Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.
LA LA LAND
We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.
We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.
Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.
Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.
It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.
And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’
It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.
La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.
Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.
Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.
Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.
Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.
Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.
Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.
Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.
The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.
The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.
The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.
The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.
The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually. For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.
The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.
Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.
The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.
Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.
And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.
Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.
I was originally planning on saving my review for Star Trek Beyond for a summer movie summary on science fiction movies outside of superhero movies. That was not to be the case as most of the top sci-fi movies were superhero movies. Nevertheless Star Trek Beyond is a movie worth reviewing by itself.
For the third of four movies of the revamped Star Trek series, the writers and director Justin Lin had to deal with making a 2-hour movie that is a continuation of the series while leading to an ending setting up for the fourth and final movie, which currently has no set year of release right now. The trick is trying to make the right choices of what to include, whether it be pieces from the original television series of the 60’s or of movies of the past, and create the right third-movie.
One thing about this installment is that the focus is more about exploring new worlds which is what Star Trek is all about. However it’s also about friction as smaller ships ambush and wreck the USS Enterprise. Even the threat of an intergalactic race in another galaxy under a tyrannous villain adds to the drama this time. This is a case of a fresh story for the Star Trek franchise while trying to maintain the same spirit of the whole Star Trek series.
I mentioned back in my review of superhero movies that despite the action scenes, morals and values are essential for a superhero movie. Morals and values are also essential for a movie like Star Trek as well. The Starship voyage continues in its quest to discover new intergalactic worlds and develop ties between the life forms. The value of doing what’s right is present in this Star Trek movie as Kirk is about to go on a rescue mission that might endanger his life. He responds by saying; “I would rather die saving lives than live knowing that I took them.”
The movie sometimes seems like it wants to be a sweet farewell to Leonard Nimoy. It’s evident in the story as Spock receives news that Lieutenant Spock has died. Reminders pop up in the story line as Spock plans to leave the Starship to carry on the Lieutenant’s duties and even a sentimental scene near the end. I don’t think it did any wrong moves in doing so. Memorializing an actor, especially if they had such a memorable role in their lifetime, is never an easy thing. There are some times in retrospect I felt there were some wrong moves in memorializing Paul Walker in Furious 7 like the farewell image of his character played by his look-alike brother. However I feel they did it right here, including the toast ‘to absent friends.’ Even at the end the movie is dedicated ‘In Loving Memory’ of Nimoy.
Unexpected was the death of Anton Yelchin who played Chekov in the three revamped Star Trek films. He was a gifted actor capable of doing an excellent job in each role he played. In Star Trek, he delivered a Chekov that was half the age of the original Chekov but made it work on screen. He even added some charming humor to the movie series with lines like “Nine-Five-Wictor-Wictor-Two” or “I can do zat! I can do zat!” Unfortunately he was killed an a car accident one month before the film’s premiere. He was 27. The film didn’t make any major last-minute changes in editing or storyline upon news of his death but he is memorialized after Nimoy’s dedication with ‘For Anton.’
New to directing the Star Trek series is Justin Lin. He’s best known as the director of four Fast And The Furious movies. With his first attempt at directing Star Trek, he does a very good job in maintaining the spirit of the Star Trek franchise along with delivering the right storyline and right action to the movie. For the record, J. J. Abrams is producer this time. The script written by Simon Pegg who plays Scotty and Doug Jung who’s past work is mostly writing for television is consistent with the story and the spirit of Star Trek despite it being short on the expected action. All the returning actors still maintain their respective characters well. One thing noticeable is Chekov has more of a presence and he doesn’t deliver so many humorous lines this time. Another new addition is Idris Elba doing an excellent convincing role as the villain Krall. Visual effects were still good even if they weren’t the most spectacular. Also the addition of the Beastie Boys song ‘Sabotage’ got me thinking again to how Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Martian has made it a must to include musical moments in such movies.
The big surprise is the lack of box office success that came with this film. The film currently has a North American gross of over $157 million and a total worldwide gross of over $333 million. Since it cost $180 million to make, it’s labeled a ‘flop,’ especially knowing the first two revamped Star Trek movies starting back in 2009 both made over $200 million. People are wondering why? The film has an approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes of over 80% and there was expected to be big fare since this year is the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise starting all the way back with the TV series. Some are saying Yelchin’s sudden death may have a lot to do with it, like it ‘spoiled the fun.’ It’s wrong to make such an accusation. Nobody saw his death coming. Not even Anton himself, if you’ve bothered to read the news about it. Some are saying the story lacks excitement. Possibly but it still has a lot of ingredients win crowds and Star Trek fans alike. Hard to say exactly. My assumption is that simply this is the third movie, not the first and not the last. Plus it faced competition from a wide variety of other movies this summer. I feel that the final movie can achieve more at the box office because it will be the final movie of a revamped film series that worked rather than flopped.
