Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter to Los Angeles. Rated G, 65 minutes. 4 stars
The concert film genre is an interesting beast. At its best it can be as explosive and fascinating as Truth or Dare: In Bed With Madonna, the backstage drama a match for the on-stage colour, and at its worst we endure performers breathless from over-choreographed dance numbers, missing notes and making us glad we hadn't shelled out for the real concert tickets.
This is a concert film with a difference. Pop's current reigning darling Billie Eilish in a production paid for by Disney especially for its streaming platform Disney+, and Disney have thrown serious cash into a lushly produced and filmed experience.
It's not just because we're in the middle of a global pandemic that there is no audience at this concert - the audience is intentionally watching online, and thus we're not treated to odd or distant camera angles of the usual production where the film experience competes with the concert-goer, with cameras not allowed to intrude too much on the live experience.
Happier Than Ever is shot in the famous and familiar Hollywood Bowl, with none other than indie filmmaking legend Robert Rodriguez behind the camera and with no live audience to hold him back, his camera is up close on Eilish and it sweeps around the space like it has taken hands with Belle and the Beast for a turn about the ballroom.
Co-directing with Rodriguez is Big Hero 6 filmmaker Patrick Osborne and together they construct a motion-capture animated version of Billie Eilish who cruises the streets and hills of Los Angeles in her Porche 550 Spyder. The car and locations are real with the singer drawn, and drawn real bad. I don't mean terrible animation, I mean it in the 'I'm not bad Eddie, I'm just drawn that way,' Jessica Rabbit way. Animated Billie Eilish is a bombshell with dreamy blue eyes, dare I say 'ocean eyes', and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Cool World are referenced in these scenes.
The film's subtitle, A Love Letter to Los Angeles, is expressed visually through these gorgeous animated Billie scenes just as it is expressed lyrically through the music.
The songs are the entirety of Eilish's sophomore album Happier Than Ever, played in their order from the album. At times, it is just Eilish and her album musicians on stage, but often she is given the full jazz experience with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on support and with Gustavo Dudamel on the baton.
The most joyous number to me is Goldwing, in which she is joined by members of the Los Angeles Children's Choir, with whom she sang as a child.
In a feature film, the work of the lighting designers and team is at its best when you don't notice it, but here as with live music, lighting can be everything, and in her gold silk top (the live and animated Billies are dressed to match), Eilish is old school Hollywood, appropriate for this love letter, and she is lit like a dream.
Always present but a humbly content background figure to his superstar sister is Eilish's brother Finneas O'Connell. As a twosome, the siblings are as iconic as The Carpenters, and they may have taken over John and Karen's mantle as hitmakers, at least by number of hits if not yet by longevity.
Finneas is sometimes on guitar, sometimes on keyboard, joined by drummer Andrew Marshall, for arrangements that are mostly true to the studio album, but the songs supported by the Philharmonic are at times jubilant.
This is a fairly safe family experience, with Disney beeping out the handful of harder words in Eilish's album lyrics, however dutiful parents might want to watch out for one sneaking in during the spoken word piece, Not My Responsibility, at around the 34-minute mark. This is perhaps the strongest piece of the film, a striking red and black animation inspired by the arches of the Hollywood Bowl and evokes a nightmare run through the tunnels that connect Los Angeles to the great valley behind it.
The singer's world tour was shut down after three days when Covid first hit last year, and this lovely bit of filmmaking should keep her young fans happy and engaged while they keep their fingers crossed there are live concerts in the new year.