Elbow Blooms
The Record V2 Doesn't Want You to Hear

No one asked me for a dollar.

Not one person.

So I am left to discuss Serenity without the input of those who hated it. The box office totals are in for what will likely be the full run of the film in most theaters, and they’re not great – $22.3 million in three weeks. Flightplan, an infinitely worse film, has more than tripled that in the same time frame. A History of Violence, perhaps the most unintentionally funny movie I have seen since Battlefield Earth, has made more money, despite a smaller profile and a narrower release.

Some of this is understandable. Serenity stars no one famous, and was written and directed by a guy best known for a television show about vampires. The posters were crap, the trailers decent but not extraordinary, and the marketing push seemed to center around word of mouth. It’s also kind of an unknown proposition for Joe Public, whereas Jodie Foster on a plane with terrorists is like comfort food. You know that her angry, ass-kicking mom will prevail, and that shit will blow up and the innocent kid will be saved.

As it turns out, Serenity wasn’t even comfort food for its most ardent fans, which may be auteur Joss Whedon’s most unfortunate decision. There are events in this film that irrevocably change the makeup and dynamic of Firefly, the television show on which it is based, and some of those changes are like knives to the heart of fans. Whedon has long been a proponent of choosing the story over the audience, and the same contingent that wished season six of Buffy had never been made will reject a few of the more dramatic moments in Serenity. But Whedon was right to choose this story, and to bring these characters to these places.

Here is what makes me sad about Serenity and its lackluster box office performance. I see a lot of movies, and I know when I’ve encountered one that will not appeal to the masses. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, is a brilliant film, but not a fun night out at the theater. Same with I Heart Huckabees, which took a terrific cast of stars like Dustin Hoffman and Jude Law and Naomi Watts and filled their mouths with existential philosophy and nonsense. I adored the movie for that very reason, but I can easily understand why it wasn’t a smash success.

I don’t get that sense with Serenity. I am definitely a Whedon acolyte, so take this for what it’s worth, but I can’t imagine such a fun, funny, thrilling little adventure movie as this one not connecting with anyone who went to see it, at least on some level. It’s Star Wars from Han Solo’s point of view, it’s Indiana Jones in space. There is nothing over-intellectual or tedious about it. You don’t even have to have seen the television show – it catches you right up and drops you into the action with everything you need to know. It’s six-guns and swordfights and crackling dialogue. It is a great night out at the movies.

So why did it fail? It is perhaps presumptuous to consider $22.3 million in three weeks a failure, of course, but Serenity did not do as well as expected, considering the hard-and-fast love the core fans have for Whedon and the characters. And that right there might be the problem, as much as I hate to admit it. The most devoted of fans, the Browncoats (named after the rebel army in the TV series), have been talking up this movie and lavishing it with praise for a year now. Even Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card got into the act by proclaiming Serenity the best science fiction movie ever.

I fear, fellow fans, that we may have loved this movie to death.

People don’t like to feel as if they’re on the outside of an exclusive club, and the Browncoats give that impression. People also don’t like hype, and the passion Firefly fans have for the show and the film can sound like hot air after a while. Same with Radiohead fans, always jabbering on about how their band is more brilliant. Or Marillion fans like me – how many new converts do you think I’ve made to that cause? Pretty much none. I love them too dearly, and I go on and on. People I know will not even give that band a try because I’ve built them up so much.

Those who saw Serenity based on the gasping pronouncements of Whedon fans were probably expecting a reality-altering masterpiece, and when they got a fun little space adventure, they were likely left to wonder what the big deal was. Don’t get me wrong, I think Serenity is a fantastic fun little space adventure, but I can imagine the bewilderment. For better or for worse, Joss Whedon has developed a passionately loyal and vocal fanbase, one that is willing to support him even when he stabs them through the heart, and that kind of near-worship just turns people off.

But for the life of me, I don’t know what could have been done differently. I have seen Serenity three times now. I honestly love it more than any other science fiction film that isn’t Star Wars, and for sheer craftsmanship, I think it’s better than all six chapters of Lucas’ tale. I can’t imagine not sharing that experience with people, and urging them to try it. It’s not an exclusive club – I want Whedon and his endeavors to be worldwide successes. I want people to watch Buffy, to watch Firefly, and to revel in them like I do.

In the final analysis, we Firefly fans came out of this pretty well, I think. We got our canceled television series rescued from obscurity, and got the big-screen season finale that we wanted. We got to visit with these terrific characters one more time, and watch a great writer and director work at the peak of his powers. Whedon, as well, got to bring back his Firefly crew for one more go-round, and he lavished each scene with palpable love. It’s a wonderful, welcoming movie, and I wish more of you could have seen it.

