ROMA AND BRUCE ON NETFLIX
Two movies are new to Netflix this month and both come from other media.
Roma is a film by oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón that was released in a couple of theatres in November, but had already had its world premiere at the 75th Venice International Film Festival on August 30, 2018, where it won the Golden Lion. Releasing it in a limited number of cities is Netflix's strategy for making the movie eligible for Oscars and other film awards. In some areas, you can still see it in a theatre.
Springsteen On Broadway was a sold-out hit (grossing over $75 million in less than 300 performances) for rocker Bruce Springsteen that opened on Broadway in October, 2017 and was scheduled for only a two month run, but kept getting extended because of demand and, finally, closed on December 15, 2018, just a few days before a filmed live version appeared on Netflix. The Netflix airing was announced only in July, 2018, but it wasn't hard to surmise that the show would be filmed for posterity - and money. Last June, the show received a special Tony award (it wasn't eligible for a competitive Tony award because it did not provide the 850 or so tickets (+ 1s making it 1700 free tix) to Tony voters within eight weeks of its opening).
Both Roma and Springsteen On Broadway share the distinction of being very unusual movies.
Roma is Cuarón's look back (to 1970) at his childhood world in Mexico (the title refers to the Colonia Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City). It is a black and white movie that, on a TV screen, looks like it is always slightly washed-out. Cuarón wrote and did the cinematography, too.
Roma looks at a year in the life of an upper-middle class family consisting of parents (the father (Fernando Grediaga) is only in a few scenes) , three children, grandmother, two servants (indigenous descendants as opposed to the obviously European-descended family) and a dog.
The movie's principal character is Cleodegaria "Cleo" Gutiérrez (Yalitza Aparicio) one of the family's two live-in servants. We follow her as she cleans the large house and cares for the children. She is more than just a servant - she is part of the family.. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, her life changes very little even though she fears being fired by Sofia (Marina de Tavira), the mother of the family. Sofia has her own problems when her husband leaves her early on in the movie although she tells the children that he is on an extended business trip.
Very little 'happens' in this movie. The plot is non-existent except for a chilling scene when student demonstrators are attacked by the police and a civilian paramilitary group shoots and kills a student in Cleo's presence. She sees the father of her expected child (who has abandoned her) in the murdering paramilitary group and this incident triggers her water breaking. What happens next is the best part of the movie as Cleo is rushed to the hospital.
Many critics have praised Roma as a poetic look at ordinary life, and that it is. While I found much of it slow and less 'poetic" than just an ordinary, it does have merit in showing life as it was lived by ordinary people living with the extraordinary complications that confront most of us in our everyday lives.
Roma's greatest asset is the acting of all of the people in the movie - or I should say, the semblance of non-acting. This kind of acting has a long tradition in mainstream movies, dating back to Marlon Brando's performance in The Men (1950) and culminating with Lee Strasberg's portrayal of aging mobster Hyman Roth in Godfather II. Although it has been more than 40 years since I first saw that movie, I remember the shock and thrill of seeing Strasberg in his first scene, sitting in the living room of a simple Florida home, watching a football game as Michael Corleone enters. I had never seen an actor like him. Not a trace of technique, not a hint of a performance, just being. Perhaps Cuarón was able to elicit these magical performances because almost the entire cast consists of first-time performers on screen.
Springsteen On Broadway is two and a half hours of just Bruce (his wife, Patti Scialfa, makes a brief appearance) telling stories and playing music. It is NOT a concert and he plays only a few of his many 'hits.' Instead, Springsteen On Broadway is the story of a man who made his living performing the magic act of making spellbinding, story-based music. He uses the usual microphones you see at a musical performance instead of those used in the theatre and this establishes, immediately, that he is not an 'actor' but rather a performer who tells stories. In fact, he ignores the mics and often walks away from them so that his voice has no amplification and this makes his performance even more 'real.' Director Thom Zimny has done a masterful job of keeping the show moving, having unobtrusive stage hands bring out to Bruce various guitars and an harmonica.
From the beginning Bruce tells us that he wore 'workingman's clothes' on stage, sang about factory-workers and laborers but he never had a 'real' job, never worked normal hours and never ever was even in a factory. He made it all up. That, he tells us, is how good he is.
Actually, he took on the persona of his father who did all the things that Bruce sang about, but never did himself. Growing up in Freehold, NJ, he tells of life in a small town in the 1950s and 60s in his dysfunctional family dominated by a cold, distant father. When he became a full-time musician, he headed not to New York (only an hour away) but to the New Jersey shore, where he was a one-way road to oblivion. He had to get away from the Jersey shore and, more, out of his small-time mentality to make it and to do that he had to take that leap that all artists must take out of their comfort zone and into the abyss. In his case, the abyss was a three day trip across the USA in a van, driving a motor vehicle for the first time in his life.
So Springsteen On Broadway is a look back by an artist to his childhood, too, and, just as Cuarón uses storytelling and film to transport us back, Springsteen uses his own artist's tools to transport us to a different time and place - his poetry, his words, his music and his inimitable bravuro style.