Reviews - Declan McKenna, The Magic Flute (2021)


If the first two Declan McKenna albums were earnest and sometimes epic this third release. `What Happened To The Beach?` sees him easing back a little. It is still ram packed with ideas but they are contained in a far more laidback environment that gives space for some strange sounds, odd moments and snatches of in studio mutterings. Lyrically too he has eased back on message songs offering more reflective, chilled thoughts. Nothing stops the songs from being catchy and memorable but this is an artist maturing and he has produced his best work yet.


How this will be taken by his long term fans will be interesting as this is the first time he's challenged them a bit. In some ways you can tell this record was made in the United States yet he doesn’t lose his Britishness either so any West Coast tendencies are given character. He’s said it’s a summer album and when asked why it was released in February, replied that everyone would know it by the summer, “then it’s a summer album!”

This relaxed tone is evident in the music. The first two songs released last year,, `Sympathy` and `Nothing Works` prove to be something of a mis direction being the closest to his previous sound. However `Nothing Works` is a pop sized tune all about self doubt and you will remember it after a few plays.  More representative of the whole album are `Elevator Hum` and  `Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine` the latter a medium paced hazy song that takes a while to familiarise yourself with. I’ve grown fonder of this the more I hear it as the protagonist describes his drug fuelled life and “boring apartment”. Some of the songs recall the minimal tunefulness of early Paul McCartney solo work while `Honest Test` has a similar sound to recent Arctic Monkeys and there’s a whiff of `Suburbs` era Arcade Fire to `Mezzanine`,

`Sympathy`, my favourite song of last year has a hurdy gurdy rhythm and manages to sound a bit like the Sixties and Seventies at once. Despite its catchiness the song doesn’t really have a chorus instead being one long tune with the line “you don’t need to be clever” emphasising the song’s message of easing off and not trying to be someone you’re not, a theme that re-occurs elsewhere. `Elevator Hum` is a perfect distillation of this record’s sounds while `I Write The News` playfully changes arrangement from verse to verse as its social issues are laced with fun- “Crimes high and so am I”. The stripped down `Wobble` matches its Macca inspiration with contemporary beats and lyrics about change. `Breath of Light` has an unexpected percussive opening.

Although much of this record is not as instant as the previous two it does offer more with each listen. I suspect that someone with his track record could easily pull a massive banger out of the hat if his career needed it but for now he seems content to populate an individual place for himself and own it which is always a better long term plan

(Btw, it is always worth checking out Declan’ McKenna’s music videos on YouTube as they are always inventive and quirky especially the one for `Nothing Works`)

I’m not sure either opera or drama fans would be entirely satisfied by this 2021 curio shot in Germany. It is an awkward fit between the opera The Magic Flute  and a scenario in which pupil Tim Walker who attends the prestigious Mozart academy is thrown into the story so he becomes the prince.  So we end up with some scenes taking place in the present day with others occurring in the world of the opera.  The results are intriguing if ultimately erratic with no clear sense of what the story is trying to do, instead it feels as if two films have been edited together each with a different pace. The real world stuff articulates some of the pressures of living up to paternal expectations and of being in a dedicated academy with high standards. It’s also a love story that is played with enough conviction to convince. Yet quite how or if it relates to the opera part is hazy.

The movie’s strongest aspect is its look. Cinematography, direction, sets and costumes are all excellent especially in the real world evening scenes which capture the wood panelling and open fires that are a feature of the remote school building. The fantasy world is richly decorated with extensive use of cloth and filtered light plus the entrance of the Queen of the Night is terrific emphasised by extending flowing fabrics like some old Kate Bush video. An early giant snake proves to be an effects highlight though later challenges seem somewhat small in comparison. However director Florian Sigl does a good job imbuing these sequences with some tension, especially a scene where Tim is not allowed to talk to Princess Pamino something that could be dry but which he works into quite an emotional moment. Perhaps because the producers wanted a family film any peril is decidedly mild and you never really get a sense of danger in the fantasy scenes with the villains played more for comedic effect than menace.

I found out later that the opera has supposedly Masonic influences in its text particularly the repeated use of `three` things- the three trials, the three ladies, three doors. There is also a strong theme of heroism which is supposed to show in the trials though Tim as Prince Tamino is positioned as too much of a bystander for much of the action and even his actions in winning the trials are not especially taxing.

It feels like some sharp edits have been made as it is unclear whether the fantasy action is supposed to mirror or affect real life events, sometimes it seems to, other times not. Thus the opera’s themes of love and of  overcoming trials to become a better person are somewhat tepid in realisation here. If the intention is to create a conflict for Tim between a real life romance with Sophie or a fantasy one with Pamino it has gone astray in the final version. Besides there is a lot more spark in the real life tentative romance between Tim and Sophie and also in the stories of the bullying Anton. Tim’s mode of transportation into the fantasy world is a tall clock whose workings or origin is never explained in either world while the actual magic flute itself plays a small though important role in this story. In the opera it signifies how music has the power to transcend fear and hatred. 

Without any knowledge of the opera its difficult for the viewer to know just what is going on. The world we see is without context and its incongruous at first when characters start singing because it feels as if we’re only getting snippets of the opera whose running time is longer than this film. Opera is such a heightened milieu it is hard to make it identifiable to real life so to hear a lovely rendition of the Jackson 5 song `I’ll Be There` is my favourite musical moment, sorry Mozart! The operatic singing is great though, it’s just not my cup of tea.

If you untangled both narratives either one would make a better film either set exclusively in the music school or else having Tim in the fantasy world the whole time. As it is the action switching back and forth jars and Tim doesn't even ask anyone why he is able to move between worlds. The cast were probably equally bewildered by what tone to strike in a film like this which is probably why the reality sequences come over better. When Tim is in the real world Jack Wolfe makes the most of the dialogue and strikes up a real on screen rapport with Niamh McCormack who plays the quirky Sophie. Their scene together in a piano room one evening is the best of the film. Without either enough dialogue or action the actor is left somewhat stranded in the opera world, his naturalistic style on a different plane to the extravagant operatics happening around him. Iwan Rheon seems to have fun as Papageno, a whimsical character who carries the more frivolous part of the plot but whose function I couldn’t really work out here. To be enjoyed as a typically strict head teacher is F Murray Abraham always good value even with limited screen time.


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