Monday, February 23, 2015

American popular music, for better or worse

This book has a somewhat drab title (The B-Side) and a slightly misleading subtitle (The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song), and has Frank Sinatra on the front, but don't judge this book by its cover. If I used star ratings on this blog, I would have no qualms giving this book 5 stars--it is a fabulous read! Nothing in the title is indicative of the pleasures of the book, which is basically a history of American pop music from the 30s to the 60s, focusing on the songs and songwriters rather than the performers.

Yagoda's thesis is that the flow of great songs of the 30s and 40s (the songs with fairly sophisticated melodies and clever lyrics that we know now as "standards" by writers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Carolyn Leigh, etc.) was stopped by the frivolous, unsophisticated, childlike music of the 50s ("How Much is that Doggie in the Window" is the subject of a lot of venom here), and the villain of this piece winds up being Mitch Miller, a powerful music executive at Columbia Records who was instrumental in influencing public taste in music. But obviously it wasn't just Miller. Yogoda notes that the run of Broadway musicals that produced so many great hits dried up--not that musicals vanished, but after Oklahoma, the musical from changed; the songs that could stand alone outside the context of the musicals (almost all of the Gershwin songs, for example) became songs that were plot-driven or dependent on context, and so did not stand alone so well. The author also explains the importance of the song publishing licensee ASCAP and the later upstart BMI better than any other writer I've read on the subject.

The rebirth Yagoda writes about involves both the appreciation of the standards that singers like Ella Fitzgerald helped establish in the late 1950s, and the emergence of the new "Tin Pan Alley-ish" writers of the 60s like Burt Bacharach and Carole King. The book ends in the mid-60s with Brian Wilson and the Beatles about the change the course of pop music again, and the last 5 pages build beautifully almost like the climax of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". Yagoda presents information that is not necessarily new, but the lens with which he views and interprets it is new, and that makes this is a fascinating and well-written read.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Adaptations

The two most recently released films I've seen are both adaptations, one of a stage musical and one of a book, and they highlight the strengths and weaknesses of screen versions of previous literary works. Into the Woods works best, possibly because it "only" a matter of moving the Stephen Sondheim musical from stage to screen. I use '"only" in jest, fully aware of how easy it is to mess up a stage musical (see Mame, Finian's Rainbow, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line...). But here, the filmmakers have largely trusted the stage version and, if memory serves me--it's been over 10 years since I've seen Into the Woods on stage--a minimum of changes have occurred. In fact, what charmed me most about the movie, aside from the fabulous Emily Blunt who apparently can do no wrong, was that much of it feels like it was live shot on a stage, a very elaborate stage, with a minimum of CGI fussing.

The plot, about fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel who get into more-or-less real life predicaments for which their fairy tale backgrounds have not prepared them, has always felt a little didactic to me, but the dark turn the story takes in the last half is interesting. Every actor is fine, and even better, they're all good singers. Standouts are Emily Blunt, James Corden (pictured with Blunt), and Chris Pine. I wish the wonderful Christine Barankski, as Cinderella's wicked stepmother had been given more to do. Anna Kendrick in the central role as Cinderella shined with a little less luster, but the strong cast and the fact that the director, Rob Marshall, resisted the urge to smother the film in special effects make this well worth seeing.

Gone Girl is based on a best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn with a notorious twist that I don't need to reveal here. The book is a pulp thriller, cleverly written but without literary pretensions, about a wife who goes missing and the husband who the entire country comes to believe killed her even though her body isn't found. The movie has been directed by David Fincher who I wouldn't have thought would have been interested in material like this. The film doesn't completely work, and the main problem is that the book is, to some degree, about creation and writing, and much of the book is told through diary entries made by the wife. It's always difficult to translate the act or art of authorship to the movie screen; in this particular case, Fincher also needed to find a visual equivalent to equal the effect on the reader as certain hidden elements are revealed through the act of writing, and I don't think he succeeds.

