“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.

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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). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.

“She’s so little and sparkly … I want her as a key chain!” Bette Midler’s Divine Intervention Tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Key chain Bette

Key chain Bette

She’s so little and sparkly … I want her as a key chain!” So commented my very witty pal and fellow Leadership A2Y (Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti) classmate Naomi Fink on one of the many photos I feverishly posted on Facebook while watching the Divine Miss M (Midler, that is) perform at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Keep in mind, we were under strict instructions not to take photos, so what you see here is ill-gotten gain. I’m not sure how or why artists in this day and age even try to prevent images from being captured and shared.

Folks like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga even encourage the practice, likely realizing that it provides fabulous, cheap, immediate marketing … but I digress.

Roy and Heidi

Roy and Heidi

I was accompanied at the show by another wonderful A2Y colleague Heidi Fisher, who prepared for her impending audience with Queen Bette by listening to two days worth of her classic tunes on Pandora. Now that’s dedication.

Needless to say, we loved the moving, funny, ribald, political, sparkling spectacle that is Bette Midler’s Divine Intervention tour.

Both of us were likely in a sentimental mood, having just driven from Ann Arbor where we had spent our final day together as a leadership class.

The balance of the day, after receiving our certificates of merit, was occupied by a last blast scavenger hunt (cleverly designed by another classmate Peg Windsor and program director Barb Davenport): we met with as many different Ann Arbor business people and creative types as we could cram before we waved goodbye (or perhaps just “see you later”) to our beloved classmates and program.

So we were pretty spent before we even got in the door for Bette.

Leadership A2YA2Y class

We turned that frown upside down

We turned that frown upside down

Fortunately, we fit right in – as Midler joked in her opening monologue: “So glad to see my fans can still drive at night.” Indeed, it was that most blessedly rare of large-venue concert experiences where a respectful audience sat the whole time.

Ok by me. And, not unexpectedly for the spirit of the crowd and our state-of-mind, we made some new friends in our row. A schoolteacher from Grand Rapids and her East Lansing mom. And a man who seemed really sour about being there, until Heidi took a selfie with him. See, Bette, social media does make the world go ’round.

Oh, right, the concert? It was an old-school hoot, dressed up with the latest in projection technology and a dash of Midler’s own trademark pyrotechnic raunch.

Divine Intervention stage

Divine Intervention stage

The show opened with a quick animation, highlighting a cause famously near and dear to Midler’s heart: the environment and how deeply we have effed things up.

Good for her. I don’t think I can stand to hear one more local yokel/short-sighted fool who makes their living destroying the planet say, “Why don’t you people mind your own business? What I do in my town/state/whatever is my business.”

It is our business because we share this resource; we eat your crops the world over; we breathe the same air; we drink the same water. Consequently, I was thrilled to see Midler lead with such a powerful and sobering message.

Care ... please

Care … please

In her inimitable style, she then launched right into a cheeky medley of “Divine Intervention” and “I Look Good” amidst the detritus of a disposable society – giant size Coke cans, burning tires, and other debris – all with that impish smile and twinkle in her eye. Yes!

Polluters, agribusiness, and big manufacturing weren’t Midler’s only targets through the evening, though.

With a wry touch, she took shots at Vladimir Putin, the Kardashians, Fox News, Dick Cheney, and even Caitlyn Jenner – and her wizened audience ate it all up with glee.

She reserved her sharpest barbs for social media in a tart skit about how we can’t live in the moment without documenting every moment, as she was wheeled too and fro reclining on a hot pink sofa shaped like a pair of lips. Touche, Ms. M.

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus

She hit all the expected musical high points with a verve that belied her long history in the entertainment industry: “Beast of Burden,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Do You Wanna Dance.” You can tell Midler lives to be in front of an audience and her energy positively crackles. She also incorporated numbers from her latest album It’s the Girls, a salute to decades of so-called “girl groups” in pop music, the best of all being her poignant take on TLC’s cautionary “Waterfalls.”

She offered a fetching and frisky “I Put a Spell on You,” bewigged as her saucy witch character from Disney’s Hocus Pocus, and, in the show’s strongest segment “Bird in the Hand,” channeled her idol Sophie Tucker for a machine gunned sequence of the kind of filthy jokes twelve-year-old boys find hysterical. Since she was dressed for the number as if Mae West had made an X-rated appeared on Sesame Street, it was utterly delightful.

Yes, the high-schmaltz trinity of “The Rose,” “From a Distance,” and “Wind Beneath My Wings” rounded out the evening.

Bird in the Hand

Bird in the Hand

I had a grandmother who was just too enamored of those tunes, in part due to some meddling family members who thought it fun to use the lyrics in rather passive aggressive fashion, so hearing any one or all of them always puts me on edge. (Not Midler’s fault obviously and apropos of nothing for this overview.)

I offer that context, though, to note that hearing Midler sing these signature tunes live redeemed them for this fan. In light of her passion for this planet and for all of us on it and in keeping with her parting wish for us to “be kind,” these ballads now make all the sense in the world to me.

I will add that the jarring juxtaposition of these saccharine hits against her “Last of the Red Hot Mamas” burlesque persona has always greatly amused me, and, in that sense, they are a sweet aperitif on her storied career.

DetroitIn closing, she gave Detroit a glowing review, donning an “I [Heart] Detroit” t-shirt for the encore. She, the mistress of reclamation who joked earlier “I never get rid of anything … they say I put the whore in hoarding,” crowed about the reinvention of the Motor City and of its spirit of reusing and celebrating all that has come before.

Be KindShe had visited Shinola (the celebrated watchmaker here) and took a tour of all the development along Woodward Avenue. She was breathlessly effusive, urging us to “keep it up” and to keep taking care of this city and each other. Will do, Ms. M. Will do.

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UrinetownOn another note …

The Penny Seats summer season is about to launch, with not just one but two shows at Ann Arbor’s West Park. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] runs July 9-25 and Urinetown the Musical (that’s the one I’m in!) runs July 30 to August 15. Tickets are available at http://www.pennyseats.org, and we’ve gotten some great coverage already…

  • BroadwayWorldhere
  • Encore Michiganhere
  • Talk of the Townhere
  • Legal News – 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 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.