If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Written by Taylor Baker

70/100

Halsey’s 4th studio album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power first came to life for audiences in IMAX Theaters on Wednesday August 25th as the backing score for a 53 minute feature film by the same name. Directed by Colin Tilley, Halsey (the actress) uses her magnetism in conjunction with garish (in a good way) and gaudy costuming to weave a nameless tale. If you played the If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power Mobile Game as I did briefly you may already have an inkling of the dark direction the film reaches by the end. Which implies more meaning than it actually delivers on. As do the immaculately executed bits of face-painting and make up that adorn Halsey’s mug throughout the film. Which add a level theatrically that goes a long way to compensate for its shortcomings.

One can’t help but wonder in the era of COVID, with restrictive travel and the difficulty that accompanies running public events, how the medium of a film companion to an album may pay off. Both to the artists and the record label. The gains and losses that come from replacing a live concert with a film through which a communal experience can be had with an artist are numerous, but a one night pre-recorded world tour probably costs the studio a lot less. Beyoncé notably used this medium to varying success with Beyoncé: Lemonade in 2016 and Black is King in 2020. Kacey Musgraves upcoming Star-Crossed indicates the experiment hasn’t been deemed a poor investment by the music industry just yet. It is worth noting that not a single one of these entries including If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power reach the heights that I Am Easy to Find from The National or Anima from Thom Yorke did with half the runtime of these features or less and quick and easy access through YouTube and Netflix respectively. That may indicate the deeper issue that faces these visual album companions, less is more when switching modes of expression, and if you stretch the runtime of the new mode without quality and meaning within it’s language, in this case the filmic language, regardless the quality of the album it can’t prop up or even save the film. For film sound is only one third of the equation. Whether this matters to the fans of a particular musician or group and thus the record labels profit margins remains to be seen.

In If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power deeper meanings are fumblingly forced on the viewer through aerial cuts to the castle indicating a deeper meaning, perhaps domesticity, perhaps foisted identity. Then again a forced deeper meaning of the woods, perhaps sanctuary, perhaps danger. The editing is jarring, as songs end so to do scenes in sharp cuts to entirely different locations. This isn’t a smooth, continuous, or engrossing soundscape. And I don’t intend to indicate that is what pieces like this need to be. But rather traits I’ve observed from some of the best I’ve seen from this vein so far. It failed to keep me enthralled within the film as we journeyed with Halsey from the event of the king, her husband’s death at the beginning to the birth of her child. We’re made to wonder at most of the film’s events both mortal and mythological. I can say, and with conviction, that the beauty that may be found within the amorphousness of her new album and it’s lyrics do not translate here. But that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting or dull to watch, just that it’s off, in a way that isn’t entirely surprising for a first time director or writer. For fans of Halsey or music film enthusiasts If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is an interesting attempt to translate an album to the visual medium worth engaging with, for most others I suspect you’ll be asking yourself, “What the f*** did I just watch?”

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power Trailer

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power premiered in IMAX on August 25th and has additional screenings planned through the end of the month.

You can follow more of Taylor’s work on Letterboxd and Rotten Tomatoes.

Val

Written by Alexander Reams

68/100

“I went from being the star of the play, to playing the character that was the butt of every joke,” a very begrudging Val Kilmer says as he discusses his first breakthrough at Julliard Acting School. This footage, like most of the documentary, is compiled of six decades of footage Kilmer has recorded throughout his life. After having his vocal medium all but stripped from him, he now turns to the visual medium to tell his story. With direction from Leo Scott and Ting Poo, and narration from Val’s son, Jack Kilmer, Val is telling a story once again. The story of his life. 

While the documentary tries to be an act of emotional catharsis for Val, it can be frustratingly vain. Only showing the work he’s put in, and not his own professional issues that gave him a certain reputation. A reputation that many forgot about when signing onto a movie with him because of his beauty. A beauty that may come once in a lifetime. One that propelled him to superstardom. Leading him to be in films that he himself has proclaimed “are hard to explain”, such is the case with the first film he discusses, Top Secret!

