Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Five

#25 — An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
As far as MGM was concerned, there was an element of risk to letting director Vincente Minnelli team up with Gene Kelly for the musical An American Paris. Though proven commodities, they’d paired a few years later on a musical called The Pirate, which was a costly enough bomb that the studio mandated a brief hiatus for Minnelli. He rebounded with the comedy hit Father of the Bride and its quickie sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, regaining the cachet required to take another stab at an ambitious musical extravaganza. Both Minnelli and Kelly were convinced they had something special on their hands with this film, that they were working their way towards a masterpiece. They weren’t wrong.

Built around music by George and Ira Gershwin, the film stars Kelly as an expatriate painter in La Ville-Lumière. He struggles in his chosen professional until he unexpectedly picks up a patron (Nina Foch), leading to conflicts between his integrity and his need for income. Simultaneously, he meets a lovely young Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron) who he pursues romantically despite her initial protests. It is the sort of slender material upon which many a Hollywood musical is built, but An American in Paris is distinctive because of its surprising complexities, attributable to the aspirations of star and director and the screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner. The movie relies of plenty of standard tropes and techniques, including notably straightforward narration and scenes that are clearly playing out on sound stages instead of the actual streets of Paris. There’s a underlying grimness, even cynicism, to many of the exchanges and little hints around the fringes that life is harder than the spontaneous bursts of song might suggest. It’s not a bleak film by any means, but nor does it posit a world constantly dappled with cleansing sunshine. There’s a sense that the characters must work for what they want, especially if what they want is a bit of happiness and satisfaction.

Minnelli had a sure hand for this sort of material, and the film is a master class in vivid staging and the use of all the tools of cinema to create a memorable visual tableau. That’s clear throughout, but never more so than in the extended ballet sequence that is the film’s lush centerpiece. Working with a shifting color scheme and exuberant, athletic choreography by Kelly, Minnelli takes a sequence that is clearly a set piece and makes it feel like an organic extension of the creative souls of the characters. It can be snapped off and enjoyed as its own entity, but it does what a good musical number should do: it serves as a continuation of themes and emotions of the whole work in which it takes its place. That takes it from grand feat of staging, dance, music, and moviemaking into something even yet a little bit more, something ravishing and downright moving. The same effusive sentiments can be applied to entire film.

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Top 40 Smash Taps: “Call Me Lightning”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

The quartet comprised of Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon, and Pete Townshend, known collectively as the Who, first reached the Billboard Top 40 with their 1966 single “Happy Jack.” They made it into that portion of the chart a total of sixteen times, doing so as late as 1982, by which point dearly departed drummer Keith Moon (who, as much as anyone in history, would seem to be utterly incapable of resting “in peace”) had been replaced by Kenney Jones. Despite that impressive tally, the Who weren’t nearly as dominant as their British Invasion peers, with only one of their hits propelled into the Top 10, and even then just barely. “I Can See for Miles,” a single from the seminal album The Who Sell Out, peaked at #9. It was shortly after that U.S. breakthrough that the Who released “Call Me Lightning” as a single, at roughly the same time that “Dogs” was issued the U.K. The band felt that “Call Me Lightning” would be a little stale for the homeland market, which by early 1968 had already started to move on from straight-ahead rock with dissipating echoes of skiffle. But surely the kids in the States were still prepared to swoon and scream before such material. The band even put together a video that had an odd Monkees vibe to it, proving their sincerity in playing to the audience. It did chart, but petered out at #40, suggesting the maybe listeners of the other side of the Atlantic were equally ready to move on to more complex fare. Luckily, Townshend was only a year away from delivering just that. If the track hasn’t endured like some of the other Who songs that have been nearly ubiquitous on classic rock radio for decades, it at least inspired the band name for a scruffy group of Milwaukee indie rockers.

