From the Archive — Big

big

Since I’ve been on a little bit of a thirty-years-ago kick lately, why not take unearth a movie review of a film released in June 1988. I wish I could report I wrote about Big when it hit theaters, but I wasn’t quite plying that particular trade. This was first posted at my former online space as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

As I recall it, Big was the first film I saw when I went away to college. It was a June release, but those had a tendency to slip back into town at the end of the summer in humble little Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sure enough, during my first few days in my new academic home, sleeping in a converted study room in Hyer Hall because the dorms were overbooked at the start of the year, one of the four screens of the nearby Campus Cinema was playing Penny Marshall’s comedy about a boy who grows up unexpectedly fast. It wasn’t a transformational experience, exactly. It was, however, a nice bit of personal foreshadowing. I would spend countless hours in Stevens Point movie theaters in the years to come.

Putting aside nostalgic pangs, the movie itself is pretty terrific. It had the weird misfortune of coming out when there was a spate of movies about boys magically tossed into adult bodies, but Big was the only one that really worked. This certainly owed a great deal to the performance by Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, bringing a winning innocence and uncertainty to this kid thrust into an adult world, his previous posturing abut wanting to grow up stripped away from the scary reality of it. Hanks had a career that was flailing at this point, far better known for the films that were resounding failures than anything else. He probably looks back fondly on Volunteers since it’s where he met his wife Rita Wilson, but no one else does. Big was a clear view of how well he could do when the material was better, and he got a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination for the performance. The bumpy road wasn’t completely smoothed over at this point. There were still problematic films to come, things that probably seemed like good ideas when he signed on for them, and fascinating disasters. Then there was the freeway pile-up that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Hanks was served a hefty portion of the blame for considering most decided his was woefully miscast as “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, although any film that is counting on Melanie Griffith to do dramatic heavy lifting has graver misjudgments contained within its frames. That was actually the film that changed things for Hanks. He retreated and rethought his career, emerging a year-and-a-half later reunited with Penny Marshall to deliver inspired character work in A League of Their Own. From there, back-to-back Oscar wins loomed.

The other major beneficiary of Big was Penny Marshall. Her debut as a film director was thoroughly unengaging, borderline unwatchable Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (now that I think about it, there are a remarkable number of Whoopi Goldberg comedies that can be described in the same unkind manner), but Big demonstrated a deftness and a command of tone that briefly earned Marshall greater opportunities. Probably the most notable was her very next film, Awakenings, which earned her the distinction of being one of several female directors that crafted a Academy Award Best Picture nominee without getting corresponding attention in the directing category. Marshall’s boost was more short-lived. By 1994’s Renaissance Man, her directing was surprisingly indifferent. Only two more films followed after that, neither registering much more than a blip on the cultural consciousness. It’s now been ten years since she directed a film.

I don’t know that anyone would consider Big a classic, but its the sort of film that remains charming and warm and offhandedly delightful, especially when discovered somewhere amidst the legion of channels on a lazy, rainy weekend afternoon. But, again, maybe that’s my nostalgia typing. After all, somewhere in my psyche, the film represents the door cracking open to a completely different level of commitment to the movies. It helped this kid grow up into who he’d become, too.

One for Friday — Voice of the Beehive, “Don’t Call Me Baby”

voice

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Voice of the Beehive released the album Let It Bee. The band is best known as a showcase for sisters Tracey Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland, transplants from California who settled in London in part because they felt the U.K. music scene would be more amenable to the breezy, buoyant pop music they wanted to create. After the toe-dip of a couple singles, Voice of Beehive delivered their debut full-length, punnily swiping its title from the Beatles.

If the music was touched by vintage girl group sunshine, the lyrics often told a different story. Largely penned by Bryn, they exhibited a take-no-guff feminism and a bracing willingness to offer reportorial assessments of the indignities heaped upon women. Let It Bee includes a track titled “There’s a Barbarian in the Back of My Car,” which is about an accurately dismal an assessment of the male half of the specifies as exists on a pop record.

In its particulars, “Don’t Call My Baby” is fairly standard tale of romantic woe, with a caddish paramour deploying terms of affection to one woman while another is “waiting in the car.” But I’ve always heard the declaration of the title as broader, essentially declaring independence from any lousy dude who tried to diminish the singer in any way. It’s a revolt against sexism that happens to have a killer hook. That may not be the most accurate assessment when the track is given a literal reading, but I swear that’s the spirit that imbues it.

