From fSquared: Top Trends for Law Firm Marketing in 2020 and Beyond

Read or download the full document here https://fsquaredmarketing.com/blog/2020/01/30/legal-marketing-trends-2020-law-firms-expert-predictions/#PPC_advertising

Honored to be included in fSquared Marketing’s “Top Trends for Law Firm Marketing in 2020 and Beyond.” Thanks to Lynn Foley for the invite. Looking forward to diving into the insightful contributions here from Lynn, Lloyd Pearson , Jessica Jaramillo , Darryl Cross , Trish Desilets Lilley , Derek Jones , Meghan Spradling , M. Ashraf Lakhani , Pamela Foster , Gordon Donnelly , and Bree Buchanan .

From the publication’s introduction: “The truth is that the core principles of legal marketing have not changed: client service, personal connections, lawyer-lead thought leadership, relationship building, interpreting the available information and using those insights to drive action. As Roy Sexton writes in his article: ‘The new trends in legal marketing remain the things we should have all been doing in the first place.’ … The best way to predict the future, and succeed in the present, is to understand why the fundamentals of the past worked. You’ll find plenty of ideas for how to build on that foundation in this year’s Trends.”

Read or download the full document here https://fsquaredmarketing.com/blog/2020/01/30/legal-marketing-trends-2020-law-firms-expert-predictions/#PPC_advertising

Everything Old is New Again

By Roy Sexton Director of Marketing, Clark Hill

Don’t throw the past away/You might need it some rainy day./Dreams can come true again/When everything old is new again – lyrics from the song “Everything Old is New Again” by Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen (performed by the latter)

Perhaps it is a function of my age as I barrel toward the mid-century mark, but the new trends in legal marketing remain the things we should have all been doing in the first place. Prior to entering the legal space in 2011, I spent over a decade in a consumer-facing industry – health care – that, like legal, sells a human “product”: in healthcare’s case, the wit and wisdom and technical proficiency of doctors and other clinicians.

Healthcare is not necessarily known for its progressive approach to messaging, branding, advertising, or sales, and, yet, I find it gobsmacking that, in legal, we still don’t speak in some very basic marketing terms that I learned on day one in healthcare: for instance, presence, reach, awareness, leads.

We don’t measure these things the way other industries have (for decades), and, too often, our KPIs still feel reactionary in nature. Checkbook accounting if you will … or laggingindicators to borrow from our Six Sigma friends. For example, we tout proposals and pitches generated, won, lost, or simply flushed down a well, or we throw every resource but the kitchen sink at collecting outstanding revenue. Yet, the ideas of audience growth, developing a following, and true lead generation still appear to be a glorious mystery to much of our industry.

Heavens, I sound like a cranky neighbor throwing rocks from his front porch. I don’t mean to sound so cantankerous. Truth is, I’m as much of the problem here as anyone else.

So, with that said, what trends do we need to embrace in 2020? Well, this won’t sound very sexy as I’m not about to push for new tech or shiny new toys. We need to embrace storytelling. We need to understand the brand narrative. What does your firm believe in? What is its commitment to community? To clients? What is your unique value proposition? And, nope, that can’t read as “great service, smart people, at a fabulous price.” Everyone is saying some version of that.

Get specific. Be real. We have amazing tools at our fingertips in this digital landscape (ok, maybe I am getting a bit tech-y) to pull back the curtains on our respective organizations and let clients – existing and prospective – see the inner workings of our firms. And polish and panache won’t seal the deal. Authenticity, relatability, immediacy, outcomes will. Grow an audience, develop a following, and measure the heck out of every touch point those people have with your marketing content and with your practitioners.

Those organizations with our business in their sights have a very clear brand narrative: Deloitte. EY. KPMG. PwC. Everyone knows who they are and what they do. Long ago, with basically the same business model as legal, these companies were able to overcome the confederacy of voices that derail and dilute most firms’ market voices. They clearly articulate value, competencies, and brand, and they run themselves as businesses, not as wobbly democracies. They realize that a cohesive brand does not detract from but rather enhances the visibility of individual practitioners and, more importantly, their ability to win business.

The firms that can borrow from that playbook, march in lockstep, and land a coherent and, I repeat, accessible brand message will ride high through what is likely to be a tumultuous path for the legal industry.

I’ll be sitting on my front porch with a pail of stones.

Thank you, Columbia City Post & Mail!

Thank you to The Post & Mail Newspaper – in my hometown of Columbia City, Indiana – for this lovely coverage of my Legal Marketing Association – LMA International appointment. #lmamkt

Roy Sexton, director of marketing for Clark Hill Law, has been named treasurer-elect for the International Board of the Legal Marketing Association. He assumed his new duties January 1 and will be working to support the continued growth of LMA.

Founded in 1985, LMA is the universal voice of the legal marketing profession, a forum that brings together CMOs and entry-level specialists from firms of all sizes, consultants and vendors, lawyers, marketers from other professions and marketing students to share their collective knowledge. More than 90 percent of the largest 200 U.S. law firms employ an LMA member. Members at every stage in their career development benefit from LMA participation because the association’s broad array of programs and services can be tailored to their specific needs. Visit http://www.legalmarketing.org to read more about LMA.

Sexton joined Clark Hill in October 2018. In his role there, he oversees the firm’s communication professionals, guides its communication efforts, and works to enhance brand awareness. Clark Hill has 25 offices, including one in Dublin and one in Mexico City.

