james debate
james debate

Friday 31 July 2020

Welcome to another end of year retrospective on an "interesting" season of Premier League football. Here at The Ephemeric I'd like to use this moment to take stock of the season gone by and bestow a few carefully considered accolades.

premier league 2020 liverpool champions klopp lampard chelsea ephemeric
To call this an unusual season would be an understatement. In truth, it bore many of the hallmarks of being a remarkable year of football even prior to the Coronavirus pandemic forcing an unprecedented three month delay that ultimately saw the season resolved in a six week mad-dash to the finish.

Liverpool were eventually crowned as Champions for the first time in thirty years; a conclusion that, while not made official until the resumption of football in June, had been pretty much a certainty for much of the year. The reds' victory marks the crowning achievement in a remarkable tenure under Jurgen Klopp that has also seen the club reach two Champions League finals, winning one. The transformation of this club from superclub has-beens to arguably the best side in the world today is no small accomplishment and one that surely cements Klopp's place as one of the great managers of the modern era.

As Liverpool have been impressive, so too have Manchester City been disappointing. For a club to so routinely spend hundreds of millions on transfers (net) and still fall so short is a serious underperformance. One that Pep won't want to make a habit if he is to retain his job.

Outside the big two we have seen far tighter competition for the final two Champions League places. The final sprint came down to a three-horse race of Chelsea, Manchester United and Leicester City, but for large swathes of the season that contest also featured the likes of Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United. Ultimately those two places went to a Manchester United side resurgent in the second half of the season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard's homegrown Chelsea.

At the other end of the table the goals of Teemu Pukki were not enough to save Norwich from early relegation, while it took the last game of the season to separate Aston Villa, Bournemouth and Watford. Of the three it was ultimately Villa, spearheaded by the managerial dream team of Dean Smith and John Terry, who managed to secure survival for another season.

Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.

The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2020:

Winners: Liverpool - Champions and comfortably so. As frightening as their quality should be the consistency with which they have shown that quality over the past three years. Arguably the world's top side at the moment.

Relegated: Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich - Heartbreak on the final day of the season for Bournemouth and Watford, two sides who have made a credible presence of themselves in the top flight over the past five years and will now be looking to bounce back.

Player of the Year: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) - While his club may have disappointed, Kevin de Bruyne has had probably his best year in football. An indispensable creative force and dangerous goal threat, adept from set-pieces blessed with a vision that few in the world possess. For all his renown, this is the season that truly established his place as one of the world's best.

U-21 Player of the Year: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) - TAA is not only the best young player in the league, but one of the best old ones too. A top level fullback by anyone's measure, but TAA has remarkably also managed to become the most prolific creative force in a Liverpool side known for its attacking swagger. The good news for U-21 players is that this is the last year in which TAA will be eligible for this award.

Best Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Burnley) - The form goalkeeper of the season has not been the expensive superstars at Liverpool or Manchester City, but the little fancied Nick Pope. For Pope to have been in contention for the Golden Glove despite being supported by such an unremarkable defence is no small achievement. Indeed no other goalkeeper has registered more saves this year.

Top Scorer: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) (23) - At 33 years of age, Vardy still shows no signs of slowing down. A gifted goalscorer and consistently one of the most difficult strikers in the league.

Most Assists: Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) (20) - A remarkable season in which Kevin equalled, but sadly failed to beat, the existing record number of assists.

Overachievers: Chelsea - An easy choice for this prize. An inexperienced manager's first season in top flight football, an inherited squad full of kids with no established striker and the league's weakest goalkeeper, and to top it all off a transfer ban to prevent any solution to these issues. This Chelsea side should not have been anywhere near top four, and their final position tied for third with Manchester United is nothing short of remarkable.

Underachievers: Arsenal - Also an easy choice. This Arsenal team was fancied by most pundits to take a top four position. Instead they finished in eighth, their lowest table position since 1994. This is a club with a lot of work to do if it is to compete with the top teams again.

Manager of the Year: Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool) & Frank Lampard (Chelsea) - This year I simply could not pick a winner for this prize, and so yes I am going to cheat a bit and share it between Klopp and Lampard. For Klopp the rationale is simple: the man won the title, a culmination of years of work with the club that has been nothing short of legendary. But for Klopp to win the title with such a great team is arguably less impressive than what Lampard has achieved. Fourth place (tied third) and a cup final is far beyond what should reasonably have been expected for Frank's youthful and transfer banned side, a remarkable debut achievement for what looks to be a managerial star in the making.

Best signing of the season: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) - An impressive debut season in English football for Fernandes and arguably the main reason for United's dramatic turnaround in form. The only reason Fernandes is not on the team of the season below is because I believe a player should participate in at least half the games of a season in order to be eligible. But the fact that Fernandes has had such dramatic impact in such a short spell of time in the league shows why he deserves this prize.

Worst signing of the season: Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal) - They say that the transfer fee should not dictate expectations for a player. "They" have clearly not been watching Nicolas Pepe.

The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2020:

english epl bpl premier league best team xi of the season 2019

So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!

Friday 10 July 2020

Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller
Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff
Studio Walt Disney Pictures
Running time 160 minutes

alexander hamilton 2020 musical film broadway disney plus lin manuel miranda oscars

If 2020 has had one singular moment in pop culture it is this. The past several months of pandemic and global shutdown have left in its wake a world starving for new content, a gap in the market that Disney have gleefully closed by bringing forward by more than a year the release of the film recording of the musical that conquered the world, Hamilton.

