There is no doubt that the costume designer plays an essential role in cinematic storytelling. For the Elton John biopic Rocketman (2019), costume designer Julian Day’s guiding principle was: the louder, the better.
“America, they want someone to love; but they want someone to hate, too.” These words, concisely distilling the public’s obsession with celebrity scandal, are spoken by Tonya Harding, former Olympic figure skater and one-time champion competitor, in director Craig Gillespie’s outstanding new biopic, I, Tonya. For those who are late to the game; back in 1994, Harding found herself at the center of one of the most sensational scandals in sports history after being linked to a physical attack on her teammate Nancy Kerrigan shortly before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. In the seemingly endless media circus that surrounded ‘the incident’ (as it is referred to in the film) and its far-reaching consequences, Tonya Harding became a walking punch line and arguably the most-hated woman in America. In the aftermath, she was sentenced by the court to probation, community service, ordered to pay a large fine, and forced to resign from the United States Figure Skating Association, effectively ending her career. Twenty three years later, I, Tonya gives Harding a compelling confessional with which to tell the whole sordid story, and it is a tale based on true events that’s as crazy as any absurdist, darkly comic fiction you could make up.
With a tight script based on dialogue from recent interviews by the director with both Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, plus archived interviews, You Tube videos and meticulous research, I, Tonya traces Harding’s life and career from age 4 to 44. Growing up in a broken home (her mother’s fifth child from her fourth marriage) Harding’s focused passion for skating took her out of her reality of incessant beratement by her stage-mother-from-hell, LaVona Golden (an astounding performance by Allison Janney) and transformed her into a disciplined athlete who didn’t take any shit from anybody. Performing in homemade costumes because she couldn’t afford to buy them, and constantly standing up for her right to compete and be judged on her ability despite not fitting the mold of a squeaky clean all-American girl, it’s exhilarating to watch her come up in the sport (Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition) while gaining a voyeuristic perspective on the circumstances that shaped her complicated character.
As Harding hones her craft and becomes an increasingly successful, award-winning competitor, her already volatile relationship with Gilooly becomes even more physically abusive, and the film’s depiction of domestic violence is very realistic, harrowing and difficult to watch. By the time Gilooly and his half-witted friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) begin brainstorming a plan that will ‘intimidate’ Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan, who is perceived as Harding’s stiffest competition for Olympic Gold, it is already too late to stop the downward spiral.
Despite the violence and serious subject matter, I Tonya is a wildly enjoyable ride, filled with many hilarious moments thanks to the absurdist situations and excellent comic timing from the top-shelf group of actors cast in this strange-but-true story. A well-curated film soundtrack can always advance the action and evoke keen emotions in ways that dialogue alone cannot, so it’s worth noting that, along with a terrific original score by Peter Nashel, I, Tonya makes brilliant use of popular radio hits of the era such as Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman,” Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s a Winner,” Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” sound tracking the film’s closing credits as they scroll over archival footage of Tonya Harding skating in competition, which is unexpectedly quite moving.
Expect I, Tonya to garner a considerable number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Robbie and Best Supporting Actress for Janney (at the very least), and Best Director.
Opening Nationally on Friday December 8th, 2017, The Worley Gig Gives I, Tonya Five out of Five Stars. Watch the Trailer Below:
Movies about Trumpet Playing Jazz Legends are a thing right now. Just last week, IFC released Born to Be Blue, a surreal art film based loosely on the life and career of Chet Baker. This week, Miles Ahead — actor, and first-time director Don Cheadle’s much-anticipated love letter to another groundbreaking jazz innovator, Miles Davis — comes to the big screen after garnering all kinds of awards on last year’s festival circuit. It was worth the wait, because Miles Ahead is a fantastic film. Continue reading Don Cheadle Becomes Miles Davis in Miles Ahead
Perhaps a story doesn’t need to get all the facts exactly right in order to capture the creative and spiritual essence of a person’s life. In writer/director Robert Budreau’s new ‘anti-biopic,’ Born to Be Blue, the life lived by American Jazz Trumpeter Chet Baker is keenly interpreted by actor Ethan Hawke in a surreal but gritty performance that tells you all you need to know about the troubled musical genius — renowned as both a pioneer of the West Coast jazz scene and a style icon — who just couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. Born to Be Blue has a tight focus; imaginatively extrapolating several key, true events in Baker’s life, and launching his story at a time in the 1960s when he was struggling to come back musically after years of debilitating heroin addiction. But while drugs were a demon that Baker battled until the end of his life, this movie emphasizes how he never surrendered the passion he had for his art, or his determination to play music at the top of his game (albeit on his own terms).
