Directed by Carlton Sugarman | Review by Prarthana MitraThe harsh reality of struggling to make it big in the music industry, to be the next Jack Johnson, is a Sisyphean journey. On that note, Carlton Sugarman’s gritty musical drama The Amateur, subtitled The Revenge of the Quadricorn, opens with the archetypal existentialist dilemma that casts a dark cloud over any creative process, even the very best of ’em. This dilemma is voiced by Joey, an aspiring musician who is seen doing what every aspiring musician does in the early days of their career: playing at a pub for a loose change.
The film opens with a song (written and performed by Joey Baldwin), interspersed with the earnest conversation about his future, with friends who have come to support him. All he wants, as he confesses to his potential manager, is to make living off of music. Joey’s earnestness and lack of self-assuredness make you warm up to him almost instantly and it soon comes to light that he has moved out of his hometown to pursue his music career, is currently unemployed and looking for the big break that sadly never arrives for him.
Joey vacillates between the lure of the fast life and moments of clarity, reflected in his glassy stare and complemented by the songs he composes. Between record deals falling through and a trip back home to tend to a dying parent, Joey also falls in love. But Sugarman’s film is not about Joey; the protagonist in his film is the music scene, bustling with innumerable amateurs like Joey.
Painting a fairly accurate picture of the living breathing urban music scene in cities across the world belies the success of this film. One can easily sympathize with the difficult choices facing Joey, between pro bono “cool projects” and the means to assert financial independence. Dealing and using drugs to make quick money is also quite commonplace. In a poignant sequence, The Amateur also depicts the pressure musicians often come under, especially early in their career, to compromise their personal unique aesthetic and pander instead to the mainstream tastes. The hipster culture pervades every frame in the film, especially in terms of production and costume design. There are swanky after-parties, montages from a photowalk, and bands called The Trash Can Sinatras and Sigmund & Freud.
The film also holds a mirror to the huge communication gap between first-generation artists and parents who just want to make sure they survive this dog-eat-dog world. Words like “pragmatic”, “responsibility”, and “steady job” come up as dinner table conversation. In the film’s shining moment, Joey and his father talk candidly for the first time, his father confessing his dreams of becoming a dancer before he had to settle for a family life, adding that they were all proud of Joey and just wanted him to be happy. This is a heartbreaking moment as it comes right after Joey has lied about having a spectacular and flourishing music career, because being supportive doesn’t mean they’ll understand the struggles of an artist as a young man in Hollywood.
The Hollywood motif plays a huge role in serving as the primary antagonist of the film. His agent refuses to relinquish creative decisions to Joey, saying the only way he can get to the next level is by putting a band together and fitting into the pop market. Amidst all these disagreements and his career going haywire, Joey meets Fiama (Carlotta Elektra Bosch) who seems to finally understand where he is coming from. Joey writes songs for her, they go out for picnics in the park; together they navigate the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles, trading banter and philosophies about life and love. For Joey, happiness would be doing something he loves with somewhere he loves, just like all of us. But very soon, his entire life is turned upside down in one fell swoop. In a moment of introspection, he realizes he has lost the love he craved, the family he abandoned and the record deal he longed for more than anything in the world. But the artist must live on—for music and for art—if not for anything else.
The pace of the film may seem a little rushed as it falls back on so many jump cuts and montages to capture the varied and chaotic experiences of the vagabond musician at its center. The naturalistic style, interior monologues and vibrant cinematography effectively capture the new amateur in a big city, with generous use of close-ups and long shots. Besides Joey who is versatile in portraying the character’s youthful folly and his distraught predicament with ease, Jere Burns who plays his ailing father stands out from the ensemble.
In an interview, Sugarman had shared that this was inspired by his encounter with a Beat musician turned architect in Mexico, mingled with his desire to pay a homage to all his peers and struggling artists in LA right now, some of whom may fade into oblivion in the years to come, while some give up on their dreams altogether. Perhaps somewhere down the line, The Amateur will serve as a reminder for their days of struggle gone by.
Prarthana is presently in between odd jobs and obtaining her master’s degree in literature. She loves modern poetry and meditative cinema. Based out of Calcutta, Prarthana observes people, football, films and enjoys writing about all three. Of late, she relates to Frank Ocean’s music. Her writing experience consists of writing for various sites such as Try Cinema, The Indian Economist, Doing The Rondo, Saintbrush and various academic journals.