Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ten Years After: Back to Winehouse

Amy Winehouse's second, and final, studio album Back to Black was released on October 27, 2006.

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”  John Updike
Before long, the brilliant album Amy Winehouse released ten years ago this past October will have lived longer that she herself did. Back to Black (Island Records, 2006) was then and still is now a singular achievement with few sonic peers in the realm of pop music. This is especially ironic because it was never intended to be a pop record at all and instead merged jazz, blues, R&B, funk, ska, soul, hip hop, "Wall of Sound" 60’s girl groups and something else without a name into an amazing witch’s brew with many imitators but few equals.

Having just completed a book on this album, its historical roots, brilliant producers and back-up band, I am amazed by the record now as I was when I first heard it a decade ago. Almost as strange is the fact that she passed away nearly a half a decade ago this year, and took with her one of the most oddly gifted and mesmerizing torch song talents to come along since Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day and Sharon Jones.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Neglected Gem #94: Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers (1984)

Nick Mancuso and Peter Coyote in Heartbreakers

Many claim the subject of male bonding, and the way women become the battlefield where men act out (and often avoid) their competitiveness with each other, to be the domain of John Cassavetes (Faces, Husbands). But I often found the verbal punch-ups between macho guys in his pictures to be ultimately quite wearying. In Bobby Roth's seldom-seen Heartbreakers, the guys aren't frustrated blowhards and the women they're drawn to aren't mere victims of their bluster. Roth sets up his drama, which is set in Los Angeles, in terms of the dynamics that both trap and propel his characters into the relationships they choose, away from the ones they choose to avoid, and into the damage they're not conscious of causing each other. Heartbreakers is less about finding fault in the battle of the genders and more about indulging a curiosity about that battle and what it reveals of the warriors who engage in it. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

A Life: Tumbling into Obscurity

Brad Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce in the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life. (Photo: by Joan Marcus)

I would never willingly miss seeing David Hyde Pierce, so I hastened to the Playwrights Horizons production of A Life, a new play by Adam Bock, directed by Anne Kauffman at City Center. And for the first forty minutes (half of the play’s brief running time) it’s a worthwhile excursion for the actor’s fans. Pierce plays Nate Martin, a gay New Yorker – transplanted years ago from his native Ohio – who has just parted company with his latest boyfriend; it’s not the first time they’ve broken up so whether or not this split is permanent is up in the air. The play begins with a twenty-five-minute monologue, which Pierce delivers with witty understatement, in which Nate mostly discusses his checkered romantic history: short-term relationships that ended because of dissatisfaction – sometimes trivial-sounding – on his side. We expect that the play is going to focus on his attempts to get past his failure to sustain a relationship, or else his inability to pull out of his usual pattern, and since Pierce is a master at playing befuddled men struggling to get unstuck, and since he has the surest high-comic style currently on view, I was impatient to see how Nate’s story would unfold.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

East End Identity Crisis: The Infidel (2010)

Archie Panjabi, Omid Djalili and Amit Shah in The Infidel (2010).

"Look not at what a man has done, but what he hopes to do."
– Mahmud's four-year-old daughter, in The Infidel.
The Infidel (2010) tells the story of Mahmud Nasir (played with grumpy charm by British comedian Omid Djalili), an East London British-Pakistani family man, who discovers upon the recent death of his mother that he was adopted and (to his dismay) that he was born Jewish. The resulting crisis of identity leads him to try to track down his birth parents, with the help of his equally ill-tempered American Jewish neighbour Lenny (Richard Schiff, of West Wing fame). At the same time, his moderate Muslim life is unsettled by the imminent visit of his son's future father-in-law, a hard-line Egyptian cleric named Arshad Al-Masri (played by Israeli actor Yigal Naor, HBO's House of Saddam), who is coming to make sure that his daughter's new family are, as Mahmud's precocious four-year-old daughter puts it, "Muslim enough." These twin pressures lead to a slapstick process by which Mahmud alternately tries on both identities, and finds that neither truly fits. It is an amusing – sometimes hilarious – fable, told with a gentle, prodding eye on hypocrisy and all the holier-than-thou ways we often police one another's behaviour without taking our own into account.

