Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lovely Lily

Lovely Lily
seen @ Elmhurst Hospital, Elmhurst, Queens NY

Try to imagine it. Travelling to a foreign country in pursuit of your dreams, your arrival eagerly anticipated by millions. Being on the verge of instant stardom, the media following your every step and recording your every word as if you were royalty. Performing on live television back when it was still new, practically deafened by the roar of the teenage audience. Conquering the world... by the age of 22.

Try to imagine what it was like to be the Beatles.

Why do the Beatles still matter, fifty years after their American debut in this, the age of American Idol and auto-tune and mp3s? An age in which rock and roll has, if not been passed by, then marginalized at the very least? The answer is so simple, a child can grasp it: because we are all, all of us, living in the world they made. It goes way beyond the music, although the music was tremendous. In terms of fashion, world culture, politics, spirituality, and who knows what else, those four dudes from Liverpool reshaped the world. 

You already know this, though, because you've heard "Love Me Do" or "She Loves You"; you've seen them on TV or in the movies; you've read about them in magazines. To some degree, whether large or small, you've felt their impact.

My generation had Michael Jackson, and he came pretty close to matching the Beatles in popularity. Some would even say he surpassed them. I recall when he and his brothers, the Jacksons, toured to promote their album Victory, back in the early 80s, and seeing people all over the world lose their minds over seeing them (only a slight exaggeration, I assure you), I remember thinking, even then, that this must have been what Beatlemania was like.

There have been a number of movies that attempted to recreate either the Beatles' pre-fame days in Liverpool, the American zeitgeist during the Beatle years, or some combination thereof. Lovely Lily is an independent short film that takes its own stab at it. In this case, the 1964 arrival of the Fab Four is the backdrop for a dramedy set deep in the heart of Queens.

I met the writer/producer/director/star, Celeste Balducci, at the Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) two years ago. Actually, that's not entirely accurate; I first saw her at the fest, but I didn't really meet her until later that summer at a party held by QWFF founders Don & Katha Cato. I didn't know she was a filmmaker at first; as I recall, we talked about a bunch of other stuff besides movies. I've seen her at QWFF and QWFF-related events since then. She's a vivacious and very charming lady. 

I've thought about it, and I can't recall ever becoming friends with someone in real life and then seeing them in a movie that they made. It's a little odd; at first you know someone in a given context, and then, through the movies, that context changes - and it's not even like I know a great deal about Celeste to begin with. It's analogous to whenever I see my sister sing in her band. She almost becomes a different person on stage, someone a little bit bigger than life, but she's still my sister, if that makes sense.

Lily began as a feature film that came out in 2009 before Celeste chose to shorten it to a half hour instead. She has spent more than a decade working on it, filming in and around Jackson Heights, and like all indie filmmakers, coerced a wide variety of friends and acquaintances to take part in it. Sunday night's screening was the first in its newer, shortened form. Why did she choose a hospital to show it in? Because they had the space - an auditorium of a size comparable to that of a room in an art house theater, and I'd say it was at least half full, maybe two-thirds full.

The Elmhurst Hospital auditorium where Lily screened.

Celeste plays Lily, a nightclub singer at a local joint that has since closed down after filming, and the time is February, 1964, right when the Beatles were about to arrive in America and play The Ed Sullivan Show. The film follows Lily and her circle of friends, relatives and acquaintances who are either abuzz with excitement or completely indifferent over the English "rock and roll" band. There's also some drama involving a love-struck fan of Lily's, a older former admirer, and his latest young paramour.

Celeste said afterwards that she was going to continue to work on things in the film like sound, so it's reasonable to believe that this newer, shorter version of Lily is still not complete. It does feel kind of raw. She also said she shot it in different formats deliberately, as a means to evoke different time periods, and indeed, there are flashback scenes involving some of the characters. I got the impression she was going for a somewhat artistic vibe, since she uses things like jump cuts, but I think a more straightforward approach might have been better. There were many quick cuts that confused me as to who certain minor characters were. There are few sustained moments where we get to sit back and simply be with the characters.

An impressive turnout, despite the snow.

The characters are lively and fun to watch, but in some ways, except for Lily, they feel like sketches. I would've liked to have seen them more clearly defined. Celeste has a good ear for dialogue; it should be applied more. That said, however, the acting is good, as is the original score. One gets the impression from watching Celeste portray her that Lily is very close to her heart and, perhaps, her own experiences. Lily has a history and a worldview that helps define her, and Celeste isn't afraid to have her do things like have an affair with a younger man, which is treated as no big deal. And as difficult as it must have been to recreate 1964 through things like wardrobe and cars and other props, she does just enough to pull it off.

Her plan is to eventually take it on the festival circuit. I hope, once she perfects Lily, she does well with it. Lily isn't available online, but the link at the top will take you to the film's website.

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