“I’ve been a member of LMA since 2011 when I made the transition from healthcare to legal. It may sound clichéd, but this organization has become a professional family to me. I have benefited exponentially from my involvement and the opportunities to write, present, lead that LMA has afforded me. I’m beyond thrilled at this opportunity to contribute to the future of this great association, and I look forward to serving our members well,” Sexton noted. Sexton has served as a board member, presenter, and content expert for the Legal Marketing Association. Most recently, he served as treasurer for the association’s LMA Midwest Region Board of Directors.

Before joining Clark Hill, Sexton served as marketing director at Kerr Russell, another Detroit-based law firm. He has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, communications, business development, and strategic planning, previously holding leadership positions at Deloitte Consulting, Oakwood Healthcare (now Beaumont Health), Trott Law, and Saint Joseph Mercy Health System.

Sexton holds a bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in Indiana, a master’s degree in theater from The Ohio State University, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Michigan. He is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and Leadership A2Y, was a governor-appointed member of the Michigan Council of Labor and Economic Growth, and was appointed to the Michigan Mortgage Lenders Association Board of Governors in 2012. He chairs the marketing committee as a board member of Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and chairs the governance committee as a board member of Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. He is a published author with two books to his credit, culled from his blog of the same name ReelRoyReviews.com. He is an active speaker, emcee, and regional actor. Most recently, he appeared as “Buddy” in Theatre Nova’s acclaimed production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies, directed by Diane Hill. He received a BroadwayWorld “best actor” award for his turn as John Jasper in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

“I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.” My gluttonous Thanksgiving: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Jojo Rabbit, Knives Out, Blinded by the Light, Kinky Boots, Lady & the Tramp, The Mandalorian, and Watchmen

I had a pretty gluttonous Thanksgiving. No, I don’t mean green bean casserole and pecan pie (I loathe pumpkin) and cranberry sauce and corn bread stuffing. I certainly don’t mean turkey. As Tom Hanks, thoughtfully portraying children’s TV icon Fred Rogers, observes in the surreally superlative A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, “I just can’t imagine eating anything that has a mother.“ Me neither.

No, my holiday indulgences were of the entertainment variety, cramming in as many movies and binge watching as much television as my ever widening derrière could withstand. And, because I am fundamentally sort of lazy and because I realize now that (at times) writing this blog feels more like a penance than a reward for engaging in one of my favorite pastimes (that is, devouring pop culture), this entry is going to be more of a highlight reel of the past several days in entertainment.

It really is kind of a shame (and the luck of the draw) that I devoted 12 (!) paragraphs to Frozen 2 last week, and something as boffo and transcendent as the West End production of musical Kinky Boots (broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances) or Damon Lindelof’s continuation (via HBO) of Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book masterpiece Watchmen will only get a sentence or two.  I can watch this stuff or I can write about this stuff, but it’s getting too damn hard to try to do both and still enjoy it.

Be that (self-pitying moment) as it may, so much of the entertainment I will discuss below shares a common point of view. Whether ethereal drag queens or plucky Pakistani teens who idolize Bruce Springsteen, war-weary space age bounty hunters or cynical costumed vigilantes, precocious Nazi youths who come to realize Adolf Hitler is a less-than-ideal playmate or twinkly-eyed but secretly heavy-hearted kiddie show hosts, the characters who jumped off the screen in these movies and shows share a feverishly urgent demand for kindness, tolerance, justice, inclusion, and love. Timely for this holiday season … and timely for a culture in crisis. As Lola (played by that luminous and shamanistic firecracker Matt Henry) sings in Kinky Boots: “We give good epiphany.”

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is exceptional, in great part because the cast – the aforementioned Hanks, Matthew Rhys as a hardened journalist determined to find the toxic truth underlying Mr. Rogers’ sunny sanctimony, and Chris Cooper as Rhys’ neglectful/neglected papa – sidestep any mawkishness inherent in the material with their honest, unadorned portrayals. More to the point, director Marielle Heller takes her cue from the source material – an Esquire cover story – turning in a film that is more clear-eyed essay than slice-of-life biopic. Everything in the movie feels as slightly left of center as any episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood ever did, acknowledging the program’s twee sensibilities and refracting the show’s heightened sense of “make believe” wonder as a metaphorical context for the tiny cruelties family and friend exact on a daily, perhaps hourly basis. It’s a good movie, not quite a great one, but the comforting cinematic equivalent of a scruffy, slightly embarrassing cardigan and pair of house shoes.

Jojo Rabbit takes the Merrie Melodies lunacy of actor/director Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok and applies it to the genocidal moral conflict of being a young, patriotically-obsessed citizen in WWII Nazi Germany. Hmmmm. Take The Mortal Storm, The Tin Drum, To Be Or Not To Be, Moonrise Kingdom, The Pianist, Lord of the Flies, and A Christmas Story, throw them into a blender, and have said output be directed  by a less precious, more humane Wes Anderson … after drinking three spiked Red Bulls? The resulting film would be Jojo Rabbit. (Waititi also plays the titular character’s imaginary playmate … Adolf Hitler.) The film depicts a Nazi-aspirant young boy (charismatic Roman Griffin Davis) and his less nationalistic mother (Scarlett Johansson about as charming and vibrant as I’ve ever seen her) surviving the dadaistic absurdity of a country run by race-mongering juvenile delinquents (in other words, an on-the-nose allegory for our presently fraught times). The enterprise works far better than it should, aided and abetted by a witty and whimsical supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. By the time this satirical picaresque meanders to its conclusion, you will be shocked a few times, horrified a few more, laughing and maybe crying uncomfortably, in part due to subject matter and in part due to dodgy artistic execution. Again, a good movie with an essential message, and one that may age into something classic as viewers discover it after its theatrical run.

