A Bit Off Beat: Rock opera Annette is more of an adventurous curio than a truly memorable musical effort

Riding a career retrospective high after the recent release of director Edgar Wright's The Sparks Brothers documentary, musical siblings Ron and Russell Mael team with director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) for the rock opera Annette, perhaps the weirdest rock opera put to film since Ken Russell's adaptation of The Who's Tommy.

The Sparks Brothers provide the music and story involving Henry (Adam Driver), a controversial standup comedian, and his singer-actress wife, Ann (Marion Cotillard). The two are very much in love but, in the case of Henry, perhaps a little too passionate and driven for both of their sakes.

After a rousing start where Driver and Cotillard break the fourth wall with the Sparks Brothers in tow, they settle in for the rollercoaster (and quite long) story of the couple's wrestle with fame and eventual birth of their child, Annette. Driver gets to plumb his comedic talents as Henry performs his popular show in a bathrobe before crowded, rowdy audiences.

Driver gets his first real opportunity to flex that (albeit dark) comedy muscle on screen in a headlining role. Anybody who has seen his hosting stints on Saturday Night Live knows that Driver can bring the funny. The comedy here is a little more twisted and understated than an SNL sketch, but the solid Driver timing is very much on display.

Both Driver and Cotillard do their own singing, and while Driver merely gets by fine with his adequate warbling, Cotillard possesses some major league pipes.

The film is actually at its best when Cotillard is singing, whether on stage or in life situations including stormy boats and racy bedrooms. She gets a nice chance to shine and show off a talent that has been a bit under the surface. She won an Oscar for portraying singer Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, but she lip-synched her way through that one.

As for the actual music, you won't be tapping your feet to the tunes, and you will have a hard time remembering any of them shortly after seeing the film. Besides the impressive Cotillard singing heights, much of the film is that brand of talk-singing that occupies most musical theater, rather bland on the melody side. It's fun to see performers like Driver work their way through sing-song dialogue, but this one is no Oklahoma. Heck, it's not even Grease.

It is impressive in that the singing is done live on set, much like it was for Les Misérables. So Driver and Cotillard have to keep crooning, even when their characters are having sex or near drowning.

A tragic event takes the story into tabloid controversy territory, with little dramatic impact. The true strength of Annette is its visuals, especially with Carax's choice to use an animatronic doll in place of a live baby for most of daughter Annette's screen time. It's an interesting choice, and the film literally soars when the doll is on screen.

The movie clocks in at 140 minutes, and changes in tone quite a few times before the end credits hit. It feels mostly like a dark satire, but it does take on some headier stuff involving toxic masculinity, physical abuse, and all-out murder. This isn't a happy movie by any means.

Carax took the Best Director prize at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, with the Sparks Brothers getting a composing award as well. No doubt, Annette probably stood out in the competition as a most novel cinematic experience. In many ways, it is, but it's not in the same league as the recent Hamilton or La La Land when it comes to movie musicals. It's more of an adventurous curio than a truly memorable musical effort.

Nothing wrong with that. Annette provides a unique viewing experience, it gives its stars some meaty material, and it impresses visually. It'll certainly stand out as one of 2021's more "different" film experiences, and its vibe is not one that will be easily replicated in the years to come. As for this summer, if you are looking to expand your cinematic horizons after watching standard releases like The Jungle Cruise and that Boss Baby sequel, this one will definitely clear your movie palette.

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