Sunday, September 30, 2007

Columbus Soul from WVKO

With the brief flurry of media attention to the 40th anniversary of 1967's Summer of Love, I was in a more nostalgic musical mood than usual in the past couple of months, and spent some time making up a 1967 iPod playlist, which I'll blog about later. I also discovered a wonderful album of old locally-produced soul singles from the late 60's and early 70's. Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Years, is part of a series of collections of little-known, local R&B records from back in the day. (I use "soul" to refer to R&B music since when I grew up, that's what Billboard magazine called their R&B chart.) These songs were produced in Columbus for the Capsoul label, founded by WVKO DJ Bill Moss (later a political activist and controversial school board member before his untimely death in 2005). As a suburban white kid in the 70's, I got most of my music, soul and otherwise, from the local Top 40 stations, mostly WCOL, but I did occasionally venture down to the far end (1580) of the AM radio dial to listen to VKO, though it never seemed to come in very well.

These songs are a little rough around the edges in both performance and production, but what amazes me is how good they are. A tiny bit of polish on these songs could have led them to be national chart competitors. They're a little bit Motown and a little bit Stax; there's a little pop and a little gospel in the mix. The Four Mints sound like a slightly raggedy Temptations, but their song "Row My Boat" is a lovely mellow ballad that sounds as good as anything that was on 70's AM radio. The same goes for "I Want to be Ready" by Kool Blues. There's a Sam Cooke groove on "You're All I Need to Make It" by Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, and Bill Moss himself has an inspirational track called "Sock It to 'Em, Soul Brother," which is basically a series of shout-outs to the "brothers doin' good," like Martin Luther King, Ralph Bunche, and Willy Mays. Most of the 19 tracks here are worth hearing, but the real find is a singer named Marion Black. His deep, bluesy vocal on the minor-key "Who Knows" is a killer; "Go On, Fool" has lyrics that teeter on blues parody ("You had children/Out of wedlock/On the day we met..."; "Come Friday, Saturday and Sunday, you're gone/I had to shop, cook, and clean all alone") but Black's voice makes the song memorable. There is also a fun instrumental called "Hot Grits!" by the fabulously named Elijah and the Ebonites, with Elijah yelling, "Oooo-weee, Hot grits!!" whenever the mood takes him. Sadly, my iTunes version of the album had no digital booklet with liner notes, so I don't know anything about the artists (though there is a press release for the album at Columbus Music History). Sadder still is how short-lived Capsoul was, and that none of these great tunes ever made the national charts.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Down to a sunless sea

If I lived in New York City, I would by now have seen the current Broadway musical of Xanadu, the notoriously bad 1980 Hollywood musical. The stage show is supposedly good, campy fun. Sadly, the movie is not. I saw it when it first came out and I remember how dispiriting it was to sit and watch as so many things went so wrong. 27 years later, I borrowed the movie from the library to see if I could find anything redeeming in the experience. I could not.

Olivia Newton-John is a muse named Kira who comes to life, zooming off of an alley mural in Los Angeles, to help inspire two lonely people: an insipid and whiny commercial artist (Michael Beck) who hates his job--and seems to have no life outside of his work at a record company--and a retired night club owner (Gene Kelly) who has an itch to get back in the business. Kira skates around Hollywood and brings the two guys together to open a fabulous roller disco called Xanadu in an abandoned theater.

The fantasy plot has potential, but no attention is paid to dialogue or characterization. Beck is intensely unlikeable, Newton-John can look nice but has little else going for her, and virtually all the actors read their lines like they're at a community theater rehearsal. The one exception is Kelly who actually does seem to be trying. At almost 70, he is livelier than either one of his co-stars. The potential for an interesting romance between a mortal and an immortal (as in The Bishop's Wife) is wasted: Kira is "freed" by the gods to be with Beck at the end, but we get no sense of what this means for her. Beck, for a romantic leading man, is remarkably asexual and, did I already say, unlikeable. Another wasted plot point has to do with the fact the Kira had materialized to Kelly back in the 40's to be his muse, and he sort of recognizes her in the present day, but this is not developed. As my partner who, God love his soul, endured this movie with me, noted, there is not a drop of dramatic tension. Nothing is at stake. There are no major obstacles for anyone to overcome. The music is OK (that damn "Have to believe we are magic" song is lodged in my head now) and one production number which combines music and dance from the 40's and 80's is sort of fun, but too overblown to be truly enjoyable. If you have a yen for Xanadu, either go to Broadway or read Coleridge.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The movie of the musical of the movie

The current film version of Hairspray is a musical, based on the stage musical, which was based on the original movie by John Waters, not itself, strictly speaking, a musical, but a movie with a lot of music. The plot is the same in all three versions: in early 60's Baltimore, fat schoolgirl Tracy Turnblad achieves her dreams of 1) getting to be a regular dancer on a local "American Bandstand"-type show, 2) getting the popular and sexy main male dancer on the show to be her boyfriend, and 3) getting the local African-American kids allowed on the show. Though Turnblad's mother is played in each version by a man, there is nothing directly "gay" about the material. In fact, though Divine is wonderful as Tracy's mom in the first movie, there is really no narrative or thematic reason for the character to be played in drag. Nevertheless, it has become a good gimmick to give the show a hook; Harvey Fierstein played her on Broadway (and we saw Bruce Vilanch play the role on the road) and now John Travolta plays her in the new movie. He obviously saw it as an acting challenge and is OK, though he tries too hard to play the part as a "naturalistic" woman, and part of the charm, if you will, of the earlier incarnations, is that the actors were clearly big drag queens. Not only is Travolta not a drag queen, he isn't all that big, having to be padded out both in body and face. He doesn't ruin the movie, but his interpretation doesn't add anything interesting to the mix, though he is a hoot in the final scene when he cuts loose on the dance floor.

