Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Sharp-Looking Gentleman of Music – Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

On the inside page of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books), opposite the title page, is a photograph of the jazz composer/pianist looking in a mirror as he adjusts a bow tie that adorns his tuxedo. It was taken in London in 1958, quite possibly in his room at one of the many hotels in which he lived while on tour. In many ways, the photograph represents the familiar and mysterious qualities of the famous composer: a sharp-looking gentleman of music; a charismatic band leader getting ready for another event where he’s the most important man in the room. For author Terry Teachout, the picture of Ellington looking into the mirror begs the question, “Who Are You?” And for the next 360 pages, Teachout attempts to answer it. But his subject is elusive, a character in music history with a significant body of work, hundreds of recordings and with a reputation beyond dispute. As history has taught us, the name Duke Ellington weighs large to every serious lover of jazz. His music continues to be heard on recordings, played in concert halls and clubs around the world. But as Terry Teachout surmises, “Everyone knows him; yet no one knows him. That was the way he wanted it.” Teachout’s purpose with this new biography seeks to reveal the mask of Duke Ellington. He does his scholarly best to collect, synthesis and deduce from a ton of information that defined Ellington such as, how he treated his family, friends and band members. It’s a book rich in detail with some extraordinary passages about Ellington’s music that had me reaching into my collection within a few chapters. Teachout’s critical assessment of Ellington’s music within the context of his search for the man stands as a juxtaposition to what we generally know about Duke. It is for this reason alone that I highly recommend it even to the most informed music fan.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Spies, Lies And Pointe Shoes: The National Ballet Of Canada's Mixed Program

Aszure Barton's Watch her
Dancers can act. This is one conclusion to be drawn from the mixed program of dramatic work the National Ballet Canada is presenting this week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. There are only two ballets on offer now through Sunday: a reprise of the Edmonton-born Aszure Barton’s shadowy and complex Watch her (originally created for the National in 2011) and Sir Frederick Ashton’s decidedly more sunny and farcical A Month in the Country (originally created for the Royal Ballet in 1976). Barton's ballet is idiosyncratically contemporary while Ashton’s is rooted more firmly in the language of classical ballet. But while diametrically opposed, stylistically speaking, both works foreground the art of acting in ballet in delineating character and driving plot. Emotions are inevitably drawn to the surface, and people tested along the way.

The Ashton ballet is more obviously a narrative being an adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev play of the same name. Barton’s piece, on the other hand, is more evocative and less declarative about its intentions. Yet, there is no mistaking the taut dramatic line upon which her choreography hangs and sways. Like the Ashton ballet, hers is a work which eviscerates human psychology, laying the guts on the floor. Both one-act ballets, the works have other elements in common. Each is concerned with themes of keeping secrets, spying and feeling betrayed. Each also offers up a chocolate box of impossible relationships doomed to have unsatisfying endings for all involved. In both works, the dancers use dancing to bring to life characters attempting to navigate a vivid situation. And really they have rarely looked better: solid ensemble performances and acting worthy of an Academy Award. This is the real show to watch this weekend. The range alone is marvellous.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lost in Spacey: Two Views on House of Cards

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Pop culture gains something when it ties itself into trends and issues that people are actually talking about, and Netflix’s political-melodrama series House of Cards gives viewers the chance to talk about something that’s been nagging at some of us for years now: what the hell has happened to Kevin Spacey’s acting? It may not be the most pressing issue on the table, but it’s one of the most mysterious and dispiriting. It’s hard to exaggerate the sense of excitement and discovery experienced by those who discovered Spacey when he took over the Big Bad position on the TV series Wiseguy from Ray Sharkey, back in early 1988. Sharkey, who had traded in a promising movie career for a heroin habit, was so charismatic and disturbingly likable in his comeback performance as the New Jersey gangster Sonny Steelgrave that a less confident actor would have been leery of following him. But the eight episodes in which Spacey played Mel Profitt, a self-made billionaire drug dealer looking to transition into munitions, amount to one of the high points of ‘80s TV. His sheer pleasure in performing, combined with the skill and dazzle of his technique, really made him jump out at a time when many film reviewers, presumably in a spirit of mournful resignation, had begun to write about what marvelous actors Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Unmistakable Genius: Greg Kot's I'll Take You There, Mavis Staples