Listen or download —> Voice of the Beehive, “Don’t Call Me Baby”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that the Voice of the Beehive catalog is out of print in the U.S., unavailable in a physical form that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner than compensates both the original artists and the proprietor of said shop. This track is being shared in this space with that understanding. Also, I still believe in the legal concept of fair use and believe this qualifies. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Till”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

tom jones

In 1956, the French singer Lucien Lupi released a single entitled “Prière Sans Espoir.” One year later, U.S. songwriter Carl Sigman, whose specialty was adapting songs originally performed in languages other than English, delivered a set of new lyrics and dubbed the revised number “Till.” Percy Faith recorded it and had a minor hit, peaking at #63 on the Billboard chart. From there, the song went into the music industry rotation, resulting in visits to the Top 40 for Roger Williams, the Angels, and the Vogues.

Welsh singer Tom Jones was enjoying one of his most successful stretches on the U.S. charts when he took a crack at the song in 1971. Beginning with the 1969 single “Love Me Tonight,” Jones had a series of Top 40 hits, including “She’s a Lady,” which reached the runner-up position on the Billboard Hot 100. With a little more oomph, it would have become his first — and only — track to reach the top spot in the U.S. “She’s a Lady” was released at the beginning of 1971, as the lead single from the album of the same name. He squeezed a couple more singles from the album with diminishing returns, though they both spent time in the Top 40.

A non-album single, “Till” was his last offering of 1971. It stalled out at #41, forecasting the chart struggles to come. Jones kept recording, but he reached the U.S. Top 40 on only one more occasion: “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow,” released in 1977 as Jones, weirdly, pivoted to country music. It might seem a shaky strategy for prolonging a career in the States, but it worked. Jones had nine different tracks make it into the Top 40 of the Billboard country music singles chart during the nineteen-eighties.

 

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

The Art of the Sell — “The Player” movie poster

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Player ,The

In the early nineteen-nineties, movie poster design was increasingly dominated by incredibly dull images. As movie star salaries spiked, there was a clear reticence to sell a blockbuster hopeful in any manner other than the celebrities at the top of the cast list. If a studio paid a lot of money for Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn, they damn well wanted to sell Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn on the poster. If the poster conveyed practically nothing else about the movie as a result, it didn’t seem to stir any worry with the Hollywood muckety-mucks.

For smaller, independent films, the cast was usually a touch to the side of the point, at least in cajoling moviegoers into buying a ticket. Those films also were a little more complicated, making them difficult to distill down to a single image that could reasonably convey what potential moviegoers would find if they were willing to purchase a ticket. That often led to great ingenuity, and few posters from the era exemplify that quite as well as the one-sheet for Robert Altman’s The Player. The film’s bleakly comic view of Hollywood is perfectly communicated by the the inspired visual of a noose fashioned out of celluloid. Even the pastel sunset hints at a glamorous world in decline.

The poster is an ideal representation of an utterly fantastic film. As much as love Altman’s caustic satire, I have to admit when The Player comes to mind, I think of the poster first.

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #912 to #909

palmer clues

912. Robert Palmer, Clues (1980)

Emerging as a solo performer in the midst of the nineteen-seventies, Robert Palmer was one of the British singers touted for his soulful vocalizations. Arguably, there was no better path to U.S. commercial success for a U.K. rocker than instilling straightforward rock songs with a little blues styling, and Palmer followed that path with studied conviction. At the dawn of the eighties, though, practically every artist with a few records under their belt was compelled to try on the sonic variations present in new wave music. On the evidence of his album Clues, the venture into the insurgent pop form exposed some shortcomings.

“Looking for Clues,” the opening track and one of the album’s singles, has unmistakable new wave sizzle, which winds up overwhelming Palmer’s vocals. They sound remarkably thin and have only the most meager amount of personality. Similarly, “Found You Now” is, I think, meant to be a vocal of bluesy yearning, but it mostly sounds like shouting. Nothing reverberates with spirit or authority. The vocals are echoes of echoes until they may as well be a timid whisper.