However, as a melodramatic potboiler, this works well enough. Ben Affleck makes an almost prefect husband: handsome and charming on the surface, but with just enough hints of smarminess and artifice to make us think he could be a murderer. I was less enthused about Rosamund Pike as the wife, but it's a difficult role; she also has to seem like the perfect wife on the outside with hints of misbehavior just under the surface. The supporting cast is mostly bland, even Neil Patrick Harris in a somewhat farfetched role, though I very much liked Carrie Coon as Affleck's sister. This is a case in which I might have enjoyed the movie more if I hadn't read the book first, so if you like twisty thrillers and have somehow not read the book, by all means, go.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Calvary

Even though I didn't write about any movies here last year, I did see several--54 to be precise, in theaters or on DVD, counting only current and recent films, not classic films of which I saw about 150. I'll try to spend the next few posts catching up some of those films, starting with the last few I saw in 2014. In Calvary, an priest (Brendan Gleeson) in a small Irish village is visited in the confessional by a man who was sexually molested in his youth by a priest (The first of the line is his: "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old."). The molester has died but the man can't find peace so he tells Gleeson that he will murder the priest next Sunday, on the beach. He says he knows Gleeson is a good man, but that will make his death all the more cleansing.

Gleeson knows who the man is but takes no substantive action. Instead he goes about his week like normal and we see his day-today interactions with his troubled flock. In some ways, the movie plays out almost like the basis for a TV show about the trial and tribulations of a modern-day priest. This is not "Going My Way" territory; Gleeson was married and had a daughter before his wife died and he took Holy Orders, so he is worldly, and he is flawed--at one point in a fit of anger, he wrecks havoc in a bar. Director John Michael McDonagh has said his film was inspired by Robert Bresson's austere film Diary of a Country Priest, and both follow a priest through everyday events as he manages to keep faith in the face of the flawed secular world in which he lives and ministers.

As a lapsed Catholic, I have to say that neither film made me see why such faith should be sustained, but as character studies, they are both good films. Gleeson is excellent as a very human priest, and he is surrounded by a solid supporting cast including Chris O'Dowd as a possible wife-beater, M. Emmet Walsh (pictured above with Gleeson) as a dying American writer, Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, pictured below) as a doctor, and Dylan Moran as a rich man who delights in being a son-of-a-bitch to everyone. The tone of the film is serious though not really dark, with comic shadings, and the ending is a little surprising but satisfying. In an age of big-budget action and fantasy films, I feel hopeful that there is still room for something small, serious and semi-artsy at the multiplexes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

2 punks who don't quite get their due

To say that I've recently read two books about punk rockers is perhaps not quite accurate. One, Lou Reed, is generally accepted as the godfather of punk based largely on his early work with the Velvet Underground. The other, Brian Jones, was a founder of the Rolling Stones and died long before punk music was a genre, but I feel fairly confident in giving the early Stones some punk credentials. Both of these musicians were present at the creation of important bands but neither one really gets his due in these flawed biographies.

Certainly the legend of Brian Jones deserves a better book than Paul Trynka's Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones. Jones was, in the beginning, fully an equal to--and probably, as Trynka argues, musically superior to--Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and this book is fine for background information about Jones. It's very sad to see Jones sink into a mire of drugs and thwarted ambition; he was booted from the Stones in 1969, at the dawn of my own rock & roll coming of age, and I remember the headlines about his tragic death in his swimming pool, probably the result of years of drug abuse. 

The main problem with the book is that the author has an ax to grind--that Jones was ill-treated by Jagger and Richards for years before he was forced out, and that the living Stones have never given Jones his due. All that is certainly true, but Trynka can't be objective here; about every 10 pages, he blames the Stones for most of Jones' problems and doesn't seem to see that much of what he reports actually supports the opposite view, that Jones was, to a substantial degree, the author of his own misfortune. Trynka is sloppy with details here and there, though the last couple of chapters, as Jones' downfall seems inevitable, are well written. I like that he takes down the conspiracy theorists who believe that Jones was murdered: Trynka makes it sound like Jones' untimely death was almost inevitable. I liked some of this book, but I wish a more rigorous and objective writer would tackle this material.