Knives Out is just ok. There are far better versions of this movie and far worse, but I think I’d rather spend an afternoon with Sleuth or Murder by Death, hell, even Deathtrap before giving Knives Out another go. As Daniel Craig, playing a crispy-fried Foghorn Leghorn private detective with none of the zingy Mason-Dixon daffiness he exuded in Logan Lucky, notes regarding the reading of a family will, “Think of a community theatre production of a tax return.” That quote could describe this overeager flick as well. Writer/director Rian Johnson piles on the fake-outs and redirects, putting his breathless cast through its paces, and, while there is fun to be had, there’s just not nearly enough of it. Johnson has assembled a Whitman’s Sampler of movie star character players – Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher freaking Plummer – and they all have moments (Chris Evans and Don Johnson acquitting themselves the best here), but I left the film with itchy teeth and liking everyone involved just a little bit less. That said, I applaud Rian Johnson and company for using the populist entertainment value of this black comedy as a Trojan horse for some biting, insightful social commentary about the entitled wealthy and the festering racism in Trump’s America.

Blinded by the Light (on DVD and streaming) is directed with a sure hand by Gurinder Chadha, employing pretty much the exact same template she rode to international success with Bend It Like Beckham (which in and of itself follows the pattern of so many working class British dramedies like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty, depicting resourceful souls rising above class warfare). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Based on a true story, the film focuses on a young Pakistani man (an appealing turn by Viveik Kalra) who strives to overcome the racist nationalism (there’s that theme again!) and economic disparity of 1980s Thatcherite England and to break loose from a well-intentioned but overbearing father who can’t understand his boy’s dreams of becoming a writer. (“Where’s the money in that?!” asks this guy writing a movie blog for free.) Instead of soccer, our protagonist finds his muse in the lyricism of “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen, encouraged by a wry but loving literature teacher (a marvelous Hayley Atwell) and some beautifully drawn teenage pals (Aaron Phagura and Nell Williams). The film is as predictable as all great fables can be but is delicately executed, well-acted, and simultaneously sobering and inspiring. And, yes, this bonbon of a film seems ready-made to be musicalized.

Speaking of which … Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical adaptation by Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of the 2005 Brit comedy film of the same name (which starred a then-unknown Joel Edgerton and Chiwetel Ejiofor), was just broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances. To say the show was perfection – as perfectly kicky as the thigh-high red boots drag queen Lola (and later the entire cast) dons during the show – would be the textbook definition of understatement. This cast was the Olivier Award-winning West End crew, led by Matt Henry (my mother accurately observed … move over Shirley Bassey and Lena Horne) as the transformative Lola who storms into the life of bedraggled shoe-factory scion Charlie (a winning Killian Donnelly) and turns a small town on its collective head … for the better. The factory is days away from closing, and, by reinventing itself to serve the “niche market” of drag queen footwear, changes its fortunes … and the lives (and attitudes) of all who work there. This is no To Wong Foo magical drag queen fairy tale, however. Lola (also known as Simon) is a fully realized, poignant, exhilarating human being, complex, complicated, flawed, perfect. In Henry’s manicured hands, Lola is the heart of the show, a beautiful yin to Charlie’s shaggy yang. The stage relationship between Donnelly and Henry is deeply affecting, propelled by Lauper’s pulsing, percolating, nicely integrated score. Amy Lennox as Charlie’s co-worker, confidante, and eventual love interest Lauren is dynamite, a musical comedy crackerjack, balancing pathos and hilarity brilliantly, sometimes in a single phrase. Kinky Boots celebrates accepting who we are (and the gifts which embracing that truth can bring) with warmth, kindness, and about the best pacing I’ve seen onstage.

Lady & the Tramp (currently streaming on Disney+) is on the small screen where I reckon all of these live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics actually belong. Seriously, 20 years ago, these things would have all been very special presentations on Sunday nights on The Wonderful World of Disney in order to sell theme park tickets before landing on well-worn VHS tapes in the back seats of mini-vans everywhere. That said, this latest re-do ain’t half bad. Lady (voiced with moxie by Tessa Thompson) has an agency she never had in the animated film, and Tramp (a winsome Justin Theroux) just seems less, well, skeezy. There is an overarching effort toward inclusiveness with color-blind casting for the human roles of Jim Dear and Darling that, on one hand, is really refreshing, but on the other creates an inadvertently weirdly white-washed message about what interracial couples would have actually endured in turn-of-the-20th-century Missouri. And the problematic “Siamese Cat Song,” ear-wormy as it may have once been, is officially retired. In its place, there is a new and perfectly acceptable ditty to accompany Aunt Sarah’s prized felines’ narrative-essential shenanigans. “He’s a Tramp” is still on the playlist, but this time around is performed with sassy aplomb by Janelle Monae, in the role originated by Peggy Lee. The film is entertaining and pleasant with a timeless message about, yes, accepting our differences … not to mention the importance of responsible pet ownership.

