Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A New Look at Erroll Garner's Concert By The Sea

Erroll Garner at the piano, 1946. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress.)

On September 19, 1955 Erroll Garner and his trio were booked to play the auditorium at the Sunset Center in Carmel, California. The gig included bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil DeCosta Best. It paid a guaranteed $650 plus sixty cents “privilege of net receipts.” The band was scheduled to play two sets between 8:30 and 11pm. At first glance the contract was just another gig in the life of Erroll Garner, one of the best and most-beloved jazz pianists of his era who travelled and performed regularly during the fifties in between recording dates for his label at the time, Columbia Records. A year earlier, Garner recorded his biggest hit “Misty” which put his name and music into the mainstream.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Method Meets Stand-Up: Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Lily Tomlin (as Trudy the bag lady) in the film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1991).

Though it has often been the case that actors celebrated for their work on the stage are replaced in the film adaptations by established movie stars, there’s a long and respectable history of great stage actors who have recreated their signature performances on the screen; it goes back at least to Walter Huston in Dodsworth (1936), if not even farther. Often it denotes pedigree in the eyes of Oscar voters: sixteen women and men have won Academy Awards for performances they originated on the stage.* In the case of actors who have an instinctual sense for the camera, the work may deepen on film: I suspect that was the case with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and I know from personal experience that it was true of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation and Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman show Jane Wagner wrote for her in 1985 and John Bailey filmed in 1991, in which she plays a dozen different characters. When Tomlin opened it on Broadway theatre critics searched for new superlatives to describe her performance; she had a triumphant national tour with it afterwards, and it was the subject of a PBS documentary. I saw it in Boston prior to the New York opening, and I was mesmerized by her invention, by her emotional range, and by the physical commitment. It was a Saturday night, and she still had a second evening show to give, but she moved as if she’d been shot out of a cannon, and the level of energy never lessened – she even did handstands. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen on a stage, and it was even greater on screen, yet the critical reception it got was merely respectful and no one turned out to see it. Perhaps a movie of a one-person show – especially one that acknowledges its stage origins (though one can hardly envision a movie version of a one-person show that didn’t) – is easy to dismiss as a kind of second-hand special event, though in fact Bailey, a cinematographer making his directorial debut, developed a real concept that altered the stage play while paradoxically preserving it at the same time. Perhaps the ideal audience for this sort of entertainment had mostly seen it on stage or caught excerpts on PBS and didn’t bother checking it out at the movies. Or perhaps the show had been touted so loudly and so long when Tomlin was performing it live that it already felt old hat by the time it came out on film.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Gatsby For Our Age: Mistress America

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America.

Why doesn’t filmmaker Noah Baumbach get more love? Oh, the critics like him alright, more so of late, but the public doesn’t seem to. Yet since his debut with Kicking and Screaming (1995), he’s been putting out a steady and mostly consistent stream of smart, funny and appealing comedy/dramas that really reflect the way we live now. Yet the audience’s fancy seems to be tickled more by the artificial, hollow and hermetic likes of Wes Anderson’s output (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) than anything Baumbach has on offer. It’s their loss but if they would check out Baumbach’s latest movie Mistress America (the second film of his to be released in 2015 after While We’re Young), they would be in for a treat. This comedy of manners about a young woman’s attachment and involvement with her older, soon-to-be stepsister is a small, indelible gem.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Black Mass: Not Enough Color

Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger, in Black Mass.

As James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Johnny Depp levels a cobra’s hooded gaze at his enemies and at those he suspects might become his enemies. That isn’t much of a distinction, and it doesn’t take much to cross it. Depp gives a thoughtful, intelligent performance as a charismatic sociopath, and in some scenes he’s very frightening. But he needs more colors, and I don’t think that’s his fault but the fault of the screenplay, which Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth culled from Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s book Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss. I haven’t read the source material, but Depp is obviously faithful to the Bulger you saw in the news every day during his 2013 trial and who emerges in last year’s riveting documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. The prosthetics have transformed Depp’s face so that he looks eerily like Bulger, but this kind of real-person camouflage, impressive as it is, always misses the point. (God knows it did when Steve Carell was buried under his make-up in Foxcatcher: the combination of Carell’s vocal tics and that artificial face, constructed to replicate that of a true-life lunatic most people couldn’t identify anyway, made him look and sound like an automaton.) Black Mass, which was directed by Scott Cooper, is a prestige project, carefully assembled and made with obvious integrity. But it would be a more satisfying movie if Depp were slyer, more ironic – if he loosened up and had more fun with the part. You don’t want Jack Nicholson’s Bulger-inspired turn in The Departed, whose behavior was so clownish and preposterous that you couldn’t believe his gang didn’t just stage an insurrection and take him out, but you do need to get more of a sense of the character’s charm and of an outrageousness that isn’t just linked to a pathological taste for violence.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Beatles Confidential: Mark Lewisohn In His Own Write

The Beatles arriving at New York's JFK Airport on Feb. 7, 1964. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