Palmer produced the album himself, but often seems confused about the best way to showcase the material. His voice keeps getting swamped out by the music, which isn’t interesting enough to justify its prominence. “What Do You Care” has some of the musical assurance of early Elvis Costello, but lacking the erudition that truly set those songs apart. The disco slither of “Johnny and Mary” is a little interesting, at least in the way it anticipates the odd German synthpop of Peter Schilling and others. The cover of Gary Numan’s “I Dream of Wires” is far more characteristic. It’s notably watered down, despite the fact that Numan himself pitches in on keyboards.

Clues, unsurprisingly, was something of a commercial setback for Palmer. Its singles barely registered on the U.S charts, and the album fared more poorly than its immediate predecessors. Within a few years, though, Palmer cracked the code of MTV-era chart success in a big way.

 

everything love

911. Everything But the Girl, Love Not Money (1985)

Love Not Money was the sophomore full-length from purveyors of elegant pop Everything But the Girl. Although sharing the same title and a very similar track list, it still found the the duo’s labels on either side of the Atlantic — Blanco y Negro in the U.K. and Sire in the U.S. — adopting slightly different philosophies as to what was likely to stir the interest of the listening public. The band’s proper debut, Eden, was originally issued in the U.S., as Sire instead opted to pull a half dozen tracks from it, jumble them with some stray singles and B-sides, and put them all out as self-titled album.

Most of Love Not Money was carried straight over, but Sire proved an ongoing wavering confidence when they added a somewhat flaccid cover of the Pretenders’ “Kid” right in the middle of the record, hoping the familiarity would help, especially since lead singer Tracey Thorn’s vocals bore a resemblance to the deep warmth of Chrissie Hynde’s original singing. Maybe the kids would get confused enough to dig deeper into the richly produced material Everything But the Girl offered up.

Everything But the Girl was already celebrated for their jazzy stylings that buffed out the aggressive bleats and kept the low lounge light seduction. Love Not Money retains that at points — notably in the silky swoon of “Shoot Me Down” — but Love Not Money adds some textures. The jauntiness found on “When All’s Well” and “Are You Trying to Be Funny” reaches such a headlong pace by “Anytown” that Everything But the Girl almost start to seem like kindred souls to the Smiths. And they add a mildly militaristic march beat to “Ugly Little Dreams,” befitting its depiction of society as a war waged against women that can never quite be won; “It’s a battlefield, Frances/ You fight or concede/ Victory to the enemy/ Who call your strength insanity.”

Despite Sire’s efforts to reconfigure the record (or maybe partially because of them), Love Not Money made barely a blip in the U.S., apart from college radio. It would take years — and a jump to Atlantic Records — before Everything But the Girl generated a significant hit in the States. When it happened, though, it made quite an impact.

 

honey one

910. The Honeydrippers, Volume 1 (1984)

The debut EP from the Honeydrippers is the pure definition of a vanity project, except perhaps that the vanity in question was not that of anyone actually in the band. The supergroup was essentially assembled to do the bidding of Atlantic Records label head Ahmet Ertegün, who reportedly wanted to hear new versions of some of his favorite hits from the nineteen-fifties. Where others would have little more than an adequate wedding band at their disposal, Ertegün had a roster of rock ‘n’ roll titans. Robert Plant had already been performing the odd gig with a backing band he called the Honeydrippers, mostly to stir his bygone fandom juices as he prepared to work on solo material. Ertegün saw them play and urged them to make a recording. An EP of covers, optimistically dubbed Volume 1, was the result.

Apparently, Ertegün wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear stuff like this on the radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The group’s dutiful cover of “Sea of Love” made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard chart, outperforming any of the singles of Plant’s former band, the revered Led Zeppelin. This outcome appalled Plant, who envisioned his stock as a rock god singer diminishing (and it probably didn’t amuse the amazing roster of guitarists on the EP, including Jeff Beck and Plant’s Led Zep cohort Jimmy Page, suddenly reduced to adequate session men). He was correct to be dismayed because the track is painfully drab, anticipating the grotesquely disengaged mangling of pop standards that would define the backend of Rod Stewart’s career. A take on “Good Rockin’ at Midnight” is the only song on Volume 1 that’s even palatable, mostly because Plant’s vocal calisthenics — as if he’s trying hard to keep himself engaged — have some charm.

