Music and Lyrics (2007)

music-n-lyrics-film

Pros

— Hugh Grant in another one of his shallow-guy-finds-a-clue performances, a character so in his wheelhouse that people may dismiss it as “just playing himself” (in other words not really acting.) In case you’re new round these parts, nothing annoys me more than the “just playing himself” observation; as a matter of fact, I tend to write off the people who use it, write them off completely, mind you, especially when they use it to describe why they do not like a particular actor: “He just keeps playing himself,” pontificates some critic, and voila, I get to write them off! It’s a great time-saver. I like to know that the person I devote precious time to reading actually knows what they are talking about and “So-and-so just plays himself” is an awesome “tell” that I get to move on to read somebody else.) I love Hugh Grant, and I love him especially when he plays clueless selfish and casually cruel men – there’s an anxiety in his eyes when a woman gets too close, or softens towards him. It’s painful to witness, and he’s wonderful at it. So anyway, in Music and Lyrics Hugh Grant, with spiky “fashionable” hair (on the border of embarrassing), open-collared shirts (also embarrassing), tight pants (ditto), plays Alex Fletcher, a 1980s Has-been, clearly modeled on “the other guy in Wham!”. Alex Fletcher was part of a huge pop-duo called Pop! (the movie opens with one of their music videos from 1984 and is so funny I could barely even process what I was seeing). Alex wanders helplessly through the decades of his post-career, playing at amusement parks and high school reunions on a strict nostalgic ticket. Hugh Grant has given his character a couple of stage-movements, hip thrusts, arms up, that clearly were what he did once upon a time when he was a star, and the middle-aged ladies go wild … but watching Hugh Grant swivel his ass for a group of screaming 40-year-olds is sublime and ridiculous. He is a ridiculous character and yet … the film has affection for him, too.

— Drew Barrymore plays Sophie Fisher, a woman Alex hires to take care of his plants, who ends up showing a gift for improvising lyrics. Sophie is not a manic-pixie-dream-girl although her entrance, adorable, chatty, and clumsy, gave me a bad feeling at first. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl would have flitted into Alex’s miserable angsty-life, with a gift for spouting off rhymes that came from out of nowhere, flitting about like Snow White, caring for the plants, helping him find the perfect rhyme. But no, as we get to know Sophie, we understand her past, we understand the damage that had been done to her gift for writing by a powerful mentor, her belief in herself shattered. She’s a real person, not just a glittery-fairy-of-helpfulness. She’s doing her best to get by, but she’s covering up a huge sense of disappointment and betrayal. Barrymore is a great screwball comedienne. Watch her try to stumble her way through a restaurant, hiding from the Love of Her Life sitting at the bar. She is terrified that he will see her, so she crawls through the tables, she holds a menu up over her face and stalks across the room, she races behind a column, peeking out like a lunatic … it’s clumsy and grand and funny and tragic, all at the same time. At one point during a fight, Alex fires an observation at her, a really low-blow, and she winces, her hands fly over her face, and she demands, “Take it back!” It’s so honest it brought tears to my eyes. She’s wonderfully warm and funny throughout.

— Like Love and Basketball (and the director’s latest, Beyond the Lights, which was on my Top 10 this year), like The Thin Man, like His Girl Friday, and many others, Music and Lyrics is about romance, sure, but it is really about WORK. It is about two people who fall in love through their work, or … their work is AS important to them as their desire to find love. The majority of Music and Lyrics involves the evolution of their working relationship, Hugh Grant as musician, Drew Barrymore as lyricist, and these scenes feel fresh, real, the two of them struggling to find the perfect metaphor or analogy that will set the particular song free. I love movies about work, movies that prioritize work as JUST as important as love. So often characters in rom-coms have “jobs” only, jobs that are metaphorical or symbolic, and involve nothing more than symbolic gestures suggesting the “work” being done. Ooh, she’s uptight, therefore she jabs at her office phone with a pencil, wearing severe retro glasses, surrounded by sleek glass tables, and that’s her ‘job’. By the end of the movie she’ll be wearing comfy sweats and will have achieved balance! Bah. To many of us, work takes on practically a sacred position. Compromising work is non-negotiable. Work is not symbolic. It is our very essence. Music and Lyrics is actually all about that in a way that takes it seriously, actually understands some of what songwriters go through (much of it lampooned, of course, but still, given its due), and gives each character a motivation to go into their songwriting project with tremendous gusto and drive. Their objectives often clash. They don’t know each other that well. They learn about one another on the job.

