SIFF Double Feature – Shut Up and Play the Piano and What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

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Shut Up and Play the Piano: Directed by Philipp Jedicke, Shut Up and Play the Piano documents the rise (and rise) of Canadian musician and producer Chilly Gonzales (aka Jason Charles Beck.) He hasn’t really reached high enough to have a fall, and perhaps never will. He’s in a position to do what he wants without endless artistic compromise, and that may be a lot more satisfying than name recognition. Or maybe it’s not and world ear domination is what he’s really after. It’s hard to know what lives in the hearts of talented attention-seeking megalomaniacs. Beck started early with music, played in bands with his brother, found success with the Canadian alternative (I don’t really know what that means, but it’s what Wikipedia and the SIFF movie description call it) rock band Son, got into electronic rap, went to Berlin with Peaches, declared himself king of the underground, returned to his classical roots, made a piano record that people liked, and then did a lot of other things that he seemed to enjoy with people like Feist, Daft Punk, and Jarvis Cocker.

To be perfectly honest, I do not like anything that seems like antics or performance art. Antics make me anxious and performance art is generally boring. (I went to art school and made boring performance art. I know of what I speak.) The Chilly Gonzales character is FULL of antics and performance art, and this movie somehow made me enjoy the anxiety and boredom, which is a freaking Christmas miracle. Jason Beck himself is a smart and interesting person who works REALLY hard, and it is easy to engage with him in a nonstressful way. (It’s entirely possible that persona is yet another carefully crafted character, but I’m cool with it.) When Gonzales is performing, he is mesmerizing; it’s when he becomes a hype machine that he is annoying to me. But the film manages to balance all three personalities to create a very interesting story.

There is one thing I really felt was missing though. Beck built a large part of his career on rap music, but this film is super white. Not only in who appears on screen, but also in the discussion of his influences. He gives homage to his classical music antecedents but fails to do so to the black people who invented the genre to which he is partially indebted to for his career. Appropriation is an integral part of art (there is a large argument around this issue I am not going to get into), and I have no problem with white people rapping as long as they do something interesting AND they acknowledge the culture from which they are lifting. There’s none of that here, and it’s a shame. It’s still a really good movie, but I would have been interested to learn more about how he chose to integrate rap into his music and who he liked listening to.

Shut Up and Play the Piano plays at the SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 28th.

Final Grade: A-

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What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael: Well, of course I am going to review Rob Garver’s documentary about film writer Pauline Kael! I write about movies because I am in love with the art form. Kael wrote about them because she was born to do so. After failing as a playwright – her work just wasn’t any good – she eventually found her calling as movie critic, becoming one of the most influential voices in print and radio. Never one to shy away from controversy, she loathed The Sound of Music, championed Martin Scorsese’s and Robert Altman’s early work, and turned Bonnie and Clyde from a critical failure into an American classic. She was acerbic,  funny, and never one to pull her punches. Filmmakers loved and hated her in equal measure because she would build them up in one review, only to tear them down in the next if she felt their new work didn’t spark her excitement.  

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is primarily about Kael’s work life, which is kinda hard to do considering she was a writer. Garver solves that problem by using archival interviews intermixed with excerpts of Kael’s reviews being read by Sarah Jessica Parker over clips of the films being discussed. There are various famous talking heads discussing her personality and influence, and all-in-all it is an enjoyable – if not particularly deep – look at an iconic American figure. It’s a shame though, that we don’t get a real sense of her as a person. It seems like there is a story of a life fully-led that is alluded to but never really shown. I don’t need a gossip-laden hit job, but a little more personality might have helped to a lot to liven this doc up a bit. (I also didn’t really need archival footage of Woody Allen talking about Kael. Who gives a shit.) But this was certainly a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes and I immediately went out and bought a book of hers I hadn’t yet read.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael plays at AMC Pacific Place on May 26 and SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 29.

Final Grade: B+


Adelaide enjoys watching all kinds of movies, but is never going to see Titanic unless there is a sizable amount of money involved.

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