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The Passion: New Orleans: #ThePassionHalfLive

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The word “live” has value in our contemporary television environment. As actual live viewing grows increasingly less common, events that can promote their liveness—sports, award shows, etc.—have an advantage in the current TV marketplace. There is a belief that those shows, more than others, will draw audiences who will tune in live, and thus consume ads live, and thus make money for broadcasters like Fox.

The trend toward live musicals is an extension of this, and this was undoubtedly the context in which Fox has positioned The Passion: New Orleans. After Grease: Live, Fox has entered into the genre rebuilt by NBC over the past three holidays, and the Tyler Perry-hosted contemporary retelling of the Passion Play certainly wants to be the same type of success. It also framed itself around the idea of liveness, promoting that the event would run rain or shine, and using #ThePassionLive as the show’s hashtag.

But The Passion: New Orleans is not a live musical. It is a live broadcast interspersed with a television adaptation of the Passion Play, recorded in advance and featuring what would appear to be pre-recorded performances. It’s a choice that those involved with the production have discussed in interviews, and lines up with the desire to stage the scenes throughout the city of New Orleans for dramatic effect—logistically, this was not possible to stage live while retaining its geographic diversity, maximizing the idea of tracing the story of Jesus against modern day issues such as police prosecution.

And yet the balance between live and recorded content was somewhat surprising, especially with the chosen hashtag. The broadcast came to resemble a PBS pledge drive, with brief musical numbers—musical videos, really—interrupted by cuts to Tyler Perry, reporting from the crowd following the large cross making its way through New Orleans, and occasional live performances by Yolanda Adams, Trisha Yearwood, and Seal (and eventually Jencarlos Canela, playing Jesus). It’s a practical issue on any level, interrupting any sense of flow and continually disrupting the “story”: while it’s true that the basics of the Passion Play are pretty much common knowledge, any ability for the performers to establish specific characters or create a complete “performance” were rendered impossible by the constant interruptions.

The specific issue, however, comes from the fact that The Passion: New Orleans is not really a live musical despite being discursively understood as one by news outlets and audiences. To Fox’s credit, I can’t find any evidence of them ever calling it that—it has always been framed as a “live musical event,” which is a fair description for the concert/scripted combo that they aired earlier tonight. The “live” segments are comparable to “concert” stagings of Musicals, with minimal staging and focus on the songs themselves. But between the #ThePassionLive hashtag and the recent trend of live musicals, I at least expected more of the actual plot of the Passion Play to take place live, and so there was an aesthetic shock when they cut to the first main number—“Love Can Move Mountains”—and it was clearly taped in advance.

I understand why they would make this decision, logistically speaking, but some of their other choices are more confounding. Why, for example, would they still give the performers headset microphones and ear monitors in these pre-taped segments as though they were performing live, when either the aesthetic distinction (liveness has a clear aesthetic that the overly “cinematic” pre-taped segments diverge from significantly, especially given the huge variety of camera angles) or the time of day would betray the fact they were pre-recorded? Why use #ThePassionLive as a hashtag if the majority of your musical numbers were going to be pre-recorded, and #ThePassion would have served more or less the same purpose?

The answer is that the “promise” of a live musical has marketing value, even if that’s decidedly not what The Passion: New Orleans is. It’s undoubtedly false advertising to focus on the show’s liveness and then have the majority of musical numbers be pre-recorded—some performers never even appeared live under the curtain call—and Twitter chatter certainly reacted negatively when it became clear that the show wasn’t as live as they presumed. But that actually proves Fox’s point that the idea of a live musical will convince people to tune in, and whatever negative reaction comes from those who know enough to understand the difference between live and pre-taped aesthetics will likely be a very small percentage of the audience.

The Passion: New Orleans is not designed to be understood through an aesthetic lens: whereas Grease: Live reveled in its complex staging and choreography, The Passion: New Orleans is about the idea of community and spirituality. It’s about the procession of the cross through New Orleans, and the audience who are there to witness the live concert—it is about feeling, in other words, something that is tougher to achieve at home and certainly tougher for me to engage with given my lack of connection to the Passion Play. It wants to use liveness as a short-hand for togetherness, making us feel like we’re on the streets with the cross (hence the live check-ins), or that we’re among those crying or singing along to the vaguely spiritual pop songs chosen for the show’s jukebox soundtrack.