The Mandalorian (currently streaming on Disney+) is about the best Star Wars spin-off to come from LucasFilm in the past 20-some years (if ever), in great part because it doesn’t seem very Star Wars-y. Or at least what “Star Wars-y” has come to mean since the original trilogy debuted: needlessly complicated back story; self-serious and ponderous mythologizing; overlong playing time; character development that seems driven as much by merchandisability as narrative need. The Mandalorian by comparison is a breezy pleasure, a throwback to single-protagonist vintage TV Westerns like The Virginian or The Rifleman (without any intentional swagger/machismo or inadvertent misogyny/racism), wherein our reluctant protagonist becomes the lens through which a different 37-minute parable is told each week. Oh, and there’s a really adorable Baby Yoda, who may be the cutest, funniest creature dreamed up since the Ewoks (yes, I still like Ewoks). Producer/writer Jon Favreau joyfully wears his retro influences on his sleeve (as evidenced by the minimalistic percussive soundtrack and the closing credits sequence, both of which seem channeled straight from 1968). Leading man Pedro Pascal (face forever obscured under his signature bounty hunter helmet – “this is the waaaay“) conveys so much heart, great comedic timing, and an intriguing amount of agnosticism, without benefit of one. single. facial. expression. Four episodes in, and I can’t wait to see where this one is going.

Watchmen (HBO) is so damn good. We had one of those “watch HBO for free!” weekends on Xfinity and, in a less than 24-hour period, we binged the first seven episodes, including tonight’s exemplary “An Almost Religious Awe” (every episode has a great title). I’m going to have to show up on the doorstep of some generous HBO-subscribing friend the next two Sundays to see how this thing wraps up! Any takers? The original DC comic book mini-series (1986-87) deconstructed the very notion of what a superhero was, offering a heady mix of cynicism and optimism, critical of Reagan-era excess and territorialism while satirically reinventing atomic age tropes of flying humans and hooded marvels, all to dissect the morals and ethics of those who set themselves up as our saviors. “Who watches the Watchmen?” Subsequent efforts to adapt the landmark series onscreen (no thank you, Zack Snyder) or revisit in print (just stop, Geoff Johns) have fallen flat, missing the existential trauma at the heart of the work. If you’d told my 14-year-old self that his 46-year-old future would include a triumphant, accessible yet layered, televised continuation of the storyline for a mainstream audience, I never would have believed you. In fact, it is this very question of identity and self and the ephemeral nature of time folding upon itself through memory that gives Watchmen its slippery power. The HBO series replaces the Cold War paranoia of the original comics with an incisive take on the race-baiting xenophobia currently paralyzing our country, in a way that is completely true to the original work while acknowledging how far we have (and haven’t) come as a society. Regina King and Jean Smart are (together) an acting powder keg, wrestling with thorny questions of race and gender, empowered and stonewalled and uninhibited and numb with white-hot rage. The supporting players are to a one excellent – Don Johnson (again!), Tim Blake Nelson, Jeremy Irons, Louis Gossett Jr., Hong Chau, Frances Fisher, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers – finding Shakespeare in the mundane and delivering a show that isn’t afraid to explore big ideas amongst daily tragedies. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a character unto itself – disco for a dark age, as if Phillip Glass found his groove. I have no idea where this show is going, and I can’t wait to get there … and I really don’t want it to end.

Postscript …

So as gluttony goes, I don’t think I’ll apologize for this indulgence of the mind as my brain is truly spinning with possibility, heading back into a work week, knowing that there are ideas bigger than ourselves as all ideas should be.

“The endless story of expectations wiring inside my mind/Wore me down/I came to a realization and I found a way to turn it around/To see/That I could just be me.”

– “I’m Not My Father’s Son,” Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots

“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.”

Alan Moore, Watchmen

“Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you.” Madonna’s Madame X Tour in Chicago and Come From Away National Tour in Detroit

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.” – Galileo, in Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943)

“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre

“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away

“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories

______________________

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeing Joker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.

My co-workers and yours truly in line for Madame X

Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.

Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.

That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns.

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).

For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.

This was NOT a deal as Madonna didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm, concluding at nearly 2 am! She may be in cahoots with the parking industry.

When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.

The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”

My work pals and yours truly before dinner/show

The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.

When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.

As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.

As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.

______________________

With my Detroit pals at Come From Away

There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one

‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)

Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now


I can’t take that (I can’t take that)

I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all

I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too

– Madonna, “I Rise” from Madame X

______________________

Yes, I bought a Madame X eye patch at the souvenir stand. It did not fit MY big noggin alas.

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.

“True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical

Collage swiped from The Ringwald’s Facebook page

Stick to the stuff you know
If you want to be cool
Follow one simple rule
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It is better by far
To keep things as they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status
Stick to the status
Stick to the status quo – Stick to the Status Quo,” High School Musical

Watching The Ringwald Theatre’s production of Disney’s High School Musical alongside an avowed HSM superfan like my husband was as entertaining as the show itself. He did his best to stifle singing along to his favorite numbers, occasionally verbalizing key lines of dialogue before a character onstage would, frequently noting (dramaturgically) to me differences between the film and the stage version. I suspect this is what it is like attending Stratford’s Shakespeare Festival with a lifelong Bard scholar? It was all kinds of adorable.