The stage musical, with its elaborate sets, glossy and colorful look, and energetic songs, is a lot of fun; the new film a little less so, perhaps (ironically) because it tries to be truer to Waters' own deliberately rough, indie-film aesthetic. The dances are staged well, but everything looks drabber than it did on stage. The exception is the high-energy finale, an ultra-catchy number called "You Can't Stop the Beat," which gets stuck in my head for days whenever I hear it. The actors are all fine: newcomer Nikki Blonsky is Tracy, current hot teen idol Zac Efron is the hot teen dancer on the show (he is appropriately glossily handsome, though a bit too plastic to be sexy), Michelle Pfeiffer is the villainess, trying to keep both fat kids and black people down, Christopher Walken is Tracy's dad, and Queen Latifah is Motormouth, the blues singer who joins in the civil rights fight (though the attempt to open the play up with a protest march in the streets falls flat). The biggest surprise is James Marsden, so dully sincere as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but so sparkling and such a good singer here as the host of the TV show. This film is fun, but see the stage show if you can. [I must add that I miss the original movie's theme, "Hairspray" by Rachel Sweet, and the 60's dance song "Madison Time" by the Ray Bryant Combo not being carried over to either musical version.]

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Fall Preview nap

One of the many, many ways by which I know I'm not getting any younger is that the Fall Preview excitement that the media always whips up in September doesn't excite me anymore. In fact, I find myself skipping most of the special movie/TV special supplements, since the few things I do wind up liking are usually things that fly beneath the major media radar. I have heard of a few things that I might try to catch in the next few months:

* The Kingdom, an espionage thriller, only because it has Jeremy Piven.
* Across the Universe, the Beatles-themed coming-of-age film by Julie Taymor (see poster at left). I liked her first film, Titus, but I haven't even bothered with Beatles-music movies of the past (Sgt. Pepper, All This and World War II) because they seemed so misguided. This one may not be great art, but it sounds worth a look.
* The Golden Compass, a big-budget fantasy based on a popular young adult book, which my sweetie is looking forward to. I couldn't get past the first 30 pages, but the movie looks glittery and diverting.
* Sleuth, the essentially 2-character thriller play which was done on film by Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier in the 70's. The surprise will be gone from this remake with Caine (in the Olivier role) and Jude Law, but the acting sparks might make it worth catching.

Not much. The Big Bang Theory, about two computer geeks, is the only sitcom that looks even close to being amusing. I've liked Johnny Galecki in the few things I've seen him in. I will probably check in on Back to You, the Kelsey Grammar sitcom about TV news folks, but I can't imagine it will fly. Moonlight, a vampire detective show, is promising, as is Viva Laughlin, a "musical dramedy" (I believe that's how it was described in Entertainment Weekly) with Hugh Jackman at the producing helm (and he'll be an occasional co-star).

It looks it's going to be a good fall for catching up on the DVD boxed sets I got for my birthday!

ADDENDUM: I just read the New York Times review of Across the Universe and my hopes are up. The way Stephen Holden describes his feelings about the movie echo my own feelings about a similar kind of film from few years ago, Moulin Rouge:

"Somewhere around its midpoint, "Across the Universe" captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"...And I'm sorry you have the devil's curly hair"

Saw The Simpsons Movie this past weekend. I like the Simpsons, but it's one of those shows I watch in reruns, or whenever, not one I've ever really kept up with. Still, when our local Fox station was showing it at 5 and 5:30 every weekday, I caught lots of 'em. The movie was very funny in spots, but it got too carried away with its own plot--Homer adopts a pig, dumps its toxic shit in the lake which makes the lake a environmental catastrophe, leading to the EPA cutting the town off from the rest of the planet with a giant dome, then Homer and his family go to Alaska to start all over again, etc., etc. The shows are too short for plot concerns to overwhelm the humor, but 90 minutes, though short for an average movie, is a little too long for one Simpsons storyline. Still, I chuckled a lot and laughed out loud several times. I'm a sucker for animated bulging-eyeball jokes, Ralph Wiggum, and Homer's bad parenting, and those accounted for many laughs. I also liked Spider Pig and Tom Hanks' cameo and Marge's curse word. The title of this post is the punch line I laughed the most at; it comes near the end, and BTW, be sure to stay through all the credits.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Flawed but human

I just finished a debut novel called Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger. I don't read much fiction these days, and even less of what could be pigeonholed as "gay fiction," but this looked like a cute "Will & Grace"-type story, and the cover art was done, I believe, by a cartoonist whose name has slipped my mind but whose work I have enjoyed over the years (I'll correct this when I get a chance to look at the book's "T.p. verso," librarian lingo for the page behind the title page).

The book centers on a gay man (Ken) and a straight woman (Iris) who meet in an anger management class they have both been sent to, unfairly they believe, and strike up a friendship which itself becomes centered on their cheating partners: Ken has just thrown his boyfriend out after catching him cheating, and Iris discovers information leading her to think that her boyfriend is having a fling with a work acquaintance. In a Strangers on a Train twist, they agree to spy on each other's partners to sort out what's what. They both learn things about the partners, about themselves, and about relationships.

The plot is solid, and I liked the fact that it didn't necessarily go in predictable directions (I thought for sure that Iris's bf was going to wind up gay, but that doesn't happen). The lead characters seem like real human beings and are quite charming. The details about places and characters seem right. The only real weakness was in the humor; maybe I'm being unfair because the set-up seemed so sit-commy, but I was expecting wittier writing, more laugh-out-loud dialogue. The tone of the book is definitely comic, but I rarely did more than crack a smile. Still, I enjoyed the time I spend with the characters, and I liked the way things turned out.