The first two-thirds of Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris was written in the 90s and it's a fairly solid, well-researched look at Reed's life, from the shock treatments he received as a teenager to his falling in with John Cale, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (who in their short time together became one of the most influential rock bands of the 60s), to his solo career that pretty much peaked in the early 70s with the albums Transformer and Berlin. 

These were both seminal albums for me and I was disappointed when Reed seemed to lose interest in his career, producing slipshod work for years until he regained some footing in the 80s. Bockris explains some of that: Reed was, for much of the 70's, a speed addict and a heavy drinker, seemingly constantly high. But high or sober, Reed had two sides: he was either charming or a total prick to everyone he knew. The biggest fault in the first part of the book is that Bockris does zero analysis of the music. Even "Walk on the Wild Side" doesn't get any detailed look at its lyrics, and that would seem to be mandatory for a book on Lou Reed. He touches on the roots of Berlin in a past relationship of Reed's but delves no deeper. 

The last third of the book, covering the mid-90s to the present, was clearly slap-dashed together just after Reed's death in 2013, and its fault goes in the other direction: rather than doing any new research, he mostly writes only about the music Reed made during this time, with and in reaction to his wife Laurie Anderson. Overall, a sloppy book. If someone took the first half and added copious music annotations, we might have a good read.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A playwright named Enigma

New Yorker drama critic John Lahr has written a new biography of Tennessee Williams, who in the 50s and 60s was generally conceded to be the greatest living American playwright. It's a big book and deeply researched, and it starts off like gangbusters, but once Lahr gets around to the plays, things go wrong. Some biographies of artists wind up giving short shrift to their work, so I'm glad to have a volume that deals in criticism of Williams' plays and presents background about the production and reception of the plays. But Lahr winds up burying the reader in pages of lengthy quotes from letters between Williams and his directors and collaborators (usually Elia Kazan). He is using correspondence that has been largely unavailable for publication until recently--the backstory on the vagaries of the Williams literary estate is told, again in overwhelming detail, in the last chapter--so I understand his temptation to use the writings, which are quite candid, but we end up slogging through paragraph after paragraph of seemingly unedited letters that make the same point about the plays and productions over and over again.

The material on the major plays, including The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is interesting, though I would like to have had a bit more discussion of the movie versions, which are barely mentioned here even though Williams himself often worked on the screenplays. On occasion, Lahr spends so much time and effort on the rough birthing processes of the plays that the plot summaries or details about the actors suffer--I'm still vague on what happens in Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke, and aside from Laurette Taylor (Glass Menagerie) and Marlon Brando (Streetcar), the actors are definitely kept in the background.
Lahr approaches the plays from a psychological criticism viewpoint and that is helpful; I found it a particularly illuminating way to read the very odd Suddenly Last Summer and the late play Clothes for a Summer Hotel, which on the surface is about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. A fairly full portrait of Williams from the outside is presented, yet I still came away from this book feeling like I didn't know what made Williams tick. Lahr does a nice job of bring some of Williams' friends to life, particularly the director Elia Kazan and William's partner Frank Merlo, and I enjoyed learning that one of Williams' companions later in life was a relative of Jack Nicklaus. I would recommend this, with the caveat that it bogs down in drowning detail in the last half. (BTW, the cover image above is of the British edition, which is a much better cover than the odd, gaudy, cheap-looking American cover.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

The birth of pop music as we know it

"Here Comes the Night : The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues" by Joel Selvin is one of the best pop culture histories I've ever read. But you need to know this: the title is a lie, or least a deception. Bert Berns is a name generally lost in the far-off mists of time; he was a songwriter ("Twist and Shout," "Hang On Sloopy," "Piece of My Heart"), producer (The Drifters, Solomon Burke), and head of the record label Bang, whose biggest artist was Neil Diamond. He died in 1967 at the age of 38 of a heart condition which doctors has thought would kill him at a much younger age (Bobby Darin was in the same situation) and he has not been lionized like some of his contemporaries such as Phil Spector or Carole King. Selvin wants to give Berns his due, and he is theoretically the focus of the book.

