Surprisingly, the key to understanding the ambitious rock opera, "Annette," might be found in a documentary that came out earlier this year. That doc, "The Sparks Brothers," was about the 80s rock band Sparks, made up of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, whose quirky lyrics, music videos and rhythms led them to becoming one of the most influential bands of that decade, despite having never existed in the mainstream.
To call them and their music "eccentric" doesn't quite describe it. But their documentary is a good primer to trying to understand "Annette" - music and script by the Mael brothers - which is a film that by-and-large will not connect with most common movie-goers, and is even so bonkers and "out there" that it hasn't even been a sure-thing with critics either (as of this writing, it's clinging to a "Fresh" score of 70% on RottenTomatoes).
If you've seen "The Sparks Brothers," it may help get you close to the wavelength in which "Annette" exists, but even then, it's an over-long, showy and mostly hollow musical, kept interesting in spite of the Maels, not because of them. That's because one of the finest actors of his generation, Adam Driver, delivers one of the most boldly dedicated performances of his career, giving us an anchor of emotion in a sea of lunacy.
Featuring on-the-nose songs that feel like classic Sparks (the film starts with a song called "May We Start" and later when two characters are in love, they repeat the lyrics, "We Love Each Other So Much"), "Annette" is a story about fame, family and existing in the public eye. Henry McHenry (Driver) is a stand-up comedian who falls in love with opera singer, Ann (Marion Cotillard). But she is not the "Annette" of the title, no, that name belongs to their eventual offspring, played by a puppet. Yes, you read that right.
If that isn't bizarre enough, the film is directed by gonzo director Leos Carax ("Holy Motors") whose directing-style is a perfect match for the Maels' sensibilities. Henry is a bold and aggressive stage presence, in perfect opposition to Ann's calm and empathetic style. Has Henry killed his wife, or just any hope of them being together? When the puppet is of age, she has a stunning vocal gift, sounding just like her mother. He takes her on the road where she touches super-stardom.
The lyrics and songs in "Annette" are catchy and hypnotic at first, but they fall flatter the closer the movie swerves into melodrama, which isn't that far after the opening sequence begins. Driver though, is an absolute force of nature...in a lesser actor's hands, one might not find a story about a singing puppet written by the Mael brothers to be all that believable.
OK...even Driver can't make the movie work, but he does make it...interesting. Fitting, that this is the same description giving to much of the Mael brothers' body of work over the years. You might end up respecting it, but there is no way in hell you will walk away saying that you liked it.
Genre: Musical, Drama, Romance.
Run Time: 2 hours 19 minutes.
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Angéle, Anais Dahl, Rebecca Dyson-Smith.
Written by Ron and Russell Mael.
Directed by Leos Carax ("Holy Motors," "Pola X," "The Lovers on the Bridge," "Bad Blood," "Boy Meets Girl").
"Annette" is in theaters on Friday, August 13th, 2021 (Detroit) and on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 20th, 2021.
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