Not too long ago, there were three competing Frida Kahlo projects in Hollywood. Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and Salma Hayek all wanted to play the famed Mexican painter, and they all had different ideas about how to present Kahlo's life as a motion picture. However, given Madonna's commercial failures when it came to movies, no one wanted to spend money on a risky endeavor. Despite her commercial viability, Jennifer Lopez probably couldn't convince the right people that she could be believable in a serious movie. Everything boiled down to Salma Hayek being the only one still clinging to the dream of making a Frida Kahlo production. Hayek's dream became a reality when her "Frida" arrived in theatres late in 2002. The movie received numerous accolades, including six Oscar nominations. Hayek received a Best Actress nod, and the film won Oscars for its music score and for its makeup.
For the most part, I found "Frida" to be an engrossing but flawed work. There is so much energy jumping off of the screen that it feels invigorating watching it. Still, since Frida's life was filled to the brim with excitement, my attention never wavered. I was drawn by the artist's world, captivated by her parties and romantic affairs and tumultuous relationships with relatives, artists, and politicians. However, I never got the sense that I was entirely welcome in the film's environment.
You see, most of the movie seems to consist of arguments between Frida Kahlo (Hayek, sporting a uni-brow but not much of a female mustache) and Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) concerning the latter's infidelity--despite the fact that Kahlo wanted to marry Rivera even after he admitted that he was incapable of marital fidelity. While this may have been true to the real-life Kahlo-Rivera union, it is an off-putting construct. How interesting is it to watch two people argue about the same issue over and over again? Besides, watching the actors berate each other for most of the film's running time felt as inviting as witnessing a couple arguing loudly at a cocktail party.
In narrative terms, "Frida" feels like the Reader's Digest version of the artist's life rather than a textured, layered novel. There are four credited screenwriters, and it has been rumored that actor Edward Norton (Hayek's real-life boyfriend) took a stab at re-writing the entire screenplay. There are seven credited executive producers, and there are seven credited producers. I imagine that all those contributive interests reduced the script to a "greatest hits" record of major events in Frida Kahlo's life. You could say that "Frida" unfolds like an outline rather than a fully-formed story. The greatest casualty in the film may be Frida's art itself as we're not given a sense of how influential Frida has been in the grand scheme of things. After all, the movie's too busy trying to touch base with the events in Frida's life rather than with the reason for her fame.
The simplicity of the storytelling style doesn't require much thought on the part of the viewer. All you have to do is to sit there and pay attention. Since you don't have to connect ideas on your own and since the film doesn't really challenge conventional wisdom and ideas, experiencing "Frida" can be a fairly passive way of spending your time. Unlike other biopics about artists, I wasn't inspired by "Frida" to study painting like I was to study music and literature by "Amadeus" and "Shakespeare in Love".
Well, I've written about the film's weaknesses, and I'd like to turn my attention to its strengths. First of all, director Julie Taymor did a great job infusing the film with a distinct visual style. Taymor is one of America's leading stylists--she gave us a striking Broadway adaptation of Disney's "The Lion King" and a visually complex rendition of Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" ("Titus", starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead role). While reined in by a conventional screenplay, the director used a vibrant color scheme, a ghoulish puppet sequence, paintings that morph into live-action and vice versa, and even a Dadaist montage/collage (to depict Frida and Diego's trip to New York City) in order to give viewers a sense of how busy a political-activist/artist could be during the early half of the Twentieth Century.
The performances are also very impressive. Salma Hayek dominates the movie despite her slight size; she displays the kind of screen presence that signals artistic ability rather than her usual "I'm a sexy girl" persona. Likewise, Alfred Molina manages to convey Diego Rivera's rough charm and physicality without becoming cartoonish. Valeria Golino delivers a memorable and moving turn as one of Rivera's divorced wives. Extended cameos by Ashley Judd, Geoffrey Rush (as Russian Communist Leon Trotsky), Edward Norton (as Nelson Rockefeller, the guy who commissioned a Rivera mural only to destroy it when Lenin's face appeared in it), and Antonio Banderas add spice and pizzazz. When you have great actors playing not-so-big parts in a movie, you can elevate the richness of the material because the acting can be so dazzling.
The third key to the film's success is its music. In fact, "Frida" is almost a musical since so many songs are sung on-screen as part of the diagetic action. Hayek herself belts out a tune during a bar scene, and Elliot Goldenthal's colorful music score (which also won the composer a Golden Globe and a Golden Satellite) complements the film's visuals very well. I'm the first to admit that I'm not very familiar with Latin-style music, but the soundtrack was accessible without sounding generic or stereotypical.
The smooth, clean 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen video image is gorgeous. The filmmakers used a very colorful palette in order to reflect Frida Kahlo's art, so the film bursts with bright hues. I didn't see any shimmering or artifacting despite the use of a complex color scheme. Detail is extraordinary, and blacks are true and deep. This is about as good as shot-on-film motion pictures can look on DVD.
Although "Frida" isn't an action movie, it features a full, robust Dolby Digital 5.1 English audio track. During a bus accident sequence early in the film, the creative sound effects design immerses you in the middle of the action. The audio also does a great job if dispersing music throughout the room. Elliot Goldenthal's score provides plenty of low-end response (though your windows never get to shake because there aren't any bone-rattling explosions). The track re-produces music so well that, when Lila Downs sings during a party sequence, it feels like she's singing at a party inside your room.
