If, on 27 March, Paul Thomas Anderson does not hold aloft the Best Picture Oscar for Licorice Pizza (general release) at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, a grave injustice will have occurred.
Yes, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (21 January) and Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (selected cinemas; Apple TV+, 14 January) would be worthy winners of the coveted statuette. But this should be Anderson’s year: nominated eight times and never victorious, the acclaimed director deserves the Academy’s highest honours for this exhilarating comic masterpiece.
Like Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Licorice Pizza – which takes its name from a Seventies record store chain in Southern California – is set in the San Fernando Valley, where Anderson grew up. Though widely described as yet another “coming-of-age” movie, it is really a screwball comedy that happens to take place in the world of the young (the director has cited the direct influence of the screwball masters, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges).
Based loosely on the experiences of Gary Goetzman as a teen actor and entrepreneur, the movie plots the stop-go romance and business partnership between Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) and Alana Kane (Alana Haim) against the backdrop of early Seventies Los Angeles.
When the two meet, in 1973, Gary is a 15-year-old high school student, and Alana a photographer’s assistant, ten years his senior. He announces immediately that he is going to marry her, and for all his callow missteps and braggadocio, she cannot help but be drawn in by his swagger and sense of fun – soon becoming his chaperone at performances and then his sidekick in all manner of side hustles.
Both Hoffman and Haim deliver stunning debut performances – though neither is a novice in the entertainment industry. For more than a decade, she has been guitarist in the rock group HAIM (her fellow band members and sisters, Este and Danielle, also play her siblings in the movie).
Hoffman, meanwhile, is the son of Anderson’s longtime collaborator and friend, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – and the resemblance between the two is often uncanny.
As Gary saunters across the screen, one is instantly reminded of Hoffman Sr’s brief but unforgettable appearance in Anderson’s first movie, Hard Eight (1996) as an unnamed craps player, trying to tease and then provoke a reaction from the Buddha-like older gambler Sydney, played by Philip Baker Hall. Like his father, the younger Hoffman instantly exudes the magnetism and charisma of a film star: an indefinable quality that has its basis in extraordinary energy, visible intelligence and an innate capacity to connect with the audience.
The consequence is that – from a standing start – Hoffman and Haim establish themselves as Gen Z’s Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn; or perhaps Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It is not hard to imagine them appearing in a string of films together, firing on all cylinders with razor sharp dialogue – though that old Hollywood casting technique has long fallen out of fashion.
What their chemistry gives Anderson is a narrative glue that enables him to celebrate his love of what he calls “gearshift movies”: careering from moments of private intensity to set piece action sequences, including a wonderful caper in which Gary, Alana and their gang deliver a water bed to Jon Peters, the real-life hairdresser and producer (played with hilarious psychosis by Bradley Cooper), who is on his way to a date with Barbra Streisand; and a dream-like scene in which Sean Penn as an action film star past his best is persuaded by Tom Waits to perform a nocturnal motorcycle stunt on a golf course – with Alana on the back of the bike.
The charm, wit and technicolor palette of Licorice Pizza have tempted some to categorise it as a joyful but essentially slight movie; a change of pace and relief for Anderson after the sheer cerebral gravity of films such as There Will be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017). But this is to confuse lightness of touch with absence of substance: Licorice Pizza, for all the laughs it delivers, is a deep, searching and memorable movie.
Like most of the director’s films, it is profoundly concerned with the experience of youth and its lifelong consequences. As George Toles writes in Paul Thomas Anderson (2016): “The business of childhood is indeed never finished for [him]”. Licorice Pizza also pursues the film-maker’s fixation with America as, in the words of Geoffrey O’Brien, “a country of deep loneliness … against which his characters are forever forcing themselves into protective families or parodies of families.” The stakes in Gary’s quest for Alana’s love are no less high than in Mark Wahlberg’s longing for a true home in Boogie Nights, or in Joaquin Phoenix’s neurotic relationship with cult leader Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.
The movie’s recreation of the Seventies is as pitch-perfect as we have come to expect of Anderson in his evocation of past eras (he has not made a contemporary movie since Punch-Drunk Love). If the neo-noir Inherent Vice (2014) was an elegy for the lost dream of the Sixties, Licorice Pizza pays similar homage to the gaudiness, camp chic and exuberant music of the succeeding decade. But over the movie’s blissed-out aesthetic loom the dark clouds of the fuel crisis, the Vietnam war and ingrained bigotry (Benny Safdie plays the real-life character of the closeted Los Angeles council member, Joel Wachs, in whose campaign office Alana takes a job – enabling Anderson to have fun with a riff on Cybil Shepherd’s scenes as a political campaigner in Taxi Driver).
