Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" review

The documentary film, Twenty Feet From Stardom does for back-up singers what The Wrecking Crew did for studio musicians. People whose names you don't know, yet whose musical talents you have heard on thousands of songs, finally get recognition.

Merry Clayton. Lisa Fischer. Tata Vega. Claudia Lennear.

They're not household names, but you've been hearing their voices for decades. They've sung back-up for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, T. Rex, David Bowie, Steely Dan, Bob Dylan, Sting and a plethora of others. Darlene Love and her girl group, the Blossoms, talk about backing every one from James Brown to Buck Owens.

There have always been back-up singers as the film shows. We see black and white '50s footage of Perry Como accompanied by old fashioned-styled female singers sounding safely sanitized and whiter than a Lawrence Welk show.

Then around the early '60s a buoyant new sound took the world. Young, beautiful, black singers, many of them, preachers' daughters, went beyond the sheet music and created something vibrant and exhilarating.
In several interviews, Bruce Springsteen, who was highly inspired by that music, credits the influence of the black church in creating a sound that would be secularized and turn up on records and radio.

Claudia Lennear
In my favorite part of the film, they talk about the irresistible Phil Spector Wall of Sound. Springsteen talks about the ingredient that, probably more than any other, gave the music its freshness and vitality. The singers were young. Still in their teens or just barely out of them. They had youthful energy and it came through in their records.

Twenty Feet From Stardom features dazzling footage of such artists as Ray Charles and the Raylettes, Ike and Tina Turner with a sexy performance by the Ikettes and David Bowie and a chorus of singers performing a highly energetic performance of "Young Americans."

But, as the film brings out, it's not all glamour. There's a business side that's often unfair, harsh and leads to a lot of disappointment. Love  was hoping to break into a solo career, recording "He's a Rebel," but the record was credited to the Crystals. The second song Love and her Blossoms recorded - "He's Sure the Boy I Love," also credited to the Crystals.

Several back-up singers, just as talented as the big names they sing for, have tried their hands at solo careers. Merry Clayton, who provided the haunting backgrounds to the Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter," had a voice as powerful as Aretha Franklin's. By all accounts, she should have been a superstar.

However, as the film brings out, there are unique pressures that come with being a solo artist. The record company may, or may not, promote the artist. The singer has to have the kind of ego that drives solo performing and self-promotion.

Lisa Fischer, a back-up singer who broke through with a Grammy winning album, admits she's not good at self-promotion. She's gone back to back-up singing.

Judith Hill, who sang back-up for Michael Jackson and found national acclaim singing "We Are the World" at his funeral, is featured singing with several older, veteran back-up singers. She was a contestant on The Voice a couple of seasons back. Didn't win. Hasn't broken through on her dream of being a solo artist. Yet she's known and respected by people like Elton John.

Not every back-up singer, however, has dreams of individual
stardom. As the film brings out, many are comfortable being in the background. They like the thrill of performing on stage with huge names one night, then walking anonymously along the street the next day.
Merry Clayton and Tata Vega

It's a tough business, showing no signs of easing up. Record companies, trying to save money, are increasingly steering away from using back-up singers. I hope that doesn't catch on. These people add spice and texture to music. They liven it up.

Watching this film and entering the world of back-up singers, I've developed empathy for them. These people aren't rich and famous. They just live in the orbits of the rich and famous. They have a skill set they need to get paid for. Back-up singing is their livelihood and I would hate to see the jobs dry up.

Twenty Feet From Stardom engenders respect for people whose talents have for too long been unheralded. See it and come away hearing back-up vocals with new ears.

 I liked this song from Twenty Feet From Stardom. It's great to hear on vinyl the way God intended for us to listen to music.                                                              

When Judith Hill auditioned for The Voice, the chairs of every judge turned around. Cool song. Confident, professional performer. Let's hope she achieves her aspirations. 

A highlight of the Late Show With David Letterman is the annual Christmas performances by Darlene Love singing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." Here is her latest performance from 2013.

Gateway Films

The Wrecking Crew - A must see documentary about the unsung musicians who played on the biggest hits of the '60s. It's been called the best documentary about the recording scene.

The T.A.M.I. Show - A black and white concert film from 1964. I mentioned Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The Ronnette's performance of "Be My Baby" is heavenly. You've got to see the performances - James Brown, Chuck Berry, a young Rolling Stones...

This Is It - He was the consummate performer. Michael Jackson's posthumously released documentary was the last creative statement of his career. He sings duets with Judith Hill.