There's a DD 5.1 French track that provides a technically comparable experience to the DD 5.1 English track. (Oddly, despite the fact that the vast majority of the film's characters spoke Spanish in real life, there isn't a Spanish audio track on the DVD.) Optional English and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
How much you enjoy or appreciate the extras in this two-disc set depends on how much you liked the main feature. As with so many other special editions of just-completed films, everything seems to be geared towards selling the movie rather than towards analyzing it. Everyone talks about how great everyone else is, and the filmmakers seem to think that they've made a masterpiece that'll revolutionize filmmaking the way that Frida Kahlo's art influenced painting. There's nothing wrong with being proud of your work, but it's potentially embarrassing to argue for greatness when the test of time hasn't even been presented yet.
Lest I appear to be an out-and-out grump, I'll admit that the abundance of extras on display is a testament to Salma Hayek's devotion to the project, and the bonuses are worth at least a "7" given the access that we have to behind-the-scenes action.
While most of the extras offered by this two-disc set are on Disc 2, Disc 1 has a couple of valuable materials as well. For starters, there's a 35-minute video interview with Salma Hayek. She talks about how she championed a Frida Kahlo project for years and finally got the financing and the right collaborators to help her bring "Frida" to the big screen.
There's an audio commentary by director Julie Taymor that runs for the entire length of the movie. She's a very engaging talker, and since she's a visualist like Frida, it's interesting to listen to her talk about adapting Frida's influences for a motion picture. Music composer Elliot Goldenthal also offers audio commentary for selected scenes. (I'm guessing that he doesn't talk for the whole length of the movie because it wouldn't make sense for him to speak while his music is playing.) You can access segments with his comments via the DVD's menus.
Finally, there are some promos for other Miramax titles as well as the film's CD soundtrack. The most offensive of these promos is the one called "Miramax's Year of Gold". Frankly, I'm tired of seeing these Miramax trailers that trumpet the company's hoarding of Golden Globe/Oscar nominations/awards. Those beauty contest trophies aren't accurate indicators of quality. Of course, the trailer for "Frida" itself is nowhere to be found in this two-disc set.
Fans of Julie Taymor will get more than their fill given the two extensive interviews with her on Disc 2. There's the "American Film Institute Q&A Session with Julie Taymor" as well as "Bill Moyers's interview with Julie Taymor". The former leans towards the academic side of things while the latter is geared towards people who are interested about the film but not necessarily about exact production/esthetic details. During both interviews, Taymor expresses ideas about filmmaking, the visual arts, and how the making of "Frida" was so important to her.
"The Vision of ‘Frida'" offers plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of on-location shooting as well as an overall view of how the filmmakers approached making the movie. "The Design of ‘Frida'" directs attention to the cinematographic approach as well as to how Frida and Diego's art was presented on screen. "Real Locations of Frida's Life and Art" takes viewers through places that Frida and Diego and their associates inhabited or frequented, and the featurette also looks at how reality became the fiction of the movie. Those of you who want concrete information about Frida Kahlo's life can access the "Frida Kahlo Facts" bonus, which is a series of text pages.
In my primary review, I noted that music plays a very important part in "Frida". Disc 2 devotes quite a bit of time to the film's music, beginning with "The Music of ‘Frida'" (which has Salma Hayek interviewing Elliot Goldenthal about his approach to bringing music to the film). There's an interview with singer Chavela Vargas conducted by Goldenthal, and there's a featurette called "The Voice of Lila Downs" that introduces viewers to yet another Latin singer. You also get footage of "Salma Hayek's Recording Sessions". Taymor and Goldenthal praise Hayek's gusto; it makes sense to have Hayek sing her own songs since her mother was an opera singer (it's gotta be in the genes!).
There are two visual effects pieces that discuss the creation of key sequences in the movie. "Amoeba Proteus" looks at the Dadaist collage of Frida and Diego's trip to New York City, and "The Brothers Quay" looks at how two brothers created the ghoulish puppet sequence depicting the aftermath of Frida being injured in a bus accident.
Finally, buried towards the end of the DVD is "Portrait of an Artist", a making-of featurette made by Miramax Television in order to promote the film's release on cable channels. This is a decent making-of that is better than the vast majority of such featurettes, and it's a good companion to the other bonuses on Disc 2.
A glossy insert provides chapter listings (a surprise since Mala Vista has been neglecting to include inserts in the vast majority of its keepcases lately).
I think that the script for "Frida" took the wrong approach when it comes to presenting Frida Kahlo's life. The film fails to relate to viewers the process of creating art--there's no sense of the joy or sorrow that Frida feels when drawing or painting. (For a biopic about the pain of art, try "Amadeus". If you want laughs, try "Shakespeare in Love".) Narratively, it doesn't offer much beyond a recap of key events in the artist's life. However, there are plenty of reasons for seeing "Frida"--for its strong performances, for its colorful visual style, and for its wonderful music score. Most importantly, though, you can sense Salma Hayek's passion for Frida Kahlo. It's not often that we get to see a movie that cares about what it's trying to convey, so it's heartening to see a film made with conviction.