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes

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Everyone’s happy, they’re finally all the same, ’cause everyone’s jumping everyone else’s train

Snowpiercer, the new film from director Bong Joon-ho, is ravishingly bonkers. Based on a French comic book saga, the film presents a future vision of the world plunged into permanent, uninhabitable winter, a result of overcompensation in the battle against global warming, a witty detail introduced in early one as a signal to the satiric sensibility woven through the film. The only refuge on the entire planet is aboard a train that doesn’t stop, rattling along tracks that traverse the entire world, taking exactly a year to complete a round trip. The incredibly long locomotive wasn’t built for this purpose. Instead it was the crackpot notion of an inventor who grew up loving choo-choos, testifying in a video from his childhood that he’d like to live on them forever. When the cold descended, the train was the only option for those who were looking for an alternative to freezing to death.

What the film lacks in engineering plausibility, it more than makes up for in allegorical potency. The train has become a microcosm of global society, with the wealthy and privileged closer to the engine, enjoying decadent pampering. The impoverished live in squalor toward the caboose, grimy in their bunks and solemnly accepting gelatinous protein bars for daily sustenance. Any hint of discontent is met by a lecture about gratefully accepting their assigned place and the occasional bit of vicious corporal punishment utilizing the frigid outdoor temperatures. In this system, a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) plots a revolution, one designed to succeed where others have failed. The goal is get all the way to the engine. Bong crafted the screenplay with Kelly Masterson (the writer behind Sidney Lumet’s excellent final feature, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead), and it has an admirable commitment to heightened lunacy and delightful unpredictability. Each new train car provides its own surprise, some gruesome, some thrilling, some comic in the most twisted way. And at least one of those cars manages to hit all three tones, thanks in no small part to some wickedly warped satire and a fearlessly full-bodied performance by the invaluable Alison Pill.

Much as Bong concentrates on the mechanics of his visual storytelling, he pulls strong performances out of his actors. Evans is as good as he’s ever been, especially when called upon to deliver a deliberately nutso monologue about the earliest days on the train, grounding it an emotional honesty that is as superheroic as anything he does when adorned in a stars-and-stripes uniform. There are nice supporting turns by Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and two of the co-stars from Bong’s wonderful The Host, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung. Then there’s Vlad Ivanov, who plays the heavy with a level of dead-eyed menace unseen on the screen since J.T. Walsh shuffled off this mortal coil. But nothing else quite compares with the broad strokes of Tilda Swinton as a Thatcher-esque overseer of the underclass. Swinton’s performance, in keeping with her career-long tendency, is such a colorful caricature that it settles squarely into love-it-or-hate-it territory. I felt both emotions in about equal measure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

With Bong’s perfect sense of tonal balance, Snowpiercer is playful and bleak, serious science fiction and a splendid wild ride, employing an almost childlike logic that favors what’s effective in the moment over what might stand up to devoted scrutiny. That’s appropriate given the film rushes along with the same unyielding momentum as the train that is the setting for practically every scene. Bong’s filmmaking feat is that he keeps it solidly on track the whole time.

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College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 4

4. Linda Ronstadt, Living in the USA

In 1978, Linda Ronstadt was about as big as a rock ‘n’ roll performer could get, though most of the superlatives that got flung around centered on her gender. After a slightly belated breakthrough with her fifth studio album, Heart Like a Wheel, Ronstadt started stacking up accomplishments. She became the first solo female to have three straight million-selling albums when her 1976 release Hasten Down the Wind crossed that tally (she eventually could claim nine straight Platinum-certified albums). The 1977 album Simple Dreams spent five weeks atop the Billboard album chart, holding the distinction of knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the perch, ending its record-setting four month run there. (Well, ending isn’t entirely right since Rumours was back in the #1 position a couple months later.) Simple Dreams reportedly sold over three-and-a-half million copies in the span of less than a year. Again, that was a record for a female artist. It was that enormous hit record that Ronstadt was officially following up with Living in the USA, released almost exactly one year later, in September of 1978. Continuing her string of notable accomplishments, it was the first album to ever ship Double Platinum, some two million copies pressed and sent out before even a single disc had been sold.