But while it would be disingenuous to take that experience away from those who felt it, the staging choices were a barrier for me. Too much of the story was told through Perry’s narration, limiting the ability for the songs—already, I must admit, facing barriers created by some questionable choices with the likes of Creed, Evanescence, and Hoobastank—to tap into the meaning of these characters and their story. As someone who knows the basic story but has no particular attachment to it, I would argue The Passion: New Orleans was on some level designed to appeal to me—Perry has framed his involvement as a desire to spread the gospel, rather than just preaching to the choir, but the disconnected narrative limited the ability for the music to communicate the emotions of this story. Specific moments tapped into the symbolic effect of the cross processional and the live audience—Yearwood and Seal’s numbers had the most impact—but too much of the story was trapped in screens, and weakened by the lack of flow (which was inevitable with commercials, but made worse by Perry’s scripted intros and outros from that footage).

I can see why The Passion: New Orleans became a hodge-podge of live and pre-recorded content. The actual story would have been better told if this had been entirely pre-recorded, with Perry’s narration playing over footage from the story instead of interrupting the flow of events. It would have been more focused on character, and it would have avoided the aesthetic dissonance that pulled me—if not its target audience—out of the narrative. But then it wouldn’t have been “live,” and they wouldn’t have been able to use both the commercial appeals of that term as well as the emotional appeal of seeing the cross work its way through New Orleans, and building this as a local event that can be viewed nationally (and internationally on Netflix).

The resulting production fails even basic tests of flow, and I still view too much of the soundtrack ironically to take the production wholly seriously, but it is ultimately a fair representation of Fox’s goals: to tap into a faith-based audience increasingly hailed by the film and television industry, and to extend a reputation for live events that draw advertisers interested in reaching those and other audiences. And so while The Passion: New Orleans betrays principles of liveness, it does so to balance its commercial goals with its spiritual ones, a legible mess instead of an incomprehensible one.

Cultural Observations

  • As far as I can tell, the amount of pre-recorded content is unprecedented for the format—while the report following the procession and the “host” are also in the Manchester Passion (the U.K.’s rendition of the same concept), the earlier numbers are staged nearby, and clearly live.

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Grease Live: With An Emphasis on the Live

For as much as live theatre is about the quality of specific performers or the strength of the material involved, it’s also about energy. There is an energy to song-and-dance performed onstage, and it’s an energy that has always been a central struggle for the recent revival of the live television staging of musical theatre.

Over the course of this recent trend, begun by NBC with The Sound of Music and now picked up by Fox with Grease Live, the various productions have been searching for how to tap into this energy when the conductive force of the audience is absent. The experience of seeing live theatre is in large part the experience of viewing it with other people, and not just in terms of being able to whisper reactions to the people around you. It’s about energy, a feeling in a room that you’re seeing a spectacle unfold before you or you’re being transported by an emotional ballad.

Social media can theoretically serve to bring the individual households tuned into one of these broadcasts together, but there isn’t the same type of energy, manifesting more as commentary than a natural emotional response. And while NBC’s musicals have evolved since The Sound of Music, this is one particular problem they’ve never quite solved: they have, by-and-large, been staging live theatre devoid of the energy that fuels it, hoping that what’s happening on the other side of the TV screens will cooperate without doing much to specifically address the issue. When Peter Pan build to its all-important audience participation moment, they accepted that the call would lead to no response in many cases.

And so when they announced that Grease Live would include a live audience, it seemed—on paper, at least—to be an effort to replicate this energy more directly. But whereas I imagined this as having an audience reacting to the production as one would at an actual theatrical production, it wasn’t like that at all. The vast majority of scenes went by without any audience reaction at all, with the audience only making appearances in selected large crowd scenes.

It was a decision I found confounding at first, but over time I started to realize that it was a byproduct of a central decision made by the production—led by director Thomas Kail—when it came to what they were making. Rather than a live staging of a theatrical production, Grease Live is the first real “television musical” to emerge from this era, designed from top-to-bottom to embrace the energy of watching live television.