No doubt John has his own review to offer, but this is my blog. While I don’t find the HSM trilogy without its charms (well, the first and third installments at least … the second film is the Voldemort of Disney Channel tee-vee musicals … best never invoked again), I think the movies could stand a bit of tinkering, revising, and revisiting. And, in recent news emanating from last week’s D23 convention, it sounds like the Mouse House agrees.

While the HSM franchise gave us the gift that keeps on giving in Zac Efron, it also left a legacy a with a generation of twenty-somethings that it is good to be different, that you must never constrain yourself by the labels teachers/parents/friends slap upon you, and that singing show tunes is good for the soul … even in the middle of a crowded cafeteria. Whether you loved high school or really hated it, the movies speak in a cuddly and antiseptic way to the toxic socioeconomic hothouse that is public education in this country and how all of us are shaped for better or worse by the twelve years we spent there. “True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Matthew Wallace as Troy and Jordan Gagnon as Gabriella

As metaphor for inclusion and a fun platform for camp, HSM is a pretty genius choice for The Ringwald, whose stock in trade is as much John Waters as it is Stephen Sondheim. When I bought these tickets, I did so as a gift for John but also for myself as I was genuinely curious how they’d approach the show. I’m happy to report that the Ringwald’s team pulls it off in their shaggy dog, Mickey-and-Judy-are-putting-on-a-show fashion, with exceptional vocals, high energy, and (mostly) just the right amount of wink-and-nudge.

The plot is paper thin but nonetheless lovely: a science-loving girl (“Gabriella Montez”) and a basketball “jock” (“Troy Bolton”) discover their mutual love of show tunes on a mid-winter ski trip, and turn their high school “status quo” upside down by auditioning for the spring musical. It’s a slight but surprisingly subversive conceit, compounded by the fact that the “villains” of the piece – Sharpay and her doting brother Ryan (think The Carpenters, just as weirdly incestuous, but with blond hair, pink plaid outfits, and body glitter) – are the theatre kids, overly protective of their turf and their small corner of high school performative heaven. Anyone who’s worked in theatre in any aspect will view this duo with a knowing smile. The theatre community waves the flag of inclusion and understanding … until you step outside your “lane” or win a role someone else has coveted or challenge the artistic certitude of another.

Kevin Keller as Jack Scott

The Ringwald’s production, populated as it is by a cast who, for the most part, would have been in elementary school when High School Musical debuted in 2006, is pleasantly reverential to the material, while not taking any of it too damn seriously. It’s a high wire act that I found, quite frankly, refreshing. Playing double duty as director and actor (“Coach Jack Bolton”), Brandy Joe Plambeck takes a breezy, frothy approach to the material, aided and abetted by his real-life husband Joe Bailey in the role of Sharpay. In Bailey’s hands, Sharpay is both comic and poignant, never shrill, and just the right side of arch. Bailey knows that a middle-aged man playing a heartbreakingly spoiled high school theatre diva is pretty damn funny in and of itself and that layering on any meta commentary or turning up his nose at the material would sink the show and his performance. It’s smart and it’s fun, and Bailey alongside his “brother” Ryan (Christopher Ross-Dybash exuding sunshine) are a hoot.

Similarly, frequent Ringwald player Jordan Gagnon brings a nicely grounded whimsy to Gabriella. In her program bio, she writes that she is “excited to be living out [my] childhood fantasies of playing Gabriella.” For the young people in this cast, I suspect HSM is to them what Bye Bye Birdie, Grease, or Mamma Mia! are to other generations. Gagnon’s affection for the material is evident. The actor knows the enterprise is a bit silly but treats it as the heightened reality it is, and Gagnon strikes just that perfect balance of nodding to the audience while believing in her bones that she is a marginalized high schooler finding her true voice in life and love. She’s a delight to watch.

Matthew Wallace as Troy

Gagnon’s real-life boyfriend Matthew Wallace (I’m not telling tales … it’s in the marketing materials for the production) plays Troy. He is at his best when it is just the two of them onstage. There is an easy comfort to their onstage dynamics that really sells their numbers. I would encourage Wallace to find that same ease in the rest of the production. He has been exceptional in productions like The Dio’s Forever Plaid and The Ringwald’s own Merrily We Roll Along. Here, however, his physicality and high energy run the risk of commenting upon the material and distancing himself from it, as opposed to immersing himself in the goofy joy of the narrative. Wallace has a fabulous voice, and he and Gagnon are so good together onstage, but Wallace at times seems to be accentuating the stereotype of the thick-headed high school athlete as opposed to realizing the point of the piece is to gently, lovingly undermine those stereotypes.

The ensemble is damn terrific, selling the big group numbers in Ringwald’s tiny space, and energizing the audience with their unbridled enthusiasm for the score. Music director Lily Belle Czartorski and choreographer Molly Zaleski have great fun with the “pop” nature of this material, and their cast rises to the challenge. Standouts are Rashna “Rashi” Sarwar as “Taylor McKessie” and Geoffrey Schwerin as “Zeke Baylor,” both of whom squeeze every bit of juice from their limited stage moments, crafting memorable, lovable, vibrant characters. Tyler Goethe also deserves a shout out for nailing every bit of the choreography – again, note that I was sitting beside a “superfan” and it was not lost on him (or me) that Tyler was on point with every single move and was utterly present throughout. Wendy Cave plays “Kelsi Nielsen,” the resident high school songsmith, awfully big. She lands great laughs, but she also skates on the edge of commentary as opposed to immersion.

