From the Archive — Five for Friday, Let’s Put on a Show! edition

roxie

On this Saturday, I am giving myself over to the cultural sensation of our time. so I reach back to the little diversion I once cooked up (or co-opted, anyway) for a weekly bit of relief at the end of the working week. Five for Friday entailed a music list of five entries — usually songs — under a theme and an invitation to others to chime in with their own selections. As I did in the most recent instances one of these quintets was excavated from the archive, I created a YouTube playlist that includes my five selections and all of those offered up by others (often more cunning and inventive than me) in the comments. This particular exercise took place over ten years ago. Bear that in mind when listening through. If I repeated it today, I’ve no doubt my extended crew of collaborators would have stocked the list mightily with Hamilton songs. 

Five Great Songs From Musicals

1. “Roxie” from Chicago. I’ll ‘fess up right now that my exposure to musicals on the stage is limited to some college productions, so even though we’re talking about a song that’s been famously performed by Broadway babies like Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, it’s Renee Zellweger I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of this song. Despite the fact the Renee seems to engender a lot of animosity from some, I think she’s a spot-on perfect Roxie Hart and the neediness, aggression, rickety showmanship and bravado of the character all come through in her performance of this song. To me, the songs in a musical need to be sung well, but they need be acted well, too, and that’s beautifully accomplished here. And there’s no way I’m going to pass up the opportunity to quote the line I never get tired of: “And Sophie Tucker’ll shit I know/To see her named get billed below/Roxie Hart.”

2. “Wig in a Box,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I find the film thrilling for its daring and the terrifically bold performance of John Cameron Mitchell in the lead role. As much as I like all of the songs, the designated showstopper is indeed the one that wowed me the most upon initial viewing and still the one that will make me stop everything to listen to it if the CD is spinning in our household. The slight, sly vocal gymnastics Mitchell employs through this song are wonderful.

3. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from “Red, White and Blaine” in Waiting for Guffman. Just as “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” in A Mighty Wind manages to preserve the comic, mocking tone while still standing apart as a sweet little song in its own right, this simple duet between Corky (Christopher Guest) and Libby Mae (Parker Posey) always disarms me with its genuine charm. “A penny for your thoughts/A dime for your dreams/Would a bright, shiny quarter/Buy a peek at your schemes.”

4. “I’ll Never Tell” from the “Once More, with Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the middle of Buffy‘s run, it was a given that episodes that credited series creator Joss Whedon behind the keyboard and the camera were episodes that were going to be infused with a different sort of creativity, even brilliance. This is last of those episodes, wherein well-established sci-fi/comic-book geek Whedon revealed himself to be, above all else, a musicals geek. The beauty of Buffy was that anytime you wanted to try something different, you just had to have a demon show up in town with powers that suited your needs. If you wanted to have an episode with no dialogue, just bring in a demon who steal people’s voices. If you want a musical episode with your characters singing and dancing…

In particular, Whedon’s love for Sondheim’s wordy playfulness pops up in many of the songs, including this one, a duet between Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caulfield) in which the engaged couple reveal their hidden fears about their pending marriage in song. It’s also the place where Whedon lets his deconstructionist tendencies flow most freely. For example, one character interrupts the other mid lyric and is chastised with “This is my verse, hello!” And how do you not like a song that includes the line “She eats these skeezy cheese that I can’t describe.” My god, I wrote a lot on that one song. The sad thing is, I could write a lot more. I’d best keep the next one short.

5. “Singin’ in the Rain” from Singin’ in the Rain. Maybe the single greatest movie scene ever.

My Writers: Lester Bangs

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When I arrived at college, it took me some time to use the university library for academic purposes. That’s not wholly accurate. I spent an adequate number of hours in that bulky building partaking in endeavors that were associated with assignments, whether researching for papers or claiming a quiet cubby to study for a looming exam. But my strongest memories revolve around the times I stalked the stacks in search of books that would never have made their way into the local library of the small Wisconsin town I called home during my high school years. One of the first tomes I sought out was a compendium of the writing of Lester Bangs.

This was 1988, well before Bangs was immortalized on film in a beautiful performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but in the wake of him being memorably namechecked in R.E.M.’s monumental “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Bangs, who died in 1982 at the tender age of thirty-three, was already a mythic figure. He famously (or infamously) wrote about rock ‘n’ roll music with an opinionated fervor that was too challenging for Rolling Stone. The venerable magazine’s publisher, Jann Wenner, fired Bangs over a scathing review of a Canned Heat record, which only cemented the writer’s legend.

By the time I picked up the collection of Bangs’s reviews, entitled Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, I’d already been reading rock reviews with a mortifying intensity for years. Accordingly, I knew the names of many rock writers, mostly in the Rolling Stone stable — Anthony DeCurtis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh among them — but aside from a couple of artist preferences, I couldn’t identify distinctive traits associated with any of them. They represented a monolithic example of how to write about rock and pop.

