Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang the Stephen Stills lyric, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Christmas will be over soon, whether we are ready for the music, the movies, the festivities, the sentiment, and the happiness to be over or not, and that heavy feeling of saying goodbye to the magic known only at this time of year surrounds us like that dark cloud of wrong that fills the sky around Dana Barrett’s building at the end of Ghostbusters.
My fellow nerds and I hope your spirits remain high right through the end, and your dreams will be realized during the season of what can only be best described as joy and wonder. It is those around us, those we let into our weird little worlds, who make the light of the holiday brightest. Whether speaking to them in the same room, or face to face on the computer, or voice to voice on the phone, the lives we touch with our hope and cheer may not fully realize that it is their light and their vigor that touches us, giving us that hope and cheer for which we thirst so fondly on the Eve of Christmas and on the Day of Happiness.
All of this brings me to my entry this month, my favorite month. A movie released on Netflix a few years ago that had Bill Murray critics and fans evenly divided on its merit and general entertainment value. Actually, I think a lot of Bill Murray fans found themselves disappointed after the first few minutes and may not even have given the 56-minute ode to togetherness the chance it deserves, which is why we are going to talk about it here.
It’s a bizarre vignette, if you will, filled with equally bizarre cameos, a buried theme, and dark comedy of the blackest kind. But A Very Murray Christmas also had something else hidden between the one-liners and awkward performances: a message of togetherness so tender and so sweet that the movie has catapulted to very near the top of my Christmas favorites each year.
A quick note on the plot, as this is already getting long: Bill Murray, as himself, is set to host and perform at a star-studded, televised Christmas special on a night that brings with it the worst snowstorm in recent New York City memory. None of his guests arrive at the event, his nightmare producers who care only about money, their jobs, and kissing celebrity arse, won’t let Bill out of the contract, instead concocting a farce so non-sensical that even the TV land zombies wouldn’t believe it to be real, and Bill is on the verge of professional and psychological collapse.
A glimmer of hope and success brought on by Chris Rock (as himself) fades quickly into the darkness of failure, and Bill retreats into depression and alcohol as his dreams of togetherness with all of his celebrity friends coming to his rescue blow away with the falling snow outside, leaving him with a sense of palpable loneliness from which he is not certain he can recover.
And then something amazing happens…
Bill and his musical director, Paul Shaffer (as himself) visit the bar lounge, where a Christmas Eve wedding that had to be cancelled because of a power outage coupled with the cold feet of a groom, finds the bride and groom to be, the hotel staff, a very familiar bartender, a waiting-in-the-wings mistress, and a few other kooky (as Paul would say) guests are waiting for something…anything…to happen.
Through the magic of Christmas and through song, accompanied by Paul at the piano, this group of misfits finds something grander than the most extravagant present under a tree: each other. This group, especially Bill, learns that the tragedy of loneliness is but a mind game he has been playing with himself. He learns about the miracle of togetherness, not by spending time with those who, in his eyes abandoned him, but by spending time with and giving back to those who are having trouble making their own miracles happen (to quote from Scrooged). In short, the Christmas special Bill dreamed of falls well short of the Christmas special he lived in terms of fulfilling his sense of purpose; and that, dear readers, was the true miracle of Christmas for this not-so-lonely curmudgeon.
I’d like to say a word about three of the performances, and then a word about George Clooney, and then a word about the man in red, and then I’ll wrap it up. By then, I hope I will have finally sold at least one or two of you on this Christmas package of delight, once and for all.
First up in the performances is Maya Rudolph, as a lady-in-waiting, who chronologically delivers the first of a handful of the film’s show stopping performances. Rudolph, known for her over-the-top SNL impressions of Oprah and Whitney Houston, to name a couple, sings one of the most heart wrenching versions of “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” that I’ve ever heard. At the onset of the performance, you think she’s doing her satirical thing again. But a few moments in, you realize that she’t not. Her sad eyes and her broken heart work together to pound out those lyrics of loneliness, not unlike Bill’s own, as Paul pounds out those notes on the piano, and you can feel each of those punches in your own chest.
Next up is Miley Cyrus…yes, that wrecking-ball-riding Miley Cyrus. We all know the girl can sing! She just always seems to be trying so hard to convince us all of that, finding the need in the process to add the shock value that really nobody cares about. But in her earnest and utterly pleasant performance of “Silent Night,” she lets every bit of that angst and sexual showmanship go, and she turns in a raw, emotional delivery of this Christmas classic that makes you sit back and go, “holy shit…that girl is REALLY good!” Of note (again) is Paul Shaffer’s arrangement of Silent Night, a la SNL’s “Waltz in A.” Only Paul can turn the background orchestration of Silent Night into a bluesy, jazzy, totally enjoyable experience. What is “Waltz in A?” It has been the theme song for the closing credits of SNL since 1975. And his arrangement of “Silent Night” sounds just like it, downward chord progressions and all, making you feel like the cast of SNL just took their bow for the evening and transporting you back to a time when you watched the Christmas episode of the show with your family, and they are about to cut to a shot of the performers ice-skating in front of Rockefeller Center. This piano arrangement might be the best of the show.