Star Trek Beyond may not be as action-packed as most of the other summer fare out right now or even past Star Trek films but it is a movie that delivers on the Star Trek franchise and stays true to its spirit. It even paves way to the fourth and final Star Trek movie to come.
On May 24, 1956 a song contest was started in Lugano, Switzerland that would eventually become a major entertainment event in Europe and even attract major interest around the world over the years. It was called the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix back then. Now the Eurovision Song Contest heads into 60 years of showcasing music and song and is bigger than ever.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the brainchild of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a union of all the national broadcast associations from around Europe. It was in the early 1950’s. Europe was a divided war-torn continent struggling to rebuild itself and struggling to heal international relations that had only worsened due to the fighting of World War II that had ended in 1945.
In 1951, the Italian city of Sanremo started a music festival to help revitalize the city’s economy and the image of the city of Sanremo. The festival which was titled Festival della Canzone Italiana, or the Italian Song Festival, was held in January that year in the Sanremo Casino and was a hit.
The contest attracted the attention of the EBU and it inspired them of their own idea. They hoped for this Contest to unite the European nations through art and song. At a meeting of the EBU broadcasters in Monaco in 1955, the idea of a pan-European music festival was brought to the table. The Sanremo festival and its format served as the base for how this contest would be held. The following year on May 24, 1956, the first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held.
THE FIRST CONTEST
The very first Eurovision Song Contest was held at the Teatro Kursall in Lugano, Switzerland. The contest was only one hour and forty minutes long. The contest was broadcast both on television and radio since most people didn’t yet own a television set. Only solo performers were allowed to perform and songs were not to exceed three and a half minutes in length. There were fourteen songs performed by a total of twelve acts from seven different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Austria, Denmark and the UK planned to perform but missed the submission deadline.
All participating countries fielded two songs performed with only Luxembourg and Switzerland having the same singer sing both songs. An orchestra for the whole contest was fielded but each country would have their own conductor conducting. Voting was done by two jury members from each participating country in secret ballot. In the end, 32 year-old Swiss singer Lys Assia won the contest for her song ‘Refrain.’ Along with her prizes, Lys was to perform her winning song at the end of the contest.
The first Contest was however marred by controversy. First, the fact the winner was decided by secret ballot. Second was the fact that the two members of Luxembourg’s jury who were to vote didn’t make it to Lugano. Both members of the Swiss jury were allowed to give a second vote. In fact no one knows what the official results of the contest are to this day. The EBU knew they had to make changes for the next contest if it were to continue.
THE SECOND CONTEST SETS THE STAGE
As I mentioned, the Contest had to iron out some things if it wanted to go further. One thing that wasn’t ironed out back then was the host nation. It was planned in the future that each competing nation would have their chance at hosting. However the increasing number of countries would make that concept an impossibility. Germany who finished second at last year’s contest was allowed to host the 1957 contest in Frankfurt.
This time there were ten nations competing with all seven nations from the previous year returning and Austria, UK and Denmark meeting the deadline this time. As in the previous year, there was an orchestra which was to be conducted by a conductor from each country. This time there was to be only one performance per country. There was no time limit of songs and the contest was open to duets. Denmark would field the first-ever duet in the Contest’s history.
In response to the voting controversy from the previous year, this year would start a judging format that would still exist to this day. This time the juries stayed in their home country and watched the competition from television and they were not allowed to vote for their own country. One voting aspect for this Contest and the four following was the juries were all given a total of ten points to divide among the performers whom they felt worthy. Only two performers from last year’s contest–the Netherlands’ Corry Brokken and last year’s winner Lys Assia– returned. Brokken won the contest but the big news was of the kiss of the Danish duo who performed: it lasted 13 seconds.
However it’s not to say this contest experienced issues. There was the issue of the time length of the songs. The Italian song was 5:09 minutes in length and the UK entry wasn’t even two minutes. Further Eurovision contests would permit for a song of a maximum length of three minutes.