Born to Be Blue opens on a scene of Baker being released from jail, based on an event in the early 1960s, when Baker was imprisoned on drug convictions in Italy, and producer Dino de Laurentiis approached him to star in a movie as himself. While that film never materialized in real life, Budreau uses the narrative device of Baker playing himself in a movie to set a dreamlike tone that accents both the improvisational nature of his music and also the opiate haze of his severe heroin dependency. The movie-within-the-movie is also shot in black and white, for transitional contrast with the ‘real life’ color sequences, which adds to the film’s often hypnagogic feel.
Born to Be Blue also takes on Baker’s stormy relationship with romance. While on the movie set, Chet meets Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) a beautiful and smart actress playing his love interest. The two start a passionate affair in real life, and Jane becomes Chet’s muse, inspiring him creatively and giving him a place to live after he has basically become homeless. Jane’s character isn’t based on any one woman in Baker’s life, but rather she represents composite elements of his wives (he was married twice) and girlfriends into a fictitious female love interest, and Ejogo is vibrant in this role.
In 1968, Baker was the victim of a brutal beating from which he lost of most of his teeth. The film’s reenactment has Chet being attacked by drug dealers, to whom he owes money, as he and Jane leave a bowling alley together. Chet’s severe injuries all but completely destroy is ability to play the trumpet, and lead to filming on the movie being shut down permanently. Baker gets fitted for dentures, but physical pain, and frustration he feels at the loss of his embouchure (the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece of the trumpet) make staying off heroin impossible. Ethan Hawke does a fantastic job of portraying Baker as a tortured artist who couldn’t see his way out of a life of addiction.
There are many scenes in Born to Be Blue of Chet Baker in the recording studio and also performing live, so fans of his music will not be disappointed. Hawke did all his own singing for the film, while versatile trumpet player, Kevin Turcotte, recreated all of Baker’s trumpet parts (Turcotte also portrays two other jazz trumpet players in the film, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie). The film culminates with the wildly suspenseful and emotionally harrowing retelling of Baker’s comeback show at New York’s famous Birdland Jazz Club, where he’s surrounded by his heroes, peers and fans. It’s not like we don’t already know how the story ends, but Hawke makes Baker’s choice between The Lady or The Tiger: trying to play inspired jazz on a dose of methadone, versus channeling his divine muse with just one more fix, creates authentic dramatic tension while breaking your heart into a million pieces.
It’s been said by those who knew Chet Baker that even the biographical documentary, Let’s Get Lost, contains numerous factual inaccuracies. Rather than call itself a definitive biography, Born to Be Blue is more like a love letter to Chet Baker, his ground breaking music, and his contribution to pop culture, despite his status as an unarguably flawed protagonist. As far as what is truth and what is fictitious, the film is comparable to Todd Haynes 2007 masterpiece, I’m Not There; where six characters embody a different aspect of the life and work of Bob Dylan. As long as it captures and honors the spirit of the artist, what else really matters?
The Worley Gig Gives Born to Be Blue Four out of Five Stars!
Born to Be Blue is now playing in limited release. Visit Fandango Dot Com to find a theater where it is playing in your area. The film will be available via Video on Demand starting March 31st.
Of all the modern artists about whom people who “don’t get” art might look at their work and say, “Oh, my kid could paint that,” American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock is likely close to the top of that list. Above, you will see the oil on canvas work, Shimmering Substance (1946) which is occasionally on view at the Museum of Modern Art as part of its Permanent Collection. To me, the colors, textures and movement of this painting are just breathtaking.
While Pollock’s distinctive Splatter and Drip paintings may appear to be impulsive and random, they in fact full of intention and purpose. During his lifetime, Pollock enjoyed considerable fame and notoriety and was a major artist of his generation. However, he had a volatile personality, was not the greatest husband (Pollock was married the far superior artist Lee Krasner) and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life. Jackson Pollock died in 1956 at the age of 44 in an alcohol-related, single-car accident in which he was driving. For anyone who seeks to understated the life and art of Jackson Pollock, I highly recommend the Academy Award-winning film Pollock (2000) directed by and starring Ed Harris.