I’ve been traveling for weeks, feels like months, which means insomnia, hotels and other rentals and invariably, movies on demand. Especially free ones, like romantic comedies I wouldn’t pay to see. The latest was The Five-Year Engagement, a harmless romcom from the Judd Apatow factory, starring Emily Blunt and Jason Segel. It had some laughs and a lot of baggage. (To Apatow et al: Preston Sturges remains the undisputed master of the screwball comedy; almost all of his films were under 90 minutes. Really. Anything longer starts to seem like painful self-indulgence, with countless scenes that in a better time would have been bloopers.)
And though Five-Year Engagement has the snarky anti-romantic edge that is the hallmark of the modern romcom (she won’t name the date, he has to endure exile in Michigan) it shares one of the genre’s tropes: music by Van Morrison. As my son, a student of movie cliches, once pointed out, “When they don’t know how to end the movie, they play Van Morrison.”
Nothing against Van; I grew up on his music, literally, going from garage band covers of Them’s “Gloria” to “Brown Eyed Girl” to “Street Choir”and beyond, and have mostly respect for his artistic output (though if I never heard him sing “Moondance” again I would die happy). But how he became the go-to guy for romantic slop is anyone’s guess. And Five Year Engagement upped the ante; instead of the usual VM uplift at the end (all the funnier since in real life Van is such a dour old Irishman) the movie is filled with his songs, mostly covered by other people.
My complaint with most musical cues in movies is that they are lazy, doing the work for the writer or director (“Oh, they’re playing Jimi, it must be the sixties”). How quickly that denudes music, turning even great songs (and “Into the Mystic” is arguably a great song) into aural wallpaper. I remember trying to teach a book about the making of Aretha Franklin’s great Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You; it was one of those creation stories fraught with misunderstandings and near misses (Aretha left Muscle Shoals in a huff after recording just one song and the record almost didn’t happen). Playing “Respect” for these kids they confessed they couldn’t hear what a game-changer the song was in the sixties, turning an obscure Otis Redding number into a feminist anthem.
“It’s what they always play in movies when they want to signal, ‘Here come the women!'” as one student said. Making musical cliches a kind of cultural ear wax, and I don’t mean vinyl.
For a change of pace from the Apatow factory. I just saw Seven Psychopaths and it was great. About a writer with writer’s block. All he can come up with is the name of the movie (Seven Psychopaths) and one character (a Zen psychopath). With Tom Waits! And Harry Dean Stanton in minor rolls. And Walken at his best.
Should be on the On Demand channel…
Yo, saw it on my birthday last year! Big Martin McDonagh fan, loved it. Also Sam Rockwell: “There will be one guy left with one eye…”