One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 49
By Laurence Lerman
The rock opera, one of the more fragile, difficult-to-define film subgenres in the musical category, looks like it’s on the verge of extinction every decade or so, until a worthy contender plugs in and weaves a tale of triumph and tragedy, set to electric guitars, dynamic voices and a vigorous rhythm section.
Essentially a cycle of songs with music and lyrics that relate to a common story and theme—with various characters singing the songs—rock operas, as they came to be known when they first emerged in the late 1960s, began as concept albums by progressive musical artists. They weren’t primarily composed for visualization and acting, which is what distinguishes them from true operas. At first listen, the overall experience and texture would appear to be most accessible via a music video clip or compilation of them. But then there are collaborations between filmmakers and musicians that imagine a bigger picture—a feature-length one, at that.
Such is the case with the recently released Annette, a rock opera film in the truest sense from French arthouse filmmakers Leos Carax and writers/composers Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the pop-rock synth duo Sparks.
Annette made considerable noise at the Cannes Film Festival this May, serving as the fest’s opening film and then picking up the Best Director Award for Carax and the Cannes Soundtrack Award for the Brothers Mael. It also garnered a nomination for the festival’s top prize, the prestigious Palme d’Or.
The film received wildly mixed reactions from international audiences upon its subsequent theatrical and streaming rollout late last month. That wasn’t all that surprising, considering it came from a guy whose films and attitude earned him the label of enfant terrible back in the Eighties and Nineties. Carax has been courting controversy for years with his cinéma du look entries such as Bad Blood (1986), The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) and Pola X (1999), all of which divided audiences with their candor and extreme natures.
Carax’s latest concerns an acerbic stand-up comic (Adam Driver) and his popular opera singer wife (Marion Cotillard) and how their lives progress after they have their first child, a girl named Annette, who is portrayed in the film by a wooden puppet. That’s right, a puppet. To reveals more specifics is to spoil the story.
Carax and the Brothers Mael weave an extravagant and emotional tale of loves won and lost, artistic temperament, exploitation, popularity, identity and, ultimately, mercy and death. Annette might sound broadly operatic, and it is, with more than a dozen songs and reprises stylistically presented by the cast, all of whom do the bulk of their own singing. The film contains substantial, serpentine plot twists and several moments of joyous transcendence as well as genuine operatic tragedy, all of which is fantastically rendered on a deliberately artificial-looking Los Angeles backdrop (complete with references to the Me-Too movement and the California wildfires).
Carax’s first film in English—and his first set in America—is a sprawling, effective piece of work, as stirring in its fervor and tragic proportions as it is bizarre in its synth-driven Sparks music and lyrics and manufactured “movie-ishness.” That Carax and Sparks collaborated on a wholly original rock opera without the blueprint of an earlier narrative album as the basis is an accomplishment that shouldn’t be discounted.
It's those earlier, narrative-driven rock albums that exemplify the vagueness of the rock opera classification, as if their creators assumed we’d be able to follow their extended musical tales without the aid of some detailed liner notes
Consider such landmark albums as The Who’s Quadrophenia (1973), Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974), Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage (1979), Pink Floyd: The Wall (1979), Styx’s Paradise Theater (1981) or, hell, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), to name only a few. While ongoing narrative and musical themes consistently weave through them all, there remains a confusing looseness and opaqueness to the song-by-song construction of each tale, making them more conceptual and interpretive than operatically story-driven. Indeed, there are probably a number of critics and fans who throw around the term “rock opera” when they themselves can’t always follow the “libretto.”
What clearly emerges musically is more of a mood and tone than a clear story, even in the rock operas that were adapted into movies (1979’s Quadrophenia and 1982’s Pink Floyd: The Wall). Both are fine films, but remain fuzzy in their storytelling and, importantly, contain characters that do not perform any onscreen singing, the songs and score generally being played over the action.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the popularity of the jukebox musical pushed aside the idea of unifying musical themes in favor of a collection of differently sourced established songs chosen to fit a narrative through line. This movement has yielded such projects as the Broadway musical-turned-film Eighties hair band celebration Rock of Ages from 2012 and, in a reversal, the extravagant 2018 stage show Moulin Rouge! based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film of the same name, which upon its release was proclaimed by the cognoscenti as a “postmodern movie musical.”
This breed of postmodernism steps away from the loosely defined idea of what makes a rock opera, or a film of such. I’ll boldly state that, for our purposes, there have really only been a few significant films of rock operas, all of them dating back to the 1970s. And, true to their operatic structure (and aspirations, perhaps), their characters do all the singing on screen, progressing the story with recurring musical themes matching the story’s narrative threads.
The rock opera film mini-wave kicked off with Jesus Christ Superstar, Norman Jewison’s flavorful 1973 film adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. (It’s the film that immediately followed non-Jew Jewison’s 1971 big-screen version of Fiddler on the Roof. Funny, right?)
Then there’s Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, an hour-long 1975 television special wherein the rocker is trapped inside of a nightmare that he can’t awake from. Singing his way through his entire 1975 album Welcome to My Nightmare, surrounded backup singers, dancers, changing sets and a murky storyline, Alice and his nightmare won a 1976 Emmy for “Video Tape Editing for a Special.” That said, it’s still more MTV than Metropolitan Opera.
Which brings us to The Who’s 1969 album Tommy, the first album by a rock’n’roll band to be referred to as a “rock opera” and without a doubt the finest embodiment of the form. Primarily composed by Who guitarist Pete Townsend, it tells the story of Tommy Walker, a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball champion and then a messiah of sorts, until his faithful reject him and teachings, leaving him to look inward once again.
With its rich, episodic story and songs from a wide range of characters, Tommy was ripe for the movies–and British director Ken Russell was the perfect filmmaker to bring it to the big screen. An enfant terrible in his own right, Russell made his bones crafting arts and music documentaries for the BBC before moving on to theatrical films in the late Sixties. By the time the 1975 film version of Tommy rolled around, Russell had already unleashed the colorful, flamboyant style with which he was identified in such musically-themed feature films as The Music Lovers (1971), a biopic of Tchaikovsky starring Richard Chamberlain, and another, Mahler (1974), about Gustav you-know-who.
Starring The Who’s titanium-throated vocalist Roger Daltrey as the eponymous pinball wizard, Russell’s Tommy is a razzle-dazzler, a fully-rigged, over-the-top rock opera complete with smashing appearances by some of the era’s biggest musical stars, including Elton John, Eric Clapton and Tina Turner. And “real actors” Oliver Reed and Oscar-nominated Ann-Margret—both of whom do their own singing—ain’t too bad, either. Jack Nicholson even shows up briefly to do some wily warbling.
The film was a hit and, alongside the original album, helped to launch Tommy’s extended life as a staged rock opera, an orchestral presentation and a popular Broadway musical. Satisfyingly, all the versions are dedicated to the operatic notion of an all-singing company coming together to present a grand tale of both sublime and tragic proportions.
And some 45 years later, Annette does the same thing, with both films unabashedly embracing their rock opera forms. That Annette does it without a roster of bold-faced rock’n’roll guest stars and the imprimatur of a hit album makes it even more intriguing and attractive. Not to undersell the glittery appeal of the beloved Tommy…
The pair--Tommy and Annette--would make for a fascinating double date. Make that a fine double feature, if one were looking for a night at the rock opera.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.