Mark Lewisohn, the world’s only full-time Beatles historian, is a right scholar. In July, when the sun was shining and most Londoners were outdoors basking in the rarity of a cloudless English morning, the bespectacled Briton was ensconced inside the fortress-like British Library, quietly perusing a half century’s old clippings file having to do with the National Theatre’s 1967/68 stage version of In His Own Write, the 1964 book by John Lennon whose birthday it is today. Victor Spinetti, the English actor who had appeared in such Beatles films as A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, had directed the play for which Lennon had written additional material, and the reviews had been mixed. The comedian discussed the production in papers released to the public following his death in 2012. National Theatre stalwarts, Sirs Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier, also had referenced In His Own Write in correspondence of their own. Lewisohn, who makes it his business to know everything there is to know about the Beatles “It’s my life’s work,” he proudly declares   has read them all. But on this particular day he was on the lookout for additional details that would give him the full, unabridged picture   the who, where, how and why   of what actually had happened. “I go anywhere where I can find something new, new to me anyway,” he said during a coffee break in the library’s light-filled canteen. “I’ve been researching the Beatles since the late 1970s, and the fact that there are still things new to me is extraordinary. But that is very much the nature of this subject: there’s so much material to be found.”

Some of that new material, recently unearthed, will be exposed much later in future volumes of All These Years, the mammoth three-volume Beatles’ history Lewisohn was contracted to write in 2004 after first establishing himself as the world’s most foremost authority on the band. His previous books on the Beatles, each praised for their depth and breadth of knowledge and the brisk insightfulness of their prose, include The Beatles Live! (1986), The Beatles Recording Sessions (1988), The Complete Beatles Chronicle (1992), and the co-authored (with Piet Schreuders and Adam Smith ) The Beatles’ London (1994). As well, Lewisohn worked as a researcher and consultant on the 1994-95 Beatles Anthology project, collaborating closely with Beatles producer George Martin in producing the three double-CD audio release. He has written liner notes for the Beatles’ re-releases and for Paul McCartney’s solo albums. All his experience and understanding of the Beatles is brought to bear on his unauthorized Beatles’ biography whose first volume, Tune In, was published last year to critical acclaim. The highly anticipated second and third volumes are projected to follow sometime in the next decade. The precise publication dates are unknown. The release of the books depends very much on the pace of the research, which Lewisohn admits is slow. But, as he explained in a conversation touching on the enduring appeal of the Beatles, and why the remaining members of the world’s greatest band appear to want nothing to do with his definitive history, Lewisohn explained that scholarship of the sort he is committed to pursuing just can’t be rushed: “This project is about leaving no stone unturned, and that’s a time-consuming process. If I stop researching today because everyone’s saying, ‘Hey, I want to read it now’ I could miss some vital thing that must be written into this history. Content is paramount.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Beginner’s Guide to The Shining (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Listicle)

The impossible path travelled through The Overlook Hotel by Danny (Danny Lloyd) and his Big Wheel is one of the many puzzling features of Stanley Kubrick's classic, The Shining (1980).

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are starting to change colour, everything you never wanted now comes in a “Pumpkin Spice” option, and many of us are beginning our month-long horror movie binges in honour of Hallowe’en. Maybe this is your first year participating in this ritual and you’re not sure where to start. Maybe you’re trying to impress some new friends with your carefully honed critical eye (read: ability to read Wikipedia). Or maybe, like me, you’re feeling the itch to have a horror movie night but you’re lacking the time, energy, or desire to actually get dressed and entertain people so you prefer to connect with like-minded strangers on the internet. Whatever the case, I’ve got you covered with everything you need for a satisfying critical viewing of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1980 horror film, The Shining

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Chrissie Hynde: Reckless Indeed

Chrissie Hynde performing at the Irving Plaza, New York City, 1994. (Photo by  Ebet Roberts)

“The idea of me writing anything at all was ludicrous. My head was disorganized, a tangle of crossed lines. I couldn’t conclude a thought on a postcard… I wasn’t a poet. I wasn’t a writer. To begin a paragraph and find my way to a conclusion – Gretel tracking a breadcrumb trail would fare better… My only qualification, had I required one, was that I was as frustrated as the rest of them – a frustrated musician (the cliché of music journalism), opinionated, hungover, illegal in the workplace, devoid of ambition and, if I couldn’t find a word in my dumb guy vocabulary, I would make one up.”

This is Chrissie Hynde describing how she approached being asked to write rock criticism for NME circa 1974. It would be a few more years before she stormed the charts herself in a band called The Pretenders. The self-evaluation holds true though, even today. The quote is from page 147 of her 312 page autobiography Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday, 2015). I laughed when I read it, because it echoes what I was thinking as I plowed through the book. It seems like she scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper and then pasted them together in more or less chronological order. Characters are introduced and then disappear, their ultimate relationship to Ms Hynde left undescribed, or maybe hinted at in a vague way.