THE CONTEST GROWS OVER TIME
In 1958, the contest was held in Hilversum, Netherlands. This would be a Eurovision tradition as the nation of the Contest winner would host the following year’s contest: a tradition rarely broken. Lys Assia and Corry Brokken were back. For the record, past champions are allowed to perform again and there’s no limit to how many Eurovisions they can participate. The contest was won by a French singer but it was the song that finished third– Domenico Modugno’s Volare— that would win the world over. Already the first hit generated from the Contest.
The contest would grow over the next ten years from ten countries in 1958 to eighteen in 1966. Yugoslavia debuted in 1961 and would become the only nation of the former Eastern Bloc to participate in the Contest during the years of the Cold War. The Contest was known for being out of tune with the common tastes of the record-buying public. While the times were embracing rock ‘n roll and Beatlemania, most songs in the Contest were in fact big band-style songs and the winners up to 1964 were all ballads. The first non-ballad to win was Luxembourg performer France Gall’s ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’ which sounded like the popular go-go music of the 1960’s. However there would be a major problem in 1969 when four songs shared the top score and thus four winners were declared. Five countries boycotted the following year and the EBU knew it had to revamp the scoring process in time for the 1970 Contest.
1971 allowed for groups up to six to perform.1973 saw the first non-European country to enter performers: Israel. It would not be the last but it would be the most consistent, appearing a total of 41 times and winning three times. 1974 saw the performance of ABBA and ‘Waterloo’ which would launch the band into stardom and would even considered by most to be the best Eurovision Song Contest ever. 1975 would see the one-to-twelve points scoring system that would stick ever since. Before the 1976 contest, there would be protests in Sweden over how commercial the contest became. Sweden withdrew that year as a result.
1980 would see Morocco enter for the first and only time. Over the years the Contest would grow in terms of nations being broadcast to although participating nations were the only ones allows to field juries for voting. The Contest would also see more numbers include dancing in their performances as dance had a key factor in the UK’s Bucks Fizz winning in 1981 for ‘Making You Mind Up.’ Also from that winning performance was the rip of the female singers’ skirts to reveal a miniskirt. That would lead to more onstage gimmicks and more sexually provocative performances over time. The Contest would even introduce the world to a Canadian diva competing for Switzerland in 1998 by the name of Celine Dion and even won with the song ‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.’ The 80’s would also see the Contest’s first and only two-time winner with Ireland’s Johnny Logan: in 1980 with ‘What’s Another Year’ and in 1987 with ‘Hold Me Now.’
1990 would pave the way for the post-Cold war era of Europe and would also change the ESC as a result. 1990 was known for featuring a lot of politically-focused songs with the fall of Communism being a top song topic. The winner was ‘Insieme:1992,’ an Italian song about the upcoming European Union. The changes of Europe were first evident in 1993 when three nations of the former Yugoslavia entered the contest for the first time. However they would be the three winners of a pre-qualifying round of seven ‘newcoming’ nations to the ESC: all former members of the Eastern Bloc. That was another difficulty for the contest: dealing with new nations who wanted to participate. 1994 saw the seven lowest-placing countries from 1993 not invited the following year and allowing for seven debuting countries all from the former Eastern Bloc. 1996 tried to solve things by having an audio-only pre-qualifying contest to reduce the 29 submissions to a manageable 23 performers.
1997 saw the introduction of televoting but only five of the 25 participating countries used televoting to decide the winners. The number would grow to 22 out of 25 in 1998. 1998 would also have the first ever transsexual, Israel’s Dana International, to perform. She even won with her song ‘Diva.’ 1999 would see the departure of the orchestra and the arrival of pre-recorded music. However pre-recorded vocals were not allowed and are still not allowed.
The maximum number of countries was always a frustration with the EBU. Due to the break-up of the USSR, the fall of the iron curtain and Yugoslavia’s republics going their separate ways, more nations wanted to compete at the contest and that would lead the EBU to make rules to put a limit on having a manageable number of countries performing on the night. That would be seen unfair in many people’s eyes. Then 2004 saw the debut of a Semi-Final for the Contest. 2008 would see the current format of two semi-finals and a Grant Final for the Contest. 2015 would feature the debut of the first non-European invitee since Morocco in 1980: Australia.
