Sunday, August 19, 2012

"So ya' thought ya' might like to go to the show ..."

I'm a big fan of the concept album. Maybe it has to do with the fact that my parents subjected me to a  constant rotating loop of movie soundtracks growing up -- Jesus Christ Superstar, Saturday Night Fever and (for the holidays), Star Wars - Christmas In The Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album ... which does exist:

Anyways, because of (maybe in spite of) that exposure, it makes a lot of sense to me to consider an album as (essentially) a novel with a beat -- and I mean "a novel" and not "a thematically unified short story collection."  Plenty of great albums fit into the latter category, but my richest musical experiences tend to come from the former.  Discovering The Wall during high school was a real benchmark in my early musical explorations (and not just because The Wall speaks directly to disaffected youth seeking their identity in the face of soul-crushing adulthood).  In fact, I can probably say that my list of favorite albums from any given time of my life has at least a couple concept albums in the top 5 (if not at the #1 slot).

Yet, I can't help feeling like the heyday of the concept album has passed.  This may simply coincide with the industry-wide drop in music sales in general, with MP3s taking their place as the dominant means by which people consume music. It may also coincide with the decline of the movie musical from the late 70s through the 80s and 90s.  As it turns out, though, that "decline" was better described as a "hibernation", given the popularity of Chicago, The Producers, Hairspray and (most recently) Les Miserables.  Still, aside from a few exceptions that come to my mind -- Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for example -- new, original movie musicals have been mostly just self-aware regurgitations, the motion picture equivalent of a Time-Life "best of" collection, available now for twelve low payments of $12.99 each!  Mama Mia! and Rock of Ages spring to mind. Even the more reputable efforts by new directors to redefine the movie musical for a modern audience, like Across the Universe and Moulin Rouge, depend heavily on the nostalgia factor of their soundtracks instead of presenting a genuinely new musical experience on film.

With the proven box office potential of the movie musical for modern day audiences, I say the time is right to try another fresh album adaptation in the vein of The Wall or Tommy.  Here are my candidates for adaptation to the big screen, based equally on my fondness for the albums, the narrative content and cohesiveness of the songs, and their overall potential for a successful transition:

Heartland by Owen Pallett

The Concept: This may not be the best example for me to lead with, but it's the album that was playing when the idea for this post came to me.  As a concept album, the artist himself called the story "preposterous", and summed it up cryptically as follows: "Really, it's just all about me. All records are about their singer. I was trying to play with that." So what is the story, then?  The best summary I have found online is that it "concerns a young, ultra-violent farmer named Lewis" in "the imaginary landscape of Spectrum."

While that makes for a thin movie synopsis, here's what I can decipher from the lyrics -- Lewis the farmer leaves his "unplanted fields" and his "daughter and wife" ("Midnight Directives") to "climb the side of Alpentine" to "liberate" his land from "No-Face", a bird-like character introduced in a prequel EP ("Lewis Takes Action"), only to find that he's risking his life for "a people" that he doesn't "even care for" ("The Great Elsewhere").  All the while, Lewis is facing the growing realization that the narrator singing his tale -- i.e. Owen Pallett himself -- is a heartless, indifferent god, and with that realization, Lewis declares defiantly that he "will not sing" Owen's "praises" anymore ("Oh Heartland, Up Yours!").  From there, the album becomes a kind of dialogue between the artist and his creation -- an update on Book of Job, if you will -- with Owen admitting "I don't know what your devotion means" and Lewis spitting back, "I will not be your fuel anymore" ("Tryst With Mephistopheles").  The closing track is a bittersweet reaffirmation by Lewis of his own value, as well as his continuing willingness to devote himself to something greater ("What Do You Think Will Happen Now?").

Sample Lyrics: "I took a No-Face by his beak and broke his jaw, he'll never speak again.  My every move is guided by the bidding of the singer."  "Now that the author has been silenced, how will they ever decipher me?  I hope they hear these words and are convinced you never even knew me."

The Movie: Translating any album to screen poses obviously challenges, and wrenching a conventional script out of Heartland would be especially tricky. Much of "story", such as it is, centers on a existential debate that few films have successfully pulled off (even without trying to weave in songs that give only bare hints as to what's going on).  It may be best described as a mature version of The NeverEnding Story in which Arteyu isn't Bastian's guide and companion, but rather an ungrateful creation who demands answers from his hapless creator for the trials he's been through. Despite its top-heavy premise, the beaked "No-Face" character suggests a Dark Crystal-esque world that could translate fantastically to the screen in the right hands.

And as far as the deeply philosophical direction the plot eventually takes, audiences have shown a tolerance for reality-bending, narrative-blurring storytelling when handled correctly.  And by "correctly", I mean Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep).  In fact, speaking of ...

The Director: Spike Jonze knows plenty about turning a barely-there short story involving fantastical creatures into a feature length film...

... and the story of Heartland already plays like Adaptation in reverse, with the central plot unraveling as the author is called to task by his creation.  Perhaps he can bring Gondry along for the ride.  I can't think of anyone else working in film today who'd be as adept at blending together vignettes of a mystical elsewhere with real-world scenes of Owen in the studio.

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The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe

The Concept: If Heartland was at one extreme of abstract storytelling, Janelle Monáe's debut LP might as well have been marketed as a movie soundtrack.  Directly inspired by the silent-era classic Metropolis, the album is the middle section of an ongoing story that began in the EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase).   (Technically, The ArchAndroid contains parts 2 and 3 of a four-part series.)  The story concerns Android No. 57821, "otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather", who falls in love with a human, in violation of the law in a dystopic future.  In a prologue on the first track of the EP, it is explained that Cindi is on the run and targeted for execution ("The March of the Wolfmasters"), and it's implied that Cindi travels through time to the present with warnings from the future ("Sincerely, Jane").  Cindi becomes a sort of android messiah, on a mission to wake up the dreaming "zombies" while "the kingdom is full of ignorant men" ("Dance or Die").