That's the Way it Is - The ultimate solo artist. This 1970 documentary of Elvis Presley in rehearsal and on the Las Vegas stage was recently re-mastered. He has great rapport with his musicians and back-up singers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars review

For Paul Martin

David Bowie's monumental, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was released 42 years ago - the same amount of time Elvis Presley was on earth. And yet, after all the hook-up spasms of the past have come and flamed out, after glam rock has crashed and burned more than once and the old shock, awe and even discussion of Bowie's androgyny have become mute, what remains is expert musicality, a fixed hard rock achievement. Ziggy Stardust is in the cannon, a desert island listen that belongs in the library files of rock alongside Sgt. Pepper's sticky fingers.

Bowie put years of  influences into this thematically conceived album - rock and rollers, years spent in avant garde theatrical training, experimentations, novelties. It all took shape with something original. Here is the concept: the earth is running out of natural resources and will self-destruct in five years. Meanwhile, an outer space alien takes human form and comes to earth with a message of hope and love through music. He becomes a rockstar, adored and loved to death by fans, yet lonely and isolated. Unable to find true love, he lives out excess and rock n' roll headonism - the whole sex, drugs and rock n' roll ride - until he self-destructs beneath the weight of it all.

Ziggy Stardust is an album that couldn't be made today. Nobody would believe it. But 1972 was smack in the Golden Age of Rock when your Mick Jaggers, your Robert Plants and any one of your ex-Beatles reigned bigger than life. The idea of a rock n' roll messiah was easier to grasp. Today, we get an occasional break-out star like a Lady Gaga. And there's respectable groups and musicians. We all know Jack White. We all know he rocks like voodoo meets John the Revelator, but the rock pinnacle as it was known in an era so close to the Beatles & Stones - that's not happening in today's fragmented world.

But any bar band could take any one of the songs from Ziggy and make rock gold out of it. This stuff never gets old. Rick Wakeman may have played on one cut from this album - "It Ain't Easy - just as he had for some tracks in Bowie's Hunky Dory, but this album is no pretentious trip, no Yes or The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Musically, the greatest thing about the Ziggy Stardust album was the way Bowie melded the heavy metal of his 1970 Man Who Sold the World album and the pop of his 1971 Hunky Dory album.

Bowie's band was Mick Ronson on guitar, Nick Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums.

"Five Years," the first track on the album has a kind of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band "Working Class Hero" bent with its apocalyptic aura and despondency. There's a beauty in the cinematic lyrics, the morose images of opera houses, telephones, ice cream parlors.

A soldier with a broken arm fixed his stare into the wheels 
of a Cadillac
A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest
and a queer threw up at the sight of that

The next song, "Soul Love," is my favorite track from Ziggy. There is a beautiful psychedelic melody, a taste of fresh new love between a boy and a girl, but poignantly, the singer can't share this love with somebody. He has only the idea of love.

Inspirations have I none
just to touch the flaming dove
all I have is my love of love
and love is not loving

The idea of space alien as rockstar first takes root in the hard rocking "Moonage Daydream." He sings: "I'm an alligator...I'll be a rock n' roll bitch for you." The idea builds in the Elton John-like, gender-bending "Lady Stardust" and "Star" where Bowie says he could make all the bad things all right "as a rock n' roll star." He could find love, he thinks, in the church of rock n' roll.

My second favorite song on the album is the title track, "Ziggy Stardust," - the album's grittiest tune, yet with sad and beautiful soul poppish touches to go with the rock. The song captures this bizarre, rock mutant at the zenith of his power with decadence and downfall approaching. The line about Ziggy playing guitar left-handed was a veiled reference to Jimi Hendrix, which is pretty cool.

The rocking "Suffragette City" shows that rock n roll was just what the parents feared in the 50s: sex. "This mellow thighed chick just put my spine out of place."

There are signs on this album of the the late '70s punk and new wave to come, while Bowie shows a subtle awareness of traditional black soul, which he would later show splendidly on his 1975 Young Americans album.

Eventually, the whole Ziggy Stardust persona would reach such a level of grandiosity that Bowie, would have to kill it. He had to save himself and the character he'd perfected from becoming a one-note novelty act. It made prophetic the "Ziggy Stardust" line, "When the kids killed the man, I had to break up the band."

Bowie is a musical chameleon. He left the androgyny phase decades ago. He's still recording and he's always into something new. Ziggy Stardust, however was his signature album, a work he will be known for. It deserves many spins around your turn table.

David Bowie - he'll be a rock n' roll bitch for you.

England was dreary, living in the shadow of the Second World War, a post-empire, post Beatles world. Then Bowie appeared on the BBC in this spacey, androgynous performance, answering the question, "What's next?"