— Kristen Johnston as Drew Barrymore’s sister. Watch her totally freeze when her sister tells her she met “Alex Fletcher.” Her eyes go dead. Then come the screams, the manic screams of how much she still loves him.

— Haley Bennett as “Cora Corman,” the biggest pop star in the world who loves Alex Fletcher’s 1980s stuff and hires him to write a song for her, out of the blue. Cora is an amalgamation of Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Madonna in her Ray of Light period. Cora turns everything into a sex-romp, every ballad becoming an opportunity to writhe on the floor, pushing her ass up at the audience, and yet her overall “thing” is total Buddhist-culture appropriation: she emerges from a gigantic statue of Buddha in her Madison Square Garden concert. But there are other things going on with this character, and her love of Alex Fletcher is sincere, although her flat-affect line-reading makes you not so sure. This was Haley Bennett’s debut. A character like Cora Corman could have been like shooting fish in a barrel, and there is definitely some light mockery about pop stars who aggressively lead with their sexuality and then are shocked when their fans won’t let them do anything else. The entire Cora Corman arc resolves itself in a very satisfying way.

— I laughed. As I mentioned, I also welled up with tears. All good. I did not feel manipulated, I felt engaged. The film trucks in rom-com cliches but spins them, makes them unique, fills them with earned emotion. The film is truly funny. There is a sweetness that seems genuine. Both main characters are well-drawn and well-played. The romance is not the Greatest Love of All Time, but a source of comfort and long-deferred ease in companionship and collaboration. It feels very grown-up. At some point I realized that I cared almost more about them completing the song they were working on than them getting together romantically. And that’s just as it should be.

Cons

— None.

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33 Responses to Music and Lyrics (2007)

  1. rae says:

    I adore this film! There’s a special place in my heart for the “love autopsy” song (and apparently also in my head; that little ditty runs through my mind at random intervals).

  2. Matt Blankman says:

    A film I was stunned to find myself loving so much. I don’t know why I was surprised – both Grant and Barrymore are such easily likeable performers. I just wasn’t expecting how much warmth there would be. It makes laughs worth something.
    Also, there’s a reason why “Way Back Into Love” is so hooky that it gets stuck in your head for days – it was written by Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne.

    • sheila says:

      // I don’t know why I was surprised – both Grant and Barrymore are such easily likeable performers. //

      That was exactly my reaction. I love both of them too – not sure why I was surprised – OR why I missed it on its original release. It’s so good!

      And yes, Fountains of Wayne!! I loved the music in the film, and I loved the pure appreciation of pop hooks – like, her reaction to him singing in the amusement part was so great. He was ashamed, like, How far I have fallen, and she was like, “These songs are melodically surprising and people have loved them for 25 years. Come on!!”

      She’s so RIGHT, too.

    • sheila says:

      Maybe the only thing I would have liked to see that wasn’t there – is to see the difference in his decor in that final section over the end credits. In other words, his decor was totally the same in that Coda scene, there were still posters from his 1980s stardom days, manly leather couches – it might have been nice to show, visually, how she had impacted him. That she lived there too.

      Maybe there were some production design details there I missed.

      But that’s the only thing I can think of that might be the vaguest of entries in the “Cons” column.

      Wasn’t Kristen Johnston hilarious, too? Racing around her house and screaming because she was going to see Alex Fletcher? So funny!