As straight forward (and a bit hackneyed) as the premise sounds, the album includes a number of surreal touches that could translate marvelously to the big screen in the right hands, like a song sung entirely backwards imploring Cindi to "emoh uoy ekat ll'I dna em htiw emoc tsuj" (or, rather, "just come with me and I'll take you home") ("Neon Gumbo"), or a digital "Wondaland" where androids share a virtual world away from society's oppression.

Sample Lyrics: "A long, long way to find the one. We'll keep dancing until she comes.  These dreams are forever."  "She's wild man, she's wild! She gives all of the boys her kisses and electricity."

The Movie: Even though this entire post is about my fondness for movie musicals, I often have trouble getting over the central conceit of nearly all musicals, that people will spontaneously break out into song to express their emotions (while everyone in their vicinity compulsively line dances until its over).  I'll buy the conceit if I have to, but I appreciate it more when the script manages to weave in the songs in some other (preferably organic) way.  The ArchAndroid could easily be told from the main character's perspective, and the musical productions could be construed as visions from her android imagination superimposed on what is happening around her and to her.  I understand that's the same basic storytelling structure that Zack Snyder used in Sucker Punch (which, rightfully or wrongfully, I refused to see based on the trailers and word of mouth), but what I have in mind would look at little more like this:

A little silly, maybe, but also other-worldly, operatic science fiction that isn't afraid to paint in broad strokes and let style compete with substance (hopefully to a draw).  And you've probably guessed where I'm going here ...

The Director: Luc Besson, director of The Fifth Element, would be a great fit.  The story will collapse quickly if the director takes it too seriously, but the emotional core of the film should resonate as strongly as the unorthodox relationship in Leon: the Professional.

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My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West

The Concept: This one is kind of a cheat, seeing as Kanye apparently released a 30-minute film in connection with this album already.  On top of that, it isn't clearly a concept album in the mold of my previous examples (and I may have been stretching the word "concept" already as it was).  So much of MBDTF sounds like a confession.  It's as nakedly autobiographical as any hip-hop album I've heard, but with a hard, critical edge that builds and demolishes his ego in equal measures till they've fought to a draw.  There's a brutal honesty that, all due respect, isn't fully captured by Kanye's trippy "phoenix" fairytale.

Granted, as a full-length movie, it would probably work better as a loosely assembled anthology -- closer, really, to the "thematically unified short story collection" I described above.  But in this case, Kanye as the central character does more than "thematically unify" these vignettes.  Sure, you'd have to cobble together the "plot" by reassembling the songs slightly, but it'd be no more disconnected than Love Actually.  It wouldn't take much to start a scene with "Hell of a Life", where he meets and falls in love with a porn star, to "Blame Game", when the thin strand on which their relationship was built finally snaps, to "Runaway", in which Kanye earnestly, painfully admits (if only to himself) that even his best intentions to enter a meaningful relationship after that are undone by his self-destructive tendencies.

Sample Lyrics: "You might think you've peeked a scene.  You haven't, the real one's far too mean." "I think I fell in love with a porn star And got married in the bathroom. Honeymoon on the dance floor
And got divorced by the end of the night. That's one hell of a life." "Reality is catching up with me, taking my inner child, I'm fighting for it, custody."

The Movie: The film I envision listening to MBDTF is more meta than the others, weaving together the album's fictional protagonist with the "real life" Kanye West.  It could be a modern day Purple Rain with Kanye playing "The Artist" (taking the place of Prince's "The Kid") and a doppelganger -- possibly also Kanye -- playing the character of "Kanye" (standing in for Morris Day), who takes on a life of his own as The Artist struggles with self-doubt in his own created persona's shadow.  It would be self-conscious and surreal, not unlike the film Kanye already released, but also rooted in reality.  The movie will follow Kanye to the studio and on stage, thus allowing some of the songs to emerge organically from the plot while others drop into the story in a more traditional musical style, not unlike Spike Lee's School Daze:

The Director: Let Spike Lee loose on this material, bringing the sharp social criticism, the brutal honesty, and the strong characters who wear their glaring flaws on their sleeves.  While you're at it, let Spike have as much fun as he clearly had making School Daze.

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Hazards of Love by The Decemberists

The Concept: This may be the most "concept" of the concept albums I've listed.  The lyrics of the songs read like a script already, with clearly defined characters and a fairytale structure.  Put briefly, Hazards of Love concerns a woman named Margaret who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest named William. William's mother Shara, a jealous fairy queen and the villainous Rake conspire to ruin this love affair, and like all good fairy tales, the characters all meet a gruesome, tragic end as the lovers drown in an escape attempt.  Here's a detailed description of the plot, or at least one listener's interpretation.

Sample Lyrics: Shara: "And he was a baby abandoned entombed in a cradle of clay, and I was a sole who who took pity and and stole him away and gave him the form of a faun to inhabit by day." Rake: "Don't hold out for rescue, none can hear your call till I have rest and wrecked you behind these fortress walls."  William: "With this last rush of air, we'll speak our vows in starry whisper, And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her."

The Movie: Of all the entries on this list, this is the album I can most easily imagine as a straight-forward, traditional movie musical.  The characters are clearly defined, and the lyrics are written as dialogue spoken directly between the characters.  All Hazards of Love needs to come to life is a director ready to treat fairytale aspects of the story earnestly, complete with witches, shape-shifters and magic:

The Director: Guillermo del Toro would be perfect for this project, and Pan's Labyrinth perfectly captures the tone and look of what Hazards of Love should be.

Let me know if I'm missing anything obvious.  Music recommendations are always welcomed.

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