Bowie and his band recorded an unreleased version of this old Chuck Berry rocker at the beginning of the Ziggy Stardust recordings. It's wonderful to hear this song on record and experience it the way English kids like John Lennon, David Bowie and Keith Richards experienced it.

Bowie based much of the Ziggy character on English rocker Vince Taylor. Bowie met Taylor after he'd had a mental breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien.

Without Bowie, there would be no Lady Gaga.

Gateway music

David Bowie took the name Ziggy from the name of a tailor shop he passed on a train. He liked the way it rhymed with Iggy as in Iggy Pop. Check out Iggy and the Stooges.

I referenced John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album. You've gotta hear it. It was Lennon's magnum opus.

The Rolling Stones rough-edged Exile on Main Street was released in 1972, the same year as Ziggy Stardust. One of rock's greatest albums, it belongs in your collection.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"The Fire Next Time" review

At the height of the Civil Rights Era in 1963, James Baldwin's passionate examination of racism, The Fire Next Time appeared on the literary scene. This book was born out of pain and urgency. Baldwin was writing from a deep place. Written with Biblical language and incendiary prose, Baldwin makes the reader feel the torment and anguish of living black in an American society - founded on - and dominated by white supremacy.

This deceptively slim book is divided into two essays -  "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind." They were published in The Progressive and the New Yorker, respectively.

"You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many was as possible, that you were a worthless human being," he writes in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, also named James.

In the second essay, Baldwin describes how as a teenager, he escaped the streets of Harlem by taking refuge in the church and becoming a popular boy preacher. He later became disenchanted with the church's hypocrisy. Years later, as a journalist, he met the charismatic Elijah Muhammad and observed the separatist movement of black Muslims. He resisted the group's attempts to convert him and while he empathized with is men and women, he found their dream of establishing their own separate nation to be impractical and unrealistic.

The only answer he finds is for blacks and whites to come together. But to do that, whites need to take a hard, uncomfortable look at themselves and their culture. We need to make a self-examination and have an honest conversation about race. More than 50 years after this book was written, we have failed to do that.

I can tell you most of my fellow white people take the evasive view that talking about problems makes them worse. We like to pretend racism is a problem of the past that was resolved decades ago during the Civil Rights Movement. When minorities speak out against the systemic and personal racism that still exists in our society, too many whites cast it off as "minorities bitching again."

James Baldwin

Baldwin brings out the truth - that our nation, society, religion and culture are predicated on the mythology that the black man is inferior and the white man is superior and God-ordained. The Western world was founded on the idea that the black man is a descendant of Ham and thereby, cursed and predestined to be a slave.

Right-wing zealots take umbrage over any measure of criticism leveled at America. They will respond aggressively to Baldwin's harsh critiques of our country' and the mythology, the great lie that our nation is exceptional and blessed by God above all others - a belief used for centuries to justify imperialism, conquest, barbarism, genocide and the destruction of non-white skinned people.

In some of his most powerful prose, Baldwin calls out the Christian church for its complicity in perpetuating the violent mythology of America and the Western world. He writes:

"The Christian church itself - again, as distinguished from some of its ministers - sanctioned and rejoiced in the conquests of the flag, and encouraged, if it did not formulate, the belief that conquest, with the resulting relative well-being of the Western populations, was proof of the favor of God."

Yet while Baldwin walked away from the church and all religion as a young man, he was never able to shake its power and influence over his life and creative spirit. He learned to write, preaching from the pulpit. His writing is suffused with the fervor, cadence and literary style of the Bible. There is an urgent, apocalyptic bent to his words, reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets.

The book's apocalyptic title is taken from an old slave song: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time. Baldwin was saying that the destinies of white and black were interwoven and their failure to come together as one nation would mean mutual destruction for both. The riots and assassinations that were to come in the '60s renders Baldwin's words to be prophecy.

Unquestionably, The Fire Next Time was an epochal book - indispensable '60s literature. Yet the racism Baldwin spoke of, the toxicity and hatred, are holding us down today. Still. You can find it all over Facebook and Fox "News." We need to rediscover Baldwin's voice. We need a voice like that.


Gateway literature:

Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr., also written in 1963. This series of sermons by the late Civil Rights icon equate human rights with Christian love. In essays, such as "A Knock at Midnight," King, like Baldwin, speaks of the interwoven destinies of blacks and whites.

In some of his speeches, King mentioned Baldwin's name alongside such gigantic black literary names as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. All are worth reading.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. 1963 was a year of brilliant, forceful literature. This Cold War era satire about a nuclear holocaust contains vast truths about humanity.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin. In his breakthrough 1953 autobiographical novel, Baldwin writes about a teenager's religious awakening and subsequent moral, spiritual and sexual struggle. In this book, Baldwin gave a novelistic treatment to topics that he would write about as true life events 10 years later in The Fire Next Time.


