Monday, June 23, 2014

Jersey Boys: Gone Daddy Gone

I can check one more box on my career bucket list. I’ve been on the Storymen podcast.

The weekly hour-long podcast features the musings of Clay Morgan, J.R. Forasteros and Matt Mikalatos—smart, spiritual and entertaining blokes who fuse theology with pop culture (and a little bit o’ history on occasion, too), which makes them my kind of guys. Their discussions are often fascinating and always fun, and I listen to them regularly on my weekly runs. They make the miles go by faster. So when they asked me to come on, I was thrilled. You can listen to the podcast here, or download it on iTunes or Stitcher.

They had me on to chat about The Good Dad, the book on which I collaborated with Jim Daly, but naturally the conversation drifted into movie dads: The good ones (Marlin from Finding Nemo is just the tops), the bad ones (King Stefan from Maleficent: Ugh) and ones in between.

And then there’s Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, who never was much of a dad at all. (Warning: Spoilers ahead)

In The Good Dad, Jim Daly talks a lot about how important fathers are in the lives of their kids—and how important it is for them, particularly, to be there. To get involved. To make memories with their kids and be that stabilizing influence—an old oak tree, in Jim’s metaphor—that kids need so much.

Not all fathers do this, of course. Some won’t, through fear or disinterest. And some feel like they can’t. Valli, the falsetto-blessed frontman for the 1960s hit machine The Four Seasons, was among the latter (according to Jersey Boys).

Music was job No. 1 for Valli—his profession, his passion. For more than a decade, Valli and his fellow Four Seasons work to make it big. And when they finally do, the Seasons are on the road constantly to stay there. Even when the band falls apart, Valli continues to tour relentlessly, hitting stop after thankless stop to pay off a wicked debt (courtesy the band’s irresponsible driving force, Tommy DeVito).

And according to Jersey Boys, he never really quits. At the end of the movie, he compares himself to the Energizer Bunny. “I just keep going and going and going, chasing the music, trying to get home.”

It’s admirable, in a way. Anything worth doing takes work. And after watching this flick, no one can doubt Valli’s work ethic.

But as I said in my Plugged In Review, every decision has a cost. And Valli’s decision to put the music first, while it enriched the lives of many a listener, deeply impacted his family. Valli may be trying to get home at the end of Jersey Boys, but he didn’t really have a home to go to.

We see how his non-stop touring (and what he does while on the road) impacts his marriage. But we feel it more poignantly in his relationship with daughter, Francine. Audiences see her first as a trusting-but-fragile 7-year-old, confused and frightened by her parents’ fighting and not completely sure whether her father even really loves her. Valli does, of course, and sings her to sleep. If good intentions made the father, Valli would’ve done all right.

But it’s not long before he goes on the road again, leaving Francine and some other daughters that could really use a dad.

The next time we see Francine, she’s a 17-year-old runaway, hanging out with a rough-looking boyfriend, smoking cigarettes and hurting a voice that, according to Valli, could rival his own. Valli manages to reel her back for a time, encouraging her to drop the cigs and start singing. “I believe in you,” he tells her. And Valli does. But he’s still on the road constantly. And one day he gets a call: His little girl is dead—claimed, apparently, by a drug overdose.

It’s a sobering coda for this toe-tapping movie. And when a friend tells Valli that he shouldn’t blame himself, Valli asks, essentially, “who else is there to blame?” If not his fault, whose?

In The Good Dad, Jim stresses that, eventually, kids make their own decisions. Parents can’t hold themselves solely responsible for the bad choices that children might make down the road. But we’d be kidding ourselves to say that how we raise our kids doesn’t impact them mightily as adults. We might not be to blame … but we are at least partly responsible. We can’t know how Francine might’ve benefitted if Valli had been home more. But I’m pretty sure she would’ve been better off.

Valli says that he’s just “trying to get home.” But in truth, the only way you get there is by doing it. You turn the car around and head home. And if “home” isn’t all that you’d like it to be, you stick around and try to make it better.

Our choices matter. And every choice we make comes with a cost. Jersey Boys is, on one level, a buoyant story of four guys who overcame a lot of obstacles to make some beautiful music together. But to its credit, it doesn’t overlook the price that was paid to make it happen.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Maleficent: Broken Hearted

It's hard to watch good guys turn bad. We don't want our heroes to fall.

But sometimes, it can be hard to watch our villains turn good, too.

Take Maleficent, Disney's re-introduction of one of its all-time best/worst evildoers. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is as bad as bad can be—the self-proclaimed "Mistress of all Evil" who calls upon the powers of hell to help her do her nasty work.

Let me be honest: I kinda like that in a villain. It's nice to see someone who knows who they are and really owns it, y'know? Forget the moral complexity, the makers of Sleeping Beauty said in 1959. Give us a woman with green skin and horns.

So much to my shame, I was ever-so-slightly disappointed in the positive moral trajectory in Maleficent. In the 2014 film, Angelina Jolie's Queen of Mean isn't so much as a dastardly diva as someone who's been really, really hurt—in more ways than one. The result, we see, is a pretty interesting examination of what hurt and bitterness can do to the human soul—and a hint of what is the only recourse out of it.

