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TV/Film Culture cheat sheet: David Byrne, Ruel, and more

Oct. 26, 2020
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Watch: Over the Moon (2020, dir. Glen Keane)

It’s inevitable to compare former Disney animator Glen Keane’s directorial debut to its Disney-Pixar predecessors, especially when some of its characters are reminiscent of Up’s Russell or Frozen’s Olaf. This doesn’t make the fact less unfortunate, however, as Over the Moon deserves to be recognized for its own merits. 

Based on the Chinese myth of Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon, and set during the Mid-Autumn Festival, the film boasts an all-Asian-American cast, with the likes of Hamilton’s Philippa Soo, John Cho, and Sandra Oh. In an actors’ roundtable, Cathy Ang, the voice of teenage protagonist Fei Fei, said she appreciated that they didn’t have to worry about “making sure you’re portraying Asian.” “The creative team is filled with Asian people who care about telling a true story,” she explained. “We’re just sharing ourselves.”

While having an Asian protagonist in such a mainstream animated film—Netflix Animation is one of its producers—is a feat on its own, there were moments in the film when it seemed like a mere amalgam of Chinese iconography; like a film rooted in cultural symbols that chose to water down the culture in fear of alienating the wider audience. (It had talking mooncakes on the moon.) 

That said, the film is beautifully crafted—both Fei Fei’s quaint home life and the fantastical, multicolored sceneries of the moon were stunning. The screenplay, while not as rich as one would hope, had a very nuanced take on grief. Fei Fei deals with grief the way you would expect a teenager to, something her Disney counterparts weren’t given the privilege of (death usually incited sudden maturity, like in Mulan). 

The same is done with Chang’e, the famed moon goddess said to be waiting for the resurrection of her lover Houyi. Because myths have always portrayed her as alone and melancholic, the reveal that she was actually a pop star with couture costumes designed by Guo Pei and dance numbers created by BLACKPINK choreographer Kyle Hanagami was a welcome surprise. While some outlets have observed that she doesn’t seem to be the same person from scene to scene, I personally believe this oscillation is part of her grief: she overcompensates, performing intricate song numbers in an arena full of talking mooncakes. She’s dealing with loss in her own way, just like Fei Fei, who built a rocket to the moon. There’s a sense of renewal in them finding each other, a renewal sure to be felt by other Asian kids who never quite saw their family dinners on screen. 

Over the Moon is streaming on Netflix.

Watch: David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020, dir. Spike Lee)

Talking Heads is one of those bands I knew I would love and should probably listen to, but I just never got around to it. When this concert/theater/movie experience, directed by Spike Lee no less, landed on HBO, I knew there was no escaping my conversion.

American Utopia is former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s seventh studio album, released last 2018. Last October it was reimagined as a stage performance, interjected with some Talking Heads favorites. When Byrne wasn’t singing along with his surprisingly mobile band (whose instruments weren’t bounded by wires but instead constantly carried), he spoke directly to the audience, thanking them for going out of their homes and encouraging them to vote. 

While I’d imagine this would be enjoyed more by someone who actually listens to Talking Heads, there’s no better way to be introduced to Byrne than this. Choreography by Annie-B Parson glues your eyes to the screen while Lee’s camera cultivates intimacy by zeroing in on the band. Through unconventional perspectives unseen by theater audiences—including bird’s-eye views that highlight just how magnificent the lightwork is—the direction expands and enriches the piece. 

Most chilling is the band’s cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” during which they urge audiences to say the names of Black people unjustly murdered by police. In conversation with Rolling Stone, Byrne described his allyship as a process of getting the “poison” out: “You can’t just will it to go away. It’s work. And it sometimes takes a long time. It can maybe take a whole lifetime.” (Outside music, Byrne oversees Reasons to be Cheerful, a website committed to telling stories about positive change.) American Utopia is both existential and hopeful, just what you would expect from a rockstar-turned-Mister-Rogers-type. After all, they closed the show by singing the chorus of “Road to Nowhere,” with everyone smiling and jumping in place.

David Byrne’s American Utopia is streaming on HBO.

Listen: Bright Lights, Red Eyes by Ruel

British-Australian singer and songwriter Ruel slides into dreamy indie territory in his latest EP Bright Lights, Red Eyes, a 15-minute happy-sad record on which the artist dabbles with his newfound fame. His big break came when he was just 15, when he won the award for Breakthrough Artist in the ARIA Music Awards for his more radio-ready single “Dazed & Confused.” Two years later, he calls his latest EP a “step forward in maturity.” 

The EP contains earlier released single “as long as you care,” which he said is about how strenuous he finds having to travel for work. The rest of the tracklist is similar in structure, with lonely lyrics atop upbeat piano and synth. While it’s hard not to look for more, based on this new project, Ruel’s trajectory as an artist is something to watch. 

Stream Bright Lights, Red Eyes by Ruel on Spotify here.