Archive for Music

The Man Who Thought He Was President…

Suspend your disbelief–probably a good idea in today’s political environment–but in this instance it’s to recommend a highly imaginative and delightful film called Yesterday.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) have made a movie with a suspend your disbelief premise—due to a Y2K-like electrical event the earth experiences a 12 second blackout during which a struggling singer-songwriter on a bike is hit by a bus. But wait, that’s not the premise. read more

Remembering Romeo & Juliet…

On June 17, 1961 a 23-year-old dancer broke free of his Russian security detail, dashed through the immigration barrier at a Paris airport and asked the French for political asylum. Rudolf Nureyev wasn’t yet famous outside the world of Russian ballet, but in that world he was known as a White Crow – belaya vorona– Russian idiom for a person who is different from his surroundings, who doesn’t ‘fit’ within cultural circles, and goes against the stream. 

In 2018, a film entitled The White Crow was released without much fanfare. Written by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours) and directed by Ralph Fiennes, it chronicles Nureyev’s life up to and including his 1961 defection in Paris. It’s a mystery that the film didn’t register with the critics. It’s dramatic, true to its facts, suspenseful, and audiences loved it. Even if you’re not a fan of ballet it’s worth seeing. This is first class drama – both the life and film story. read more

Forgiveness and Tolerance…the limits.

Forgiveness (noun): “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu) read more

The Trump Antidote…

I’m not easily upset or given to anxiety, but several recent high blood pressure readings on routine doctor visits raised a little concern at home. The readings particularly alarmed Marilynn, who is always surprised to hear that my blood pressure and cholesterol are lower than the average bear’s in spite of my affection for mayonnaise, eggs, butter, and sugar. So, in the interest of domestic peace, I caved and agreed to have it checked out.

I secretly hoped that the visit would be like the one to the car mechanic where, after an exhaustive inspection, the technician shakes his head, declares the problem non-existent, and hands me a bill for the labor. It turns out, luckily, that my suspicions were right; my doctor took three readings in the 120/70 range, smiled knowingly, and sent me home…with a bill for services.

In retrospect, my own diagnosis is “transient Donald Trump effect.” Hours spent listening to MSNBC tweet storm after tweet storm. After a while my muscles tense, my blood pressure rises, and I begin to shout at the TV. Not a blood pressure problem – just a form of global political stress. I’m sure I’m not alone, but if I’m going to survive the next two years I need to divine a coping strategy.

So, reassured that BP is not the problem, Marilynn and I began thinking of a survival strategy. Our first act was to acknowledge that our preference for dark little art films probably wasn’t increasing our joy and feeling of well-being. In the past few weeks we’ve seen Black Klansman, Collete, Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Wife, and Roma. None of them have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face. We need to let our affection for these dark, arty films slide for the time being. On Christmas Day we substituted Mary Poppins Returns.

I was skeptical but willing to try. Would this just be saccharine eye/ear candy? Those of you who know me will understand. I’m not a fan of animated films (there is animation). I’m not attracted to special effects where people fly (Mary flies). And, feel good films made primarily for children (this is one of those) are not in my wheelhouse. So, Mary Poppins Returns looked like a serious test of our new strategy. Surprisingly, it passed with flying colors (no pun intended) thanks to Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I really did leave the theater smiling.

I’ve grown to love modern technology. Almost everything has a digital analog these days, and with TiVo and Roku there are so many options from Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and others. When I was learning how to use a computer (remember MS-DOS?) one of my motivations was knowing that if I mastered the basics, I could access the New York Public Library’s reference section. Imagine… Today, MS-DOS is ancient history and so are Internet Explorer, Alta Vista, Yahoo and the other early search engines. Today, it’s all about Google and research is as close as your next key stroke. My daughter writes for national publications from her Hailey, Idaho home and my wife manages a senior health care consultancy from Saigon, Berlin, Paris, and Rome – wherever we happen to be – with her MacBook Pro.

So, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, we came home and pulled up YouTube on our living room TV and watched parts of the original Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke version, saw interviews with the actors, songwriters, screenwriters, and directors of both versions, and… it sounds pretentious, but also talked about the relevance of Mary Poppins to what’s going on in the world today.

Think about the films–both Mary Poppins’ versions. They’re about young families with small children. The Banks families – Jr. and Sr. They’re both struggling financially. In Returns the young mother dies. The distraught husband, a teller at the bank that holds the deed, neglects to make a house payment (the wife’s job) and they fall behind on their mortgage. The evil bankers, pretending to help, foreclose. In the first film the father, is fired by Mr. Dawes, the evil banker, but dies laughing at one of Mr. Banks’ Sr.’s jokes. I won’t give away the ending of the new film, but it’s equally satisfying.

So, how far do we have to go to find real life parallels? Not so far, it turns out. Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury made a fortune foreclosing on sub-prime mortgages sold to vulnerable people who shouldn’t have been given mortgages in the first place. In November, Munchkin and his thin-skinned trophy wife were making news at the US Mint while simultaneously disparaging the poor unfortunates who are unable to afford the luxe items she lives for. Indulge me while I imagine the Munchkins dying of laughter on their way to the bank. Life imitates art?

So… the strategy is working. My blood pressure is down and I’m having so much fun I’ve forgotten about Donald J. Trump. I’m reminded of Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness in which Cousins, afflicted with a life-threatening disease, initiated a revolution in patient care by adopting the innovative theory that humor can marshal the body’s natural resources to combat disease. Thank you, Mr. Cousins; you and Mary Poppins have me smiling again. We’re on a roll.

Marilynn is lifelong fan of musical theater and she has brought me along in the last few years. They’re seductive and habit-forming. Two weeks ago, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, another feel good, smile generating musical – this one with an immigrant theme. How timely. These feel-good entertainments are charged with deeper meanings. Who knew?

At the end of Mary Poppins Returns, Mary flies away, and and as we left the theater we reminisced about how other musicals had also made us feel good. We remembered seeing Singing in the Rain for the first time and after checking out the Mary Poppins stuff on YouTube, we went to Amazon Prime and put Singing in the Rain on our watchlist. I suppose it’s the time we live in, but in these perilous times it’s easy to find secret messages in these feel-good movies.

Singing in the Rain is about how technology changed the film industry. It’s hard to find a more current topic. In the musical, the story line is about the transition from silent films to talkies. The star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), loses her star role because of her shrill voice and Queens accent while Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) becomes a star because she can sing, dance – and talk. No lip synching (yes, lip-synching is what brings Lina down). Think Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Victoria Beckham.

And, if you think it’s a stretch to see Singing in the Rain as political, check out how the Sunshine State News (Florida rag) uses it vis a vis today’s news.

In any event, I think we’re on to something. It’s important to find some balance in our lives and coping strategies to deal with both disease and Donald Trump. Trump will be gone soon enough, relatively speaking, but if we’re not in good health it won’t matter. Find your own survival strategy. For now, finding things that make me smile and take me briefly away from Oval Office tweet storms, is my strategy. To die laughing isn’t a bad end is it Mr. Banks?

 

Escaping the Nightmare…

As a movie fan I’m often surprised to learn how long it takes to bring a film project to the screen. What seems like an of-the-moment performance may take years to find its way to a theater near you. That’s certainly true of the newest version of A Star is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Like its earlier versions, this is the story of an older star who discovers a young talent, falls in love with her, but is ultimately destroyed by alcohol and jealousy as his protege’s star brightens while his own grows dimmer.

The Star is Born franchise was launched in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March featured in a non-musical telling of the story. It was retold as a musical in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason in the leading roles and again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson—all of them “star” vehicles, but none, to my mind, as touching or artistically polished as the current Bradley Cooper version.

This newest iteration, in theaters now, had its origins in 2011 when Clint Eastwood began developing an updated remake with Beyoncé in the leading role. Frustrated by casting problems and other production delays, Eastwood let his project die until Cooper picked it up in 2016 agreeing to take over as star and first-time director with an updated story line.

If you haven’t seen it you’re missing a Master Class in acting, film making, song writing and storytelling. I’ve seen it twice, along with viewings of its antecedents and purchase of the soundtrack.

In this version, Cooper plays Jackson Maine a country rocker who still draws stadium-sized crowds but is propped up by alcohol and hard drugs. When he discovers Ally, a young woman singing in a drag bar, he recognizes her talent and is smitten. He encourages her songwriting and brings her on stage at one of his shows (Coachella) to sing an arrangement of the song she wrote and previewed for him in a supermarket parking lot. Suddenly, her career is launched, and she’s on a rocket ride toward stardom.

As he was casting the film, Mr. Cooper remembered seeing Lady Gaga sing a few years earlier. Then, fortuitously, he heard her again, this time singing La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf classic, at a benefit concert in Los Angeles. The following morning, he called to ask her if he could stop by to talk. She agreed and shortly after arriving he asked if they could sing together (Midnight Special). She was surprised by the timing and urgency of his request, but they sat down at her white piano and that was it. She was in – and so was La Vie en Rose.

The updated story beautifully and believably crafted by Cooper is a dark one, but unlike the Streisand and Garland versions this one is not overplayed. Lady Gaga reveals herself to be an accomplished actress as well as a superb singer-songwriter. She, Cooper, and Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) wrote most of the music, and to make it real performed all of the songs live at Coachella, Glastonbury, and in small clubs.

To add even more authenticity to his portrayal of Jackson, he studied guitar with Lukas Nelson for 18 months and met with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as his on-stage performer model. He also felt that Jackson’s voice needed to be lower than his own, so he hired a voice coach to help him model the new voice on Sam Elliott’s (who was later hired to play Jackson’s brother).

I’ve been a longtime admirer of Cooper’s work, including American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook, but it was an interview with James Lipton on Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio that gave me a true appreciation for his professionalism as an actor. He comes from a middle-class home where his stockbroker father and housewife mother engaged their children in serious conversation over dinner every night. He had their full support and there was never any question when he told them he wanted to be an actor and attend the Actors Studio. I remember liking him even more when he invited his mother to be his date for the Oscars in 2013 and announced that he had stopped drinking because it was affecting his work as an actor. Today, he shares his LA home with his supermodel girlfriend, Irina Shayk, and their new baby.

I came late to the Lady Gaga party, because I was put off by her early stunts – the dramatic meat dress, emerging from an egg at the Grammy’s and other episodes early in her career. But, her album of duets with Tony Bennett made a fan of me, and my appreciation has grown steadily since. If you haven’t seen their rendition of The Lady is a Tramp you’ve missed a classic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPAmDULCVrU

In A Star is Born, Lady Gaga aka Stephanie Germonatta, is Ally, the aspiring singer-songwriter, not Gaga. Her character is a plain Jane restaurant server with mousey brown hair, a big nose and no makeup, and her only escape from this mundane life is singing in a drag bar where the drag queens and clientele love her.

In post-release interviews journalists have been quick to ask if this character is the real Lady Gaga aka Stephanie, and she has been equally quick to assert that she is not. The girl with the mousey brown hair, she says, is Ally her character in the film. She is certainly a stripped down, un-ornamented version of the woman we know as Lady Gaga, but an actress able to create a memorable and authentic character no matter whether it is Ally the rising star or the real Stephanie Germanotta.

I could write more but I encourage you to see the film for yourself. I may have turned my appreciation into a political escape strategy, but in the process I’ve had a fascinating time reading film reviews, the New York Times Magazine cover feature on Gaga (October 7, 2018), watching the Stephen Colbert-Gaga interview, re-watching Cooper’s interview on Inside the Actors Studio, and seeing the documentary Lady Gaga: Five-Foot-Two.

These two actor/singer/songwriter/musicians are demanding professionals who deserve all the raves they’re getting for A Star is Born. For me, the film is Oscar-worthy and I look forward to seeing both actors take the stage when Oscar comes around in 2019.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me. It’s time to get back to the nightmare and the fight for our democracy. Today’s news was all about the mid-term election – or it was until the President fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed a stooge to run the DOJ and oversee the Mueller investigation. The nightmare continues. Why does every day have to be an exercise in constitutional survival?