And in the process, they managed to capture some of the energy of live theatre for good measure.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Rising Action as Climax

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterIn his “review” of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—it’s really more of a commentary piece if we’re playing semantics—Salon’s Andrew O’Heir makes what I would say is a fair point regarding the film:

“You can choose to understand “The Force Awakens” as an embrace of the mythological tradition, in which the same stories recur over and over with minor variations. Or you can see it as the ultimate retreat into formula: “Let’s just make the same damn movie they loved so much the first time!” There are moments when it feels like both of those things, profound and cynical, deeply satisfying and oddly empty.”

O’Heir’s instinct to work against his initial either-or binary here is telling, and reflects a lot of what I reacted to within The Force Awakens. There is a larger narrative ongoing about this film being “safe,” and about duplicating and/or rebooting the existing films—primarily A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I think this argument makes a lot of sense when considering an overview of the film’s plot, but I think we need to fully acknowledge the tension with which this process takes place. O’Heir’s argument about the mythological tradition absolutely echoes in The Force Awakens, but the questions of how those stories will recur, and who they belong to, are more important to my experience of this film than the level to which they do or do not vary from the previous narratives.

[Warning: Pretty extensive spoilers for The Force Awakens, so proceed at your own peril.] Continue reading

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Mother’s Mercy”

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“Mother’s Mercy”

June 7, 2015

As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers, concluding with this finale. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Mother’s Mercy” [The A.V. Club]

This fifth season of the show was, for me, defined by the convergence of trust. It was the season where both readers and non-readers had spent considerable time with the show and the characters, each with a firm grasp on the rules of this world, and each with their own opinions of how that world should be handled. And, because of the divergences from—and in some cases expansions beyond—the books, there were large swaths of storytelling in which reader and non-reader were on the same page judging the producers’ plans for these characters.

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Refresh, Not Reboot: Thoughts on Jurassic World

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When Zach and Gray, two brothers from Wisconsin, arrive to Jurassic World, they briefly check into their hotel room. They’re VIPs, there at the behest of their aunt Claire, and her assistant gives them something important—wristbands, to signal their VIP status.

Although the film never actually explores this, my mind immediately turned to Disney’s MagicBand system, a new way for offering a more personal experience at DisneyParks. Your MagicBand opens your hotel room, pays for your meals, and at some restaurants it can even inform the host that you’re the person walking up to the podium, and inform them where you’ve been seated for that particular meal.

It’s unlikely that the MagicBand system was operational enough during the production of Jurassic World for it to be integrated directly into the film, but it’s a perfect technology for understanding its strategy. The MagicBand system has a complicated relationship with control: by giving the park guest a greater ease of control over their experience—fewer keys, no need to carry cash, fast pass access, etc.—it also gives Disney the data necessarily to control the park as a whole. They know how you move between rides, they know what type of people spend in what patterns, and they can design the parks in ways that support this.

In the film itself, this is how Jurassic World tracks and controls its dinosaurs, but that particular comparison is a dead end. Instead, watching the film I was struck by how much it feels like the result of the filmmakers tapping into market research from people of my generation who grew up with Jurassic Park as a formative filmgoing experience. We are the “visitors” to Jurassic World, and Colin Trevorrow’s film never lets us forget it—there is no hiding the line drawn between theme park guests and moviegoers, and of the need to create “new attractions” because we’re just not satisfied with what we had before. It’s a toothless critique given that the effects-laden film in front of us fully gives into the evolution of blockbuster filmmaking, but it is nonetheless a potent one in how it works overtime to tell us not to get distracted by the shiny objects. It takes the things for which we are—purportedly—nostalgic, wraps them up in things that are shiny and new, and then systematically pushes us to wish they could just be back to normal again.

And, at least for me and much of the audience I saw it with, it worked like a charm.