Having the time of their lives onstage are the aforementioned Plambeck as “Coach” and Suzan M. Jacokes as drama teacher “Ms. Darbus,” two educators whose dreams deferred manifest in ugly rivalries and provincial manipulations, all nobly disguised as wanting “what’s best” for their charges. If there was dramatic metaphor for the crises, both large and small, of today, it’s this. Jacokes and Plambeck are great fun in their short scenes together.

Costuming by Vince Kelley is just as one would hope, mirroring without shamelessly imitating the iconic garb of the original film. I want to give a special call out to the show’s marketing materials, as well, which evoke the look and feel of the original film’s poster and set the right tone for what to expect, as does the pre-show music: “Kidz Bop” versions of early-aughts pop music hits. Hysterical! The new lighting array at The Ringwald is a welcome upgrade with Plambeck making great use of gels and specials to maximize the understandably understated set design by Stephen Carpenter, a pitch perfect “Wildcat” logo prominent throughout.

For those wondering: yes, The Ringwald’s version of High School Musical is family-friendly, but with plenty of acknowledgment to any adults in the audience that this is all one big lark, albeit one with a really nifty message of inclusion and acceptance. If you aren’t tapping your feet or dancing in the aisles during the “We’re All In This Together” finale, well, there’s just no hope for you!

Everyone is special in their own way
We make each other strong (we make each other strong)
We’re not the same
We’re different in a good way
Together’s where we belong
We’re all in this together
Once we know
That we are
We’re all stars
And we see that
We’re all in this together
And it shows
When we stand
Hand in hand
Make our dreams come true
Together, together, together everyone
Together, together, come on let’s have some fun
Together, we’re there for each other every time
Together, together, come on let’s do this right – We’re All In This Together,” High School Musical
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The Ringwald’s production of Disney’s High School Musical runs through September 16. Purchase tickets here.

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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.

“And that makes you larger than life.” Review of The Backstreet Boys’ DNA World Tour at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena 🎶 #bsbdet #dnaworldtour

About 20 years ago, someone described me as a “Midwestern Backstreet Boy.” I think it was meant as a put down, although if someone called me that now, I would be thrilled. To this day, I’m still not sure what it meant, other than like every kid my age in 1999, I had overly spiky hair and an under-developed fashion sense that rested somewhere between that of Chandler Bing and of Vanilla Ice … by way of JCPenney.


Twenty (!) years later, the Backstreet Boys are still touring, all of them about my age, and the teenagers and 20-somethings who once screamed with rabid adoration are now (cough) middle-aged, debt-ridden, maybe a bit paunchy, and prone to sit during all but the most popular numbers, dutifully capturing every moment on their eerily glowing iPhones, grainy footage never to be viewed again.


I admit *NSYNC was always more my speed, and I have followed Justin Timberlake’s career with some unearned pride, like a racehorse upon whom I had inadvertently placed the right bet. And my husband and I have somehow fallen into the habit of becoming latter-day 98° groupies, to the point the band members actually recognize us when we show up at meet and greets. Heaven help us.


So I went into tonight’s DNA World Tour stop of The Backstreet Boys at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena with some trepidation. My friend Nikki bought these tickets what seems like a year ago, when their new album DNA was released. I was pleasantly surprised by the songs on that record, which showed a hard won humility and remarkable amount of sophistication, but I admit I hadn’t listened to it after the first couple of plays and had forgotten most of the new music. That was a mistake on my part, and I would advise anyone seeing the show to re-familiarize themselves with that album. It will help your enjoyment immensely.


Much of the first half of the show comes from that album, but DNA’s nuance gets lost in the cavernous environment of an arena. That’s a shame. The Boys might have been smart to take this album on a club tour, not unlike the one “Madame X” Madonna is launching soon. Nonetheless, I was struck by the incredible vocal prowess of the quintet, who sang live throughout, full voiced and powerful. – the rare a cappella number being a particular showcase of their skills.


The set design was unremarkable, but perfectly reasonable for the setting. Replete with digital screens and glowing geometric shapes, the set did not detract, although it did not add much either. Choreography was also at a minimum, essentially The Boys strutting around a trapezoidal catwalk while wearing various shades of what appeared to be military fatigues as designed by Mad Max. To their credit, they avoided all of the modern rock tour clichés like aerial gymnastics or platforms that float out above the audience.


My mother has a couple of things she says about performers these days. She will look at stars around my age and say, “I don’t understand why they are famous. They look like they would come fix my sink.” And “Why can’t singers just stand still and sing anymore?” I suspect she would’ve said both things during this show, and when The Boys did just stand still and sing, vocals layered with silky harmonies and overly earnest delivery, they were at their best.


Band members Kevin Richardson and AJ McLean offered the most pleasant surprises of the night, the former acquitting himself as a remarkably able comic raconteur and the latter demonstrating an earthy, bluesy grit to his singing that I don’t recall from 20 years ago. I’d like someone to give this duo their own variety show post haste.


All of that said, The Boys’ strongest material has always been their carnivalesque, slightly garish, day glo uptempo numbers – “Larger Than Life, “Backstreet’s Back (Alright),” and last year’s pulsating hit “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart.” Wisely, they close the show with those hits in a foot stomping rave up that has even the most world-weary Gen X’er fist-pumping like it’s 1999 again. And that alone is worth the price of admission.