Is Anderson, as is often alleged, simply a nostalgist, a postmodern auteur playing cinematic dress-up with the costumes of the past? Not so: as Licorice Pizza shows once again, he is, for all his movie-making wiles and technical brilliance, an impassioned time traveller who loves to inhabit and recreate, in glorious detail, the ever-changing worlds of the great American story.
The nominations for the 94th Academy Awards are announced on 8 February. Let justice be done.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Andy Warhol’s America (BBC Two, January 6; then iPlayer)
This absorbing three-part documentary series, produced and directed by Francis Whately, approaches the life and work of the great artist with originality, as a prism through which 20th-century America may be understood. Born in Pittsburgh in 1928 into a family of immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Warhol achieved rapid success – and comparative wealth – working for the artistic directors of Manhattan on advertising campaigns and magazines, before establishing himself, with silk screen images of Coke bottles and Campbell’s soup cans, as a prime mover in Pop Art. Decades before reality television, social media and the rise of the influencer, he had grasped that a person could be a brand; his own myth burnished by the counter-cultural court he established at the Factory, and (to an increasing extent) funded by a ruthless pursuit of commissions from plutocrats and corporations. As he observed: “Buying is more American than thinking.” His themes became darker as the euphoria of the Sixties faded – especially and understandably so after he was shot by Valerie Solanas in June 1968. More than his bohemian acolytes, he understood that Mao was more consequential to the shaping of the 20th Century than any film or pop star. Jerry Hall, who is interviewed in the series, is surely right that if civilisation were destroyed except for Warhol’s work, the survivors could deduce most of what was important about the America in which he lived from the extraordinary art that is his legacy.
The Tender Bar (selected cinemas; Prime Video, 7 January)
Based on J. R. Moehringer’s book of the same name, George Clooney’s eighth film as a director is a gentle exploration of the author’s upbringing on Long Island and his journey from blue collar America to the Yale class of 1986. Played by Daniel Ranieri and then Tye Sheridan, the film’s protagonist Jr has intellectual aspirations from an early age, encouraged by his surrogate father, Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck at his best), whose pub, The Dickens, is a refuge for boozy autodidacts. Underpinning this is the film’s central dynamic: the aspiration to rise and realise the American dream, tempered by the wisdom and character to be found in one’s roots. A thoughtful, superior movie, marked by fine ensemble performances.
Stay Close (Netflix)
Such is the power of modern prestige television that an eight-part drama for a streaming service can attract a glittering group of actors, each of whom has starred in a series (or several) in their own right: James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage, Sarah Parish, Eddie Izzard and Jo Joyner. But Stay Close – based on Harlan Coben’s 2012 novel – is very much Cush Jumbo’s show and is held together by her performance as Megan Pierce, a middle-class mother of three who has a secret past as a stripper called Cassie (see Creative Sensemaker, 7 October for an account of Jumbo’s triumphant interpretation of Hamlet at the Young Vic). Blackpool replaces Coben’s Atlantic City as the scene of the action, the plot driven by the determination of DS Michael Broome (Nesbitt) to detect a pattern in the disappearance of a series of men on the same day every year. And what role has Cassie’s former lover, the photographer Ray Levine (Armitage at his most splendidly neurotic), played in these apparent murders? Not for nothing is this Netflix’s number one series right now: binge away.
To Paradise – Hanya Yanagihara (Picador, 11 January)
In its sheer scale, subtle interconnections and soaring consideration of American life, Hanya Yanagihara’s remarkable new novel calls to mind, say, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Don DeLillo’s Underworld. To Paradise is a more complex novel than its predecessor, A Little Life, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015. In three distinct sections, it tells a trio of stories: the first set in an alternate version of New York in 1893, where same-sex love is apparently permitted; Manhattan in 1993, against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic; and an imagined totalitarian future in 2093, where pandemics have nurtured totalitarianism and a desperate decline in what it means to be a human being. The three parts of the triptych are woven together by location (the same townhouse in Washington Square Park) and names (there is a different Charles Griffiths in each section). The themes – identity, disease, love, family, nationhood – are huge, and, weighing in at more than 700 pages, the book offers no apology for the demands it makes upon the reader. But the journey is deeply rewarding, and confirms Yanagihara’s status as one of the great writers of our times.