What the documentary does spectacularly is make you see a side of Kilmer that is not often shown, stripping away the beauty of him, to show his personal struggles and backstory to becoming the iconic actor we now know. The journey of which is best shown in the behind the scenes footage for Top Gun. Even admitting that he did not want to do the film. What Kilmer brought to the film changed the way the character was in its original inception. However, by Batman Forever Kilmer’s career, had seemingly outstayed its welcome. The danger that comes with films like Val is the film can cross the border of vanity into boorishness quickly.

By the end of the film, I no longer cared about Kilmer’s career, instead I wanted to see more of his personal life besides the surface level veneer we’re presented. Which still continues to frustrate me even as I write this after the film has ended. Despite all this, the portrait the film presents of its titular subject is fascinating, if not fully interesting. Ting Poo and Leo Scott did a great job of bringing this footage to life and showcasing a controversial, interesting, and vain life of a man who has lost his voice, and are helping him still tell stories, giving him a voice when he no longer has one.

Val Trailer

Val is currently in limited theatrical release and available to stream on Prime Video.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Respect

Written by Patrick Hao

45/100

Genre and tropes can be a beautiful thing. They become tropes because emotionally and story-wise they work like gangbusters. But Respect is so devoted to the tropes of the music biopic that it starts becoming incredulous. It’s hackneyed to compare a music biopic of this ilk to the masterful skewering of the genre, Walk Hard, but it’s kind of hard not to.

All the tropes are here, this time within the framework of “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin’s life and career. There’s the shameless cameos of real-life figures (“There’s your uncle Sam (Cooke). There’s your Uncle Duke (Ellington).”), the music montages, and the demons. The movie even has the gall to have a character say to Aretha, “Don’t let the demons get a hold of you.”

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin, a choice that Franklin herself supposedly made before her passing in 2018. The choice is obvious and safe but is sunk by the fact that Hudson doesn’t have the magnetic presence or charisma of Franklin herself – a plot point of Dreamgirls, the role that won Hudson an Oscar. Hudson is a terrific singer for sure, but it is rude of the movie to play in full Aretha Franklin’s performance at Carole King’s Kennedy Center Honors show during the end credits, spotlighting the disparity in charisma of the two performers.

Respect takes the traditional approach of a music biopic covering Franklin’s childhood to her great Amazing Grace concert in 1973. In between the film is buoyed by strong supporting performances such as Forest Whitaker as Franklin’s domineering father, Marlon Wayans (who continues to churn out strong supporting performances) as Franklin’s even more domineering husband, and Audra McDonald as Franklin’s troubled mother. The supporting cast chews scenery, allowing them to have fun in their performances. Wayans seems to relish in playing suave sexiness who can turn to the embodiment of toxic masculinity on a dime. Hudson plays Franklin with too much, for the lack of better word, respect, which stifles her performance.

The film jumps from event to event, eventually falling into a tiring pattern of trauma and music that becomes repetitive and exhausting. The film, itself, is too centered on how other people affect Franklin rather than on Franklin, which may be a comment on the culture of the time. But, for a film whose arc is predicated on Franklin gaining her own agency, it’s deflating to have two acts devoted to such just for the third act to see that as a problem in relation to alcoholism and trauma.  

Adapted for the screen by stage director Liesl Tommy, Respect serves as her directorial debut and is adequately directed though it lacks any sense of formal invention or verve. Musical performance scenes are shot well but do not have the energy or spontaneity of a real live performance. The sections that have the true inspiration is the music making aspect. The scene in which Franklin goes down to Alabama and develops I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You) with the Muscle Shoals band or how she modifies the Otis Redding version of Respect to her own defining version are the few moments this film actually comes alive because it’s the only moments in the film that portray Aretha as the genius that she was. Everything else just feels like dutiful recreation.

All the problems that Respect has do not necessarily make it a bad film. In fact, Respect is an incredibly average movie. The overall problems are related to the obedience to a genre checklist that is feeling more and more obsolete. Besides wanting a jukebox musical featuring Franklin’s songs, I’m hard pressed to figure out what makes her story any different than some of the music biopics out there. At least Respect never puts forward a compelling argument as to what that difference could be.

Frankly, musicians, even the great ones, are boring.

Respect Trailer

Respect is now in wide theatrical release.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.