Saturday, July 7, 2012

You've Got a Friend: Carole King’s Surprisingly Intimate Autobiography, A Natural Woman

Carole King was born in 1942. While she was still in high school she began writing songs for Don Kirschner’s company Aldon Music. By the time she was 17, she was married to her songwriting partner Gerry Goffin and commuting back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan to take her place in front of a piano in order to provide catchy melodies for Gerry’s lyrics. Together they wrote hits for Dusty Springfield, Little Eva, The Four Seasons, and Aretha Franklin. And that was just her first marriage!

King’s autobiography, A Natural Woman, is written in a free-flowing chatty style. You immediately feel that she is speaking directly to you. Her voice is warmer and friendlier than that of some would-be storytellers, and the reader is drawn right into Carole King’s world. As you read, you sometimes wonder at her naivete, and then marvel at her toughness. She seems to wander into relationships accidentally, and she never hesitates to share all the intimate details either. She holds nothing back about her various marriages. Her second one to musician Charles Larkey fell apart due to “disparate schedules,” but the third short-term marriage was a particularly devastating time.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Much Ado: Stratford Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing

Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay in Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I usually shy away from productions of Shakespeare that transpose the original Elizabethan setting to something contemporary or even exotic. And don’t even get me started on cross-dressing versions of King Lear or Hamlet. I mean, why bother? I understand the need for relevancy. But to my mind Shakespeare doesn’t need improving. If he did, his works wouldn’t have lasted more than 500 years. They are perfect specimens of the English language, timeless works of art that are also time capsules capturing the spirit and values of Renaissance England, Shakespeare’s own epoch. And so I found myself frowning when, during a recent visit to Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, I began reading director Christopher Newton’s program notes for Much Ado About Nothing which is at the Festival Theatre through to Oct. 27. In those notes, Newton (formerly of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake) happily declared his love of Brazil, circa 1889, the year the country’s last emperor, Dom Pedro II, abdicated and was forced into exile. Say what? Rhapsodizing about palm trees and sandy beaches, anti-slavery laws and samba schools, Newton went on to say that Brazil was where he had decided to place his version of Much Ado About Nothing, larding it with sexy mulatos. I thought, get me outta here. I seriously considered making a run for it, and was already contemplating how I could leap over the row of sensible shoes (a bus full of senior citizens had decamped on the Festival Theatre for the night) in which I was planted, dead in the middle, without causing alarm. But then the lights dimmed low and there I was, bound for Brazil by way of Elizabethan England, certain I would hate every minute of the bumpy ride.

But surprise, surprise. When the action began, bathed in the honey-coloured tones of Robert Thomson’s South American-inspired lighting design, I felt myself yielding to Newton’s Portuguese-inflected staging, like a corsage orchid to the sun. Also inviting was Santo Loquasto’s late 19th-century Brazilian villa set design, dominated by an interior sweeping staircase with Azulejos floor tiles, a setting that felt warm, intimate and seductive. I was already happy to be spending time there. Its sun-kissed colours were a balm on the eyes. It didn’t take long to see that the relaxed vibe of the visual design suited a play that, while bracketed by images of war, is preoccupied with finding peace. I felt myself relax in the presence of this oasis of calm. It was obviously that Newton was not as wilfully contrarian as I had first suspected. He was definitely onto something. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

New Life: Pat Metheny Unity Band

Named after a small church near his hometown in Missouri, guitarist Pat Metheny’s new recording, Pat Metheny Unity Band (Nonesuch 2012), offers jazz fans a welcome change in musical direction for one of the most popular musicians in the world today. With all new compositions and a new band to play them (Chris Potter, Antonio Sanchez and Ben Williams), this quartet, whose playing time has been relatively short, the Unity Band sounds remarkably fresh, innovative and tight. (The band was formed this past winter to record this album.) The collective experience of each member has clearly lifted the whole group and while their debut album isn't particularly stellar, it captures a band that can only get better with time.

Thirty years ago Metheny released an album simply titled 80/81 (ECM, 1982) featuring veteran tenor sax man Dewey Redman, father of the very talented Joshua Redman, and the late Michael Brecker. That record explored Metheny’s interest in a traditional jazz quartet of bass, drums, guitar and saxophone. To Metheny, it was always a musical choice to play outside the traditional quartet setting. Consequently, the instrumentation of most of his groups since then has not featured a horn player on the front line. The difference this time was the addition of horn player Chris Potter. Potter has led his own bands over the years but has been particularly good with Dave Holland’s small groups for the past ten. On this record he brings everything to the music with solid playing on every cut, especially “Breakdealer,” which closes the album. But like any jazz recording that captures a moment in time, in this case February of 2012 when it was laid down, as the band tours and continues to play, the music will definitely get better. Metheny certainly knows how to pick ‘em!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Refreshing Sample: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

If you remember anything about high school statistics or probability, some of this book should feel familiar. Whether this familiarity is a fond nostalgia or a kind of nervous queasiness comes down a matter of individual experience. Yet whether you hunger for a greater exploration of practical math, or tend to have difficulty stomaching it, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is worth a try.

