Saturday, February 8, 2014

Hurricane of Love: The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles Appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show

The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show 

When The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, February 9, 1964, it was the night America stopped mourning the murder of President Kennedy a few months earlier. At first, shortly after that tragedy, record producer Phil Spector thought he had the answer to America's sorrow. He had released a joyous Christmas album filled with great rock 'n' roll holiday songs by The Crystals, The Ronettes and Darlene Love. Perhaps in a better time, The Crystals singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" would have provided the appropriate yuletide spirit, but the album bombed. During the Christmas of 1963, one month after the murder of JFK, nobody cared if Santa ever came to town. But that Sunday evening in February, over 74 million American viewers were finally ready to move on, and share in The Beatles' exhilarating appearance. They tuned in and bided their time with the cast of the Broadway production of Oliver!, impressionist Frank Gorshin (who would ultimately play the Riddler on the 1966 spoof TV series Batman), and singer and banjo player Tessie O'Shea – but, who would remember them fifty years on? From the moment Paul McCartney opened his mouth to sing "All My Loving," everyone else became irrelevant. What came before, or what was to come after, wasn't a consideration. What people heard was astonishingly new, a fresh vision of America coming right back to them. The spirit of the New Frontier, which many felt was left for dead in Dallas, was again sparkling with intensity.‘

Friday, February 7, 2014

High Frequency Dance: Kyle Abraham's The Radio Show

(photo by Bill H Photography)
Don’t touch that dial. Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s The Radio Show is dance you can listen to, relatable in the extreme. The award-winning piece, originally conceived in 2010, uses fragments from more than four dozen popular songs, Beyoncé to Michael Jackson, to drive itself rhythmically forward, viscerally connecting with the viewer along the way. Making its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre this week as part of the ongoing World Stage series (the final show is Saturday night), and with additional performances scheduled for Ottawa later this month, The Radio Show is up-tempo choreography that (Gaye-ly) gets it on.

The Motown veined riches of two black radio stations have been mined to form the hip-swaying, toe-tapping backdrop to a piece that is semi-autobiographical in nature. Considered one of dance’s hottest new talents, a status confirmed by Abraham having recently received a prestigious MacArthur (a.k.a.Genius Grant) Fellowship, the 35-year old Afro-American choreographer listened to those AM/FM stations in his native Pittsburgh until they were suddenly yanked off the air in 2009. Around the same time, his father lost his ability to speak, a victim of Alzheimer’s and aphasia disease. The Radio Show, as performed by the seven high-octane members of the New York-based Abraham.In.Motion dance company, is Abraham’s bracingly contemporary mediation on love and loss – one cultural, the other personal – and it is a kick to the head and heart.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

But If You Try Sometimes, You Can Get What You Need: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Jones

The public outpouring of shock and grief in response to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has made it clear that the actor’s fan base was not just broader but far more deeply committed than some of us ever realized. (So have some other emotions that have been expressed in the wake of tragedy, such as the tsunami of angry disgust that’s hit those people, not all of them on-line, who saw it as occasion to proclaim their moral superiority to someone suffering from drug addiction.) Like Gene Hackman, Hoffman didn’t look like a movie star. And although he had a few starring roles in movies—his Oscar-winning turn as Truman Capote; a schlub plotting a robbery in Sidney Lumet’s last film; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; the Charlie Kaufman head trip Synecdoche, New York; as well as Jack Goes Boating, which he directed, and Love Liza, which his brother, Gordy Hoffman, wrote—he hadn’t quite made the definitive leap to leading man that Hackman had made by the time he was in his mid-forties.

But Hoffman shared Hackman’s ability to simply, quietly become someone else, without any show of actorly “transformation.” Compared to the more glamorous leading men of their time, both looked as if they were made of common clay, but their range seemed limitless, and both of them were willing to play irredeemable slimeballs, for all the juicy entertainment that such roles are good for. Yet they were also capable of playing good men in a way that didn’t make goodness seem ordinary or boring.  Hoffman had the kind of talent, and made the kind of use of it, that inspired not just admiration but love. Audiences might have watched someone like Tom Cruise and seen in him the person they’d sometimes like to be, but they watched Hoffman—as, say, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, telling a young, aspiring writer not to get hung up on the feelings of inadequacy that the rock stars he idolizes inspire in him—and saw themselves. Hoffman had a gift for capturing the least-loved parts of our selves, the parts that feel unlovely and unloved and alone, and making them seem interesting and appealing. So maybe it’s no wonder that a surprising number of people heard that he had died and felt that they’d lost a friend.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Critic's Notes & Frames, Vol. VII