Sunday, April 6, 2014

"Picnic" review

It was sexy, sultry, hot and sticky as the cotton slipping from the cypress trees of Riverside Park as summer gave way to fall in some backwater Kansas town.

One look at the DVD box and you can see it. The muscular leading man, his shirt torn almost clean off, casting lovemaking eyes on the looker in a pink dress. Hot stuff for 1955. That's the year Picnic was released in theaters.

Picnic is a classic '50s story, a look at life 60 years ago. The protagonist is in the Brando/James Dean/Elvis mold. He's the outsider who descends on a sleepy little town and starts shaking things up.

William Holden plays the drifter, Hal Carter, who arrives in town, riding in a box car. He plans to look up an old college buddy, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) whose family is wealthy and owns a fleet of grain elevators. Hal harbors unrealistic expectations. Thinks he can just drop in on an old friend and get set up in an office with a secretary. Be a big man behind a big desk on a big phone, making deals on Enterprise.

He scraps some change together, doing yard work for a sweet old lady, Mrs. Potts (Verna Fenton). She's a motherly woman, feeding him breakfast and washing his dirty shirt while he works, barechested, in her back yard and catches the eyes of the women next door - one of whom, Madge Owens (Kim Novak), is Alan's girlfriend. Madge's mother, Flo (Betty Field) finds Hal dangerous and there's something to that.

When he shows up on Alan's spacious lawn, it's a happy, backslapping reunion between old college roommates and fraternity brothers. They reminisce about old times, Alan shows Hal his family's grain elevators, takes him to the local swimming pool and brings him along to the Labor Day town picnic.

That's where the friendship starts to cool. Alan grows weary of Hal's blustery big talking and suggests in front of the others picnicking that Hal can get a job in his elevators - as a grain scooper. Then there's another thing that drives the friends apart - the classic wedge driver.

She stands lean, tall and perky - her big eyes set on something other than dime stores, tea parties and Kansas grain. Madge, Alan's girl.

Her mother is pushing her toward the easy life. Get crowned Miss Neewoallah (Halloween spelled backwards), marry Alan and it's lunch at the country club and Bridge parties for the rest of her life. She'll be taken care of.

It's like she tells her daughter: "You're 19, then 20 and 21. Then you're 40 and an old maid." Picnic portrays well the dead end life that awaited women at that time in that culture. It's not a life that Madge really wants. She seems lukewarm and reticent in her relationship with Alan. Then Hal comes along and lights her fire.
Hal and Madge dance together at the picnic and it falls into the category of sexy with clothes on.

Meanwhile, Alan calls the police and reports the car he let Hal borrow is stolen. He's angry and it has nothing to do with the car. Hal has been out for hours with Madge. When he arrives back at Alan's home with the car, he gets into an unrealistic looking scuffle with the police and speeds off with the car.

After losing the cops and leaving the car behind, he looks up Madge, tells her he's hopping a freight to Tulsa in the morning and begs her to meet him there. Tells her he has a job waiting for him as a hotel belhop. These two are mad for each other. "I love you, I gotta have you," Hal tells her. The two may be lovers (we can easily surmise that they made love; Hollywood didn't show the act back then) but they're not really in love. They're in lust.

The movie ends with Madge taking a bus bound for Tulsa. It's impetuous, her going after this shiftless man whom she'd just met, a man with a rap sheet. Somehow, I don't get the feeling they're going to live happily ever after in Oklahoma.

Then again, Madge needs to get the hell away from her stultifying small town Kansas life. She needs to go out and make a life for herself. In those days before women's liberation, this man, this rebel, offers her the excuse she needs to get away.

Novak was believable as the 19-year-old small town beauty queen. As for Holden's role, I wasn't buying it. He did great with what he was given, playing the swaggering roughneck, but Holden, who was around 37 at the time, looked too old to pass for a guy a few years out of college.

Of all the actors in the film, there's no question who turned in the greatest performance. That honor would go to Rosalind Russell as Rosemary Sydney, the "old maid schoolteacher" who boards in the Owens' house. She puts on airs, talking about the men who are supposedly in love with her and how she has no time for them. Inside, she's lonely, desperate and repressed.

A fortyish woman, Rosemary wants the youth, beauty and sex appeal that Hal and Madge have. Drunk on her date, Howard's, whisky, she shamelessly throws herself at Hal. Then, realizing she's made a fool out of herself, Rosemary lashes out verbal abuse at Hal. Later, she has another meltdown when she begs Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell) to marry her. She's vulnerable, emotionally fragile and pathetic.