Just put some Mavis Staples in the CD player (or however you listen to music these days) and crank it up. That voice, that unmistakeable glorious voice, will take you there all right. I've witnessed her power in person a couple of times, and the most recent was extraordinary. The lady is over 70 years old now, and still on the road. Her solo CDs are selling better than ever. The sympathetic production by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy doesn’t hurt, and certainly that tight touring band made the songs come alive in concert. But where did she come from? Where has she been? What’s her story? Chicago writer Greg Kott tells the tale in his fine new book I’ll Take You There. He starts with the story of Mavis’s father Roebuck Staples who at five years old watched a mule-driven wagon carry his mother away to her grave in 1920 Mississippi. Roebuck was the seventh son of Warren and Florence Staples, the family worked on the Dockery Plantation Farms, plowing, planting, chopping and picking cotton. The family had a tradition of being good workers which allowed them to cope with the racism of the South. “A man or woman’s reputation did matter in the divided South. The boss man could insult you, beat you, even try to kill you, but dignity and pride were held sacred in the home of Warren Staples. As a member of his family you did not buckle.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Perils of Playing it Safe: Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni

Ni no Kuni occupies a strange space in the video game/film continuum. It’s a game which, for all intents and purposes, is a Studio Ghibli film – except that it’s also an RPG. It’s not a game based on a film, because there is no accompanying movie. Nor will there likely be a film based on the game, despite its huge success on the global market. In fact, Studio Ghibli creator and visionary Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t allow video game adaptations of his films after several embarrassing swings at Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind were attempted in the 1980s. So Ni no Kuni is a bit of an anomaly – a straightforward Japanese role playing game with the gorgeous animated art and sweeping soundtrack of a Studio Ghibli film. It’s just too bad that it doesn’t capture the same soul.

Ni no Kuni (translated as “Another World”) is the story of Oliver, a boy from the quiet hamlet of Motorville, whose mother dies of a heart attack. Stricken with grief, he weeps over a favourite doll, and when his tears touch the doll it transforms into a cantankerous little lantern goblin who calls himself Mister Drippy. Drippy tells Oliver that he can save his mother if he travels to Drippy’s native magical realm – the titular “other world” – and learn the skills of a wizard. Then, the game itself rolls out its very standard role-playing fare: as Oliver, you fight monsters, complete quests, earn experience and new abilities, and travel to exotic locales. Most games developed for a Japanese audience are deliberately complex, especially by Western standards, but Kuni sticks to simplicity, which works to its benefit. A fine balance is struck between the satisfying depth of item and ability micromanagement and the plainness of combat and story construction. This isn’t Final Fantasy – you don’t play as the dream of a dead hero’s father’s dream, or whatever. This is a refined experience aimed at young people which can still reward the older player.

Monday, February 24, 2014

No Lessons Learned: Witness Uganda

Photo by Gretjen Helene Photography

In the American Repertory Theatre’s latest musical production, Witness Uganda, a twenty-three-year-old black kid from New York named Griffin travels to Uganda as a volunteer to help a local known as Pastor Jim build a school for the poor in a small village. Griffin sings in the choir of his church and aspires to an acting career, but he feels alienated – he senses that his homosexuality makes him persona non grata in the choir – and undefined, and he hopes that being committed to something beyond himself will change all that. But when he gets to the village he doesn’t like the rules that restrict him to Pastor Jim’s compound, and the more he sees of the operation the more suspicious it looks. So he ends up breaking away from Pastor Jim and setting up a classroom in an abandoned library for some teenagers who aren’t being educated at all because the schools aren’t free.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Amazon's 2nd Pilot Season: Cops, Oboes, and Jeffrey Tambor

A scene from Bosch, now streaming on Amazon Instant Video

In April 2013, Amazon stepped decidedly into the world of original television programming when it streamed over a dozen pilot episodes for free and asked viewers worldwide to vote on which among them should get picked up. Out of that great experiment in participatory democracy came two new series  the Silicon Valley comedy Betas and Gary Trudeau's political comedy Alpha House  which both premiered in November and were only available online for Amazon Prime subscribers. (Alpha House, starring John Goodman and Clark Johnson, turned into the surprise highlight of this past fall's TV season.) Now, less than a year later, Amazon's "pilot season" returns, stronger and more confident than before. Amazon's second year may offer fewer "prime time" pilots than before (two one-hour dramas, and three half-hour comedies), but the productions are more ambitious, and come with some genuinely high-profile talent both in front of the camera and behind it. We have Chris Carter's apocalyptic thriller The After, the well-crafted crime procedural Bosch (adapted from Michael Connelly's popular series of novels), Transparent with Arrested Development's Jeffrey Tambor, Mozart in the Jungle set in the cutthroat world of a New York philharmonic orchestra, and The Rebels, a more conventional comedy about a failing professional football franchise. While each of the pilots has something worthwhile, the two real gems are Bosch and Transparent, which are easily among the most polished and self-possessed new shows I've seen in a while.