Living in the USA took its title from a recurring lyric in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” which Ronstadt covered for the album’s opening track and lead single. While a Top 40 hit, her ninth since her career started blazing with the chart-topping “You’re No Good,” the track exposes the chief creative shortcoming of Ronstadt’s album. Ronstadt was first and foremost a skilled interpreter of other people’s songs, essentially an ace covers act. There’s no shame in that. Many of his hits may have been penned just for him, but the same can be said of Elvis Presley (who, incidentally, Ronstadt knocked out of the top spot on the country albums chart with Living in the U.S.A., an especially impressive feat given that it happened just a few months after the King’s death, when instant nostalgia was giving him a mighty commercial boost). The problem was that Ronstadt’s tepid take on Berry’s rocker suggested she was running low on inspiration, possibly a result of releasing new music as a very steady clip to meet the huge demand of her swelling fan base.

Ronstadt is at her best when a song seems to surprise her a little bit, pulling out different dynamics in her melodic, emotive vocals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is more likely to occur on Living in the USA with the more unfamiliar songs, such as “All That You Dream,” which is smooth but propulsive, effectively showcasing Ronstadt’s voice as she goes from a gently keening croon down to the occasional growl. Then there’s Warren Zevon’s offering to the record, almost a given at this point in Ronstadt’s discography thanks to her sterling turns with his songwriting previously. “Mohammed’s Radio” demonstrates exactly why Ronstadt was the ideal singer of Zevon’s songs, even better than the man himself. His cynicism brings out her innate, often untapped toughness, and her velvety voice reveals the loveliness of his melodies and verbal phrasings, often concealed by his default croaky, languid delivery. (And man alive, does “Midnight Radio,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ever owe something to this particular track.) It’s performances like these that prove there was real artistry to what Ronstadt was doing.

Ronstadt made it to the cover of Time magazine the previous year, accompanied by the descriptor “Torchy Rock.” That assessment is spot-on, for good and ill. Ronstadt would eventually give in to that instinct altogether, but at the height of her popularity she was still trying to bridge all the different audiences that were snatching up her music, sometimes resulting in material that was tragically bloodless. That quality is exemplified by her take on Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” released by him only one year earlier. She takes a song full of emotional danger and wounded romanticism and turns it into something utterly vanilla. The best that can be said is that it’s pretty in an unassuming way. If Talking Heads, Blondie, and their kindred spirits were inventing new wave, Ronstadt was doing the same for adult contemporary. Costello hated her version of the song and didn’t mind telling anyone who’d listen (because he’s Elvis Costello and he’s always happen to vent his most vicious opinions). He liked the money all those record sales brought him, though. When Ronstadt’s management asked him for songs he thought might be better suited to Ronstadt, he sent along a batch, three of which made it onto her next album. He hated those, too. But I’ll bet he liked the size of the checks once again.

Ronstadt just kept selling records. It’s easy to look back at her career now and scoff. The hits that endure sound like pure filler, desperately dated in their laid back seventies cheer. Digging deeper doesn’t necessarily yield material that’s revelatory, but it does start to showcase someone who was often damn good at what she was trying to do. She was a powerful singer not because of her ability to hit big, brassy notes, but because of the way she could inhabit a song. She was popular for a reason, and that reason is best named with a single word: talent. That shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly

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From the Archive: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

According to the gimmicky title scrawled across the top of my radio script (“Reel Thing V: The Final Frontier”), this review was featured in the fifth episode of our weekly movie review program. This was clearly a week in which our modest college town didn’t get very many new films, necessitating a trip to Madison to catch art film screenings there. I’d barely seen any Akira Kurosawa films by this point (probably only Ran, and I may not have even seen that yet), a highly inconvenient fact I tried to cover up in the writing process with only the most passive reference to the history of wondrous cinema he carried into this effort. I was, to put it plainly, a little out of my depth in writing about the film.