For four decades, Paul Morley has been an outstanding chronicler of pop culture in general, and the musical greatness of Manchester in particular. His writings on Joy Division, collected in 2008, remain the indispensable account of that all-important post-punk band. Now he has rendered similar service to Tony Wilson, the band’s manager, co-founder of Factory Records, club impresario behind the legendary Hacienda club, Granada TV presenter and so-called “metaphysical mayor of Manchester”. Though Morley delivers a richly textured biographical account of an exceptional life – curtailed by cancer in 2007 – he makes a virtue of his own entanglement in the story as an observer of and protagonist in the creative milieu that Wilson did so much to nurture; he was also his subject’s friend – though by no means blind to his flaws or immune to his capricious reproaches. The writing is unashamedly intellectual and playful, with delightful consequences; a happy meshing of form and content, as Wilson would doubtless have noted. For anyone with an interest in the postwar cultural history of this country, From Manchester with Love is an indispensable book.
The Black Agenda – Glen Ford (OR Books)
In her preface to this excellent collection of Glen Ford’s journalism, Margaret Kimberley describes him as what used to called a “race man” – meaning “one who was dedicated to meeting the needs of Black people, who constantly thought of their benefit, and struggled alongside the masses to overcome the oppression they were subjected to.” Many of the articles in this volume first appeared in Black Agenda Report, the online political periodical that he, Kimberley and Bruce Dixon launched in 2006. But Ford, who died in July aged 71, had been a radio journalist and activist since the Seventies, bringing the perspectives of a Vietnam veteran, Black Panther and avowed Marxist to bear upon the unfolding history of late 20th-century America. The range of subjects in this anthology is deeply impressive – from Malcolm X and James Brown to US foreign policy and Barack Obama (“not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil”). It is worth reading for the fascinating final section alone, which addresses Black Lives Matter, reparations and the American Left to bracing effect.
Dawn FM – The Weeknd (7 January)
“You’ve been in the dark too long. It’s time to walk into the light, and accept your fate with open arms.” So says Jim Carrey – a friend of The Weeknd, AKA Abel Tesfaye – in the teaser trailer for the artist’s fifth studio album. Carrey’s involvement in the project is in keeping with its declared conceptual ambition (Dawn FM also features Tyler, the Creator, Lil Wayne, Quincy Jones and Oneohtrix Point Never) to create “a new sonic universe”. If that sounds like mere hype, bear in mind that, in November, The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ overtook Chubby Checker’s ‘The Twist’ to take the Number 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 Songs of All-Time chart. Billed as a party-friendly album, Dawn FM also boasts cover art that depicts the 31-year-old Tesfaye as a grey-haired old man. True devotees can tune in to a special listening experience, 103.5 Dawn FM, airing at 5am UK time on 7 January on the Amazon Music channel on Twitch and in the Amazon Music app.
Domenico Scarlatti: 37 Keyboard Sonatas – Michael Korstick (7 January)
Discussing his relationship with the work of Beethoven in 2020, Michael Korstick observed that “the performer must recognise what comes from the composer’s heart before he uses his lifeblood to touch the listener’s heart. Then, there is no room for arbitrariness or blethering sensitivities!” This rigorous doctrine makes the 66-year-old virtuoso an ideal interpreter of Scarlatti’s Baroque wit and joyfulness, exploring the improvisational possibilities of these great sonatas without a hint of self-indulgence. A tremendous recording achievement by a prolific artist at the height of his powers.
No Veteran Dies Alone – Sinead O’Connor (expected 7 January)
How characteristic of Sinead O’Connor that even the release date of this, supposedly her final album, should be something of an enigma. Eight years have passed since the excellent I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss – during which time she has published her memoirs, Rememberings: Scenes From My Complicated Life, and collaborated with Kathryn Ferguson in the documentary Nothing Compares, which receives its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month. In June, O’Connor announced that “in consultation with my medical team, and on their advice, [I have] decided to go ahead and retire so that I may now focus on my new career as a writer.” No Veteran Dies Alone may, then, be the swansong of an elusive, sometimes perplexing but always compelling musical artist: and, as such, a milestone in the history of pop.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a very happy new year.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Universal Pictures, Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Amazon, BBC, Netflix, Herve Gloaguen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, Lindsey Best for the Washington Post