'Let It Shine': Cyrano Raps

Lesley Smith

Amid the too-easy lessons learned in Let It Shine, Tyler James Williams captures beautifully the chameleon-like quality of young people on the cusp of independence.

Let It Shine

Airtime: Friday, 8pm ET
Cast: Tyler James Williams, Coco Jones, Trevor Jackson, Brandon Mychal Smith, Nicole Sullivan, Courtney B. Vance, Dawnn Lewis
Subtitle: Movie Premiere
Network: Disney Channel
Director: Paul Hoen
Air date: 2012-06-15

Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac famously mocks the human predilection for distracting surfaces, in this case, physical beauty. Yet its cruelest joke is hard to know, whether it's the trick played by Christian and Cyrano on Roxanne, or the playwright's suggestion that if you are, as one of my students put it, "true to your own authentic self," the world will eventually fall at your feet. Like all romantic fiction, the play's main aim is to fuel the fantasies that keep us in line as we quietly live out our very unremarkable lives. Not surprisingly, it has enjoyed enormous success for the last hundred years, on stage, on radio, and in film.

Years of adaptations have showed that the straightest reading may not be the cleverest. Recent versions of the play have highlighted the sting in the tail: the pusillanimity of the central characters' behavior and the tragi-comedy of lives measured by looks and not by substance. Disney's new tween musical version, Let It Shine, on the other hand, wallows in self-affirmation and candy-flavored optimism, snagging the basic storyline from Rostand, but stripping away the wasted lives that result from the characters' actions. That said, Let It Shine sometimes zings, thanks to excellent acting by Tyler James Williams in the Cyrano role (here, Cyrus DeBarge) and a starry soundtrack melding hip-hop, gospel, and rap.

Let It Shine shifts the battle for Roxanne's love to suburban Atlanta, Georgia, where Cyrus directs the choir at his father's Baptist church and busses tables at a downtown, teen-friendly music club, where he hangs out in the shadow of his best friend, Kris (Trevor Jackson). Cyrus, a confident rapper in his home studio but too shy to stand up on stage, is running into problems. His father Jacob (Courtney B. Vance) bans the hip-hop he's using to jazz up the choir, and his grade-school crush, teen music phenom Roxanne Andrews (Coco Jones), assumes the cooler Kris wrote the romantic rap Cyrus penned for her under the pseudonym Truth.

This premise turns the sword fights of Rostand's original into witty rapping duels, with Brandon Mychal Smith's sneering Lord of Da Bling as the MC to beat. His snarky wit cuts competitors dead and helps to zap the sugar of the story. When Kris goes into the studio to record "his" rap, with multi-talented Cyrus alongside as his "engineer," Cyrus and Roxie end up debating her use of Auto-Tune. Here scriptwriters Eric Daniel and Don D. Scott use the romantic instruction that Roxie should be her "own authentic self" in order to expose the well-known problems with Auto-Tune, namely, its manufacture of yet another perfectionist fiction. When Roxie protests, "Everyone uses it," that doesn't absolve each person from making an individual decision.

Amid the lessons learned, Williams captures beautifully the chameleon-like quality of young people on the cusp of independence. One moment he's the geeky tie-and-cardigan-wearing accompanist, banging on the church organ and keeping the congregation rocking. The next he morphs into the weary busboy, mocked by Da Bling's crew, knowing he's good but lacking courage for the fight. Cyrus displays this uncertainty in front of his parents, at times the teenager chafing under their illogical prohibitions, at others the young adult with a life to make, despite and because of restraints. Williams' performance brings credibility to some very rocky scenes, such as the moment when he and Kris reveal their deception to Roxanne, just before her big performance. Unfortunately, no one else quite matches his conviction (although Vance appears to be enjoying his stint as the too-familiar fun-busting preacher).

Jones' acting as Roxanne rarely reaches the level of pedestrian, but she's the singer in the show, belting out showstoppers as comfortably as she tempers a troubled-love song. The set list in Let It Shine mixes up a teen-friendly palette of genres from gospel and pop to R&B and hip-hop, including as much secular aspiration as the religion of love. "Guardian Angel" includes a paean to the power of creativity that might inspire any hopeful writer: "I wanna be the greatest in the world," Cyrus asserts,

Not for the money, or the fame, or the girls,

Not for the car keys, jetiskis, or the vacation to the West Indies,

But simply 'cuz I love it.

When I write, I'm like a puppeteer,

Pullin' these strings til the melody sings.

And it honestly makes me spread my wings.

Combining ideas old and new, such lyrics indicate the soundtrack's basic eclecticism. And while this might appear a cynical bid for maximum audience appeal, it also highlights the continuum of development in American popular music, with its dual heritage in faith and exile, and especially, the role of black churches in nurturing that heritage.

Such allusions to creative legacy are pretty much lost, however, in the requisite happy Christian ending. Roxanne, last seen refusing to talk to Cyrus and Kris from her dark-tinted limo, inexplicably turns up at the DeBarges' church ready to reconcile. Dad, of course, decides hip-hop is okay. And Kris conveniently disappears as an impediment to the love match and musical partnership of Cyrus and Roxie (at least Rostand had the decency to give Christian a logical end by killing him off in battle). The various sorts of music must also be reconciled, and so the movie comes up with a hallucinogenic, all-singing-and-dancing finale, choreographed to the children's gospel song and civil rights anthem, "This Little Light of Mine."

All this contrivance doesn't quite obscure what Let It Shine does well. As Jackson phrases it, "Viewers don't have to know the history behind this movie to enjoy watching it. But I like the idea that somebody might be interested enough to want to go back and learn more about the original. If that could happen, that would be pretty great."


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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