Cinema Chat: 2016 Year In Review

Dec 29, 2016

Michigan Theater Lobby
Credit Wikipedia Media Commons / wikipedia.org

2016 is coming to a close, so let's look back at the best that the world of cinema presented this past year.  In this week's "Cinema Chat," WEMU's David Fair talks to Michigan Theater executive director Russ Collins about the movie business and all the films that have made an positive impact in 2016.


Benj Pasek and Justin Paul--21st Century Musical and Movie Musical Heroes

Products of the GREAT U of M Musical Theater programs whose director Brent Wagner retired in 2016

“La La Land,” the hit modern movie musical, is playing in the grand auditorium of the Michigan Theater.  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, University of Michigan graduates, snagged a Golden Globe nomination (shared with composer Justin Hurwitz) for "City of Stars," the melancholy ballad sung by Ryan Gosling in the film.  Their acclaimed Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” opened three weeks ago in New York.  The close timing of "Dear Evan Hansen" and "La La Land" wasn't planned.  Their writing for the "La La Land" project began a couple of years ago.  They were chosen for the job by composer Justin Hurwitz and the film's director and writer Damien Chazelle, who were college friends at Harvard.  "All four of us were all 31 years old, so we have really similar sensibilities.  We are all sort of musical theater nerds together, have similar influences. We felt really, really lucky we got to work on it with them.

Pasek and Paul started writing together at U-M:  Pasek, who's from Pennsylvania, and Paul, who grew up in Connecticut, can't say enough good things about the venerable U-M Musical Theatre Department, which they credit with being a big influence on their craft.  Says Pasek, "We feel like we went to the Hogwarts Academy of Musical Theater, a very magical place.”  Paul says the U-M program is known for combining the specialized training of a music conservatory with the experience of a big college. "The kind of values that they instill in that program are ones that really shaped who we are and what we care about, and we feel incredibly lucky to have been there," he says.

They've pretty much been writing songs together since they were freshmen.  And they have countless fond memories of the professors and students they encountered — plus, like all grads, the restaurant hangouts that fueled their creativity, including "the Jimmy John's just down the street from Justin’s apartment on Ann that kept us fed for many years," says Pasek.  "Angelo's!” continues Paul.  "Is Café Zola still there?" asks Pasek (and, yes, it is).  "The Pizza House was always the post-show, post-rehearsal gathering spot," says Paul. As students, obviously, they were well-read and well-fed.

They had a grassroots hit as undergrads with a musical called "Edges."  Although both were originally interested in acting, their path in composing and writing was cemented by a song cycle called "Edges" that they staged as sophomores at Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House.  It was performed by their friends and contained songs about contemporary life, like the ensemble number "Facebook."  Pasek and Paul wound up making a CD of the songs from "Edges" and organizing a small tour to cities on the East Coast, thanks to the positive reaction they received through word of mouth and social media.  In the years since then, "Edges" has been produced many times in the U.S. and Canada and overseas.

Says Paul, "So many of us started as actors and then discovered that (creating) theater was really what we loved.”  Adds Pasek, "We feel like the (U-M musical theater) program doesn’t just make actors, but really allows for an environment for people who are pursuing all kinds of musical theater passions and (they) can find their voices and their place in the world.”  They've gotten much support from the Broadway Maize and Blue community: When Pasek and Paul moved to New York City after graduation, one of their early mentors was another U-M alum, Jeff Marx, the co-creator of the hit show "Avenue Q."

Marx is just one of many U-M grads thriving on Broadway who've helped and encouraged the creative duo. In fact, Pasek and Paul say they've found a Broadway community of U-M alumni to rival the so-called Michigan Mafia on the West Coast, consisting of actors, writers and director in Hollywood's film and TV industry.  To give you an idea of its size, they point to the "Maize and Blue on Broadway" night held this spring at Manhattan's August Wilson Theatre to honor the U-M Musical Theatre Department and also mark the retirement of its longtime chair, Brent Wagner.  "That was a full Broadway theater rented out and used to perform a concert in celebration of him and the program. It was full of hundreds and hundreds of graduates," says Paul.

Films Playing at the Michigan Theater

"La La Land"

Written and directed by Academy Award (R) nominee Damien Chazelle, this film tells the story of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts.  Set in modern day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

"Manchester by the Sea"

After the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee (Casey Affleck) is shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised.  “Manchester by the Sea” is nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. 

"Jackie"

This is a searing and intimate portrait of one of the most important and tragic moments in American history, seen through the eyes of the iconic First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Natalie Portman).  The film places us in her world during the days immediately following her husband's assassination.  Known for her extraordinary dignity and poise, here we see a psychological portrait of the First Lady as she struggles to maintain her husband's legacy and the world of "Camelot" that they created and loved so well.  Also starring Peter SarsgaardGreta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu