“I know about losing things. But the magic isn’t just in what you’ve lost. It’s in what you still have.”
The above lines are spoken in the totally needed new holiday adventure and spectacle “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” (2020). I didn’t know how much my bruised-up heart was hungry for something so enchanting and determined to entertain and heal me. Despite my skepticism, I found myself putting away my Scrooge-like tendencies and surrendering to its boundless charms.
From the get go, you know this is something different. Two young Black children are seated by a yuletide fire and ask their Grandma (Phylicia Rashad in a heartwarming turn) to recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas” for them. She impishly responds, “I think it’s time for a new story.” Yes indeed!
“A child with an imagination always belongs,” says Jeronicus Jangle tenderly to his granddaughter. I realized at that moment how fortunate I’d been to have experienced so much magic as a child at the movies — whether “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) or “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). I remember my spirits soaring when Willy Wonka urged me to go with him and I would be in a world of pure inventiveness. Alas, in all those films, there was no representation. “Jingle Jangle” affirms that people of color deserve to claim their rightful place in the world of wonder at the movies. Aren’t we supposed to be able to see ourselves on the big screen – and connect? Every scene — from its over-the-top opening musical number – to its thrilling action-adventure middle to its lovely and tender denouement where a father reconciliates with his daughter – “Jingle Jangle” invites us into a universe that is inclusive. After the tumultuous summer of 2020 – this is what we need.
Jangle is an inventor who runs a toy emporium bursting with whimsy called ‘Jangle and Things’ in the Dickensian town of Cobbletown. But when his trusted apprentice Gufstason steals his most prized creation, the business starts to falter – and his relationship with his equally inventive daughter is so strained that she leaves home. Twenty years go by and Jangle is about to lose his store to his creditor — but he has until Christmas to come up with a new invention that could save the day. His bright granddaughter – Journey – shows up to meet him and she uncovers a long-forgotten invention that reawakens the power to believe and hope. It is ultimately a story about someone who has had his opportunities stolen from him and has lost faith – only to have it all returned by the love of his family.
Inspired by “Dreamgirls” and “The Wiz,” writer/director David E. Talbert started working on this project as a stage musical in 1998 – and there’s indeed a strong theatrical undercurrent. The score features songs by the likes of John Legend and Philip Lawrence – the latter known for his record-breaking work with Bruno Mars – and straddles genres ranging from R&B to pop, gospel and traditional musical theatre. Most memorable to me is “Miles and Miles” sung by the postal worker Mrs. Johnston who has a not-so-secret crush on Jeronicus Jangle – and the Legend-penned 11 o’clock number “Make It Work” that is a lovely father-daughter anthem.
The set design and costumes, which blend 19th century influences with African culture – “Afro-Victorian” – is striking. There’s a juxtaposition of the old and the new – recalling films like “Oliver!” (1972) and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968). Its candy-colored palette is eye-popping.
Forest Whitaker as Jeronicus Jangle anchors the dizzying extravaganza around him giving all the undertakings a Shakespearean feel. His presence alone is sanctioning the proceedings. In the first opening number that he partakes in, he observes, “back up dancers?” It’s a moment of levity as well as gravity. Whitaker might just be one of the greatest American actors. He can do no wrong. Early in his career, he studied to be an opera singer – and when he finally gets his moment to sing – we ride with him. He’s supported by an eager cast. Tony Award winning actress Anika Noni Rose as his daughter Jessica shares with him one of the warmest scenes I’ve seen this year. Keegan-Michael Key takes on a role unlike anything in his career as the apprentice gone rogue. In a week, he’s in “The Prom” as well – and you will see this showman is not a one-trick pony. Lisa Davina Phillip as the mailwoman who wants Jeronicus to notice her steals every scene she is in. Gosh she’s terrific. As the tenacious granddaughter, newcomer Madalen Mills holds her own. Ricky Martin does fine voice work as a toy matador named Don Juan.
I’m so happy to have found a new holiday tradition to watch.
Mrs. Johnston: “The world needs to see you smile!”
Available to stream on Netflix
Written and Directed by David E. Talbert
Starring Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, Madalen Mills, Phylicia Rashad, Lisa Davina Phillip and Ricky Martin
Writer and Director David E. Talbert on “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”
“If you look at my catalog before ‘Jingle Jangle,’ it’s hard to say [that] this same guy was going to do this expensive, epic, visual effects-heavy, period musical, but these are the kinds of films that I watched growing up. It’s always been in me to do it, but I just never had a path to get here,” Talbert said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Netflix carved a path for me. I’ve been playing around with music on the stage for 25 years. It was like, ‘Man, can we hurry up and roll these cameras before somebody says, ‘I was just kidding.’” Talbert, who started his career as a playwright, grew up on popular musical fantasy films like the original “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which he said is one of his all-time favorite movies. But he didn’t have much luck passing his appreciation down to his young son, Elias. Talbert remembered, with humor, showing his four-year-old the Dick Van Dyke-starrer for the first time in 2017. “I sat with him and I’m singing the songs and everything, and he just wasn’t into it at all, and asked if he could go play with his LEGOs,” said Talbert. “As he walked away, I looked at him, I looked at the screen, and I realized, he doesn’t see himself in the film. But this was my childhood, because there were no other options for diversity of representation on the screen at the time. He has Black Panther and Miles Morales on his wall. So that’s when I thought, it’s time to do it, because if my son is experiencing this, how many sons and daughters of color, around the world want to see themselves represented as well?”
Talbert originally conceived “Jingle Jangle” as a Broadway show before approaching it as a film. Universal and Disney loved the idea but ultimately passed, leaving a lane open for Netflix. “Netflix is a global company, so they understand that there are people of color all around the world. They want to reach those people, and so they took a big bet on me,” said Talbert. “Now, the path to get it to the stage is obvious, and that’s what I am gearing up for: a perennial Broadway production of ‘Jingle Jangle.’” Netflix released the film in 90 theaters on November 13, but the COVID-19 crisis made a premiere impossible. “A kind of trade-off is that people are home, so more eyeballs will be on this than there would have been if we weren’t in this pandemic,” Talbert said. “My letdown is probably the lack of a premiere, because you get a chance to celebrate with your peers, in a big Hollywood red-carpet event, and all of that. But I’m spiritual in the sense that everything happens the way it’s supposed to, if you’re in tune with your purpose. I mourned it quickly and moved on.” In addition to Whitaker, Key, and newcomer Mills, the film’s multicultural cast includes Anika Noni Rose, Phylicia Rashad, Ricky Martin, and Hugh Bonneville. It’s a powerhouse group of actors with theatrical and film experience. “When you’re looking at something groundbreaking, it was that spirit that I think captured everybody,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I populated it with people who knew their way around the stage, great storytellers, great actors, actresses. I sought them out, I think they sought me out too, and it was just a perfect storm.” It took a four-month, global search to find the film’s young female lead. Madalen Mills makes her feature film debut as Journey Jangle, who shares Jeronicus’ passion for invention. She’s already a Broadway veteran with credits in “School of Rock: The Musical” and in the 2017 national touring company of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical.” “We saw her and it was clear for everybody that she didn’t come there to audition for the role, she came there to claim what was hers,” Talbert said. “I think we’re watching Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Stephanie Mills all wrapped up in one with her.”
The efforts of the director and his producer wife, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, are paying off, with early reviews applauding the film as an instant classic that could entertain for generations. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating is currently 93 percent. With an all-black cast, it’s the kind of project that likely wouldn’t be greenlit a decade ago. Talbert credits Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” as the films that “blew the roof off,” in terms of the critical and commercial success of genre films with Black casts. “I joke all the time that I’m doing Blamblin, as in Black Amblin, because that’s what I want to do — big action, adventure, wonder, heightened universes that Steven Spielberg put out into the world, that spoke to me as a kid, and still as an adult,” he said. “There are a only a handful of people like me in this business who get to do that. So, it’s just a great opportunity to push the envelope so that it’ll be easier for the people coming behind me who look like me.” Up next for Talbert, he’s prepping “a big romance” as well as “a big action-adventure” — projects he’s been writing off and on for years. He feels like now is a good time to dust them off, given what seems to be studios’ newfound appreciation for Black content. “At the end of the day, success is being able to do what you love,” he said. “If you’re able to be compensated well, that’s the cherry on top. As the zeros and the commas come, I’ll take that, but that does not define me. Doing what’s from my heart, my soul, doing what I love and being able to share it with the world, that is success for me.” (indiewire.com)
Hair and Makeup Designer Sharon Martin on “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey”
“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” from director David E. Talbert and John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co., is among an increasing number of new Christmas movies that revolve around Black characters. Hair and makeup designer Sharon Martin went to great lengths to reimagine the look of the Black hairstyles in the family film, set against the backdrop of Victorian England and bowing Nov. 13 on Netflix. Martin aimed to portray the women in the film, particularly Grandma, played by Phylicia Rashad, as “one of the ladies who looked smart, who went to church or went to see their families, as opposed to how we typically see Black women in films from that era where they’re in slave roles and not celebrated.” The designer, who has worked on films including “Doctor Strange,” started by researching rare photos of Black people in Victorian England and building on the basic shapes and styles she saw. Rashad’s wig was made from scratch. “We wanted her to look like we had never seen before with this dreadlock look. Traditionally, she’s Mama Huxtable [to everyone] and wholesome, but her hair is straight,” says Martin, referring to Rashad’s character in “The Cosby Show.” “With this, I wanted to do something different.” Martin started by sampling colors that would work with Rashad’s skin tone. The wig has manicured dreadlocks — all beautifully taken care of, with a salt-and-pepper look.
Alex Rouse Wigs in London was Martin’s go-to wigmaker. “It took two months because [Alex] would mix the colors until they were right, and she’d send me samples. I’d see how it would look, and I’d send her notes back.” Getting the exact fit for the wig was a challenge, since Rashad was based in New York. “We had to find her head shape. Her hairdresser sent us the measurements, and you hoped it all would come together,” Martin says. When Rashad was finally able to try on the finished wig during the film’s U.K. shoot last year, it fit “like a glove,” the designer notes proudly. Newcomer Madalen Mills plays Journey, the curious child who visits the workshop of her grandfather, Jeronicus Jangle, played by Forest Whitaker. Once the greatest inventor of gadgets and gizmos, he loses his knack for magic after his most prized invention is stolen. Martin wanted to do something that was “gorgeous, fun and still fit the period” for Journey. The creation: a “faux-hawk [a fake Mohawk], and her hair was interlaced with ribbon and ornamented with gears.” Martin went to the prop department and found cogs, wheels and screws that she wove into Journey’s hairpiece to incorporate the idea of a preteen girl existing in a magical world of toys. For Whitaker’s Jeronicus, it took four concept drawings featuring different lengths of beard and hair to nail the design — a slightly wild Frederick Douglass vibe. “We wanted him to look like he wasn’t really taking care of himself anymore. Here was a man who had lost his wife and had not been the same since.” The bushy wig took six weeks to make, and when it was finished, Martin did more work on it — cutting it and shaping. “I wanted it to look textured but not homeless. I had to find a balance,” she says. Whether styling Whitaker, Rashad or young Mills, Martin’s goal was to ensure that the Black hair in the film appeared accurate to the period while avoiding the concession of straightening it to blend into white culture. “Black people and women are reclaiming their texture, and they’re proud of it, and it’s not being compromised,” says Martin. “I really wanted to showcase that.” (variety.com)
Forest Whitaker on Playing Jeronicus Jangle