Be aware: There be spoilers ahead.

Maleficent wasn't always the towering figure of darkness we came to know in Sleeping Beauty. Once upon a time, she was a little fairy girl with horns and wings, full of hope and promise. When a boy named Stefan stumbles into her magical land and tries to swipe something (a pretty little gem), Maleficent gently tells him that stealing's wrong and winds up befriending the kid. The two become the best of buds (an unlikely relationship, given that Maleficent's magic land and Stefan's kingdom are constantly at war) and, eventually, even a bit more than that. In fact, Maleficent falls in love with the lad.

But the two grow apart and don't see each other for years. In that time, Maleficent becomes a powerful defender of her realm. Stefan becomes a steward for the mortal king. But when the dying king tells his court that he'll give the crown to whoever kills Maleficent, Stefan sees his chance for rapid career advancement. He takes off to the moors to rekindle his relationship with the fairy, planning to drug her and kill her while she sleeps.

But he can't: He still feels some affection for the girl (now a beautiful, winged woman). But he really covets the kingdom, too. So he slices off Maleficent's beautiful wings instead, taking them back to the king (misleading him in the process). Maleficent wakes up and is, understandably, devastated. Stefan mutilated the two things that made the fairy who she was: her wings and her soul.

Now, the potential spirituality of all this is interesting. When you look at a whole Malificent, your eyes are naturally drawn to the two things that make her so different from you and me—her wings and her horns. Both are, for Christians, instantly recognizable: When we think of humanoid-like beings with wings, most of us think of angels. Horns, on the other hand, are shorthand for the devil and demons. Neither horns nor wings are good or evil in themselves, of course, but they do represent—and have for centuries—the good and evil in the universe and, perhaps, the good and evil in ourselves (think about those angels and demons that appear on someone's shoulders in the old cartoons).

Stefan takes from Maleficent something angelic in her—something good. He steals what allowed her to fly closer to heaven. And, now earthbound—even dragging around at first as if the earth's gravity was pulling her closer to itself—she allows anger and bitterness and her more evil, horned nature to seep into the cracks of her soul.

She retreats to a dilapidated castle for a while to prood. And when she leaves it, Maleficent is a different person: Powerful in her anger, gorgeous in her hatred. She's a true villain in look and deed. She curses Stefan's little baby, Aurora. She and the king are now irrevocably at odds now, literally warring against each other. It reminds me of a really bitter divorce.

And that, I think, is at least partly intentional. We see here the horrors of a relationship gone horribly bad—how an act of betrayal can lead to an act of vengeance, a spiral of anger and hatred that can spin out of control. Each word and deed becomes more ammunition in this battle of … what? Wills? Control? Utter annihilation? Perhaps they don't know. When this sort of hatred spills over, there are no real goals, it would seem. Only the desire to hurt. We can get the same way, too. Many of us may know friends or couples who've fallen to this level—where they can no longer stand the sight of each other. In our hurt, we wall ourselves away. And when we emerge, we sometimes come out different: Our hate can make us strong (just like Darth Vader warned us), but it twists us, too. It turns us into something we weren't before and were never meant to be.

In Maleficent and Stefan, we see the corrupting power of hurt. The bitterness of loss. After Maleficent lays the curse on Aurora, Stefan turns into a full-time brooder, so obsessed with destroying Maleficent that he doesn’t even attend his own wife’s deathbed.

Maleficent is much the same … until she grows close to the very thing she cursed. Throughout Aurora’s childhood, Maleficent is never far away—watching, sometimes even caring for the child. So close she is that Aurora recognizes her shadow, a constant presence in her childhood. And she dubs Maleficent her fairy godmother. In the space of who knows how long, the two become close. And somewhere along the line, Maleficent realizes that she has room for something other than hate in her heart. Aurora—a name which references a strange dance of light in the cold, winter dark—has illuminated something of Maleficent’s black soul. Our villainess discovers a capacity for love.

I think that Disney missed a chance here to take this story of redemption and make it extra-special. Stefan could’ve been redeemed too, it seems: He wasn’t always bad. I’d like to think that he cared for Maleficent and loved his daughter. But here, Stefan takes the mantel of the true villain—incapable of accepting love through the iron hatred inside him.

But this, too, is a powerful reflection of how love, particularly God’s love, works. We may be offered love, even forgiveness. But we’re under no obligation to accept it. So often, we refuse. Our pain and anger won’t allow us to. We’d rather nurse a righteous bitterness than accept a little grace.

Toward the end of the movie, Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings and, magically still flapping, they find their way back to their mistress. She’s again whole, and powerful—a symbolic healing reflecting what Aurora had already done in the fairy’s soul. No longer the pure, horned evildoer, Maleficent spreads her wings, looking for all her past faults and sins, a little more angelic. She’s been restored. Redeemed. Maleficent, through grace, can fly again.