  3. Matt Blankman says:

    Oops I meant “It makes THE laughs worth something.” Just the laughs in this movie. Not all laughs ever.

  4. Matt Blankman says:

    Yeah, Johnston was great. She’s pretty great in general.
    After I’d seen it, I watched it again with my parents when I was visiting them- my Dad was/is a composer and lyricist (among other things) – and they loved it too.

    • sheila says:

      // my Dad was/is a composer and lyricist // Oh, that’s right, I forgot! Cool!

      I don’t know much about song collaboration – but it seemed like there was an actual attempt to be serious about the music industry in the film and how song-writing collaboration as well as song-selling works. (I loved the bitter lyricist he first tried to work with.)

      And so of course a random offer like the one from Cora could totally turn the tides – I mean, I’ve witnessed stuff like that happen from the outside (and speaking of a similar-ish situation – how about the hilarity of all the “WTF is Paul McCartney?” Tweets once Kanye announced their duet … Unlike the Boomers who acted like it was the end of the world – I thought it was hilarious. I love Paul McCartney, but still – come on. Racing around spluttering with outrage at the stupid Kanye fans makes you seem … like a sad loser, I’m sorry.)

      But it’s a similar thing, right? I can imagine all the Cora fans being like, “Who is this old geezer?” but then maybe doing some digging to find out more about him merely because SHE loves him so much.

      And I loved Cora. I mean, I can’t tell if that actress can act or not – her performance was so deadpan – but it felt very funny to me. You couldn’t tell what was going on with her. She did seem like a superstar, remote, and powerful.

  5. Matt Blankman says:

    Agreed about the Kanye – Macca silliness. What a waste of energy to get upset about that stuff.

    Good point about the actress playing Cora. It’s perfect, but it’s so deadpan, so dry, it’s tough to know if that was good acting or just taking perfect advantage of a flat performance!

    • sheila says:

      Matt – I think it was Jason Bailey on Twitter who referred to the people freaking out about Kanye’s fans not knowing who McCartney was as “Boomer Douches” and I still can’t stop laughing. I think that would be a great band name.

      And yes: the flat-affect made Cora just a perfect projection screen. She could be anything. It was a nice choice – to not make her a spoiled brat, or some kind of demanding diva – she was this dead-eyed “namaste”-spouting enigma. Thought it was great.

  6. Natalie says:

    Sheila, I have to confess that I used to be one of those “he’s just playing himself” people. I have you to thank for showing me the error of my ways. (Honestly, since I started reading here, I watch all movies and TV shows way differently than I used to. There are so many actors I never gave enough credit for how detailed and nuanced their performances are. And I’m noticing things like blocking and lighting that I never paid much attention to before.)

    I had kind of forgotten this movie, but I loved it when I saw it. It had more depth than I expected based on the premise.

    //Compromising work is non-negotiable. Work is not symbolic. It is our very essence.//

    This reminds me of my favorite Freud quote: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”

    • sheila says:

      Natalie –

      :)

      To be totally accurate, my real annoyance is when the comment comes from critics/film writers/TV writers. Civilians are mostly off the hook – ha! – But for critics, there is no excuse – this is your field of study, you should know better! it’s so prevalent it’s disheartening! But like I said, it’s also a time-saver. Any critic who uses that phrase I almost automatically lose interest in whatever else they might have to say. Possibly unfair, but there are only so many hours in the day.

      ANYWAY.

      Occasionally I have heard from other people that reading my site has made them think a little bit before saying “he just played himself” – and that just makes me feel so happy and accomplished. Seriously! Acting is a complex craft, and total physical transformation is only PART of what goes on. These people are using the wrong measuring sticks for success.

      // “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” //

      Woah. I had never heard that quote. That is so right on.

      Very glad to hear you liked the movie too. Very enjoyable!