Russell refused to be nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting actress category. If not for her refusal, she may have clenched it.

Filmed in Kansas, Picnic has that middle America at American mid-century feel. I love the way the director, Joshua Logan, interspersed documentary-like footage of townsfolk at the picnic with scenes of the film's stars. It made me wonder if Logan had ever directed documentaries, but there's nothing in his biographies to suggest he did.

The small town feel takes the movie to the heart of what playwright William Inge was going for when he wrote the original play, Picnic, which won a Pulitzer Prize for drama. (Logan directed the Broadway stage production as well as the film.)

While scandalous for its day, the film is tame by today's standards. It's not a perfect film, but it's worth taking a look at this portal into a time when men wore suits and ties and women wore gorgeous dresses to small town celebrations. Picnic is a slice of Americana pie in a park with a band shelter and pavilion.

The film is mostly forgotten today. But as long as boxcar loneliness and small town yearnings - the heat - exists, Picnic will have a home on community theater and high school stages across America.

Gateway films: Inge also wrote other plays that were made into movies, such as Come Back Little Sheba and Bus Stop, which was also directed by Logan. He also directed such films as Mister Roberts and South Pacific. All are worth a look.

Check out Rosalind Russell in the 1958 comedy, Auntie Mame.

It's too bad that Kim Novak is now only known to younger audiences as the woman with all the ridiculous plastic surgery who introduced Matthew McConaughey at this year's Academy Awards. In the '50s, she was one of the hottest things going. Check her out with Jimmy Stewart in the 1958 Alfred Hitchock directed psychological thriller, Vertigo.

And while on the subject of actresses once hot, still alive, but largely forgotten, I have to recommend the Hitchcock spy thriller, North by Northwest. The film starred Eva Marie Saint with Cary Grant and James Mason.

I first saw Picnic around 20 years ago on TCM (or was it the old American Movie Classics) when today's stars introduced their favorite old films. Brooke Shields picked Picnic. Rosanne Barr and then husband Tom Arnold picked the much classier Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford in The Way We Were. Country singer Travis Tritt showed Elvis's Jailhouse Rock and Kenny Rogers presented Oklahoma.

All, all are worth seeing.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"The Beatles" review

If you're going to load up this year, reading Beatles biographies - and 2014 would be a great year to do that - this is the book to start with. It's not the greatest written book on the fabs or the most brutally honest, but it's the progenitor of all Beatle bios to follow. - The Beatles by Hunter Davies.

Davies wrote the book around late 1967 and early '68.  John Lennon would later dismiss Davies's book as "watered down" and there is some truth to that. Still, this book, albeit an authorized biography was the first to break through the Beatle bubble and begin the unraveling of the cold, unvarnished truth. It was the first book to address their rough childhoods, the band's pill popping days, playing in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany, the controversial firing of Pete Best and how Dylan turned them on to marijuana. 

To get the Beatle experience in print form, this book is a window. Like pot was a window for Rubber Soul and acid for Revolver, this book is - well, it's not that mystical of a portal, but it is an essential entryway. But be aware.  Do not get one of the revised editions of this book. Get the original version, published in September of 1968. Check it out from your local library, interlibrary loan it if your hometown library does not have it, buy it in a used bookstore or off eBay, but if you're going to read the book, read the original copy.

The magic of this book is not the stories it tells. Revelatory for their time, those stories are common knowledge today. Davies' book stands out, not for what it reveals, but for the perspective from which it was written. It came out when the Beatles were still young, somewhat naïve and contemporary, churning out hit singles and getting played on Top 40 radio.

For all anybody knew, the Beatles would still be making music together for years. Davies described the four as "umbillically connected" and they talked as if there was no end in sight.

Furthermore, John was still married to Cynthia, George was still married to Patti, Ringo to Maureen and Paul was engaged to Jane Asher. 

Who knew that in two years, the band would be broken up? That John would leave Cynthia for Yoko and Paul would be married to Linda and have a ready-made family?

Early Beatles. Davies' biography was the first to tell of the band's wild days in Hamburg, Germany. It was the first book to talk about John's art school friend, Stu Sutcliffe, who joined the band, left them and died before they became famous. Davies interviewed Sutcliffe's lover, German artist, Astrid Kirchherr, who took this photograph.
Sometimes when reading such things as John and Cyn's exchanges, there is a tinge of sadness because we know how it will end. On the surface, they seemed to have a happy marriage. In hindsight, the book reveals signs that John's marriage was in trouble. In the shadow of her rockstar husband, Cyn felt unfulfilled. She should have been working on her art and teaching like she wanted to be doing. He should have encouraged her. She wanted to live a quieter family existence with John and Julian. He wanted - at least at that time; it would end quickly - to be constantly surrounded by "our Beatle buddies." Cyn said she did not think she and John would have stayed together if she hadn't gotten pregnant. As for the Beatles worldwide fame?

