I show Annie Hall in my film class sometimes, and one thing I point out about its many virtues and ground-breaking elements is how Woody Allen brought the rhythms of stand-up comedy not only into the humor of the film, but the very structure of it—something still relatively unexplored in cinema since then.
Birdman (we’ll leave the longer title for the rest of this writing) is like that, but it’s not stand-up that’s at the heart of the film—it’s jazz and its percussive rhythms. Jazz rhythms don’t just accompany the film, but essentially, are the film. The film is visual jazz, and a rather stunning example of a complete marriage of film and music. The film is comprised of one riff after another, with the occasional side trip to an operatic trope or two. Its marriage of music and image is not like a typical musical at all (the film isn’t a musical as we think of them), but is a fusion not seen since Gene Kelly started directing his own films.
Birdman is “about” a former popular film star trying to resuscitate and revalidate his career by mounting a serious play on Broadway as much as 12 Years a Slave is about a guy tryin’ to get back home. Birdman is about love, obsession, art, fear, ego, husbands and wives, actors, fathers and daughters, self-centeredness, commerce, Hollywood, Broadway, critics and the role of art criticism, addiction, erectile dysfunction, poetry, tragedy, great acting, bad acting, and identity, just to name a few. It’s exhilarating and brilliant (at least until the last 20 minutes, which lose a bit of their mojo).
Director Alejandro Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) is hardly known for either light subjects or a light touch. But this film—pardon the pun—soars. Even while dealing with the most serious of subjects, Iñárritu and his phenomenal cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (director of photography for Gravity—Oscar winner—and such innovatively photographed films as The Tree of Life, Children of Men, and The New World). As Lubezki did in those films, the camera here sweeps and swoops and moves as freely as before sound came in. Some of his and Iñárritu’s takes go on and on, only gaining in energy as the move along. This is some of the most dazzling camerawork you’ll ever see, but since it’s all of a piece with what’s happening with the film, you may just get caught up in what’s going on (on every level) and forget that you’re witnessing some master camerawork.
Iñárritu stuffs the film to overflowing. The camerawork is enough for three or four films, and would be enough to make this film worthy of multiple viewings. The story takes us into all kinds of conversations (from sweet and touching to violent), fights, flights, meditations and a heaping helping of magic realism, just in case we might settle into anything while watching. It’s a potent mixture, and doesn’t always work. But even when it doesn’t quite, it’s still an amazing ride. The energy he builds in the first three quarters of the film is exhilarating, and if it can’t quite be sustained throughout the end, what comes before is borderline thrilling.
The heady brew mixed up here wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the acting, which should at least win every ensemble award available this year. Most of the kudos have been reserved for Michael Keaton, with all the meta references around his portrayal of a has-been whose “greatest” success was as a superhero with wings (think Batman, and “Where has he been these past few years?”). Putting all that aside, this is still a great, if somewhat overly showy performance. He’s asked to do everything, from being loving and apologetic dad to being angry dad, to being a worried-beyond-words producer/actor/director who’s put all his eggs in one theatrical basket, to a stage actor, to a frustrated director butting heads with a talented but entitled and obscenely irritating theater star.
Keaton demonstrates perhaps the widest range of acting skills of anyone working in film this year, and pretty much nails everything. Hollywood and America love a successful comeback, and while some point to Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Theory of Everything as the lock to win the Oscar, I hope Redmayne doesn’t count on it. Keaton is greatly loved, and this is a great comeback performance that’s layered, intelligent, and wildly emotional. Even without the backstory that so closely reflects Keaton’s real life, this is the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat performance of the year, and all the more awards-attractive because it’s not obvious Oscar bait.
But Keaton is hardly alone here. Edward Norton is brilliant as the walking and talking ego of a theater actor. He’s insufferable, talented, and as difficult as anyone could ever imagine an actor might be. Like Keaton, he gets to demonstrate a wide range of voices, emotions and shades, and does them all well. In case we forgot that he was once one of our greatest young actors, this performance should remind us.
Naomi Watts plays an insecure actress of talent, if not brilliance. It’s a joy to watch the two different styles she brings to her character in the film, and then the character she plays on stage. Like some actors can be…at times…she is anxious and vulnerable at times, and finds her voice at other times. Again, this is a good reminder of what a talented actress she is. Less well known but equally as good is Andrea Riseborough as another stage actress (this one in a relationship with Keaton’s character). Perhaps best known for Oblivion, she is an actress you know you’ve seen before, but just can’t place. This film should take care of that. Hers is a quieter performance, but she brings a welcome calming influence to the swirl of activity, and helps center the film every moment she’s on screen.
Zach Galifianakis is apparently taking a cue from Jonah Hill and finding something of a new identity as a supporting, serious actor (think Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street). As with Hill, it’s a good move. Then there is Emma Stone, who is extending her range on film even farther than Galifianakis with her role as the cynical, drugged out daughter of Keaton’s character. She has established such an adorable persona that she can’t shake it even with this character, but her acting is pitch-perfect. Lastly, there is Amy Ryan, playing against what we might think of as her type as the ex-wife of Keaton’s character. She is smooth, witty, subdued and real. It’s a lovely performance.
Lest this all sound a bit much, this is a very funny film. Perhaps it’s due to my being a musical performer and surrounded by artists (including actors), but some of the lines and situations are as funny as anything out there this year in their recognition of the vicissitudes and emotional challenges of life in the performing arts. Even with all the sturm und drang and heavy dramatics, this is (occasionally) a laugh-out-loud film.
There are far too many topics in the film to adequately address here. Perhaps a doctoral thesis needs to be written to cover everything that Iñárritu has presented us with in Birdman It will take several viewings to come close to getting some idea of all that’s being investigated and commented on.
But I go back to the jazz and percussion that don’t just infuse the film, but are of a piece with it. Yes, Iñárritu shows us the drummers providing what we thought was non-diegetic accompaniment (or is it still?), but they are going far beyond adding sound or even accompanying the images; they are reflecting aurally what the film is doing in image, camera movement, editing, and yes, even the acting. That element alone is worthy of some serious study and makes Birdman something of a smaller, faster companion piece to Interstellar, which also combines sound and image in unusual ways.
The many pieces that make up Birdman will get their individual attention during this awards season. The separate parts may well be worthy of such awards (especially the cinematography), but it’s the mixing and colliding of all those parts that make this one of the most unusual and inventive creations of the year.