  7. Katy says:

    Thank you so much for writing such a great review about this movie! Music and Lyrics is one of the most charming romantic comedies to come out in a long time, and it’s nice to see someone shine a light on it. Grant and Barrymore are adorable together, and they both give subtle yet great comedic performances. The soundtrack is so addictive too. :)

    • sheila says:

      Katy – I definitely need to buy the soundtrack. Very catchy stuff!

      I loved when the two of them recorded the demo in his apartment. She was so shy, it was so real.

  8. Melissa says:

    I love this movie, and for all the reasons you mentioned in your lovely review. Hugh Grant is one of my favorite actors, in large part because to me he’s reminiscent of classic Hollywood stars who had a certain kind of reliable persona on film. Of course back then the studio system helped to build those personas, but I think Hugh Grant has done that well for himself, choosing roles that are good fits for his particular kind of dry English wit. Whether in his floppy-haired, bumbling good guy earlier roles or in his later charming cad roles, he unfailingly entertains the heck out of me when I see him on screen. So many of my favorite movies of the past 20 years have starred him — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sense and Sensibility, Notting Hill, About a Boy, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Two Weeks Notice, Love Actually, Music and Lyrics. Even the movies that aren’t really so hot (Mickey Blue Eyes and Did You Hear About the Morgans? come to mind) have moments worth watching because of Grant’s intelligent line readings and great comic timing.

    He very well might be my most-watched actor outside of the Golden Age stars I care about the most, and I think it’s because he’s so much like them in a way. Just like you could go to a Cary Grant movie or a Clark Gable movie in the olden days and know, to an extent, what you were going to get, you can go to a Hugh Grant movie and know what you’re going to get. Even if the movie is only so-so, you’re going to at least enjoy seeing this star and he’ll make it worth your while. I think that’s what leads to the obnoxious “he plays himself” statements from people who don’t pay close enough attention. I’m sure Cary and Clark got the same kinds of criticism, faulty as it was.

    • sheila says:

      // I think Hugh Grant has done that well for himself, choosing roles that are good fits for his particular kind of dry English wit. //

      I totally agree. He knows who he is. He came and spoke at my grad school and he said that he would not play an American. He doesn’t understand the American context – “I don’t think I could improvise as an American …” It was fascinating, super-honest – and honestly I wish more British/Australian actors would have the same self-knowledge about such things.

      He is wonderful as a sort of buttoned-up romantic hero – Sense and Sensibility – Notting Hill – love it!! – and I really enjoy his latest incarnation, as caddish dude with vestiges of softness still left over in him. I think his performance in About a Boy is the best work he has ever done. PERFECT. The confrontation in the kitchen, laying his hand impotently on his espresso maker, saying, “I’m a bit … busy at the moment …” and then, “I’m not your father!” I have goosebumps just thinking about how good that scene is. He’s a marvelous actor.

      // He very well might be my most-watched actor outside of the Golden Age stars I care about the most, and I think it’s because he’s so much like them in a way. //

      Interesting – I hadn’t thought about him in that context, but you are totally right about that!

      // I think that’s what leads to the obnoxious “he plays himself” statements from people who don’t pay close enough attention. I’m sure Cary and Clark got the same kinds of criticism, faulty as it was. //

      Yes, I think that’s true! And sometimes even those great actors stumbled a bit when they tried to show “more”. Cary Grant was such a genius in how he manipulated his own very flexible persona – it could fit into The Awful Truth and it could fit into Notorious – but he really had to decide to take those risks.

      And, of course, famously, Grant was nominated for an Oscar only when he shed a tear onscreen. Not that there is anything wrong with those performances – but it kind of shows how his work was viewed by his contemporaries, huge star though he was. He made “it” look so easy that people didn’t credit what he was doing as acting, really.

      He’s the biggest genius of them all.

  9. Alex says:

    Great review as usual, Sheila! I think this movie is pretty much flawless, and funny and sweet in a way I really wish would happen more often (though it does, sometimes, thankfully!).

    When I watched it for the first time I was with a group of friends, and some were in their early twenties. They couldn’t quite understand why the thirty-year-olds and older found the Pop! video so funny. We were howling.

    • sheila says:

      // They couldn’t quite understand why the thirty-year-olds and older found the Pop! video so funny. //

      Ha!!!!

      Like: this is how we lived, kids. This is what was considered hip and cool.

      Dying laughing …

  10. Maureen says:

    // Occasionally I have heard from other people that reading my site has made them think a little bit //

    When I read this, partial sentence-I thought-WHY YES! That is why I love your posts so much, they make me think. Whether it is things I never thought of before, or thoughts I agree with-I have a good think…and I do enjoy that ;)

    This is a favorite movie of mine, and I need to watch it again. I love Hugh Grant, and Drew Barrymore has such a sweetness about her-do you watch her on the Essentials on TCM with Robert? I feel I am always pushing TCM, but I am an addict, I can’t help it!

    • sheila says:

      Go ahead and push TCM. Ha! I don’t have television (and I honestly don’t mean that in the snobby way – it just works for me, in terms of time-management to not have TV hookup. I swear!) – but anyway, yes, I have seen her TCM bits. I love her smart-ness, I love the legacy of her family – she’s one of those smart ones who set up a production company for herself, EARLY – in her early 20s – and so a lot of her pictures came from her own development. A very smart move, I think.

      I love that the romance in Music and Lyrics felt really real and realistic – it wasn’t sentimentalized. But it was sweet enough that both characters were almost afraid to believe in it.

  11. Paul says:

    Hi Sheila – I found your thoughts on ‘playing himself’ very interesting and have been thinking about that on and off. While I know very little about acting, I do have a few thoughts (questions) on this. Do you ever get the sense that an actor is getting lazy – just going through the motions? I know I have in the past and I wonder if this is what some folks are trying to describe with the ‘playing himself’ label. It seems to me that this is a danger when someone is playing the same kinds of roles (or for that matter anything in life). While some kinds of people can continue to innovate and thrive within narrow confines, it seems that for others this might breed stagnation.

    • sheila says:

      // Do you ever get the sense that an actor is getting lazy – just going through the motions? //

      Sometimes, yes – but maybe it would be helpful to get specific. Do you have any examples in mind?

      I think a lot of this “let me completely transform my physical appearance” acting is ALSO a kind of laziness. Not to mention a failure of the actor’s imagination. It’s so praised now – it’s barely questioned – but I think there is a certain facile quality to such work (as good of some of it may be) – that it has no emotional resonance. It won’t last beyond the current-moment Awards Season hoopla.

      // While some kinds of people can continue to innovate and thrive within narrow confines, it seems that for others this might breed stagnation. //

      I think that is definitely true – it depends on the actor. John Wayne had a set persona – and it was so vast, and fit him so well, that he never got stagnant with it. You never clock him as bored. Never. He had such freedom within those limitations – freedom that other actors, who pride themselves on changing totally from role to role, simply do not have.

      But I would be interested to hear more of your thoughts. What actors do you think have gotten lazy, playing the same types of roles?

      • sheila says:

        Here’s an example from my side, and it’s not a popular opinion, but it’s why I love it. :)

        Elvis Presley made 30 movies in 10 years. He played “Elvis Presley(™)” – a family-friendly version of the hottie who exploded in the 50s. He wore sleek outfits, and played ukeleles, and was a race-car-driving-singer, and he strolled around singing songs, and occasionally was paired with a co-star – (i.e. Ann-Margret) who was worthy of him. I find him completely compelling onscreen – in the same way I find John Wayne compelling. it takes courage of a kind almost unheard of in actors today – to just “show up” and “Be Yourself” (or a version of yourself) in film after film. Because what it admits is: “People like me, PERSONALLY. They want to see ME.”