Sometimes I wish it all never happened, she said.

Of the four Beatles John resonated the most with me because he had the most contradictions. He was the most mercurial of the four and his life appeared to be the one most in limbo. Davies did not go into John's drug addiction, but reading between the lines, it's there.

The book also hints about the group's manager, Brian Epstein homosexuality, without coming out with it. He was described ambiguously as a "gay bachelor." There is a flat denial that Brian's death was suicide. Davies quotes people who maintain strongly that his death was an accidental overdose of pills, but it's hard not to be skeptical.

George comes across as the Beatle who has "grown the most" and "needs the others the least." The most materialistic of the band mates in his youth, he put those worldly concerns to the side when he embraced Eastern religion. It's interesting that while George was uncomfortable with being a celebrity, his family enjoyed it. His parents judged beauty contests and his mother answered fan mail, as did Ringo's wife, Maureen.

That's part of the fun of this book. Not only were all four Beatles still alive, most of their parents were as well. Paul's father seems much like the old, distinguished English gentleman we perceive Paul to be now. Also, it's interesting that George's father, Harold Harrison, continued working as a bus driver even after his son became a world famous millionaire.

Davies' book was written from the perspective of the Beatles having reached a plateau. The story had a neat, tidy ending. But things were forever changing in the Beatles world (despite that line in "Across the Universe") and this book was almost out of date as soon as it came off the presses. Only three months after its publication, John and Yoko would be appearing nude on the cover of Rolling Stone.

There is a certain innocence about the book as it gives a last look at the Beatles before the changes set into motion that would split the band apart and into history.

Gateway literature

Having read Hunter Davies' biography, the next logical step is to read the biographies, Shout: The Beatles and their Generation by Phillip Norman and The Beatles: A Biography by Bob Spitz. You might as well continue the journey.

I chose this video from Lennon's solo career because you see him hanging out with Miles Davis. Only a few years earlier, John is quoted in Davies' book, saying, "We're very anti-jazz. I think it's shit music."

Friday, January 31, 2014

"Bonnie and Clyde" review

I didn't watch the A&E version of Bonnie and Clyde for the same reason I refused to watch remakes of Hairspray, The Shining and Footloose.

You can't top the original.

The big screen version of Bonnie and Clyde from 1967 was ground breaking, provocative and iconoclastic. This depiction of the infamous 1930s bank robbers struck the chord of 1960s counter culture with its themes of youthful rebellion, sexual freedom and senseless murder mirroring the casualties in Vietnam.

There was an amoral aspect to the film. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) were bank robbers and murderers, yet we liked them and sympathized with them. The anti-hero is  all over the edgy TV fare of today, but for  1960s movie audiences, used to Hollywood's old Hays Production Code, it was heavy stuff.

But those old ways were unraveling. Bonnie and Clyde reflected that.

Bonnie and Clyde were not even portrayed as dark characters. They were kind of goofy, likable and capricious. Clyde was a bumbling bank robber. For much of the film, he was impotent, telling Bonnie, "I ain't no loverboy." Yet, there was something smooth about him. In Beatty's hands...he had style. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway was alluring. Totally smokin' hot and a tease. When she caresses Clyde's handgun, it stands in for a phallus, one of many phallic symbols in the film.

If a celluloid version of Bonnie and Clyde were made today, there would probably be graphic sex scenes. This film didn't need that. It captured the groove of the '60s sexual revolution on suggestion, alone.

Parts of the movie were fictional. For example, Bonnie didn't meet Clyde when he was trying to steal her mother's car as depicted in the movie. But that's okay. Screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton wanted to tell a story and create a cinematic mood.

Director Arthur Penn shot the film primarily around rural back roads and primitive towns in the Dallas, Texas area that looked like the 1930s. Some scenes were shot in actual banks that the real Bonnie and Clyde robbed. There was a Grapes of Wrath feel to the story and scenery. In one scene, Clyde Barrow talks to a farmer whose home has been foreclosed by the bank. A view of the man's wife and child inside the truck looks like a Walker Evans photograph.

The 1930s Steinbeckian quality is there, casting banks as corrupt and against the poor folk. While robbing a bank, Clyde gives a farmer back the money the man had just given him - something that really happened. In a scene where they subdue a Texas ranger, Frank Hamer, played by Denver Pyle, Clyde tells him, "You oughta be helpin' poor folks instead of chasin' after us."