The eponymous metaphor of The Drunkard’s Walk refers to “a mathematical term describing random motion,” covering everything from the skittish dance of subatomic particles to the jolting and jarring of unexpected career paths. This exploratory explanation of chance comes to us from Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist whose random life experiences include lecturing at Caltech, co-authoring two books with Stephen Hawking, and writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation. With the goal of conveying the influence and chaotic beauty of randomness to those of us without such backgrounds, Mlodinow samples a wide range of mathly problems and their unexpected solutions. He shows us how the laws of mathematics permeate every aspect of our lives, touching on the predictable topics (sports, stocks, and surveys) and the not-quite-so-predictable (seances, online dating, McDonald’s).  This mix of subjects keeps each chapter unique, while Mlodinow’s writing manages to flow despite the periodic awkward transition or stilted paragraph.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Film Festival Openers: It’s All About Setting the Tone

I was Director of Programming of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival from 1996-2004 and much emphasis was always placed on picking the right film to open the festival. We were unique among Jewish film festivals, and most film festivals, in fact, in that as often as not we chose a documentary instead of a feature film to launch the event. I’ve since left the TJFF, but I’m always intrigued with what films get picked to open film festivals since in many ways that choice can influence the reaction of audiences to everything that follows and, if you pick a dud, set a negative tone that could impact adversely on your event. Two recent film festival openers, while not badly chosen, exemplify the dilemma of making the best possible choice in the films available for exhibition.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Birthing Pains: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

Back on April 4, 2011, David Churchill reviewed the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein for Critics at Large. A little over a year later, Steve Vineberg revisits the production for a second opinion.

The National Theatre’s mounting of Frankenstein, an adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel by Nick Dear and directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), was a hot ticket in London last year, and the HD transcription was popular enough for NT Live to bring it back for a second engagement a few weeks ago. There’s a casting gimmick: the two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, switch off in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature – just as Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in the last Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. In an interview that prefaces the HD screening, Boyle explains that the double casting is meant to comment on the relationship between the two characters. But that’s nonsense: creator and creation aren’t interchangeable, and Frankenstein and the Creature aren’t alter egos in the sense that the two brothers in True West (who trade places in the narrative) are. The Creature is Frankenstein’s Adam, or if you’re looking for a theatrical parallel, he’s to Frankenstein as Caliban is to Prospero in The Tempest.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

When Canada Outdid Herself: Memories of Expo 67

Dedicated to the memory of Abraham Schwartzberg (1921-2007)

This summer marks 45 years since Canada and more specifically Montreal, in order to commemorate the country’s centennial, hosted the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, known to all as Expo 67. And thanks to my perspicacious father, I was privileged to be able to attend most of it. That might not seem meaningful but I was only 7 years old when the fair officially opened on April 28, 1967 (various V.I.P.s toured it a day earlier) – I turned eight on June 27, about a third of the way through Expo’s six month run – and, according to my Expo passport that my mother dug up in Montreal, the stamps indicate that I went to about 75-76 pavilions, which was most of them. There would been the odd duplication but knowing my father, he would have wanted to maximize the experience and see as much of the event as was humanely possible. Expo is on my mind this year, too, because journalist John Lownsbrough has written a book on Expo, part of The History of Canada series, entitled The Best Place to Be: Expo 67 and its Time (Allen Lane, 2012). It’s a bit dry - Lownsbrough doesn't bring Expo to vivid life as well as he could have - but it’s also comprehensive and a valuable corollary to my own admittedly limited memories of Expo, though I do recall much of what I saw that summer.

Over that eventful summer, my parents hosted about 45 houseguests, from the rest of Canada and the United States, including American relatives who came from Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey. My parents each went 35 times to Expo 67, and assumed the duties of alternately taking me along with them. Sunday was when the whole family, including my younger brother and sister went to Expo’s amusement park, La Ronde, for the rides and later on partook of hamburgers and French fries and soft ice cream, half vanilla and half chocolate, which I like to this day. It was a magical time. There was consistently good weather, or what my mother called ‘Drapeau weather’, a testament to Montreal’s indefatigable mayor Jean Drapeau (whose last name translates as flag in French). He became the friendly face of the exhibition to the rest of Canada and the outside world. 

But pretty much everything else, in addition to the weather, fell perfectly into place in 1967, for a remarkable, record setting event (over 50 million visitors, a record that stands to the day for exhibition attendance) that really did change the way Canada saw herself and how outsiders, particularly our American neighbours, viewed this relatively new country. In fact, so comprehensive and inventive was Expo that I remember, less than a decade later, watching the U.S. bicentennial celebrations, which were nice, on TV and thinking to myself that we did it so much better in our celebratory year. One upping the U.S. isn’t something that happens very often but Expo 67 trumped anything they came up with in 1976.