Many of us are fascinated by our dreams. A person you can apparently count among that group is the internationally acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In fact, he’s so fascinated by his dreams that he chose to devote several of them to film, and that produced the film with the very appropriate title Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. Dreams is really a collection of eight short films that each take their reference point from one of Kurosawa’s dreams, each segment having its own focus, feel, and direction. It’s sort of the filmmaking equivalent of a book collecting several new short works of a well-known author. Since each dream has its own focus, each part much succeed or fail on its own merits, and, as one would expect, some fare better than others. Some like “The Blizzard,” which follows a group of mountain climbers on a treacherous journey through a terrible blizzard, and “The Weeping Demon,” an uninventive look at a post-holocaust world, are simply uninteresting pieces of work which become too mired in their strange sense of self-importance to really capture the imagination. Many are also simply forgettable, nice images to look at for a while, but nothing that you’ll retain for too long. When the sequences work, though, they work marvelously. The first dream, entitled “Sunshine Through the Rain,” gives us a young boy viewing the forbidden sights the forest holds during a rainstorm. His innocent curiosity as he views this fascinating and oddly frightening scene rubs off and the entire segment is captivating. Other notables include “Crows,” featuring Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh as Kurosawa guides us through the wonder creations of van Gogh’s mind. Also the segment that closes the film, entitled “Village of the Waterwheels,” lends praise to simplicity and naturalness of life through the eyes and words of a terrifically wise storyteller. The images and magic Kurosawa creates in these segments are easily enough to counterbalance the moments of the film that drag or misfire. (3 stars, out of 4)

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One for Friday: Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, “Spinster”

Every Joan Jett song should feature her barking out “Fuck you!” within the first fifteen seconds.

Jett was all over the radio when I first really started paying attention to it as something other than background the adults had on. With backing band the Blackhearts, her cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was the number one song in the country for seven weeks in the spring of 1982 (originally recorded by the British band Arrows, Jett had taken an earlier pass at it in 1979, with no less than the Sex Pistols in tow). It was absolutely everywhere, heralding Jett as the likeliest breakthrough artist from the crumbled Runaways. While she had other Top 40 achievements, including a quick follow-up visit to the Billboard Top 10 with her take on a much covered Tommy James and the Shondells hit, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” was the clear peak, the song she’d have to play for the rest of her life any time she got on stage.

By the early-to-mid-nineties, Jett was clearly trying to work out where she’d head as an artist, especially as Top 40 radio was beginning to show the first signs of hostility towards her brand of straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. Even though she’d been to the Top 10 again as recently as 1988, her new albums were already being tagged as potential comebacks. She seemed to be chasing a very particular, modern rock audience with her 1991 album, Notorious, which featured an opening track and lead single penned by Paul Westerberg. But commercial radio didn’t really have an ear for the songwriting of the Replacements frontman and college radio afforded little room for Jett. I’m not even entirely sure we were serviced with the record at the time.

The more interesting Jett album arrived in 1994. Pure and Simple was her first for Warner Bros. Records, which was snapping up all the cool kid artists, having released label bows for Elvis Costello and R.E.M., among others, within the prior half-decade or so. Jett had a revised lineup of Blackhearts behind her and the collaborative help of Kathleen Hanna, a clear of an heir apparent as a seasoned performer could have. I wouldn’t necessarily call the album great, but it is consistently interesting. And in those moments when Jett is seemingly goosed alive by her young punk collaborator, as is the case with “Spinster,” it’s pretty fabulous.

Listen or download –> Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, “Spinster”

(Disclaimer: To my untrained eyes, it appears that Pure and Simple is out of print. There are a big batch of Jett compilations out there, so it’s possible this track shows up on one of those I guess, though I don’t think it’s likely. Sadly, I don’t have a crack research team to help me out. My main point here is that I’m sharing this song in this space because I believe it to be something that cannot be purchased in a physical format from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that would duly compensate both the artist and the proprietor of said store. And Hanna, too, as a songwriter. Because I’m worried she might beat me up, a residual fear from her Bikini Kill height of fierceness.)

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Meet me, Jesus, meet me, meet me in the middle of the air

Fifty-third in a series….


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July 2014
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