At the film’s conclusion, Captain Malcolm Reynolds gives a small speech about his ship, and his crew, which he considers family. With classic Whedon subtext, it quickly becomes obvious that he’s talking about Firefly and its fans – “Love keeps her up when she ought to fall down.” The existence of Serenity is owed almost entirely to the love of the fans, and if that same love kept some people away from a great little movie, well, so be it. I hope no one feels ashamed for expressing the joy that Firefly brought them, whatever the outcome at the box office.

“You can know all the math in the ‘verse,” Reynolds tells young River, “but take a boat in the air you don’t love, she ain’t keeping up, just as sure as the turning of worlds.”

Thanks to Joss Whedon and all the fans, for loving this boat enough to keep her in the air.

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Other movies I have seen recently:

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is bloody brilliant. Beyond just the sheer technical skill required to make an 85-minute claymation feature, the movie is sharply written, and really funny. I’m amazed at the expressiveness director Nick Park gets out of his simply-rendered main characters, especially considering that one of them doesn’t speak at all. The film is full of clever moments, chuckle-worthy dialogue and mind-blowing clay figure action, all molded by hand and shot frame by frame – 32 shots per second, 1920 per minute, and roughly 163,200 in all. That it looks effortless is just testament to Park’s genius.

Wallace and Gromit is also preceded by a 10-minute short written by my friend Mike Lachance. It stars the penguins from Madagascar, and details their zany attempts to buy a Christmas present for their fellow zoo-mate. It’s a lot of fun – “Shiitake mushroom!” was my favorite line, of course – but for me, the best part was seeing Mike’s name in big letters on the screen during the credits. I let out a little cheer, I must confess… Good show, Mike.

Corpse Bride is not as good. It’s underbaked, half-hearted and feels like someone took The Nightmare Before Christmas and photocopied it on an old, broken-down Xerox machine. If Nightmare was the out-of-the-box genius debut album, this is the disappointing follow-up, made more so by the obvious use of computer animation in places. Even the songs sound like weak knock-offs. It may not be fair to contrast this film with its obviously superior antecedent, but it invites the comparison with every frame.

A History of Violence, as I mentioned, is laugh-out-loud funny. I don’t understand the glowing reviews for this one, honestly. My theory is that David Cronenberg shot one day’s worth of scenes, saw they were terrible, discovered he hadn’t the money to re-shoot them, and decided to make the rest of the film godawful to match. I cracked up more than once, though I tried to do so silently, and I found the final sequence, in which Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello stare at each other over a table, interminable. Not because it was too long, although it was, but because I was struggling to hold in peals of laughter, which finally escaped once the credits began rolling. Seriously, the worst movie I have seen in a long, long time.

And here is where I part company with the critical community once again, because I thought Elizabethtown was just about the best movie I have seen this year. I see films most often to get other perspectives, but no director I know of captures my experience and my emotional reaction as well as Cameron Crowe does. His movies think and feel like I do. Elizabethtown is perhaps his most personal effort, a loving tribute to his deceased father, and a paean to random chance. Every minute of it is warm and beautiful.

It’s getting savaged by critics, of course, and I think I know why. One of the first things they teach you in a screenwriting class is conflict. Your main character must want something, and someone must stand in his or her way. There must be dramatic conflict for a movie to work, they will tell you. Elizabethtown is two hours and 20 minutes long, and has no conflict. It is entirely made up of people deciding that they like each other. And it is never boring, never trite, never in need of some artificial conflict to propel it forward. It is a movie you bask in, a good-hearted collection of sunrise moments that fill your soul. There is nothing cynical or hard-edged about it, but if you want a movie to lift you up and make you love life, this is the one.

Thanks to my movie buddy Jody Bane. We spent nearly 12 hours in a theater on Sunday, watching everything discussed above. It’s remarkable to find someone equally excited at the prospect of a whole day of movies, so merci, and congrats on the new job.

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I suppose I should include a music review before signing off for the week, hmmm?

Perhaps it’s fitting, given the subtle nature of their work, that I keep forgetting to mention Elbow. They’re a band I return to again and again, and find new things each time, but when it comes to shouting their name from the rooftops, well, I keep neglecting them. I let their fantastic 2001 debut, Asleep in the Back, slide by with nary a mention, and gave their even better 2003 follow-up, Cast of Thousands, a quick review and nothing else.