Produced in the UK on a small budget, The Infidel was directed by Josh Appignanesi (whose only other feature is 2005's haunting Jewish-themed Song of Songs) and written by David Baddiel. In 2010, the movie created some buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately became a modest hit in theatres worldwide (even inspiring a 2015 Bollywood remake). In 2014, Baddiel launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his own stage musical adaptation of the script, which would eventually premiere at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East replete with songs by Erran Baron Cohen. But it is the original film that bears revisiting, especially at the close of this dark year.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

American Pastoral: The Assimilation Dream

Ewan McGregor and Jennifer Connelly in American Pastoral

The house I grew up in was in a gracious suburb of Montreal that had been restricted by a “gentleman’s agreement” – that is, no houses were sold to Jews – until, in the early fifties, it expanded northward and the old rules were no longer imposed on the new properties. Still, when my parents bought our house we were the first Jews on the street, and though most of our neighbors were warm and welcoming (a Chinese family was already ensconced two doors down), there was one family at the end of the block that refused to acknowledge us. I was only three or four when my father bought the first television set on the street, so I only learned from him years later about the day these anti-Semites showed up at our door, like all of our other neighbors, to get a peek at this brand-new marvel. “What did you do?” I asked my dad, but of course I knew him well enough to anticipate his answer: “I invited them in.” My father, a man of unassailable integrity, was also an accommodating one; he believed in people getting along, and he made his philosophy work – he counted non-Jews as well as Jews among his friends all his life.

I thought of my father when I read Philip Roth’s great 1997 novel American Pastoral – now a movie, directed by and starring Ewan McGregor – which offers, as one of its two great themes, the idea of assimilation as the essential dream of Jewish Americans and then dismantles it. Its protagonist is Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish kid from Newark who, through a combination of uncanny athletic gifts (in high school he’s a football, basketball and baseball star) and golden-boy Wasp looks, gets to live the charmed life denied to most Jews in the forties and fifties. Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who pals around with Swede’s kid brother Jerry and, like all the other Newark youngsters, basks in Seymour’s reflected glory, refers to him as “our very own Swede, a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get” whose “steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask” permitted him to wear his Jewishness lightly. “[T]hrough the Swede,” Nathan explains, “the neighborhood entered into a fantasy about itself and about the world . . . our families could forget the way things actually work . . .” (They could also forget about the war; this part of the story takes place in the early forties.) The Swede takes over his father’s glove business, Newark Maid, but he successfully defies his father’s insular mentality and marries a Gentile, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949, and moves out to the country – Old Rimrock, N.J., bona fide Wasp territory. (Swede Levov anticipates another indelible Roth creation, Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, a black man so light-skinned he can pass for white.) Nathan, crossing paths with him again in the mid-nineties, assumes that his life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” But then he runs into Jerry shortly after at their forty-fifth high school reunion and finds out that the Swede, recently and unexpectedly dead, lived for three decades under the cloud of a tragedy: his daughter Merry, radicalized as a teenager during the Vietnam War, had bombed the Old Rimrock post office and gone underground.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Everybody Knows: The Ubiquitous Leonard Cohen in the Movies

A young Leonard Cohen, in Donald Brittain's 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen...Mr. Leonard Cohen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Leonard Cohen since his passing earlier this month, unexpectedly but at the ripe old age of 82 – remembering the great concert of his I attended in Toronto in 2008, the humbleness he displayed on stage, and the sheer joy he felt in being so loved so late in his life. You just know he could not have imagined this highly positive outcome of his career trajectory. My good friend Bram Eisenthal, who worked then at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue that Cohen attended in Montreal, and whose cantor and choir are featured in several of the songs in Cohen’s poignant last album You Want it Darker (2016), sent him my concert review – and while I have no idea if he actually saw it, much less read it, I was thrilled to know that he might have. And as a Montrealer, I've visited where he lived and can recall sitting in Ben’s Delicatessen, a while before it permanently closed, not really enjoying the food (the quality of its fare had declined) but still content to know I was eating in one of Leonard’s hangouts.

A couple of days after the announcement of Leonard Cohen’s death, I was watching a fine 2016 French movie, Irreplaceable (Médecin de champagne), part of the lineup at Toronto’s edition of the European Union Film Festival, about a country doctor (François Cluzet) whose life is upended when he develops a tumour and has to allow a female medical practitioner (Marianne Denicourt) to help him in his duties. Late in the movie, both doctors attend a village dance where a country band slides into a decent rendition of Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah,” a moment which prompted a bit of a murmur from the audience as it seemed so particularly apt to pay tribute to Leonard in this way so soon after the shocking news of his death. (The moment was entirely serendipitous, of course, but still…) But it also struck me as nothing new, as I can’t think of any artist who has been featured the way he has in movies. It’s not simply that his songs or covers of them have graced so many movies and TV shows over the years (more than 50 at least), but the diversity of the filmmakers who have utilized his songs in their works has intrigued me and made me ponder on why he, of all singers-songwriters out there, has struck such a chord with so many of them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Well-Dressed Heartbreak: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford may be a household name thanks to his work in the fashion industry as former creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his eponymous label in 2006, but many may be surprised to know that he considers his sartorial success to be a stepping stone for his grander aims as a filmmaker. His initial foray into the world of cinema, with the 2009 Colin Firth and Julianne Moore drama A Single Man, was met with critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for Firth). Seven years later, his newest film, the noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, proves that A Single Man’s success was no accident and that Ford is good for much more than nice (read: stunning, impeccably tailored, outrageously classy, should-be-in-every-man’s-wardrobe) suits.