails against promiscuity and overt sexuality (she screeches to her audience not “to be porn!”), she’s still lustful, having her eye for her fellow YouTube star, Joey Graceffa (who is openly gay, but that minor detail doesn’t seem to dampen Miranda’s ardor).

As a major artifact and product of pop culture, Miranda also engages in pop culture. She performs medleys of radio top 40 hits with the unbridled enthusiasm of little kids in their bedrooms. When Ballinger-as-Miranda does herself up in homemade costumes to recreate various pop music scenarios, Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller comes to mind. And like Radner’s creation, Miranda becomes all the more appealing because of her musical ineptitude, which is dwarfed by her enthusiasm.

During her shows, Miranda will invite some of the screaming children on stage to perform with her. On Friday’s show, she repeated the custom, and in one sequence, when looking for a new BAE (Internet speak for boyfriend), she brought on three kids – one of whom, a wriggly little kid name Octavio, nearly stole the show with his hammy stage presence. Even when not being engaged with, he was still drawing attention with his mugging and his goofy presence. When Miranda and he were engaging in some cute comedy bits about dating, he perfecting her strange, put-upon vocal tics (it was clear that Ballinger realized she was dealing with a force).

Part of what makes Miranda Sings rather subversive is that its creator manages to sneak in her world view and progressive politics. An unabashed liberal, Ballinger threads some of her thoughts and beliefs into the show – the most explicit being a picture of Donald Trump under the headline of those who have too much confidence (the largely conservative Rosemont crowd gave a strangely muted response to that joke). She also stresses LGBT equality – both in and out of character, and her gleeful obliviousness to the haters promotes a healthy self-esteem.

As a canny, brilliant creation, Miranda Sings deserves wider appreciation. She’s got a huge following, but it’s largely niche. Hopefully that will change when Netflix premiers her sitcom Haters Back Off (her motto). When appearing with Jerry Seinfeld on his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Ballinger proved that even when paired with a comedic institution, she can more than hold her own. Because the bulk of Miranda’s audiences are tween girls, many can dismiss the character (too much of pop culture consumed by young girls is dismissed). As proven in her show, Miranda Sings is easily one of the most interesting – and funniest – creation in a while.

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Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg shine in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Florence Foster Jenkins

The trailer for Stephen Frears’ new film Florence Foster Jenkins is misleading in that it makes the film seem like a crowd-pleasing comedy. While very funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sentimental dramedy about unfulfilled artistic ambition. Based on the true story of Jenkins, the story talks to those who may be frustrated because they have the will and desire but not the skill or the talent.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich socialite who loved music. She also had designs on being a singer, but the trouble was she had no discernible talent. She had no ear for tone, pitch, or key. And though she had a love of music, she wasn’t terribly disciplined, and therefore her performances became legendary in their ineptness. She was an outsider artist in much the same way that Mrs. Miller or the Shaggs were – Jenkins was painfully sincere about her desires of a musical career, though, and her sincerity would eventually prove to be her undoing.

In Frears’ film – written by Nicholas Martin – we meet Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is holding court at the music appreciation club she founded. She lives in a platonic, but devoted marriage with failed actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). An early marriage resulted in Jenkins being stricken with syphilis; despite her grim prognosis, she managed to live over 50 years with the illness, though the physical damage to her body is significant: she tires easily, and cannot play the piano without pain. After a particularly-successful fundraising event, in which Jenkins starred in a series of tableaux vivant, she decides that she wants to pick up her singing. Music is crucial in her life, and aside from the love she has for her husband, music is the most important thing in her life.

It’s a this point, that the movie resembles somewhat, the light comedy that the trailer promises: Jenkins’ money convinces an important conductor to tutor and she employs a fledgling composer/pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Initially horrified at the untalented Jenkins, McMoon quickly gets enmeshed into this strange world of delusion, as he finds himself becoming more attached to the kind Jenkins. As her ambition grows, Jenkins sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, where she plans to perform for the troops who are fighting in WWII.

As far as biopics go, Florence Foster Jenkins is a solid work. It’s Frears’ at his least challenging (at least challenged). The story seems tailor made for this kind of movie. The title character makes for an intriguing underdog to root for: we know that her singing is awful – it’s horribly pitchy, and because she wants to perform arias, almost every note she attempts is hopelessly out of her reach – but she’s a kind person and her desire isn’t so much ego unchecked, but merely desire unchecked. And her passion is infectious, and audiences will root for the woman. And the character is yet another in a long list of brilliant portrayals for Meryl Streep. Possessed with a beautiful voice, Streep expertly produces some ear-gouging notes that do not feel like comically-bad warbling, but the genuine attempts of a hopelessly inept songstress. As with all her roles, Streep digs into the human being underneath the character and finds sincere moments of poignancy and beauty.

And as the befuddled pianist, Helberg is a marvel. Those familiar with his work on The Big Bang Theory, know that he’s a great comedian, but this role requires far more subtle work, and he’s marvelous: his Cosmé is a timid, souful man who loves music as much as Jenkins. Though the character is sexually ambiguous, Helberg adds subtle curlicues to his line readings and his physical performance. Like Streep, he’s dug deep into this guy and has created a full, three-dimensional person, full of tics and quirks. Because the film is so lightweight, I don’t think there will be serious talk of Oscar for Streep, but Helberg should be on the shortlist (just the actor’s reactions alone are worth a mantle full of prizes)

And Hugh Grant? Well, he’s an actor that always seems to be upstaged. In this film, he slips into the role of the hack actor St. Clair Bayfield, effortlessly. Though Grant is more talented, he essentially is the character: suave, debonair, and handsome. He still relies on his bag of tricks: the crinkle-eye smile, the slight dithering, the befuddlement and doesn’t make as near a strong impression as do his costars, but then again, that seems to be the them of Hugh Grant’s career: the laidback utility player, reliable, if unspectacular.

As far as escapist entertainment goes, Florence Foster Jenkins is a high-class production. Careful detail to setting and tone, and an engaged script make for a solid, above-average hour and a half of movie viewing. Frears’ direction seems unobtrusive, though it also feels a bit nondescript and anonymous, too. Still, he draws some great moments from his stars and Streep and Helberg are worth the price of admission.

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Barbra Streisand returns to Broadway with some famous pals on ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

Encore: Movie Partners Sing BroadwayBarbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, PartnersEncore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman,  or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.

The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.

Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).

As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.

But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.

At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious  – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway on amazon.com.

 

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