This year the contest will have 42 competing nations including Australia returning. The contest will be held in the Globe Theatre of Stockholm, Sweden; host country of last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow who won for ‘Heroes.’ 42 countries will perform. There were to be 43 but Romania was disallowed because of unpaid debts owing to the EBU. 36 of the countries will compete in the semi-finals. The host nation and the Big Five countries (UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany) are to bypass the semis as they qualify for the final. However they are to perform in the semis as a ‘dress rehearsal’ and they are allowed to vote on the other semi finalists who are contending for Finals berths.
RULES, RULES, RULES
It never fails. When you have a performance contest, you have rules that go along with it. Here’s a brief guide to some of the rules of the Contest. And I’ll try to make it brief.
When the contest started, a performer could sing in whatever language they wanted. In 1966, it was declared performers can only perform in their native language. The restriction was lifted in 1973 but returned for 1977 as songs sung in English from Austria and Finland at the 1976 Contest delivered sexually-suggestive lyrics. The restriction was kept intact from 1977 to 1998. However regional dialects and even rare languages native to the country–like Switzerland’s 1989 entry which was sung in Romansh– were permitted. 1999 saw a return to singing in whatever language the performer chooses to perform. There have even been entries in past Contests which consisted completely of imaginary languages.
Since 1999, all but one winner have been sung either partially or completely in English. It’s very common for a performer to sing their song in the national song contest in the native language but sing their song in English at the Eurovision Contest. Thirty-nine of the 42 songs in the Contest this year will either be partially or completely sung in English. Only three songs will be sung completely in another language and an additional three songs will mix English lyrics with lyrics of another language. The one song with a regional language is Ukraine as Jamala’s ‘1944’ will be sung both in English and Crimean Tatar.
It’s pretty obvious most of the performers at the ESC are citizens of the country they represent. However it’s not set in stone. There have been many times certain countries would field a singer or songwriters from other countries. The best example is Luxembourg. In its 37 appearances from 1956 to 1993, only four singers were actual citizens of Luxembourg. In fact all five singers who won the ESC for Luxembourg were in fact citizens of other countries: four from France and one from Greece. And Monaco’s winning entry from 1971 consisted of the lead singer, backup singers, songwriter and conductor all French citizens. In fact lead singer Severine only ever set foot in Monaco only once just weeks before the Contest when she performed her song live before Prince Ranier.
It’s still happening in modern times. There have been three times when a Canadian singer sang for Switzerland including a then-20 year-old Celine Dion back in 1988. Azerbaijan always fields singers that are citizens of their country but hires Swedish songwriters to write winning songs. Ir’s paid off as Azerbaijan has had five Top 5 finishes including a win in 2011.
Although this is a European Contest, there have been countries outside of Europe who have participated. Israel is the most notable with 38 appearances and even winning three times. Morocco participated only once in 1980. Australia was invited last year and they were invited again this year.
Ever hear the saying “Never work with animals or children?” I’ve never known of a Eurovision act with a live animal involved but I’ve learned about children. There have been times when children performed as backup singers or even as a performer and the EBU didn’t have a problem with that. However the problem first started when 13 year-old Belgian singer Sandra Kim won the contest with ‘J’aime la Vie.’ The problem was she passed herself off as fifteen in the song. But it would be the 1989 Contest that would cause chagrin among the EBU as France’s entry was an 11 year-old girl and Israel’s entered duo consisted of a 12 year-old boy. The EBU made a rule for the following year that performers on stage must be 16 years of age in the Eurovision year, including dancers and backup singers. Performers under 16 would have to wait until 2003 for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to begin to have their day in the sun.
There’s no specific guidelines for what topics the songs should be about. For those who’ve seen the contest, anything seems to go. There have been topics that are universal like love and peace, topics that are regional like war or triumph among past genocide, topics that are sexual in nature, topics that are political, topics that are humorous and even topics that are either ridiculous or sent in an eccentric manner. Anything goes, almost. The only time I’ve heard of a song disqualified for its content was back in 2009 when Georgia entered ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In.’ Many felt it referenced Russia’s Vladimir Putin especially since Georgia was part of the victorious Orange Revolution years earlier. The fact that the ESC was being held in Moscow that year made things that more complicated. There was one case in 2012 when the act for San Marino was to perform ‘The Facebook Song’ but couldn’t because it interfered with the Contest’s product placement rules. The song would be retitled ‘The Social Network Song.’