Bangs was different, immediately and immeasurably. I disagreed with some of his opinions — sometimes vehemently — but I recognized that they were written with a headlong urgency, a haphazard freedom that could only be indulged by someone with a vivid command of the language. The rock writing I to which I was accustomed was comparatively dutiful and serene. That writing was, in short, antithetical to the raucous rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll itself. Bangs was different. He channeled the tense exuberance of the music he loved and transformed it into words on a page. Other writers might have been better at describing how a song sounded, but Bangs was peerless in describing how it felt. Other writers strained to make rock ‘n’ roll into art. Bangs knew it was better, brighter, rawer, realer if the music was met as something more primal.

Some writers I emulate and some I adore. Bangs is one of those writers who I simply stare at his words, agog that the mechanics of assembling ideas and tapping them onto a page can be accomplished in quite that manner. I could never do that. I’m glad someone could.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Chin Up, Always Up

Today’s political news wore me out. That’s happened a lot in 2017, but today miraculously delivered a whole other set of devastating blows. I’ve been struggling through much of the afternoon and evening to figure out which of the frivolous topics I favor would be appropriate for this space, and I’ve got nothing.

So I cede my little corner of the digital world tonight to a fellow with a fine message and, for me, a familiar last name

The Art of the Sell: “Fearless” trailer

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

Back when I was part of a crew that had an endless capacity for discussing all manner of film, one of the topics we circled back to on occasion was the effective use of pop songs in movies and trailers. This was in the first half of the nineteen-nineties, so we reserved special praise for those rare instances when some favorite song of college radio made an aural appearance. Just the presence of the song didn’t cut it, though. It needed to be used well.

In Peter Weir’s 1993 film, Fearless, the U2 song “Where the Streets Have No Name” is coupled to a particularly strong scene, so it’s not surprising that it was also deployed in the film’s trailer. In my opinion, it’s used even better in this promotional setting. The song’s slow build is matched by the procession of visuals and information. As the racing pulse of the Edge’s guitar nears its peak, the trailers races through quietly dynamic moments from the film — Jeff Bridges pulls Rosie Perez up from a bench, Bridges presses his hand on a window, Bridges is pulled toward Isabella Rossellini for a kiss — masterfully edited together. I’ve seen this trailer countless times (when I was in charge of assigning trailers to films at the movie theater where I worked at the time, I attached this to everything), and it still gives me chills.

Fearless is a flawed film, but it deserves to be better remembered. And its trailer is itself a grand piece of filmmaking.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

From the Archive — The Family Stone

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I don’t really have much preface for this week’s excavated movie review, except to note that this was written for my former online home within my first six months of jumping back into the film criticism game.

There are times during The Family Stone when you can just feel control of the film slipping away from writer-director Tom Bezucha.

The film begins with a fairly straightforward hook: a woman is accompanying her fiance home for Christmas to meet his family for the first time. This tightly wound career woman is played by Sarah Jessica Parker,making her first real stab at a post-Carrie Bradshaw film career. The man’s family is comprised of two upper class, bohemian parents and a total of five adult siblings.

That simple count is the beginning of the difficulties. Besides the fiance, played by Dermot Mulroney, there are: the agressive, abrasive sister; the deaf, gay brother; the pregnant, slightly put-upon, peacekeeping sister; and the documentary film editor with a roving eye and a touch of prodigal son aura. Bezucha expertly introduces each of these characters with some ideally constructed expository writing. Everyone is established with a line or two of dialogue that manages to feel natural while conveying key details. But as the film winds on, and Bezucha’s plot moves to the forefront (and picks up a complicating element in the form of the career woman’s fetching sister, played by Claire Danes), this array of characters has less and less to contribute. Bezucha wants to have a big bustling film, a film that shows how large families can support and strangle you, usually at the same time. But he either loses interest in that big family, or the capability to pull together the large cast of characters in a meaningful satisfying way. The most likely explanation may involve a bit of both.

At its best, the film shoots off sparks. It has a nicely barbed comic tone, sort of like a less satirical version of Ted Demme’s The Ref. Bezucha also proves highly capable at balancing his tonal shifts, moving smoothly between wisecrack roundelays and more dramatic fare. There’s a dinner table scene in which Parker finds herself in a sort of verbal quicksand after a poor choice of phrasing that nicely illustrates Bezucha’s skills in this area.

It softens up as it goes, however. By the end the film has gotten all gooey, and the underlying point seems to be that finding a sweetheart is the solution to all problems. The disappointing nature of that conclusion is compounded by the unsavory subtext of two of the female characters seemingly achieving this contentment by completely transforming their personalities.

That’s an awful lot of writing without touting the achievements of Rachel McAdams in the film. She’s extremely impressive as the character described at one point as “the mean sister.” McAdams shows the bristly nature of the character and her vulnerability without overplaying either. Diane Keaton is equally strong as the matriarch of the family, in large part because she also fearlessly lets some edges show. Together, they actually give you a sense of how the mother’s influence formed the daughter, and how the daughter continues to fuel the mother. It’s a film about connections; this one is the strongest.

One for Friday: E-I-E-I-O, “Hey Cecelie”

love thang

When I was first committing myself to the happy tasks of music fandom in my teen-aged years, I never quite understood why there wasn’t more excitement over local and area bands. This was well before the internet put practically every song a few swipes or keystrokes away, so the main conduit for hearing new music was still the radio. And this was also the era when radio stations were largely under local control, rather than answering to some corporate behemoth that based all programming choices on bloodless focus group determinations and heavy-handed record company persuasion. If the local commercial rock ‘n’ roll station wanted to play a record, all they needed to do was slip it over the spindle and drop the needle. No exterior clearance required.

So when those handful of songs did make the rounds, I took a heightened interest. If a natural reluctance was overcome, the song must have been a beaut.

“Hey Cecelie,” by E-I-E-I-O, is a beaut.

The Milwaukee rockers signaled their romping, county-tinged sound with the Old MacDonald evocation of their band name. Across a pair of albums (and a later reunion effort) they were largely unsung contributors to the cowpunk movement, the meager traction they had undoubtedly hurting a bit because they were from a state that was, of course, lousy with actual cows.

“Hey Cecelie” deserved to be their breakthrough hit, or at least a celebrated standard locally. Built around a iron-clad hook and deliciously yearning lyrics, the song roars forward. It’s a grabber from the thunder-rumbling first moments. And it just gets better as it goes on, wrapping up in a tidy three-and-a-half minutes. It bears repeating yet again: it’s a beaut.

Listen or download –> E-I-E-I-O, “Hey Cecelie”

(Disclaimer: I admittedly haven’t dug too deep, but I believe the bulk of the E-I-E-I-O discography to be out of print, at least as physical objects that can be easily procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. If not, let this act of music sharing be an enticement to buy the band’s music rather than a substitute for such an act of commerce. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my litlte corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. Also, go support a local band. It’s good for the soul.)

Now Playing: Atomic Blonde

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Easily the most thrilling aspect of the new film Atomic Blonde is watching the fiery freedom of Charlize Theron. Long an actress of uncommon fearlessness, Theron thrives as Lorraine Broughton, an agent dispatched by Britain’s MI6 to Berlin as the creaking collapse of the Cold War is threatening to bring down the wall that divides the city. While Theron has it in her to do refinement, intricately messy character work, and high beam important fare, there is a different, devilish sharpness to her as she gets down to the business of delivering and taking punches. As she showed in Mad Max: Fury Road, she can be as commanding as any big male titan in the action genre.

In the role, Theron also employs the approach that has been her secret weapon from film one: treating the role with respect no matter what it is, which in turn brings authenticity to even the most ludicrous fare. (The projects dire enough to undercut this ability are rare, though they do exist.) Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay (based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City) has only the barest interest in Lorraine as anything other than a figure of striding cool, a glamor girl with a split lip and a mean left hook. Without caving in to the brand of trembling vulnerability that would never be expected of a male action here, Theron shows little signals of the human being within the expert spy. She always proceeds with certainty, but also needs to figure things out, improvising solutions as she stays afloat with the swirling eddy of chaotic fisticuffs.

Atomic Blonde is officially the feature directorial debut of David Leitch (he’s acknowledged to have done uncredited work on John Wick), a stuntman and action choreographer with dozens of credits to his name. As might be expected, he excels at the brutal set pieces, structuring them with an eye towards strikingly honest physicality. When Theron flips an adversary over her back, sending him tumbling down a flight on stairs, it looks like work. Other filmmaking aspects are shakier. Leitch occasionally overdoes the image-building, flipping the camera and overlapping scenes to the point of near goofiness. And any time he’s working with an actor who’s less automatically capable than Theron, the performance shows some ugly seams (James McAvoy is especially stranded on an island of hamminess as a fellow agent). An extended continuous shot following one action sequence in and out of an apartment building demonstrates the near-greatness Leitch can pull off when operating in his area of expertise. An unfortunate amount of the remainder of the film illustrates the struggles when he’s outside of that realm.

Of course, Leitch’s infractions can be considered minor and wholly forgivable because he got it exactly right when confronted with the most important task of Atomic Blonde. Point the camera at Theron, and accept the grace that comes with letting her be in charge of every moment.