All Commentary
Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sing Celebrates All Beautiful Things

A film that loves individualism, art, technology, enterprise, and commercial culture. What's not to love?

It began to dawn on me about 15 minutes into Sing that this is a movie I’ve waited for all my life. It inspired laughing, cheering, crying, and a feeling of total joy, and why? It’s because the film is a parable about our lives in the way we live them. It’s about people feeling undervalued in their daily lives and how one daring entrepreneur created a venue to help people realize their dreams.

Think of it. Here we have super-talented, singing, anthropomorphic animals who love life and dream of achieving great things through art. There is a struggling theater owner – a koala, of all things – who is trying to make good on his father’s hope that he would succeed. There is a singing contest in which these amateurs show off their mighty skills that heretofore had been merely private indulgences. They work hard, dream big, face down every barrier, and finally discover the power and glory of art in the service of human happiness.

Every Person Has Talent

The whole scene is such a beautiful tribute to the diversity of the human family.There is so much to report on but let me start with the sequence that first took my breath away. A camera pans through the city, zooming into windows that reveal the personal lives of those inside. Here is a saxophone player who is playing beautifully. The camera moves out and into another window. Here is a mother pig, caring for dozens of children, who has an incredible singing voice. Camera moves out and then into another window. Here are two emo porcupines practicing their songs and working through a contentious relationship. Camera moves out and into a scene with a young gorilla who is singing beautifully in an alley, acting as watchman for his father’s criminal gang during a heist.

The whole scene is such a beautiful tribute to the diversity of the human family and its talent base. We learn that each one of these people live very different lives, and have very different skill sets, and yet share the dream of expressing themselves in a way that fulfills their own personal and highest aspirations.

The koala entrepreneur Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) has an idea that he could hold an arts competition to save his failing theater. A mistake by his secretary leads to an advertised prize of $100,000 rather than the $1,000 he had. He has to spend the weeks of rehearsals leading to performance trying to cover up the stretched truth. But while it might have been the money that drew all these people/animals to try out, the money is not the real reason they practice so hard and give up so much time. They are trying to realize the dream.

When all the animals rush to the opening tryouts, the audience enjoys vignettes of performances from all types. I could have watched this stuff all night. There is something weirdly compelling and super delightful about watching animals sing and dance.

The art of animation was on full display here, all the way down to the thick fur on the koala to the fingers of the ape as he tries to refurbish his piano technique. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how the animators made the the pig (Rosita) with two dozen kids look and move like a demoralized middle-aged housewife. Is it the clothes or the walk or the attitude?

Then there is the emotional drama of the ape and his father, and it is so powerful that, honestly, I just teared up typing this sentence. His father goes to jail because of the son’s failure to drive a getaway car. His father refuses even to speak to the son. Then, from prison, the father sees his son performing in this concert. He swells up with pride to the point of actually breaking the bars of his cell. He swings through the streets to get to the concert hall and embraces his son and says, “I’m so proud of you.”

My goodness. This is what children need so much from those whom they love and admire. We all need this so very much.

Speaking of Technology

You might say she outsourced her job to machines, but she doesn’t suffer: on the contrary, she is now free!The film contains a sequence that illustrates the marvelous power that technology serves in our lives. Rosita, the mother of 25 who gave up her dreams, finds that her days are spent doing dull work for all these kids: shopping, waking, feeding, changing, sending them off to school, picking them up, and so on. When her husband comes home from work weary, every day, he plops into a chair with a TV clicker and falls asleep. This is a desperate housepig but the competition gives her hope.

Inspired by the prospect of singing again, she builds a series of machines that automates her tasks in the home and rigs the whole thing up. It wakes the kids, gives them breakfast, makes them lunch, send them on their way, and even speaks to her inattentive husband. You might say she outsourced her job to machines, but she doesn’t suffer: on the contrary, she is now free!

Sadly, her husband doesn’t even notice her absence. But now that she has time to practice, she gets better and better, becomes an excellent dancer, and absolutely shines on the final performer, in front of her husband who discovers again his deep love for her. Here we have a paradigmatic case: technological changes disrupts a static social environment and replaces it with something new, fresh, and truly lovely.

Enterprise Is Hard

How often do movies give you an inside look into the struggles of entrepreneurship? This one does a brilliant job. The theater owner has experienced failure after failure. The bank is chasing him for debts. The electricity gets cut off. He has stagehands and actors hectoring him for back wages. But he keeps his chin up, always hoping his next big idea will be the one that wins.

Confidence comes from doing. We gain confidence as we get better and better.So it is for all edgy entrepreneurs. They are dreamers. They must believe. They must live on the edge. They live on leverage and hope. Often the final disaster must hit their lives before they can finally experience success. It is only after the success that the world pays attention and congratulates them on their brilliance. But we rarely see the litany of failure that precedes this moment.

Our entrepreneur works so hard and never gets ahead. Finally he has the idea of winning over an amazing heiress, artistic herself, who is deeply skeptical. Her accent is so haughty and high that it had me bending over in laughter. What a great caricature! And yet it is true: the capitalist is what makes the visions of the entrepreneur real.

Again, all of this a movie allegedly made for kids!

Stage Fright

Let’s have some frank talk about Meena, the elephant who’s always giving herself to others, always pushing aside her personal ambitions to make way for others. After a life of doing this, she has developed what seems to be stage fright. She just can’t bring herself to demonstrate her talents to others when she has the chance.

In her first audition, a pushy little mouthy mouse tells her to get off stage. She readily complies. Later she gets a position as a stagehand, still regretting her failure to sing. Finally Buster Moon happens to hear her singing in private and realizes that she has astonishing talent. He becomes her life coach and repeatedly has one piece of advice: “Just start singing.”

My only complaint: the movie needed a solid dance-party ending. We’ve all known people like this, individuals with awesome skill who are never really given a chance to show others, or, perhaps, are their “own worst enemies” in the sense that they keep passing up opportunities to show what they can do.

It can happen to writers, thinkers, artists, students, or anyone. We’ve all experienced this at some point. There are times when I’ve stood before audiences and suddenly thought “I have nothing to say” or opened up a new page to write and thought “I have no thoughts worth sharing.”

This is why it is so wonderful that Meena’s story ends up being the core of the drama in Sing. And Moon’s advice to her is right on the money: “Just start singing.”

So it is with all of us. Just start speaking. Just start writing. Just start studying, sculpting, drawing, cooking, or whatever it is. Confidence comes from doing. We gain confidence as we get better and better. It’s a wonderful life lesson, one we all have to learn again and again throughout all our days.

We are all Meena. We just have to start singing.

Final note and my only complaint: this movie really needed a solid dance-party ending. I missed that.