My own grainy iPhone videos follow …

“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.

“Do you still need the cape?” Spider-Man: Far From Home

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a worthy follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming. The first act is cutesy, cloying, and underwritten, but the sparkling, believable kids in the cast (who actually seem like, you know, KIDS) keep things zipping along.

Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zendaya as his friend/crush/equal MJ are lighter than air, and Jake Gyllenhaal is great, popeyed, hunky fun as too-good-to-be-true Mysterio. Once the narrative takes a crafty u-turn at the midway mark, the film becomes a frisky, unpredictable, cinematic tilt-a-whirl.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film follows directly onto the events of Avengers: Endgame (making it really hard to review without spoiling anything of the previous film still in theatres). Let’s just say, Peter is haunted by a great loss, tries futilely to fill his former mentor’s very large (iron) boots (and groovalicious aviator shades), and somehow still ends up saving the day, amidst a heaping helping of adorkable teen angst. Holland is arguably the most darling Spider-Man to ever grace the screen, and Zendaya more than holds her own. (Between these films and The Greatest Showman, I can’t wait to see where her career ends up. The sky’s the limit.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The movie does explain how the kids in Peter’s high school were impacted when five whole years were lost (not to mention half of all life on the planet Earth) after that purple, hulking malevolence named Thanos jazz-snapped his Infinity Gauntlet’d fingers. Blessedly, the sturm und drang of the previous Avengers films is shed for sitcom-lite cheekiness about the absurdity of it all in Far From Home.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Just as the entire enterprise seems in peril of spinning off into a Saved By the Bell-esque goof as Peter and his buddies enjoy a pratfall-filled European senior trip, in saunters Gyllenhaal as the prototypical alpha hero, a gleaming surface that belies the cracked-pot interior of a toxic male raging against an invisible machine. Gyllenhaal is pretty underrated across the board, and it is due to performances like this: he makes it look easy to play a Ken doll gone very astray. It isn’t.

In some respects, Far From Home is both a by-the-numbers, assembly line Marvel blockbuster and a sly send-up of all the very movies that preceded it. Issues of identity and fame and pride and the very illusory nature of heroism in this modern Trumpian age of hyperbolic pettiness are rife throughout the film, including the two end credits scenes, both of which (for once) are actually worth sticking around to see.

One of Mysterio’s associates, his browbeaten dresser, harangues him repeatedly,”Do you still need the cape?” to which he responds every time with an exasperated “Yesssss!” The Incredibles, another Disney-corporate product, was the first to opine in a postmodern way about the idiocy of capes and the inherent strangulation danger of flying around with a piece of billowing cloth around one’s neck. The Incredibles‘ Edith Head-inspired superhero fashion designer Edna Mode declared, “NO. MORE. CAPES!” Yet, as Marvel Studios’ copious cinematic output over the past decade has proved as salve and welcome distraction during our stormy IRL times, sadly, yes, we all do still need the cape(s).

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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.

“Some kids play rougher than others.” Toy Story 4

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Some kids play rougher than others,” intones a battle-worn Bo Peep (Annie Potts) to Woody (Tom Hanks), explaining that not every toy has a safe, beloved spot in a child’s play room.

I know someone is going to give me crap for this, but Toy Story 4 is the franchise installment Trump’s America deserves: darker, looser, even more pointedly existential than ever. The series has always had a sadistic tendency to torture audiences with one scene after another of cute, lovable toys in peril (darting through traffic, avoiding incineration, evading plaything-mutilating bullies, escaping the clutches of nerdy collectors), but Toy Story 4, while offering plenty of hair-raising slapstick sequences, has the temerity to ask the most haunting question of all: why are any of us alive?

The tool (no pun intended) whereby our plucky Pixar filmmakers hang the tale is a garbage pail-bound spork whom the film’s young human Bonnie (introduced at the heartwrenching end of Toy Story 3 inheriting Buzz and Woody and the gang from Andy) fishes from the trash to create, with the aid of putty, pipe-cleaners, and craft-store googly eyes, a Kindergarten companion dubbed “Forky.” As voiced with a Dostoyevsky-esque quaver by Tony Hale, Forky is torn between a destiny of disposability and the fact that this little girl has brought him to life as an adored plaything through childlike whimsy and a touch of Dr. Frankenstein hubris.

This is just weird (and welcomed) territory for the series.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the midst of Forky’s arrival, it becomes apparent to Woody that his days as a top draw in the play room have come to an end and that his primary mission at this point is to save Bonnie’s heart by keeping Forky from Forky’s more self-destructive impulses. Forky frequently yells “trash” with the longing of a drug addict, hurling himself headlong into any garbage heap he can find. It’s funny. And it’s not.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Along the way, Bonnie’s family rents an RV for a rustic road trip, and Woody and Forky find themselves lost (repeatedly), eventually landing in an antique shop, haunted by a 50s-era “talking baby doll” named Gabby Gabby (a delightfully chilling Christina Hendricks) whose voice box has long ago gone kaput. Her dream, like that of all the characters we’ve met over these four films and multiple spin-off shorts, is to simply have one child to truly love her. She may be the villain of Toy Story 4 but is utterly relatable and darn impossible to loathe.