Understandably, Volume 2 never arrived. Except for the odd charity gig, the Honeydrippers were buried, their indifferent raids of bygone classics blessedly abandoned.

 

big songs

909. Big Black, Songs About Fucking (1987)

Thirty years after the released of Big Black’s album Songs About Fucking, guitarist and vocalist Steve Albini summed up the band’s goal simply and clearly to Rolling Stone.

“We wanted to make filthy music,” he said.

They unquestionably accomplished that. Albini and his bandmates — bassist Dave Riley and guitarist Santiago Durango — were offering a direct response to the insurgent Parents’ Music Resource Council, which was lambasting the record labels for daring to release records that mentioned masturbation and other taboo subjects. It was Albini who cooked up the title Songs About Fucking, essentially reasoning that there was a time when practically all of rock ‘n’ roll could reasonably be described that way. They were merely carrying on a time-tested tradition.

The material on Songs About Fucking indulges lustily in carnal clatter, although usually through insinuation rather than direct lyrical bawdiness. The filth is arguably more present in the music. Beginning with the buzzy fervor of “The Power of Independent Trucking,” Big Black blasts through punk songs that add a layer of sonic soot to the headlong charge. The fierce back and forth of “Bad Penny” forecasts the industrial assaults of Ministry, but with an injection of punk rock discipline, and the jackhammer guitar punches of “L Dopa” are thrilling.

“Kitty Empire” is all slither and snarl, and its runtime at just over four minutes practically makes it prog rock epic by punk band terms. “Fish Fry” couches its ultraviolence — in the lyrics, mirrored by the racing engine music — in the banality of the traditional, highly unhealthy dinner used to end the work week across the Midwest. It’s a simply trick, but a good one, adding yet more friction to an album already giving off a cascade of white hot sparks.

The protest of Songs About Fucking was deeply satisfying to the members of Big Black, undoubtedly accentuated by the fact they knew it was their last hurrah. Durango was also dead set on starting law school in the the fall of 1987, an act he saw a duty to his immigrant family that had sacrificed much for him. With one-third of the band stepping away, it seemed wrong to continue.

“This is our vocabulary, the three of us,” Albini said on the occasion of the band’s final shows, performed shortly before Songs About Fucking was released. “If we tried to plug someone in when Santa left and called it Big Black, it would be katastrof!”

 

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

From the Archive — WALL-E

walle

Although I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2, I long for the days that Pixar evinced nothing but the barest interest in sequels. With rare exceptions, the studio consistently strove for vivid inventiveness with each new effort, as if the especially lengthy and intensive process required to deliver feature-length computer animated films mandated each one have a true sense of purpose. When WALL-E was released, ten years ago, the philosophical shift could be spied on the horizon. Only one of the eight Pixar films that preceded it was a sequel. Three of the next five films revisited previous characters. I remain more lukewarm on WALL-E than most, but I have great nostalgia for it as part of a bygone time for a studio that once admirable approached auteur status.

Those Waste Allocator Load Lifter – Earth-Class units are certainly durable devices.

The new film WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo, is concerned with the lonely longings of one of those robots some 700 hundred years in the future. Earth is vacant of human life, the population having long since fled when the towering skyscrapers of refuse made the planet inhospitable. WALL-E, it seems, is the last of his kind, a little boxy robot with at least some level of sentience, going about the daily toil of crunching piles of garbage into tidy cubes. The first chunk of the film follows WALL-E as he works his job with dedication and, like so many blue-collar ‘bots, wiles away the evening hours watching old musicals with his cockroach cohort. His routine is pleasantly disrupted by the arrival of a hovering robot called EVE. She scans the ravaged cityscapes for an indeterminate prize, and quickly captures our hero’s circuitboard heart.

This portion of the film is presented with minimal dialogue, Stanton making every effort to let the visuals handle the duties of the storytelling. Great care has gone into all of these scenes leading to a clarity entirely unharmed by the bold choice. I thoroughly admire Stanton’s approach even if I have to concede that I wasn’t completely caught up in it.

