Forget her trademark “decadence” and alleged obsession with the upper classes: the defining trait of Sofia Coppola’s films is in fact her impeccable use of music. Coppola can make cheesy, overplayed hits sound fresh and racy again, as when Heart’s period-appropriate “Magic Man” introduces Trip Fontaine in The Virgin Suicides; she has a sense of tone and mood that makes the use of My Bloody Valentine’s “Sometimes” in Lost in Translation feel like a no-brainer; and she can throw caution to the wind and reconfigure audience expectations with a song, as when Gang of Four’s post-punk masterpiece “Natural’s Not In It” begins Marie Antoinette.
Why is it, then, that so much of the music, or at least the presentation of the music, in A Very Murray Christmas—Sofia Coppola’s new hour-long Netflix film and her first since the wrongfully maligned The Bling Ring —is so dull? The band Phoenix performs “Alone on Christmas Day” in a moment that is supposed to be celebratory and reassuring, but a still camera and a lack of on-screen movement makes a respectable performance difficult to watch. Even when Maya Rudolph impressively channels Darlene Love’s ”Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” her vocal power is undercut by staid visuals. Has Coppola lost it?
Not so fast.
A Very Murray Christmas recounts a fictional story of Bill Murray as himself, despairing his Christmas variety show and then despairing more when a snowstorm and power outage trap him and other unhappy souls in the bar of the Carlyle Hotel. They try to cheer themselves up with Christmas songs, but the lack of energy in the performances and the matter-of-fact aftermath of each suggest that it is not working. It is not a coincidence, then, that the last song before Murray passes out drunk is “Fairytale of New York.” The Pogues’ song is an ode to a Christmas that can be dreamed but not had, and it’s also a perfect encapsulation of the film as a whole.
As they perform the song, not even the removal of the original song’s vulgar second verse can dampen the sting of secluded souls, all wishing they were in different circumstances, singing, “I could have been someone/Well so could anyone.” Meanwhile, Murray pounding shots clarifies the irony of the otherwise-sweet final verse, and for all the camaraderie in the performance, the loneliness remains unshaken.
That is, at least until the alcohol leads Murray to collapse, and we see his fairytale of New York. On a soundstage in Queens, a close-up from above of Murray pulls out to an overhead shot before slowly descending to eye level. Murray begins singing “Sleigh Ride” with Paul Shaffer, a horn section and gospel backing, and a number of deliberate cuts and zooms match the start of his lines while Coppola uses tracks, pans, insert shots, cutaways, and all the other tools at her disposal to introduce George Clooney and Miley Cyrus arriving on a sleigh and dazzling as an impressive rendition of “Sleigh Ride” continues. It’s the most choreographed and dynamic scene in the film and it is followed by another showstopper from Cyrus, who performs “Silent Night.”
This fairytale is in fact foretold at the beginning of the film, when Michael Cera, dismissed by Murray as “a Hollywood sleazebag,” offers his vision of a Christmas special: “blimp shot down into Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the retractable roof opens to 80,000 fans screaming fans”—we’ll do it in post, he says, justifying the soundstage—“camera zooms in, we see Miley Cyrus wearing a sexy red miniskirt sitting on a white sleigh.” It’s exactly what we see, and though Murray dismissed it initially, the reality of his failed special and miserable Christmas leave him pining for it.
When he wakes up on Christmas, Murray has food, Paul Shaffer, and Dimitri Dimitrov, but he is more than a little somber as he wishes Merry Christmas first to his pals, then out his window to New York, opining the fairytale that never was. Given the sharp contrast between the imagined Christmas and the real thing, the uninspired musical performances of the Carlyle Hotel are decidedly not a flaw in Coppola’s direction; on the contrary, they convey perfectly the vision of a depressing Christmas, one whose temporary relief comes as a bitter reminder that the idea of a well-spent Christmas often surpasses the reality.
As the credits roll, Rudolph sits drinking alone in the credits. “Merry Christmas, young lady,” an off-screen voice says. Rudolph reciprocates before disgustedly snarling at the camera “young lady, my ass,” another rebuke of what is and pained reminder of what should be.