To the rescue rides Bo Peep and her army of misfit lost toys. Long ago, Bo Peep (voiced brilliantly by Annie Potts, on quite the career renaissance between this and her genius turn as Young Sheldon‘s free-spirited granny) had been given away from the home Woody and Buzz originally inhabited. Sadly, they had all lost track of one another. Bo Peep, in counterpoint to Gabby Gabby, however, finds an owner-less life quite liberating, manning an “underground railroad” of sorts for all of the world’s lost toys, including a charming turn by Keanu Reeves’ as a failed Canadian Evel Knieval knock-off Duke Kaboom.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Toy Story 4 is an odd film and, as a result, may, with time, become my favorite in the series. Yes, there is warmth and nostalgia and a handful of feel-good tears, as expected, but there is also a pronounced, ominous quality, reflective of the free-floating anxiety I think most of us in the world feel these days. When the present is bleak and the future is smoggy, don’t we all just want someone to love us, write their first name on the bottom of our shoe, and believe the sun rises and sets upon us? We sure do. And Toy Story 4 posits that sometimes even that isn’t enough.

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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.

“You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” Rocketman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s like Elton John said to Bohemian Rhapsody, “Hey, hold my (now non-alcoholic) beer. Let me show you how a biopic of a 1970s/1980s, transcendent, groundbreaking, gay (but sorta conflicted and closeted-ish) rock god should be done.”

Rocketman is transporting, joyous, heartbreaking, bonkers, and damn brilliant.

And if you love Elton John’s music but occasionally have found Elton John himself a smidge unpleasant (as I have), Taron Egerton’s bravura reinvention/translation of Elton John’s essence in the title role will give you reason to love the man again. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance that captures the sense memory of Elton at the peak of his powers while providing a very empathetic yet theatrical glimpse into the insecurity and heartbreak that fueled his greatest work.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As directed by Dexter Fletcher (ironically, the helmer who came to the rescue of Bohemian Rhapsody when the embattled Bryan Singer walked off the set … too little, too late alas), Rocketman is simultaneously escapist and sobering, a beautifully constructed real-life fairy tale warning us of the false promise of celebrity excess and the corrosive power of self-denial. Oh, and it’s a full-blown g-damned musical with zero f*cks given – no apology, no shame – as a movie about Elton John’s life, depicted in broad operatic strokes, should be.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The best songs from the storied output of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin (here delicately underplayed by a loving and sensitive Jamie Bell) basically form the blueprint for a Broadway musical anyway. Consequently, re-purposing ubiquitous story-songs like “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road,” “Saturday Night’s Alright,” “Your Song,” or “Benny and the Jets” outside a concert context as integrated narrative commentary becomes a rather effortless exercise. That said, Lee Hall’s script is a thoughtful biographical kaleidoscope, loose on facts and timeline, but laser-focused on allegory and atmosphere, incorporating Elton John’s greatest hits as if they were always meant to populate and propel the arc of the singer-songwriter’s life.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Of course, the costumes are divine and period-specific. I haven’t seen this many marabou feathers, platform heels, and sequins since the heyday of The Match Game. Yet, the film never devolves into camp. This isn’t a movie marginalizing nor ridiculing the extremes of Elton John’s life. This is a film expertly designed to handhold all of its viewers toward greater empathy.

When Elton fearfully confesses his sexual identity to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, perfectly fine, but apparently now typecast as cruel, self-absorbed hard-asses until the end of time), she responds, “I know. I’ve always known.” Yet, unlike films with lesser sensitivity toward this particular subject matter, the line is not delivered as a salve to Elton’s broken heart. Rather, it is the ultimate slight, as if she’s saying, “You’ve always been broken.” People may think they mean well with such a statement. Let me tell you, it’s not helpful.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Admittedly, the filmmakers lay on a bit thick how toxic Elton John’s parents might have been. In addition to Howard’s blowsy dragon matriarch, Elton has a frosty, jazz-loving father (Steven Mackintosh) who abandons the family after Elton discovers his mother canoodling with a neighbor man in a sedan parked street-side. Gemma Jones does balance things out a bit as Elton’s sympathetic grandmother, but, at times, the family dynamic in Rocketman seems like cutting room footage from the Harry Potter films of that dreadful, sweaty, sour tribe who foster young Mr. Potter.

Similarly, Richard Madden as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid devolves quickly into Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling territory in the film’s second act. Thank goodness, Madden has such buoyant gravitas, keeping his portrayal watchable, even as the cliches mount up.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fortunately, Egerton (Kingsman, Sing) is a savvy enough actor to avoid portraying Elton as a shame-free martyr, embracing the character’s petulant, rage-filled, myopic dark side … and somehow emerging ever more likable in the process. Oh, and he does all of his own singing here, acquitting himself quite nicely with the challenging material

The film is framed by Elton John’s rehab stint in the late 80s/early 90s, and Egerton does a masterful job avoiding the maudlin pitfalls such a set-up could present. Early in the film, a Motown singer for whom Elton is playing keyboards cautions him, “You gotta kill the person you were born to be to become the person you want to be.” I suspect all of us struggle with this existential conundrum in the tricky tension between our personal and professional lives, but none so dramatically nor devastatingly as Elton John. Rocketman walks the tightrope beautifully between reality and parable, leveraging the pinball wizardry of Elton John’s life as a cautionary tale for 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.