Before we begin I think it is important to give great credit to Disney here. At a time where the world is grieving, isolated and in greater need of entertainment than ever, most studios have chosen to delay their upcoming content by months or years rather than release to streaming services, with a view to maximising profit when cinemas reopen. By contrast, for Disney to have actually brought forward the planned release of this film by a full year is an admirable move and a much needed moment of brightness for us all to enjoy (side note: it is also obviously a shrewd business move that will earn Disney millions in new subscriptions, which begs the question why more studios are not doing this).

This is, of course, the much anticipated streaming release of Hamilton, the musical. Not a complete film adaptation of the musical, but rather a recording of the show featuring the original Broadway cast and directed by the director of the original stage production. Those coming into this film blind need to bear that in mind, not that they expect a full Hollywood treatment.

I found myself approaching this film in the perhaps slightly unusual position of having never seen the stage show and being only familiar in passing with some of the music. I was aware of the hype, of course (and indeed came close to seeing the show on Broadway back in 2015 before opting against it), but like many of you the sales pitch of a rap musical about one of America's Founding Fathers held little appeal for me, much less my non-American other half.

Having now seen the show, it is my considered opinion that Hamilton is that rarest of things: something which not only manages to live up to its hype, but exceeds it.

In retrospect, I think the coverage of this show as a "rap musical" has done a great disservice to just how good Hamilton actually is. Indeed the music of the show is every bit as diverse as its cast, drawing on a great number of different styles and influences from Sondheim-esque pomposity to nineties pop and the British invasion bands of the 1960s. Despite what you may have heard, Hamilton has more Les Miserables in its DNA than Biggie Smalls.

It is a testament to the considerable compositional talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda that he is able to dabble in so many different genres and produce such consistently excellent music. But as much as the sound, it is the thought behind the music that impresses, from its thematic consistency to the matching of different musical and vocal styles to different characters, and its clever use of recurring motifs to express its progression of ideas.

I often say that the test of a new musical is the extent to which its songs remain stuck in your head in the following days. By that metric Hamilton succeeds greater than any musical I can recall for many years. Sometimes you come across a good musical which gets a few songs stuck in your head (see Hadestown). Looking over the track list now, I can truly say that almost all the songs in Hamilton have found their way into my head at some point since watching the show.

While the music sounds great, it is the quality of the lyrics that stands out more than anything. Lin-Manuel spent ten years writing Hamilton and it shows. Every line is so clever, so carefully considered. The rhymes will impress, while the lightning pace of some of the lyrics can be dazzling. Above all, the content of these songs is remarkable and the extent to which Lin-Manuel manages to squeeze so much complex thinking, historical context, and ambitious storytelling in these songs belies an astonishingly adept command of language.

The quality of writing extends to its cast of characters. While the accuracy with which these historical figures are depicted is open to debate, these exaggerated larger than life personalities animate the characters in a way that historical figures rarely have been. A significant part of this achievement lies in the cast's strong performances. Daveed Diggs delivers perhaps the greatest spectacle of the evening with two markedly different yet wildly entertaining depictions of Lafayette and Jefferson. Renée Elise Goldsberry provides the most powerfully raw performance with her repressed proto-feminist depiction of Angelica Schuyler. Christopher Jackson's depiction of George Washington is perhaps the only one I have ever seen that truly managed to capture the fire and inspirational qualities behind the man. Jonathan Groff simply steals every scene in which he appears as his psychotic stalker-ex interpretation of King George. Then of course is the incomparably layered portrayal of Aaron Burr by Leslie Odom Jr. It says everything that Lin-Manuel's own performance, which is by no means shoddy, is probably the weakest among the primary cast.

So far I have mainly been discussing Hamilton's qualities as a stage production. But this is a review of a film recording. So we must also consider its qualities, both as a piece of cinema in its own right, and as an recording of the theatrical performance.

Over the course of lockdown I have found myself watching a great many recordings of theatre, including the National Theatre's own fairly elaborate cinematic recordings. In pretty much all cases I have found the experience to be an enjoyable if somewhat lacking alternative to the theatre, even in the case of productions that I really quite like. Try as they might, none of those recordings ever seem to quite capture the feeling of being there on the night, and ends up feeling somehow distant and sedate. Miraculously, Hamilton does not appear to suffer from these same issues, at least not to as great an extent.

Hamilton was filmed over three separate performances, including one session in an empty auditorium used for capturing all the close up shots. It is clear that a great deal of effort has been put into the camera work and the editing of the final film. I think this is ultimately what makes the difference. When you are actually sitting in a theatre, your eyes can provide that natural close focus, something which tends to get lost through the additional abstraction of the camera. By providing those carefully choreographed close up shots, this film effectively negates this issue and does a much better job of bringing you into the action. In some ways, I found the experience to be even superior to actually attending a production in person. That close up camera work allows you to appreciate the actors' performances in a way that you may not necessarily be able to do in a large and distant auditorium.

If I had to get nitpicky I would say that having to follow the director's camera takes away some of the audience's agency in choosing where to focus, potentially missing some of the fine work of the larger ensemble, or the background performances of the non-speaking cast. I also found it odd that Disney released the video without some chapter browsing functionality, something which would seem a bit of a no-brainer for a musical to allow instant jumping to particular songs or moments.

Clearly though, these are minor quibbles. Hamilton is undoubtedly a superlative piece of cinema which does a remarkable job of capturing the magic of theatre. As a piece of music, Hamilton is excellent. As a feat of writing it is a truly seminal accomplishment. That comes across plainly in this adaptation and the result is a cultural moment that should prove a delight to both longtime fans and newcomers alike. For the first time, Hamilton is easily and affordably available to everyone. If you have not yet managed to see what all the fuss is about, don't throw away your shot.

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