Movies I’ve Recently Seen: The Prom, David Byrne, Ma Rainey, & 40-Year-Old Version

If this wasn’t for the pandemic, I’d be in theaters watching the last (and often the best) movies of the year. But instead, I’ve been streaming new movies available mostly on Netflix. (The exception is on HBO).

By the way, all four films are about music, theater, or musical theater.

A The Prom (2020), Netflix
Here’s something we almost never see in new movies: an upbeat, happy, big-budget, totally unrealistic, singing and dancing musical. And yet, it’s very modern. Four narcissistic Broadway performers, including Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, set out to prove they’re not totally self-absorbed. Their plan: help a small-town lesbian student battle homophobia. You know from the start how it will end, but the songs, dancing, and comedy makes this the most entertaining movie of 2020. The cast also includes James Corden, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Tracey Ullman, Mary Kay Place, plus Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose as the young lesbians.

A David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020), HBO Max

You can reasonably call this a sequel to Stop Making Sense, with great music, great visuals, great choreography, and all with Byrne at the center. Thanks to new technology, even the pianist can dance and play all over the stage. About half the songs came from The Talking Heads era, while others were new (at least to me). But this concert video is more political, and Byrne talks much more to the audience, about everything from houseguests to voting. Director Spike Lee keeps the sounds and visuals always exciting.

B Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), Netflix

Provide excellent actors with good dialog, put them in an enclosed place, and you will likely get an excellent stage play. But if you try to turn it into a movie and you’re not careful, the theatrical roots will show through. That’s the problem with the otherwise good film adaptation of August Wilson’s play, set in a 1920s recording studio. It works as well as it does thanks to the two stars, Viola Davis and the late Chadwich Boseman (in his last film). Davis, looking almost unrecognizable as a jazz diva, has the power to make her white employers quiver. Boseman plays a talented musician who thinks too much of himself. A good movie that feels too much like a play.

C The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) ), Netflix

Only a genius can write, direct, and star in their own movie and make it work. Judging from this film, Radha Blank is no genius. She uses the old plot of the struggling artist who must choose between meaningful art or financial success and doesn’t really succeed in making it new. As a performer, Blank lacks the charisma to carry a feature film; even when she gives herself good dialogue, she fails to deliver. The movie isn’t a complete loss; some of the supporting characters seemed interesting, and occasional laughs help.