While it depicted the '30s and spoke to the nation's nostalgia for the era, the theme of non-conformists striking at The Establishment resonated with '60s culture. It was a moment short-lived.

Throughout the movie, there was a sense of doom hanging over the heads of Bonnie and Clyde. When they talked about the normal life they would live when this Depression was over, about what they would do differently if they were starting over, we know - they know - their ride is almost over. Reality sets in from the first moment Clyde kills a man and becomes more vivid, the deeper his gang gets in its crime spree.

The chaos that would come to consume the troubled lives of Bonnie and Clyde in their final days mirrored the societal breakdown, the violent, grenade throwing culture of the late '60s. Clyde's brother, Buck, (Gene Hackman) gets shot in the face. We see the blood, hear him in pain, hear the cacophonous screams of his wife Blance (Estelle Parsons) and Bonnie. Their dreams were dying, just as America's dream of living up to its ideals was disintegrating into violence and mass confusion.

When the gang visits Bonnie's mother, the scenes are shot slow motion with hazy, far away tones. We sense it's one last homecoming, a sad farewell.

From a Freudian aspect, it's noteworthy that when Clyde is finally able to make love to Bonnie, it's only after she has written a poem, published in the newspapers, predicting their demise. "...but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde." It speaks to what Freud called our subconscious desire for sex and death.

The violence had something audiences hadn't seen before in movies.
It looked real. We're desensitized  to violence today and we've lost touch with reality. But in 1967, it was shocking to see someone's face bloodied and flesh torn from gunshot wounds. I would say the graphic violence was warranted. Here were the consequences revealing how far the Barrow gang had fallen.

Also, the violence and deaths were timely. People were watching dead soldiers every night on the evening news. The film was a commentary on Vietnam where young men in the bloom of life were being brutally cut down. I'm sure there were right wing reactionaries at the time, cheering on the war -"blow em' to kingdom come" - while piously decrying the "immorality and violence" in Hollywood and popular culture. The audience member turned on to reality would see the connection.

A film that captures the zeitgeist of its time deserves to be watched and studied in any era. I really can't speak for the remake because I haven't seen it and don't care to, but I doubt that film students will be discussing it 40 or 50 years from now. The 1967 version may not be the definitive history, but it is the definitive film about Bonnie and Clyde.

This classic from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was played at various times in Bonnie and Clyde. It was anachronistic as the story was set in 1931 and the song wasn't recorded until 1948 or '49.  Still, the old timey sound complemented the film and the action well.

Gateway movies

Bonnie and Clyde was influenced by French New Wave style of filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Check out their work in films like: Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim and Breathless.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? - I read that impotence was a common theme in films from the 1960s. Obviously, I have to see more 60s films. I do know it was a theme in this Mike Nichols directed black comedy-drama about a drunken, volatile night at the home of a professor (Richard Burton) and his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) as they entertain a younger couple, (George Segal) and (Sandy Denis). Excellent film

The French Connection - Gene Hackman won a best actor Oscar for his role as a New York City police detective. Roy Schneider played his partner. Based on a true story and a book, the two stumble on an international heroin smuggling operation and try to track down the source. The film won the best picture Oscar for 1971.

Chinatown - This 1974 film directed by Roman Polanski starred Faye Dunaway, John Huston and Jack Nicholson. A critique of greed and corruption, the story was based on California's "water wars" - disputes over water rights. The film revived the noir style of the 1940s.

Natural Born Killers - There were scenes in Bonnie and Clyde showing the pair as folk heroes, glorified in the press. It reminded me of this disturbing, controversial Oliver Stone film from 1994, starring Woody Harrelson and Juliet Lewis, as two young lovers who murder people and become mass media celebrities.

Gateway literature

I would be remiss not to recommend James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Monday, December 30, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" review

I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . . (From Daniel Ellsberg’s TV interview with Walter Cronkite)

I was in college majoring in journalism, taking a Media Law class when I learned about the Pentagon Papers case – one of the most important cases ever decided by the Supreme Court. Tricky Dick Nixon tried to suppress publication of leaked documents about the Vietnam War, but fortunately the high court ruled in favor of the Constitution.

The 40th anniversary of the case brought the Pentagon Papers in the news again. At long last, the government has declassified the entire collection – more than 7,000 documents telling the dirty truth about how four U.S. presidents helped create a war that needlessly ended 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives.

Daniel Ellsberg, a defense dept. analyst, leaked the Top Secret documents to the press. The court ruled against prior restraint, saying the government could not stop newspapers from publishing the classified papers. While I understood the impact of this decision – a triumph for First Amendment rights -- I knew next to nothing about Ellsberg. I learned that Nixon’s plumbers ransacked his psychiatrist’s office and that’s about it.