Late last year, I included a few samplings from my Facebook page, which I've been treating as an ongoing dialogue with friends about social and cultural matters. (Some have described it as a salon.) Here is even more of the same. As before, it includes borrowings of songs and photos that others have posted and that I've commented on:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Come Together: Conor McPherson's The Night Alive

Ciarán Hinds & Caolifhionn Dunne 
In the Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest play, The Night Alive – currently playing off Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, where it transferred after a run at London’s Donmar Warehouse – four stumblebums collect in the back room of an old Dublin house. The owner, Maurice (Jim Norton), is an aging drunk who affects a grandstanding aristocratic manner but whose life has stalled since the sudden death of his wife. He lets the room to his nephew, Tommy (Ciarán Hinds), who has lost his business and whose teenage kids live with the wife from whom he’s been separated for two years. Tommy makes a little money as a mover but not much – in the opening scene we learn that a police video has caught him stealing gas for his van. Yet he’s generous with the little he has. He gives his pal Doc (Michael McElhatton) the only work he can ever cadge and puts him up whenever his sister and her boy friend throw him out. And when Tommy finds a battered young whore named Aimee (Caolifhionn Dunne) at a bar, he brings her home too.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Off the Shelf: Max (2002), Touch the Sound (2005) & I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2007)

Noah Taylor and John Cusack in Max
Since we're now in the gloomy month of February, and some of us may feel less inclined to go out to the movies, Shlomo Schwartzberg has decided to draw our attention to some little seen titles we can watch at home, ones that just might shake the winter blues.  

Max, Menno Meyjes's controversial film about Adolf Hitler's early years, is a smart, provocative drama that does the nearly impossible: It gets under the skin of a man we only know as an evil, monstrous lunatic. By the time World War II ended, that appellation was apt, but obviously, Htler couldn't have always been that way. Max centers on that more “innocent” period in 1919, after World War I, when Hitler (Noah Taylor), still recovering from his part in the calamitous battle of Ypres, returns to Germany. He is a bitter, angry man who still harbors dreams of becoming an artist. Enter Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish art dealer, who was also at Ypres and lost an arm in battle. Formerly an aspiring artist but now sidelined by his war injury, Max is seeking out talent he can sell in the marketplace. Hitler is one such candidate, he feels, possessor of an artistic forcefulness – a unique type of kitsch that shows potential. And Hitler is eager for artistic success.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – A Hero at Long Last

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the fifth movie built around spy novelist Tom Clancy’s hero, the first with a plot invented entirely for the movies, and the first I enjoyed from start to finish. It’s never occurred to me to pick up one of Clancy’s books, because the movies culled from them are suffused with the kind of unremittingly gray techno-dreariness that makes my eyes glaze over. Sean Connery redeemed the first Clancy picture, The Hunt for Red October (1990), with a glittering performance as a Soviet sub commander who hatches a complicated scheme to defect; as the hero, a Soviet analyst turned CIA operative, Alec Baldwin made so little impression that when I sat down to write this review I found I couldn’t remember who first played Jack Ryan on screen. In Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), the role went to Harrison Ford, deep in his ulcerated, acting-is-misery period. (The movies that precede Patriot Games in Ford’s filmography are Presumed Innocent and Regarding Henry and the one that comes between his two Clancys is The Fugitive – a veritable dirge of performances.) Clear and Present Danger was easier viewing than Patriot Games, but the week I saw it I happened to be reading Ross Thomas’s 1984 thriller Missionary Stew, which covers some of the same territory, and as a piece of entertainment the Thomas novel is superior in every conceivable way. Then there was 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, a bloated (two hours four minutes) pretend commentary on post-9/11 America in which the director, Phil Alden Robinson, threw symbolic weight behind the images of destruction and potential destruction as well as slowing down the action to make sure we understood how important it was. The role of Ryan had now passed to Ben Affleck, who seemed absurdly lightweight both as an action hero – this was a decade before he earned the right to play one in his own terrific Argo – and as a Soviet expert.