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Game of Thrones – “The Dance of Dragons”

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“The Dance of Dragons”

June 7, 2015

As noted earlier this year, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “The Dance of Dragons” [The A.V. Club]

This question will be answered in the finale and in the seasons to come, but it echoes also in the other goal of “The Dance Of Dragons,” which is to pull the season’s most problematic storylines into thematic alignment. Stannis and Dany’s decisions are legible and offer clear consequences that pay off the dramatic stakes therein—both land as clear pivot points that set their characters on paths heading into the finale, and both are well-executed and engaging. But although there are similar stories playing out in King’s Landing and Winterfell, we spend our time here in Dorne and Braavos, which have struggled to connect this season for two separate reasons.

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Game of Thrones – “Hardhome”

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“Hardhome”

May 31, 2015

As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Hardhome” [The A.V. Club]

These partnerships and alliances—one of them long anticipated—all speak to Game Of Thrones’ interest in making a larger point about humanity. Sam argues to Olly—who does not seem convinced, we’ll get to that later—that the Wildlings are humans too, and that’s admittedly a bit facile. But what Sam is doing is going back to a basic level of human life, an idea that works to break down the “wheel” of power in Westeros that Daenerys seeks to destroy. Cycles of human conflict are what Game Of Thrones was first predicated on, but the only true, unadulterated evil in this world was the very first evil we saw in the series’ prologue—those who are no longer living.

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Game of Thrones – “The Gift”

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“The Gift”

May 24, 2015

As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “The Gift” [The A.V. Club]

Game Of Thrones’ investment in gender roles is crucial to its storytelling, but it also tends to struggle at times through lack of context. If I were to describe Sansa as a sexual prisoner depending on men to help save her, that sounds some alarm bells—but when you consider it’s a woman waiting outside the gates to save her, and when you see how she works over Ramsay psychologically in their walk on the battlements, you see the show wants to separate Sansa’s larger arc from her situation. It wants us to see the forest for the trees, and to know that there is a future for this character, and that her future will not be as Ramsay Bolton’s abused wife. But it can be tough to depict this without having access to Sansa’s inner monologue, something the books could use to show resolve where the show must use dialogue or subtle acting that can often be lost in editing and the need to cram six or seven narratives into a given episode.

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Series Finale: Mad Men – “Person to Person”

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“Person to Person”

May 17, 2015

“A lot has happened.”

I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC. I haven’t written about any of the seventh season thus far, which means it’s been nearly two years since I’ve . And the marathon made me glad for this, in its way: I realized that I hadn’t really properly oriented myself to the first half of the season before diving into the first, struggling at times to connect what we were seeing to the big picture.

That was definitely the biggest issues with these final episodes, which often spurned traditional seriality. The show has always been a balance of episodic and procedural engines, but the jumps in time and the revolving door of characters has made these final seven episodes scattered. However, it has also made them distinctive, such that revisiting them reminded me how much each had connected in some way or another. Although the purchase of SCDP by McCann-Erickson has ostensibly been the season’s arc, we never saw its initial implementation, and when the characters tried to turn it into an arc on the level of SCDP’s founding McCann-Erickson stepped in to tell them it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t going to be that season. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and everyone else are not going to ride off into the sunset on stallions—they are more likely to fade into the distance like normal people, living normal lives.

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Game of Thrones – “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

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“Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”

May 17, 2015

As noted last week, my reviews of Game of Thrones have shifted to The A.V. Club, but I will continue to link them here for regular readers. Warning: These are reviews intended for book readers, so if you want to know absolutely no small details about the story as told in the books, you may want to steer clear.

Game of Thrones – “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” [The A.V. Club]

The nature of episodic television reviews means that we don’t know if it will be the same this time. I want to believe that this rape is not simply being used as an escalation of Ramsay’s evil, given that it would be highly unnecessary. I want to believe that Sansa’s redemption arc will not simply view her rape as a generic narrative turning point. I want to believe that this rape will be treated like a rape, and justly punished (perhaps by someone who was nearly raped herself earlier in the series). I want to believe all of this because I want to think the show has learned a lesson from the previous instances, and chosen to echo Dany’s marriage to Kahl Drogo by giving Sansa more agency and allowing this rape to remain a rape even after Sansa fights back against Ramsay. I want to believe that if the show is in uncharted territory in terms of source material and chooses to use rape as a narrative tool, they have a good reason, and didn’t just fall back on this as a problem-solving tool.

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