This month: Baz Luhrmann’s new series The Get Down;The West Wing Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast about the now-classic show; the Off-Broadway musical The Band’s Visit; and Life, Animated, an intimate documentary about one man’s lifelong passion for Disney movies.
By Alissa Wilkinson
(Photo: Life, Animated)
The Get Down
From the Sound of Music LIVE! to Grease: LIVE! to Peter Pan LIVE!, musicalsare enjoying a new vogue on network television. This summer’s most timely addition to this trend will now be available to stream on your laptop: The Get Down, a new musical series from the mind of Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann, drops on Netflix on August 12.Set in the Bronx during the 1970s, when financial troubles had New York City teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the series focuses on how urban unrest can give rise to artistic invention. The teaser trailer, which premiered in January, promised this would be no insubstantial throwback: Featuring scenes of a burning building and black youths running from the police, it was reminiscent of recent scenes in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago.
If the focus on urban unrest hits a bit close to home in 2016, Luhrmann seems to be sending viewers an optimistic message. In the case of the Bronx in the 1970s, the crumbling infrastructure, street gangs, and crime had an upside — they gave rise to a vibrant subcultural musical movement that saw the ascendance of funk, disco, and hip-hop, in underground clubs and at block parties. It took years for some of this joyous music, born of hardship, to hit the mainstream — an important reminder to viewers caught up in the news coverage of struggling American cities today. Sometimes, the culturalaspect of revolution takes place out of sight — only to emerge, even become pop culturally omnipresent, decades later.
The West Wing Weekly
Feeling some electoral cynicism this election season? There’s no better cure than a re-viewing of The West Wing — all 154 episodes are now available on Netflix, plus, this time around, you can take along a guide. The West Wing Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast discussion of the show, was launched last spring by West Wing actor Joshua Malina and film composer Hrishikesh Hirway. Each week Malina and Hirway pick apart an episode’s production and themes, sometimes with special guests in tow — cast member Dulé Hill has already joined, and the hosts are promising more writers, directors, and fans to come.
While the central characters on The West Wing were far from perfect, the friendships between the president and his closest advisers showed us that, in politics, compromise and diplomacy can pay off. That collegial dynamic may seem hopelessly quaint today, when Congress is in a near-constant state of gridlock. Still — as The West Wing Weekly hosts make clear — The West Wing was a remarkably prescient show in other ways. In the third episode of the podcast, for example, Malina and Hirway remember the creators’ efforts to improve the show’s racial diversity following boycotts of racially segregated shows by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1999. After this year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, when some black performers boycotted the Academy Awards for failing to nominate a single actor of color, it seems Hollywood could still take a lesson from President Bartlet and his iconic walk-and-talk advisers.
The Band’s Visit
When eight members of an Egyptian orchestra make a pronunciation error and board the wrong bus en route to a music festival in Israel, they wind up in a town so remote it doesn’t have a place where they can perform — nor a hotel. Such is the comedy of errors that begins The Band’s Visit, a new Off-Broadway musical debuting in New York this fall. Featuring music and lyrics by Broadway veteran David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty), a book by playwright Itamar Moses, and direction by David Cromer (Our Town), The Band’s Visit chronicles a surprising rapprochement between traditional political enemies, the Egyptians and the Israelis, over the course of a single night. Without the safe neutrality provided by a hotel, the clueless foreigners must rely on a family of local Israelis, whom they warm to (and vice versa).
A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.
While the film is based on a 2007 award-winning movie, its story of political reconciliation seems tailor-made for the theater. In 2007, Roger Ebert described the film as “an interlude involving two ‘enemies’ … that shows them both as only ordinary people with ordinary hopes, lives and disappointments.” As it brings performers and audience together in the same room, Cromer’s The Band’s Visit seems poised to bring fresh immediacy to the idea that Israelis and Egyptians, country bumpkins and urban sophisticates, aren’t so different after all.
When Owen Suskind was diagnosed with regressive autism and pervasive developmental disorder at the age of three, his family feared he would be dependent and uncommunicative for the rest of his life. That is, until they witnessed his geek-out over Aladdin — which sparked their son’s interest in and skill at talking with other people. Owen’s lifelong passion for Disney movies is the subject of Roger Ross Williams’ intimate documentary Life, Animated, which premiered January 23. In Williams’ rendering — a favorite at the Sundance Film Festival — kids’ cartoons taught Owen (now in his 20s) conversation patterns, writing and social skills, and the will to organize like-minded fans around him — ultimately, all the trappings of a normal life.
Based on the 2014 book by Owen’s father, the writer Ron Suskind, Life, Animated demonstrates how young autistic people can learn to navigate life with the help of personal projects and hobbies. (Though Owen took to children’s films, some of his friends found their roadmaps in history or superheroes.) Yet Life, Animated is no straightforward story of assimilation: As Williams shows, while Disney introduced Owen to the norms of the neurotypical world, it also taught his family how to see the world through his eyes. Landing in theaters July 8, Life, Animated promises to demystify the autistic experience in more ways than one.