What We're Watching

What We’re Watching – May 2023

Biopics are at the center of this month’s What We’re Watching. Read our thoughts below on the compelling stories of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Karen Silkwood, and Howard Hughes:

The Music Lovers (1971)

rvE3j8AWlaO6I444w83SQAjZY09Biopics, especially musician biopics, are often the most boring and predictable form of cinema and are unfortunately making a bit of a comeback after the success of the bland, turgid mess Bohemian Rhapsody. One would suspect that such predictability was from decades of conventional movies developing the formula over time, but director Ken Russell‘s The Music Lovers, about the life of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, proved that glorious exceptions to the rule existed well before the tripe of today. The Music Lovers is a kaleidoscopic, dizzying portrait of the composer (played by Richard Chamberlain) who is tortured by institutional conformity, his own repressed homosexuality, and a tempestuous relationship with his wife Nina (Glenda Jackson) who was rumored to be a nymphomaniac, which this film turns into torrid, sensational fact.

The Music Lovers decidedly leaves linear narrative in the dust and opts for a more impressionistic approach, dictated by the emotions that Tchaikovsky is feeling. The traumatic death of his mother from cholera and the treatment, which involved being immersed in scalding hot water, is pure body horror, while one of the lovemaking sessions between Tchaikovsky and Nina would put Sid and Nancy to shame. At the film’s center is, of course, the music, which is deeply romantic and grandiose, and the filmmaking certainly reflects that sensibility. From the rousing first concert that borders on rock n roll in its frenetic editing and flashy cinematography to the comical montage chock full of juvenile phallic imagery for the 1812 overture, Russell and his team manage to make Tchaikovsky’s music exciting and iconoclastic, no small feat for a genre that usually manages to make overplayed music even staler. – Eugene Kang

Silkwood (1983)

tGxqDm4w5TXimCjyrJzfPY3aPZcBiopics are often Oscar bait and Silkwood, about the nuclear plant worker and activist Karen Silkwood, certainly garnered its share of nominations including one for Meryl Streep in the titular role. Yet Silkwood manages to stand above its biopic tropes with a strong script, direction and performances.  All of these elements mesh together seamlessly to make a compelling yet grounded look at this ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances when the real dangers of nuclear plants endanger her and her co-workers. But it may actually be the script that is the strongest part of this film. Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen‘s script spends time with Karen and her regular life both at work and outside of it. We learn about her rocky marriage and roommate drama, not because they serve the plot in some obvious way but because it helps us see her as a real person with other concerns besides the very pressing one of not just her safety but the safety of millions of people.

In so many biopics, every line and scene and character mannerism has to pave the way for some known fact about the actual person, and while this script has its share of foreshadowing, it’s done naturally and not at the expense of characterization. It’s not a given that any movie with a high pedigree of talent (Georges Delerue did the score!) will end up being excellent, but it ended up being true for Silkwood. – Eugene Kang

The Aviator (2004)

The Aviator is Martin Scorsese‘s take on troubled genius. His subject, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), is known for his career as a film producer turned aviation magnate as well as for his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and reclusion. Scorsese walks us through Hughes’ life, beginning with his career as a film producer who produced bold and controversial films. Hughes is portrayed as a visionary and a man of extraordinary confidence. He is hellbent on making his creative visions reality, putting both his and companies’ finances in jeopardy in pursuit of his visions. One gamble lays way to another and Hughes quickly finds himself in the limelight as a successful Hollywood producer and eligible bachelor. Hughes is uncomfortable with being a public figure, and Scorsese portrays camera flashes at a long-awaited film premiere as akin to gunshots in their explosive intensity.

vVk0HV9HAqvvSfWiNGjpsOekLBSHughes’ aversion to publicity is shared by his love interest Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), who feels something in common with Hughes. She knows that Hughes can only be misunderstood by the masses, and the two are protective of their personal lives. Cate Blanchett performs her role as Katherine Hepburn with compelling screen presence, something that should be of no surprise to those familiar with her films. As Hughes, DiCaprio also impresses, demonstrating his character’s abundant confidence with ease.

Throughout The Aviator, Hughes is unwilling to compromise on his ambitions, and in turn revolutionizes aviation. Hughes is remembered for setting multiple world air speed records in addition to building the H-4 Herculus, the largest flying boat in history as well as having the longest wingspan of any aircraft until just recently in 2019. Hughes was also a corporate titan, acquiring Trans World Airlines in 1939 and RKO Pictures in 1948.

While likely not being one of the first few films that come to mind when thinking of Scorsese, The Aviator is a compelling entry within his filmography. The film illustrates transformative years in American history while inviting audiences to dream big. If we could all dream as big as Hughes, just think of where the world would be today. – Alex Sitaras

0 comments on “What We’re Watching – May 2023

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: