STREAMING: Musical chairs, a grand novel’s film treatment, and horror/comedy!

Published November 5, 2020, 10:24 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

In this report, two shows about Music that are great eye-openers, a much-anticipated TV adaptation of one of the great novels of the 1990’s, plus a Horror/Comedy series. Netflix, HBO Max and Amazon Prime with shows that surprisingly aren’t Christmas or holiday-themed.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (HBOMax – Warner Music) – If the pandemic has left you ‘desperately seeking’ Theater, live performances, and rock concerts (and the music of the 80’s & 90’s), then count yourself lucky that Spike Lee had the foresight to record David Bryne’s American Utopia. If you recall, this was staged on Broadway as a limited engagement in October of 2019. Back then, little did we know what would befall the world in a couple of months. Thanks the multi-camera set-ups and angles (love the opening shot), Spike Lee doesn’t just immerse us in the production, but also gives us a performers’ eye-view of the organized chaos, creativity, and camaraderie that exists on the stage. It’s like intensifying the magic that’s created while watching a Broadway rock show.

There are a number of Talking Heads hits of the 80’s incorporated in the soundtrack; along with Byrne’s musical journey into World Music. And you’ll appreciate how Byrne has liberated his musicians from being rooted to their instruments. Rather, along with Byrne, there’s effusive choreography, liberating them, while they’re playing their instruments. The cerebral, ruminative lyrics of Byrne are fully on display here; and the first musical number explains his concept of taking our human brain, and using music to edify what goes on as we go through Life. I hear there’s supposed to be a rerun in September of 2021 – but we have this to enjoy on HBOMax until that time that Broadway truly reopens.

A Suitable Boy (Netflix India) – Back in 1993, this hefty novel of Vikram Seth was a critics’ darling; and it was one of those books you just had to have lying around your living room, or in your library. As to how many actually read the book from cover to cover is anyone’s guess. In its hard bound version, it was 1,300 pages of transcendent prose that chronicled the fates of four families in post-Independence, post-partition India. Among the major themes of the novel are the painful clash between Hindus & Muslims, the nature of a caste society, and the compromised role of women in Indian society.

Directed by Mira Nair, and adapted for Television by Andrew Davies, it boasts of an all-Indian cast (except for one ‘white’ face), and there was a lot expectation surrounding this production. At 6 episodes, one might even say that there’s a lot of abridgment in this Limited Series, given the bulk of the source material. Set in 1951, the high production values give this series a gloss and shine that’s a joy to follow. One central issue involves the building of a temple right in front of a mosque; and its elucidating how politics, religion, & social commentary are all converge in this one issue. Fascinating to watch, but there is a dated aspect to how the narratives are presented.

Song Exploder: How Music Gets Made (Netflix) – A wonderful Limited Series of twenty-something minute episodes, each one hosted by H. Hirway, and highlighting a different popular artist, one hit, and their song-writing process. It’s a deconstructing of their hits, the thought process that went into the sing’s creation, and how the song may have changed their lives. This one isn’t for casual lovers of music, as the detail and texture of the interviews may seem tedious; but for those who seriously love their music, this is like celestial manna, a symphony of heavenly proportions.

The first episode has Alicia Keys talking about her collaboration with Sampha on 3 Hour Drive, while episode 2 is Lin-Manuel Miranda explaining how things like a subway ride home were instrumental in his coming up with Wait For It, the Aaron Burr song in Hamilton. REM’s Losing My Religion, which nobody thought would be a hit, with no discernible chorus, and a mandolin as the lead instrument, takes up the third episode. And you’ll love TyDolla$ign and his tune LA, an ode to the city; which makes up episode 4. How it’s dedicated to his brother in prison, and how the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Brandy, and James Fauntleroy jammed on this song. Great documentary series.

Truth Seekers (Amazon Prime) – Here’s a Horror/Comedy Limited series that looks very promising on paper. It stars Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, so one would be hopeful that they’ll recreate the wonderful comedic chemistry that exhibited in such modern classics as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – two parts of the hilarious Cornetto Trilogy. But unfortunately, writer/Director Edgar Wright isn’t along for this TV-ride, and the series suffers from his absence. In fact, this is really Frost’s show, and Pegg doesn’t supply much more than a recurring cameo, accompanied by a frightful hairpiece.

The premise of this series has Frost portraying Gus, a 6G service repairman, asked to allow a millennial trainee tag along when he makes his calls. The trainee is a young British-African named Elton, surname John. And yes, the joke is played up again and again. Gus’ secret obsession to his podcasts of visiting haunted home and sites; so we’re immediately thrust into a Ghostbusters-type of scenario. The suspense bits actually work better in this series than the comedy; so that should come as a big disappointment to the Pegg/Frost fans. Entertaining enough in a low key British way, but you’ll be wishing they had done more with the script.