Who here remembers Tim Burton’s Batman and its sequel Batman Returns? Indeed, we remember how awesome Jack Nicholson was as the Joker, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin. But we were also treated to possibly 1 of the best versions of Batman/Bruce Wayne as well, played by Beetlejuice himself, Michael Keaton. After Batman Returns, and refusing to do Batman Forever, Michael Keaton seemed to fade out of the star picture. To the point that some even wondered where he was. In reality, Keaton never stopped. He still appeared in movies, TV shows, and did voice acting roles as well (including voicing the english dub of Porco Rosso in Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso and Ken, Barbie’s boyfriend in Toy Story 3), and while he did star in the horror movie White Noise…this film could effectively be his great renaissance as an actor. Now in his early 60s and with his Batman years long behind him, what can be said about Birdman?
Set in modern New York, Birdman follows Michael Keaton’s character, Riggin Thomson. He’s a hollywood actor who is famous for playing a superhero named Birdman in 3 films. Over 20 years has passed (Even Keaton has laughed at this coincidence), and with his young, golden years now behind him, Riggin is trying to reinvent his career by becoming a broadway actor. To do this, he ends up directing and starring in a play based on a short story by the late Raymond Carver called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Like some people who hold onto the past, Riggin still holds onto his Birdman moniker, in the form of a deep voice in his head telling him what he really wants and at times he is seen performing what looks like aspects of telekinesis or superpowers. Is he insane, or actually capable of doing this?…You’ll have to find out for yourself…but what Riggin wants and his new situation aren’t always on the same track. After disliking 1 of the actors’ performances, a stage light falls on that actor’s head, leading to a possible lawsuit and another brick in Riggin’s evidentially big wall of problems. He struggles with the relationship he has with his recovering drug-addict daughter (and assistant) Sam (played by Emma Stone, aka Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spiderman movies). He is trying to make this play work despite his Producer/Attorney/Best friend, Jake (played by Hangover actor Zach Galifianakis) reminding him of the costs (and the lawsuit). He is engaged in a grudge with a well-known critic who shares the same bar as him. He may or may not be a father again with his latest girlfriend Laura, 1 of the actresses in the play (Andrea Riseborough). And to sweeten his dealt hand, he experiences numerous moments of madness when it comes to the replacement actor of the injured, suing actor – a popular method actor named Mike Shiner (played by Jack’s Asking Where Have You Been I Miss You, Edward Norton) who has his own ideas on how to approach this play, and will be very, very rude about it….and lastly, there’s Lesley, Mike’s girlfriend (played by Naomi Watts), who is doing her first ever play, even though her years are catching up with her (She still looks great for her age) and she doesn’t feel like she has ‘made it’. There’s a particularly touching moment where she tells Riggin her thoughts.
This film’s story would fall into the category of The Journey. But instead of having our characters go on a quest like some dwarves, a burglar and a wizard did, the journey comes in the form of the creative process that goes into making this broadway play. It is all of the stuff that never appears in “behind the scenes” documentaries on DVDs/Blu-Rays where everybody is smiling and saying this is a great experience. No. This is the harsh reality of art! We see the setbacks, not only for the play itself but for the characters and their relationships. Much like how Manga such as Bakuman and A Zoo In Winter would be about the struggles of the creators of Manga Comics, Birdman is about the struggles of everybody who appears on the screen (with the possible exception of the Critic in the bar…and the film places emphasis on this, I won’t spoil it, you’ll see what I mean). The stakes are very high for everybody, and particularly Riggin, and in general it’s fantastically demonstrated in this film.
Oddly enough, the cast for this film is…perfect, as was the acting. There were no bad parts from anybody. Literally an ‘A’ for all, but also an ‘A star’ for Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. Both of whom are more than a bit bonkers, with Riggin (Keaton) being bonkers in private (and sometimes in public) and Mike (Norton) being an unpredictable, crude, loose cannon despite being brilliant at his job and bringing a lot of public interest to the play (the main reason he hasn’t been fired). It’s full of great characters, with even minor characters having enough development to not be generic.
The music in Birdman is a stand-out. It’s unlike nearly any film that has been out for a long time. When I think of music in movies today, I usually think of Howard Shore or Hans Zimmer with their big, dynamic, epic score. But Birdman offers something unique…a film that has 2 different types of music…1 being classical music ranging from Ravel to Tchaikovsky to Mahler to Rachmaninov. The other being done purely through jazz drums by Antonio Sanchez, a mexican jazz drummer. To go along with the movie’s cinematography style (made to look like 1 big, long shot with minimal cuts and editing), it’s a fast-paced, exciting, unique experience, on top of being a fascinating combination. In the process, it’s a film that knows how to keep you awake with it’s sound and presentation alone.
Would I recommend Birdman? Yes! It might be the first film I’ve seen in cinemas this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains in my top 5 of 2015 (Outside of film festivals and limited screenings, it didn’t come out in the UK widely until January 1st). It’s a movie about artists and the struggle to make a great and meaningful work that could also pay the bills. It’s about people struggling with their relationships, personal agendas, pasts and their egos. And it’s a movie that even made me question if I was writing reviews or have been a critic…and as someone who works in the creative field, being a critic is not how I want to be (even if some movies I’ve talked about deserve to be forgotten). Either way, this is well worth the watch and hopefully the beginning of an interest in Michael Keaton again….and did I mention that this is a comedy? Yes, it’s a comedy, and a very good at that.
Overall rating: ***** out of 5