This week’s news prompted me to finally watch the 2009 documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, educated me about Ellsberg and gave me new insight into this historical drama and its relevance today. POV’s (that’s cinema speak for “Point of View”) website, showed the documentary online for free on Monday and Tuesday this week. If you didn’t see it, I say go to your local library and check out the DVD.

Ellsberg was not a hippie peacenik. He was an Establishment figure. A Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, Ellsberg then attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. Between 1954 and 1957, he spent three years as a U.S. Marine Corps commander. In 1959 he joined the RAND corporation global policy think tank. During the 1960s, he was a Dept. of Defense analyst perpetuating the Cold War line until – in good conscience – he could do it no longer.

He leaked a bombshell government study to newspapers chronicling the history of our Southeast Asian police action. The report – which Ellsberg helped write -- revealed how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had lied to the public and dragged the United States into an unjust, unwinnable war. Nixon, happy to see his predecessors with their pants down, nevertheless realized a whistleblower could also get dirt on him. So he went after Ellsberg and tried to muzzle the press.

The film’s title is taken from Henry Kissinger. Imagine that, a war criminal calling someone of principle “the most dangerous man in America.” That speaks loudly about the arrogance and hypocrisy of power. Hearing White House tapes of Nixon’s voice is chilling: “You’re so goddamn conscientious about civilians and I don’t give a damn.”

Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers are relevant in 2011. The U.S. military is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, suicides are on the rise among veterans, wikileaks has revealed things the U.S. government doesn’t want you to know and the guys who blew the whistle are in jail on questionable charges. We would be remiss not to examine history in the context of today’s world and The Most Dangerous Man in America is a great resource for doing that.

The Academy award nominated film is modest, not a hagiography, but I came away from it, seeing Ellsberg as an American hero. It’s a view he would not share. Ellsberg, now 80, feels guilty about the six years he spent in the defense dept., knowing the government was lying to the public, and doing nothing as the death toll mounted in Vietnam.

The “most shameful episode in my life,” he says in the film, was helping Defense Secretary Robert McNamara persuade Pres. Lyndon Johnson to launch the “most disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world” on North Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s disaffection with the war evolved gradually, but by the end of the ‘60s, he could no longer remain “a passive bureaucrat.” The most riveting moments of the film reveal Ellsberg anguishing as he confronted a moral dilemma: violate the secrecy contracts he had signed or stay silent as more lives were lost. The man was willing to go to prison for the rest of his life if it meant stopping the war. Hearing this, there was no way I could not respect the man.

Ultimately, a federal judge threw out the government’s case against Ellsberg. (The Nixon administration had compromised the integrity of its investigation with dirty tricks.) But nobody could have foreseen the outcome.

The recent de-classification of the Pentagon Papers was a quiet news item. There were no world shaking revelations. The contents of the documents were revealed by the news media years ago. Really, the public response has been too quiet. We should be asking ourselves: what parallels do we see today? (Wikileaks for one.) Is the government, acting in our name, conducting itself honorably? What are the possible ramifications of our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Is there transparency in government?

I don’t think we’ve learned from our history. Nixonian policy has become a template for the presidency and Vietnam is our template for waging war. History has vindicated Ellsberg, but if we were today fighting a war with American casualties on a scale with Vietnam, and someone leaked documents revealing executive branch weapons of mass deception, I think he would be Typhoid Mary. Most Americans would swallow that hackneyed government stand-by about that person being a traitor, costing American lives and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The same old song and dance.

Gateway films: One Bright Shining Moment. An intriguing documentary about George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run, this film is a reminder of a good opportunity lost.
Gateway books: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s memoir, upon which much of the film is based.
The Arrogance of Power by Sen. J. William Fulbright. This book by the late Arkansas senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a must-read. Fulbright was writing about U.S. mistakes related to Vietnam, but he could just as well have been writing about today. If only America had heeded his advice.
There is a clip of Fulbright in The Most Dangerous Man in America explaining on a TV news show why he voted with the rest of Congress to give LBJ a blank check to wage war in Vietnam. A formidable political mind, Fulbright wasn’t perfect.
A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It by Sen. Mike Gravel. The two-term Alaska senator is featured in The Most Dangerous Man for introducing the Pentagon Papers into the public record during a filibuster.
Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil “Bud” Krogh. The head of Nixon’s plumber’s unit, Krogh served a brief prison term, turned his life around and is the only one of the plumbers to take ownership of his actions. He is interviewed in the Ellsberg documentary.