But the narrative is really about the pop music industry of the 50s and 60s: the songwriters, producers, and label bosses. Berns vanishes for entire chapters--though the book comes to a sudden stop with Berns' death in '67--and there is almost as much here about Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and songwriter duos Leiber/Stoller and Barry/Greenwich as there is about Berns. This is not a complaint. Basically Berns serves as a throughline for the larger story of how the modern-day pop music business developed. Even the "dirty business of rhythm & blues" part of the subtitle is a bit misleading--lots of R&B singers crop up here (The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Ben E. King, and lesser-known artists like the Five Crowns and the Exciters) but so do many performers from other genres like Van Morrison, The McCoys, the Strangeloves, Lulu, and the Beatles. The Brill Building-era songwriters are also evoked: Carole King, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach, etc.

The pace is fast but things never get muddled. The middle bogs down a bit as Selvin has a tendancy to lapse into simple listings of Berns' various recording sessions, but this is easily forgiven as the rest of the book holds the reader's attention so well. The biggest surprise is what a bastard Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records could be--he and Ahmet Ertegun usually come off as nice guy geniuses, whereas here they seem more lucky than smart, and not always nice people. Hence the "dirty business" part of the subtitle, which also refers to various mob connections which are detailed.

I can't say enough good things about this book. If you love pop music and want to know more about its roots, this is an engaging resource, exhaustively researched and well-written. (Coincidentally, there is a "jukebox musical" playing in New York right now consisting of the music of Bert Berns called "Piece of My Heart.")

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The giant turtle and the mystical mermaid

In this age of streaming video and countless outlets for movies, I have been enjoying more access to the Golden Age of TV-movies, back when the range was wider than just romance or true crime or Sharknado. Best were the genre entries (horror, fantasy, sci-fi), some of which were as good as any B-movie of the time--see my review of 1971's Black Noon. Warner Archive Instant has a nice selection of these films, and I recently watched one called The Bermuda Depths (1978). It's no masterpiece, as it has the usual limits of the TV-movie--low production budget, indifferent acting and directing--but it also has an unusual plot and atmosphere which one viewer aptly described as a "weird cross between Gamera and Portrait of Jennie," to which I would add the Dennis Hopper cult film Night Tide, with touches of Jaws.

Leigh McCloskey (below) returns to his family home on an island near the Bermuda Triangle years after his marine biologist father died in a mysterious accident. He reconnects with his childhood buddy Carl Weathers who is working on an advanced degree under the tutelage of crusty but nice scientist Burl Ives. McCloskey, who seems a bit like a lost soul, is trying to find out what happened to his father, and also trying to piece together memories he has of a girl with whom he shared walks on the beach; in flashbacks, we see them together as he writes their initials on the back of a sea turtle.


All the pieces of the plot are present, but how they fit is a little strange: the grown-up girl (Connie Sellecca) returns and says her name is Jenny Haniver--which is also the name given to odd, monstrous figures carved out of the carcasses of rays. He only ever sees her coming in or out of the ocean, and no one else sees her at all. There's also a legendary gigantic sea turtle that Ives and Weathers are trying to find. And, of course, they are near the Bermuda Triangle, where people and things are always mysteriously disappearing.

On the plus side: the tone (creepy fantasy), the pace (slow and, at times, a little dreamlike), and the relatively complex story. Selleca is mostly called upon to just look lovely and mysterious, and she's very good at that. Weathers (Apollo Creed from Rocky) is also quite good. On the minus side: the special effects which are only occasionally effective (it's a Rankin-Bass production, BTW) and McCloskey, who seems to be almost literally sleepwalking his way through the movie; sometimes this approach works, giving his character a damaged, distant feel, but more often, he just seems a little slow, physically and mentally.

Ultimately, it's Gamera, ...err, the giant sea turtle that's the biggest problem. Is it good? Bad? The spirit of Nature? Sellecca's brother/father? A Moby Dick comparison is half-heartedly set up between Weathers and the turtle, but it doesn't resonate emotionally. A little more fleshing out of the plot points and a more consistent leading performance would have helped, but as it is, it's still worth a look. People who saw this in their youth seem to remember it as the movie about the girl with the glowing green eyes (Sellecca, pictured at top) but that's a very brief shot, and they looked more bluish to me than green.