The Performance and Performers In A Nutshell:
There are some unbasic rules when it comes to submitting a country’s performer and/or performance. Some countries hold their own national song contest to determine the national entrant for the ESC that year and some have a board that picks the performer and the song. Most likely they are a citizen of the country but they don’t have to be. Past performers are allowed to return again, even if they’re a past winner, but Johnny Logan the only two-time winner as a performer.
Then there are the basic rules. The song must be no longer than three minutes in length. The limit of on-stage performers varies over the years but the current limit is six performers on stage at once, including dancers. Up until 1999, the song was to be orchestrated even if musicians were added along. Live music, even by artists performing on stage, has been banned since 2004. Vocals are all to be done live with no lip-syncing. The biggest thing however is that the song is to be completely original. No cover songs are allowed and no sampling of other records are allowed either, not even in rap entries. Recorded versions of the song are allowed to be released before the Contest or even the national contest but a release before September 1st of the year before the Contest would disqualify them. These eligibility rules have led to a number of entries in the past being disqualified.
Voting The Winner:
As the rules of the Contest are ever changing, so are the rules in declaring the winner. Starting with the topic of who decides the winner, the secret-ballot from the first Contest caused friction. Then from 1957 to 1962, it was ten member juries who viewed the Contest from their home country and called in their results. 1963 brought it to a twenty-member jury but was reduced back to ten from 1964 to 1970. Then from 1971 to 1973, there were juries of only two that were present at the actual contest to give points to the winners. In 1974, the format returned to juries staying at home to decide and call in the results. The number of jury members started at 11 but eventually rose to sixteen.
In 1996, it was noted how out of sync the ESC juries were with the record-buying public in terms of deciding winners. In 1997, televoting where viewers called in their favorites was introduced but used as an experiment given to five of the 25 countries at the Contest that year. In 1998, it was expanded to all countries except those that had weak telephone systems. 2001 and 2002 allowed the country’s respective broadcasting association to decide between televoting or a jury decision. The Contests from 2004 and 2008 were exclusively televoting. From 2009 to 2015, televoting and jury results were combined into a single score per country with the televoting result taking precedence if there was a tie. In 2015, it was the juries that took precedence.
Deciding the winners is harder to explain than the points system for the songs. From 1957 to 1961, juries were given a total of 10 points to divide among the performances they liked best. In 1962, juries gave 1 point for 3rd place, 2 for second or 3 for 1st. From 1964 to 1966, it was a point for 3rd, three points for 2nd and five points for third. 1967 marked the return of 10 points to divide however 1970 saw an introduction of tie-breaking rules after the four-way tie in 1969 which led to many countries respond by boycotting. From 1971 to 1973, the juries gave anywhere from 2 to 10 points per song. 1974 was a return to 10 points to divide.
However it was the 1975 Contest that would introduce a scoring format that has stuck since. Each country would rank their Top 10 but of course would not vote for their own country. The country they rank 10th would get one point, 9th would get two points, and so on until 8 points for 3rd place. The country they ranked second would be awarded 10 points and the country they ranked #1 would get 12 points. Since then, twelve points or douze points would be synonymous with Eurovision.
For This Year:
This year’s Contest will be held in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. They were awarded the Contest upon the win of Mans Zelmerlow for his song ‘Heroes.’ In a rare turn of events, Zelmerlow will co-host the Contest with Petra Mede. Not that often the reigning champion co-hosts. It seems right that Sweden hosts as they have one of the biggest Eurovision legacies with a total of six wins. Only Ireland has won more with seven.
The Contest will be broadcast to 50 countries and can be viewed on LiveStream through the website eurovision.tv. The USA will have live broadcast of the final for the first time ever: on Cable channel Logo-TV. Draws were held months ago to decide who competes in the two semi-finals. The officials allocated the draw for geographical means to keep ‘neighbor voting,’ which I will reflect on later, down to a minimum. Most countries will have citizens of their own country as performers but Switzerland will again have a Canadian as a performer: Vancouverite Rykka with ‘The Last Of Our Kind.’ Romania wasn’t the only country to experience friction before this year’s Contest. Germany had to replace its entry because it soon came to light their originally entered performer had been vocal in the past of extreme right-wing views.