Similarly, when the action shifts to the distant spacecraft holding the human race — now grown bloated and slow-witted by centuries of pampered lassitude — I appreciate Stanton’s decision to inject some satirical social commentary even if I still feel distant from the product. He’s engaged in the same sort of frustrated futurecasting that Mike Judge offered in Idiocracy, examining American society’s current indulgence in unhealthy lifestyle choices and taking it the the logical, if extreme, conclusion. Throughout the cold war, the bleakest future we could imagine involved a scorched landscape populated by mutated marauders fortified with nuclear nourishment. Now our worst nightmare seems to be more of ourselves, our faultiest societal tendencies enhanced to the most unattractive degree. Today’s morning show segment laced with clucking condemnation will be our undoing tomorrow. Our new post-apocalyptic landscape has Twinkies in it.

I do like WALL-E, but I find my opinion far enough removed from the critical consensus ready to anoint this a new pinnacle for Pixar that I wind up dwelling on why it doesn’t quite work. Why, despite its evident artistry, did it leave me entertained but unmoved? Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it. (My partner-in-all-things made a strong case about how the science of groundwater completely undercuts the ending.) The clearest, most concise point I can make is that WALL-E himself doesn’t really come together as a character. He’s perhaps too central to the film to be largely defined by the things he wants. We know WALL-E by what he’s not, what he doesn’t have, which makes his aspirations more dull than sweet. The surrounding, supporting robots may be more narrowly conceived in some ways, but they’re also more compelling. I was far more interested in EVE and her programmed protectiveness and lightning-quick temper (manifested as laser blasts) or even little M-O and his compulsive adherence to his one purpose in electrical life.

Again, these reservations are finally more slight than they probably seem here. It remains a Pixar offering and comes bearing all of the characteristic strengths. The directing is sleek and inviting, the plotting is tight and smart, and the countless hours spent on those humming banks of computers have yielded a lustrous look that remains light-years ahead of what’s programmed together by the other studios cranking out computer animated features. Even if the digitized dreams aren’t quite as moving as I’d like, I’m still grateful I got to share in them.

One for Friday — Soul Asylum, “Sometime to Return”

soul asylum

Thirty years ago, in the spring of 1988, Soul Asylum released the album Hang Time. In the Minneapolis regional of the nineteen-eighties tourney for the hearts and minds of college radio kids, Soul Asylum was doomed to never finish better than third place. The Replacements had the sublime songwriting of Paul Westerberg, and Hüsker Dü expertly snapped together pop gracefulness and hardcore fervor like Lego blocks. Soul Asylum played with thunderously throbbing heart, but they suffered from comparisons. Their immediate peers felt like they were refining the boundaries of rock music in thrilling ways, flinted with danger. Soul Asylum just based out good songs.

Sometimes, though, they based out great songs. Most of those are housed on Hang Time, including “Sometime to Return,” which served as a single. It was a slightly risky choice for an emphasis track, because the portion of the lyrics that intoned, “Picked it apart for hours and hours and hours/ Of turning, tossing and looking and listening/ To you and all the fucked up things you do,” required the distribution of a radio edit, at least for those stations invested in playing nice with the FCC. In my experience with circa 1988 college broadcasters, seeking out the spare disc in the library was occasionally one task too many. Some songs can’t be denied, though. It helps, of course, if the song seems to address the romanticized misery that often comes with living on the cusp of one’s twenties. Even nonsense like “Throw away your calendar/ And saddle up your salamander” can sound profound.

If Soul Asylum couldn’t best their most notable Twin Cities brethren in the nineteen-eighties, they demonstrated how some races that appear to be sprints are actually marathons. Hüsker Dü and the Replacements were both effectively done as going concerns as the nineteen-nineties launched (The Replacements’ All Shook Down, from 1990, is really Westerberg’s first solo album, and everybody knows it). Soul Asylum, on the other hand, lasted long enough to release new music after Nirvana and their fellow Pacific Northwest bashers changed everything. Soul Asylum’s 1992 album, Grave Dancers Union, went triple-platinum and yielded a Top 5 single.

Listen or download —> Soul Asylum, “Sometime to Return”

(Disclaimer: I believe Hang Time to be out of print as a physical item that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of the store in question and the original artist. “Sometime to Return” is almost assuredly included on any and all Soul Asylum “best of” compilations, and they are a band that is probably well-served by some popularity-based curating. So I’m sharing this not to impede commerce, but to encourage it. And I think it qualified as fair use. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)