And perhaps that’s because each Elbow album has taken me some time to unfold and enjoy. They have often required a complete re-writing of the way I enjoy music. I usually listen to the structure first, the chords and the melody, but Elbow cares little for that. Some of their best songs are incredibly simple, and slow, and dirge-like. Quite often they will reduce the instrumentation to a drum, or an organ, or a finger-picked guitar, and let it ride on waves of atmosphere.

No, Elbow cares about feeling, and about getting the vibe right. Each of their songs is carefully constructed, and given a few listens, they welcome you with open arms. Some may say they need to wake up – their tempos are almost always drowsy, and lead singer Guy Garvey has a hangdog voice that compliments his I-can’t-be-bothered-to-shave appearance. But Elbow are not depressing. Their songs are full of hope, and often so minimal that even the slightest change in melody or rhythm sounds like light breaking through the clouds.

Their new one, Leaders of the Free World, changes a few things, but overall the band’s sense of beauty is intact. It would be tough for Elbow to make a Difficult Third Record more difficult than their debut, so they didn’t even try – Leaders is perhaps their most accessible and immediate album, a definite shift from the abstract soundscapes that made up much of Cast of Thousands. Opener “Station Approach” recalls “Any Day Now,” from the debut, but halfway through, the electric guitars kick in, and Elbow wakes up.

“Picky Bugger” is the album’s one miscalculation, stretching Guy Garvey’s falsetto into painful territory, but they’re right back on the horse with “Forget Myself,” their most lively single yet. If this is your first Elbow song, you may want to know that what sounds mid-tempo from anyone else is actually akin to thrash metal from this band, and as rocking as this song is, the title track does it one better. “Leaders of the Free World” is a six-minute powerhouse that takes aim at (who else) George W. “Passing the gun from father to feckless son,” Garvey sings, before noting that the “leaders of the free world are just little boys throwing stones, and it’s easy to ignore until they’re knocking on the door of your homes.”

This level of ire is totally unexpected from Garvey, and the band steps up, backing him with some of their most fiery fretwork. Enjoy it, though, because that’s the last you’ll hear of Elbow the rock band on this record. The best stuff here, as usual, is of the slower and more delicate variety. Sandwiched between the rockers is “The Stops,” a lovely, classic Elbow ballad, and the entire second half of the album is acoustic and beautiful.

Even so, the usual Elbow sonic landscapes are all but missing, replaced with a more concrete, human sound. It’s jarring at first, even though it makes for a quicker assessment of the proceedings. Leaders is the most grounded Elbow album yet, the focus on melody instead of ambience, and to their credit, the band has responded with their most hummable and gorgeous songs. The tempo picks back up somewhat for the vaguely Radiohead-ish “Mexican Standoff,” but the album concludes on a graceful note with three of the prettiest songs in the band’s catalog.

The final song, “Great Expectations,” is arresting, a perfectly lilting serenade to marriage with an undercurrent of bitterness. Those familiar with the band may expect a fairly static reading of this song, but surprisingly, it builds and builds over its five minutes. Garvey sometimes gets a bad rap in the British press for his half-mumbled vocals, but here is all the evidence anyone needs that he is an amazing singer. He wrings so much emotion from his lovely tenor here that one wonders where he’s been hiding this talent. It’s almost a shame when the pretty yet unexceptional minute-long coda “Puncture Repair” wafts in to close the record.

So Leaders is very good, a definite change for Elbow, and perhaps their best chance at gaining an American audience. The question is, why won’t you find this album in your local record store? Because you won’t. I had to contact my old friends at Bull Moose Music in Maine to snag a copy of both this and the new Grandaddy EP. And after much research, I’ve discovered that V2, the U.S. label for both artists, has cancelled stateside distribution, fearing low sales. They pressed the discs, and allowed one distributor to have some copies, which is why a few stores across the country (and a few online outlets) have them. But for all intents and purposes, the domestic version of Leaders of the Free World was not released.

This is sad. It’s not that the album isn’t worth the import price, because it is, but the band obviously knocked themselves out to make the most inviting album of their career. Granted, it’s not Coldplay inviting, nor should it be, but for those curious about Elbow and wishing for a good starting point, well, Leaders is it. And now I can’t recommend it as casually as I would if you could just walk down to Best Buy and pick it up. The same seems to have happened with the new Starsailor, On the Outside, and the new Robbie Williams, Intensive Care, though I doubt I would pimp those as heavily as Elbow’s record, just based on past experience.

So V2 has, in effect, made it even easier to forget Elbow, to let them slide from your consciousness. That’s a shame, because Leaders of the Free World is a good record, one that you’ll be glad you tracked down. It’s worth pulling out all the stops, because the band sure did.

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Next week, the Fiery Furnaces and their grandmother. How… odd.

See you in line Tuesday morning.