There’s the interval acts too: performances taking place while viewers place their televotes. Zelmerlow will perform his winning song from last year ‘Heroes’ during the interval of the first Semifinal held on Tuesday the 10th, the interval act for the second Semi on Thursday will be a dance ensemble and the interval act for Saturday’s Final will be Justin Timberlake performing ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from the movie Trolls. Interesting note is Timberlake co-wrote and co-produced the song with two Swedish songwriters: Shellback and Max Martin.
Also something new for this year’s Contest. You know how there’s always confusion with the 50/50 system of televoting and jury voting on which overrides in the case of ties. Well, introduces for the first time this year countries will deliver two sets of scores. Now both televoting and juries from each country will give their own separate one to twelve points. This should take away from the confusion and make the contest more even.
I’ll admit I like seeing the Contest. I was lucky to see it live on LiveStream in 2013 and 2014. I live in Canada and none of the networks will be showing the contest live. I will be too busy to watch any of the Contest live thanks to my work schedule and music rehearsal.
I can understand of the Contest’s greatness. It’s the world’s most watched non-sporting event with a wide array of performers of various countries performing their song to win over the rest of Europe. It’s excellent that it helped launch the careers of Celine Dion, ABBA, Bucks Fizz and Ruslana as well as a stepping stone for Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri. It’s also been the stage for established acts like Toto Cutogno, Cliff Richard, Lulu and Engelbert Humperdinck. It has also unleashed some classic songs like ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son,’ ‘Waterloo,’ ‘Making Your Mind Up,’ ‘Volare,’ ‘Love Is Blue (l’Amour Est Bleu),’ ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me,’ and ‘Euphoria.’
However I won’t deny the drawbacks of the Contest. I will admit there are some idiotic performances that rely too much on getting their gimmick to propel them to the win. In fact I hope I don’t sound bigoted but I strongly believe the wins of Israel’s Dana International in 1998 and Austria’s Conchita Wurst in 2014 were because of the hype of both being transgender. I’ll admit there are some songs and performances too eccentric to be real. I will also admit that often the winners are out of sync with the current trends in music. Even with the inclusion of televoting starting in 1997, the winning songs still don’t sound that current. I can even remember while teenpop ruled the late 90’s, early-2000’s worldwide and even in Europe, 1999’s winner was a schlager song from Sweden , 2000’s was a folksy rock song from Denmark and 2001’s was a calypso number from Estonia. Speaking of televoting, I will admit that even though countries can’t vote for their own performers, that hasn’t stopped them from giving top votes to performers from neighboring countries. Yeah, ‘neighbor voting’ has definitely been an issue with the Contest lately and has even questioned the credibility of televoting. I will admit there have been times I felt the song that came in second place was often better than the winning song. I will admit the Contest can propel the winning song to hit status internationally but not always. I will also admit that sometimes the Contest can end up being the peak of a performer’s career in most cases. I really learned a lot from the 2013 BBC show ‘How To Win Eurovision’ that was a show that showed all the idiocy that happens with the ESC but still showed why it was still important for the UK to get back on top. For the record, the UK’s fifth and last win was in 1997, their 23rd and last Top 3 finish was in 2002 and had all three of their last-place finishes in this 21st century. Yes, their legacy of five wins and 15 second-places is definitely a thing of the past.
I will admit to the negative but I still believe it is an enjoyable show to see. I won’t deny some acts try to gimmick their way to the win. However there have been many times even in the era of televoting that the less-gimmicky songs like 2007’s ‘Molitva’ and 2010’s ‘Satellite’ have gone on to win. Even 2012’s ‘Euphoria,’ which some people compare to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium,’ could not only win but burn up the dance floors worldwide too. I myself welcome gimmicks but only as long as they’re not stupid, not too weird and not too distracting from the song itself or could even boost the song. Hey, 2006’s winner ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ had a gimmick that made the song. I still like seeing it on YouTube. Basically the Contest was to focus on the song. More often than not, it is the song that rises to the top. Even last year’s winner ‘Heroes’ was a song with a good message with a stage performance from Zelmerlow with an interactive backdrop that worked with his movements and help make for a stage show that helped him win. Actually the Contest is less eccentric than it was seven years ago. I guess those no-nonsense songs that won are sending a message.
The Eurovision Song Contest was originally created in 1956 to bridge gaps in Europe that was healing after World War II. 60 years later, Europe is more unified and there’s less international animosity than ever. I don’t know if the Contest actually achieved all that in its 60 years but it does make for one entertaining show!