“…the director, David Talbert, he asked me to sit with him and talk to him about it. And he told me the story of it. And I was really taken by what he was trying to do and the scope of what he was trying to create. So I signed on…He told me that I was going to be playing Jeronicus Jangle. It was sort of a classic Christmas figure, like a Dr. Dolittle, or a Willy Wonka. Oh, what was the other one? Those kinds of characters. Oh, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He was going to be going on a journey where he was going to lose everything and that his apprentice would steal all of his stuff. And he was going to go on a journey where his granddaughter would come into his life and make him begin to believe in life again, believe in magic again, and reconcile the family and come together. And that was really, I thought it was an amazing theme to be able to work from and a great character to play. And he said he was going to be a musical and I was going to be singing. And that was exciting to me. That felt like a real stretch. And it was going to be a challenge too. And so I signed on and I knew he was trying to make something that was multicultural. That was going to be my family. It was going to be a Black family, but it was going to be a universal theme that everyone could feel in love.” (collider.com)
About Writer and Director David E. Talbert
An imaginative auteur breaking boundaries with his sensational and acclaimed works in theater, film and literature, David E. Talbert is a brilliant force in the entertainment industry. Talbert’s love of writing began to take shape while attending Morgan State University and later New York University where he graduated from the school’s accelerated film program. While his education opened his mind to creative possibilities, Talbert acknowledges he has learned everything he knows about his craft from doing the work itself. Guided always by instinct and what moves him, Talbert approaches his writing from the inside out. His plays, films and books often draw from his own personal life and experience. Born into a family of pastors and preachers, Talbert learned early on that comedy and drama were essentially two sides of the same coin. Looking back on the most influential characters in his own narrative, the sermons of his uncle and great grandmother impressed upon him at a young age the power of words and the emotion they can elicit. Talbert’s writing has since been grounded in truth and from a space of hope and inspiration. The genesis of this playwright is as remarkable as his genius. With an invitation to the theater while living in the Bay Area, Talbert was immediately moved by a creative passion to write his own play. Sitting down with an idea that very evening, his first play, “Tellin’ it Like it Tiz,” opened a year later at Berkely’s Black Repertory Theatre. The play would go on to tour across the country for two years, beginning Talbert’s nearly 30-year career as one of the highest grossing and most recognizable writers, directors and producers in American theater.
Today, Talbert is heralded as one of the most prolific theater makers in America. He has written and produced 14 national tours, breaking box office records and capturing the hearts of audiences around the world. Talbert has garnered 24 NAACP nominations in which he won Best Playwright of the Year for “The Fabric of a Man,” and has won the NAACP Trailblazer Award for his contributions and accomplishments in theatre. He has also received the New York Literary Award for Best Playwright of the Year for his musical, “Love in the Nick of Tyme.” His impressive list of blockbuster national tours also includes his most recent giant, “What My Husband Doesn’t Know,” starring Morris Chestnut. Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad stars in “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey.” In 2008, Talbert made his feature film directorial debut with the Sony Pictures comedy “First Sunday,” which he also wrote and produced, starring Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan and Katt Williams. He then went on to direct Fox Searchlight’s “Baggage Claim,” which marked one of the few times a filmmaker had adapted and directed his own novel. In 2016, Talbert wrote and directed the holiday film, “Almost Christmas” for Universal Pictures with an all-star cast including Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union and Academy Award Winner Mo’Nique. The film became the highest grossing and most critically acclaimed theatrical release of Talbert’s career. All three of his feature films have debuted as the #1 Comedy in America. Talbert most recently wrote, directed and produced “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” which will be Netflix’s first original live-action musical set to be released this holiday season. A 20-year passion project in the making, Talbert has created a completely original and inclusive cinematic holiday experience for every family.
The fantastical holiday tale follows an eccentric toymaker (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker), his tenacious granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills), and a magical invention with the power to reunite their family and change their lives forever. The film also stars Emmy Award winner Keegan Micheal Key, Tony Award winners Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose, and Golden Globe Nominee Hugh Bonneville. This musical spectacle features original songs by EGOT winner, John Legend and eight-time Grammy winner, Philip Lawrence. Talbert previously collaborated with Netflix in 2017 when he directed and produced the Ted Melfi-penned original film, “El Camino Christmas” starring Luke Grimes, Tim Allen, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard, and Jessica Alba. In addition to his work in theater and film, Talbert is also a best-selling author, having written three novels “Baggage Claim” (2003), “Love on the Dotted Line” (2005) and “Love Don’t Live Here No More: Book One of Doggy Tales” (2006), which he wrote with Snoop Dogg. Grateful to be doing the work that he loves and understanding the challenges many face in the entertainment industry; Talbert recently launched Lights Camera Access (LCA), a speaker series designed to give students who are underrepresented in the entertainment industry access, insight, and mentorship opportunities. Talbert and his wife and producing partner, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, reside in Southern California. (davidetalbert.com)