James Jay Edwards reviews Annette, a musical with original music, songs, and story by the band Sparks, Ron and Russell Mael, and directed by Leos Carax. (Amazon Studios)
Although they are mostly known for the new wave song “Cool Places,” a 1983 collaboration with The Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, the prolific band Sparks has been making music since the 1970s. The two members of the group, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, had been kicking around the idea of a musical for years, even going so far as to imagine their premise as a concept album. But when they met visionary filmmaker Leos Carax (Holy Motors), they slipped him a pitch. And that’s when Annette was born.
Annette is about an abrasive stand-up comedian named Henry (Adam Driver from Marriage Story) who meets a beloved opera singer named Ann (Marion Cotillard from Inception and Allied). They fall in love and are married very quickly, and soon thereafter have a daughter. But when their whirlwind romance turns rocky a couple of years later, they discover that the two-year-old Annette is not just any old baby.
(Annette, theatrical release poster, courtesy Amazon Studios)
Although it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Carax’s work, Annette is a wild movie. It’s visually breathtaking, dark, and dreary with enough neon and halogen to give it an urban flavor that allows for the cheesy sets and green screen effects to almost look as though Henry and Ann’s relationship is taking place inside one of her operas. And, without spoiling anything, that’s kind of the point. It all works in the context of the bigger picture.
The story was cooked up by the Mael brothers, and while it’s a fairly point-A-to-point-B affair, there are a couple of fun surprises tossed in, so the audience should go in as blind as possible in order to fully savor these moments. By the third act, it’s pretty obvious where the plot is going, but the sleek look of the movie combined with the catchy tunes make the viewer forgive any narrative weaknesses.
(Annette, courtesy Amazon Studios)
Because Annette is, after all, a musical, the music is front and center. Most of the dialogue is sung, and there are only a handful of real characters. The supporting cast and extras all function as a Greek chorus of sorts, in the movie as an audience or a group of paparazzi, providing important narration to move the story along. The lyrics feature very little (if any) subtext—it’s all text, with lines like “We love each other so much” (Henry and Ann as their relationship blossoms) and “I’m the accompanist for Ann” (Ann’s pianist who, played by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, becomes a pivotal character).
Usually, movies get annoying when they spoon-feed exposition to the audience like this, but in Annette’s case, it’s done in song form, and the tunes are so catchy and infectious that it earns a pass. The characters literally sing what they’re thinking and what is happening, and it’s fine that way. Classic opera that would make a character like Ann proud.
(Annette, courtesy Amazon Studios)
Because the music is so “front and center,” the movie is full of visual metaphors and symbolism. It seems as if Carax knew that the music and lyrics would tell the story, so he cranked his imagery up to eleven. Annette is slick, stylish, and hip—all of the things that fans of Carax expect from his movies. At almost two-and-a-half hours, it does run a bit long and drags a smidge at the end, but that’s where the payoff is. So, we’ll let the extended running time slide.
All in all, it feels like 2021 has been a banner year for Sparks fans. A couple of months ago, Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary gave the boys the respect that they have been due for so long, and now, Leos Carax brings their long-awaited vision Annette to the screen. Ron and Russell Mael came out of the pandemic swinging.
Annette is in select theaters now and will be available on Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.