        Actors now talk about transformation, and how they worked with a Latvian sheep-herder to get into their role – but much of that is just another word for “hiding.”

        For example, I think Jack Black is one of the best actors working today. He almost has no competitors, in my opinion. Your mileage may vary – but he is also a Golden Era type of actor – who shows up – as a VERSION of himself every time – so that when he changes it up (like Bernie which was totally brilliant – I thought he should have been nominated for an Oscar) – it is both welcome and totally surprising. He can do ANYTHING – whereas I think Cate Blanchett gets press telling her she “can do everything” but she actually can’t. Her work is splashy, and gets awards, but it leaves me feeling pretty empty. She’s clearly talented – I don’t mean to suggest otherwise – but she is missing “the thing” (whatever it is) that makes an actor great.

        Anyway, back to Elvis:

        Despite the fact that he hated the formula pics he had to do – he is wonderful and funny and easy and sexy in ALL of them – and only twice (in Paradise Hawaiian Style and Clambake) does he betray his boredom. Twice in 30 movies – that’s a hell of a track record.

        He “showed up” – full-throttled – in every formula pic they made him do – and he grumbled about it, but he also accepted (grudgingly) that people loved him for this kind of thing (these movies were hits) – and so he was able to show himself like that.

        It’s kind of a lost art – that’s just not how the industry works today – but there is still a lot to learn there, about process and persona.

        Anyway, looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

  12. Paul says:

    I remember a few of Jack Nicholson’s movies where I got that impression – don’t remember the specific ones unfortunately. There were times I felt he wasn’t ‘playing himself’ but almost playing a caricature of himself. Alternatively, one great example of someone doing something differently (IMO) was Heath Ledger as the Joker. He added a weird psychological dimension to the role that went beyond physical appearances there.

    • sheila says:

      Sorry, Paul – I missed this comment!

      // There were times I felt he wasn’t ‘playing himself’ but almost playing a caricature of himself. //

      Yes, I agree.

      That can work though – like John Wayne in True Grit – a performance which verges on parody but he makes it work. And then he won an Oscar and I believe he joked, “Should have put on the eyepatch years ago.”

      Ha. He was onto them.

  13. Paul says:

    Jack Black is a great example of your point. I always get the sense he is intensely interested in what he’s doing and trying to improve. That guy is definitely not coasting.

    • sheila says:

      Right? And there are similarities in all of the roles – and his appearance does not change drastically (except for in Bernie – and there, he felt set free in FABULOUS ways) – but he is 100% onscreen.

      He has a closeup in Shallow Hal that is Oscar-worthy. The guy is crazy good.

  14. Paul says:

    Actually the Joker role is a great comparison (missed it when I first posted). My impression was that Nicholson was kind of phoning it in (compare that performance to Jack in the Shining) – especially in comparison to Ledger’s more recent performance.

    • sheila says:

      Nicholson definitely has spent many roles just goofing off. I felt that with the Joker, too.

      He’s still one of my favorite actors though.

    • sheila says:

      and as a Mickey Rourke fanatic: there was laziness in those roles he did before his fall from grace. He was doing his “schtick” – touching his face, little smiles on his lips – but it wasn’t FULL like it was in, oh, Diner, or Angel Heart, or Pope of Greenwich Village.

      He had lost heart – and you can FEEL it in those performances (Wild Orchid, the one he did with Don Jonson). His heart wasn’t in it anymore.

  15. Lyrie says:

    I haven’t seen this movie – now I want to. But I just HAD to say :

    // I love Paul McCartney, but still – come on. Racing around spluttering with outrage at the stupid Kanye fans makes you seem … like a sad loser, I’m sorry. //
    Sheila, I heart you.

    • sheila says:

      hahahahahaha

      Someone on Twitter said something like, “Anyone outraged that Kanye’s fans don’t know who Paul McCartney is need to switch to decaf.”

      And again, I’m dying laughing.

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