“It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.” Disney’s The Lion King (2019)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People, namely but not exclusively critics, are all of a dither because The Lion King, as directed by Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) – the latest in Disney’s unyielding march of “live action” remakes and re-imaginings of their own animated classics – is not original enough. People! Didn’t you know the “D” is Disney stands for “derivative”? That’s the Mouse House’s stock-in-trade.

Whereas once upon a box office, Disney strip-mined the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, P.L. Travers, Carlo Collodi, and A.A. Milne for their cinematic output (which was in itself then repurposed across theme parks, television series, video releases, toy stores, straight-to-home animated sequels, and so on), NOW CEO Robert Iger and team have turned to modern-day folklorists like George Lucas, Stan Lee, and Walt Disney himself to source and resource their intellectual property. Lazy? Maybe. Smart capitalism? Indubitably. All-American? You bet your a$$.

And like all good mythology, these stories bear repeating, whether around the campfire or the eerie glow of an iPhone. Hell, Shakespeare was just as guilty of the practice as any contemporary entertainment conglomerate. There’s a sucker born every minute. We lemmings have been ever guilty of plunking our hard-earned money at the ticket counter to re-view the shopworn and redundant.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Speaking of Shakespeare, The Lion King has often been described as “Hamlet in the jungle,” with its story of a young prince (Simba) who suffers from the machinations of a despicable uncle (Scar) and who grapples with the uneasy responsibilities of royal leadership after the untimely death of his father (Mufasa). It’s just that in The Lion King, every character happens to be a four-legged denizen of the African pride land who occasionally breaks into an Elton John/Tim Rice-penned show tune. The original animated film was a box office behemoth in its day, yielding in turn a Julie Taymor-directed puppet extravaganza that collected every Tony on earth and continues to mint money. Tell me again, why Disney shouldn’t bring The Lion King back in yet another guise to multiplexes? Ka-ching.

As I’ve often said to fellow critics, reviewing their umpteenth community production of Oklahoma! or The Putnam County Spelling Bee, we aren’t critiquing the script or the music at this point, nor even the very choice to do one of these damn shows again (much as we might like to), but rather the intention and the execution.

That said, the 2019 Lion King is pretty darn flawless and sticks its landing, even if some are scratching their heads if it was needed at all. This film is a technological wonder, marrying the heart and horror of the animated film with a hyper-reality that makes all of the stakes disconcertingly real. It’s one thing to watch a James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa trampled by a multi-colored two-dimensional stampede of wildebeest; it’s something else altogether to watch a photorealistic James Earl Jones-voiced Mufasa in the same harrowing circumstance.

I’m not sure how kids are going to sit through this thing, what with all of the National Geographic-style eat-what-you-kill royal court intrigue of Scar (a menacing Chiwetel Ejiofor, rejecting any of predecessor Jeremy Irons’ fey mannerisms in the role) and his grotesque hyena henchmen (a slithering trio voiced by Florence Kasumba, Keegan-Michael Key, and Eric Andre, offering very little of the comic relief previously offered by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings in the original). Shudder.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As the adult Simba and his best friend (soon-to-be paramour) Nala, Donald Glover (Solo) and Beyonce, respectively, are as luminous vocally as you would imagine, notably on the ubiquitous anthem “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”  In fact, the film truly roars to life (pun intended) at the mid-way mark after Simba befriends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand-ins Timon and Pumbaa (a meerkat and a warthog naturally) who teach him the finer points of not giving a sh*t (“Hakuna Matata”), and a gobsmacked Nala (think Ophelia without the manic suicidal tendencies) urges Simba to get woke and return home as Scar has made a big ol’ scorched earth mess of the kingdom.

(NOTE: one of the best and most original elements of this new Lion King roll-out is Beyonce’s spin-off album The Gift, not unlike how Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album had arguably more zip than the film that inspired it.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Billy Eichner as Timon to Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa is a revelation. Who knew Eichner had such a divine singing voice? And the best lines in the flick are his. At one point, he dismisses the narrative’s overworked philosophy that everything (including becoming a lion’s dinner entree) happens for a divine and glorious purpose with a stinging, “It’s not the circle of life … it’s the meaningless line of indifference.”

I admit as comfortable as I am with Disney’s master plan to take over the world with reworked, utterly unnecessary versions of old movies still readily available at our Netflix’d fingertips, even I would have liked more Eichner-style anarchy and less safe familiarity in the 2019 Lion King. As brainwashed as audiences have become, marching steadfastly from one box office event picture to the next, mindlessly apathetic toward the tragic state of the real world, Eichner’s “meaningless line of indifference” is an apt and sobering description of us all.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.