And finally, the Christmas medley sang at (where else) Paul’s piano at the end of the night, featuring all of the show’s players in one way or another, brings tears to my eyes every single time I see/hear it. And guess what: until typing this, I never knew this medley is not an original, but instead it is “Fairytale in New York,” by The Pogues. It is in these final moments of their evening together, even though Bill is clearly almost done, that they all realize this is one of the best Christmases they have ever had…because they were together, because they uplifted each other, because they loved the company of each other, and because they let the Christmas miracle overcome them. It’s a truly remarkable scene, and perhaps the best scene in the movie. We’ll talk more about this scene in a moment.
Second on the list of things to discuss: early in the movie, Bill runs into an agent (another celebrity cameo) who has been trying to sign Bill to a contract for what sounds like years. Not only this, but the agent is trying to talk Bill out of doing what the agent believes will be a train wreck of a Christmas special. Bill says, “But we’ve got George Clooney,” and the agent says, “I rest my case.” You might think nothing of it at first other than it is a funny jab at Clooney, who happens to be in real life one of Bill’s celebrity friends. But this slick little one liner comes back at the end of the movie in what I will call the most clever callback in recent memory. You see, at one point, Bill, shall we say, falls asleep, and then dreams of the “real” Christmas special he’d of liked to have. The whole thing, though bright-colored and loaded with production value, and though contains the scene with Miley and Silent Night, is mostly nonsense and unemotional, especially when compared to the 30 minutes of scenes in the bar immediately preceding this one. And then George Clooney comes into it, and it is by far the worst musical number in the entire movie. Now, I don’t know anything about anything, and I doubt any director would intentionally make bad scenes in their films. BUT…imagine the balls Sophia Copolla must have if she DID do this as a deliberate call back to the train wreck comment from the agent at the beginning of the movie, and Bill, in the movie, is subconsciously recalling this comment in his dream as this truly awful and unfunny scene plays out in Bill’s fantasy Christmas special. It’s brilliant! I’d like to believe this is deliberate. Which would make it genius. Not only this, but it would prove all of my points from before that the joy of Christmas is all about the ones you spend it with and what you can do together, not what others can do for you, and not about those you think love you who don’t turn up when it counts.
And finally, who is the man in red? Who IS the man in red? You know you know him. Where have you seen him? If you know your movies and your 80s pop culture, you’ll recognize him pretty quickly. And if not, well, I’ll let you toil a bit. In this film, the man in red is the bartender in the background of nearly every single shot filmed in the bar after the failed wedding. Sometimes he is in focus, sometimes out of focus, sometimes speaking, sometimes singing, sometimes making drinks, and sometimes drinking drinks, but he is always there. Always. So what? Who cares? I believe that this Ghost of Christmas Past behind the bar is a foggy reminder to Bill and company of those truly forgotten during the holidays – those even further down in the dumps and more forgotten than Bill wrongly believes himself to be – those with nowhere to go, no one to be with, nothing to do but serve drinks to other forgotten souls like himself – those with nothing to smile about, but who smile anyway. And why? Because these people who smile through life’s turmoil don’t know another way. They smile because that is what they do. They live, whether they know it or not, to quietly bring those together who may not’ve otherwise come together. They remind us (and eventually Bill) to reach out to those who stay in the background and bring them in to the foreground. For without these people, or to take it a step further, without these memories of grander times implanted in Bill’s or in our own heads, there’d be little to celebrate; for the people and the memories of good times are what the Christmas miracle is all about. I think THAT’S who the man in red is and what he represents. In one scene, when the actors in the foreground are singing a carol of sorts, we see this man in red in the background, slightly out of focus and casually shaking a drink in a tumbler. Moments later, this heretofore lonely man in red sees something off camera that makes him smile a smile that will light up your heart, making you realize that he, on this Christmas Eve, is finally realizing his very own Christmas Miracle, and he is loving every minute of it. Later, when singing The Pogues “Fairytale in New York,” the man in red sings the line, “I could have been someone,” (which invokes more than one tear, if you have a heart) to which the backup singers echo the sentiment by caroling much louder than he, as if to stamp out his worry, “well so could anyone!” This line, sung by this character, in this moment, spells out in black and white what the entire movie is about: a person may be down, but that person is never out…the ones you’ve let into your weird little world are going to make sure of it.
Now I’m getting all preachy again.
A Very Murray Christmas is more than a Christmas special, it’s a work of brilliance. It makes my heart happy, as they say. It makes me smile, it literally makes me cry, and it makes me want to watch it again and again. Like I said before, you gotta look closely, because this movie is most certainly odd. If you don’t look deeper, the oddity is all you’re going to see. But way down in there is a heart of hope that people are, in fact, good, and that people are worth being there for, remembering, and sharing with all of the magic Christmas brings.