Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bushido Blues: The Final Season of Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack's fifth and final season concluded on May 20.

The journey of Samurai Jack (Phil LaMarr) is a story of solitude. Loneliness marks every trudging step of Jack’s quest to return from the corrupted future to his tranquil past. Like the heroes of Japanese folktale, literature, and cinema that creator Genndy Tartakovsky loves so dearly, Jack will pause along the way to aid the meek and the innocent in their own fights against injustice, but he never lingers in one place for too long. He is a ronin in the truest sense: a warrior without a master, whose goal of finding a time portal that will bring him home is simply an extension of the larger quest to bring honour and righteousness to himself and to the world. And every step along that path is a step he takes alone.

Until now, that is.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Double Solitaire: Creative Partnerships Made in Hell

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950), written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, directed by Wilder.

“When two great saints meet it is a humbling experience." – Paul McCartney, 1968.

1. brackettandwilder

It was called the Golden Age of Hollywood for good reason. The early evolutionary phase of the film industry, which I personally designate as roughly being from 1929 to 1959, immediately established the stylistic devices, narrative techniques, creative content and future direction that cinema would take as both a visual art form and a commercial business enterprise. Most importantly perhaps, the paradoxical fact that cinema could be both entertaining and profitable, as well as both philosophically challenging and emotionally comforting, was etched in celluloid almost from its beginnings at the turn of the century. Fine cinema is quite simply the best of both worlds.

Among the many screenwriters, producers and directors who blazed that ever-expanding trail, few would have quite the lasting impact on both comedy and tragedy as impressive and influential as the iconic achievements of the volatile collaborative partnership between writer-producer Charles Brackett and writer-director Billy Wilder.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

America Thinks and Goes Home: The 50th Anniversary of Frank Zappa's Absolutely Free

While much of the pop music world today is celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, a few months before that landmark album made its way onto our turntables, Frank Zappa's second album, the rock oratorio Absolutely Free, was already sending up the culture wars with the irreverent verve and zeal of Spike Jones. Of course, it didn't draw anywhere near the attention of Pepper and no one is celebrating its 50th anniversary despite its daring and ribaldry. If Freak Out! (1966) announced the arrival of The Mothers of Invention and their subversive intentions (as well as influencing Sgt. Pepper), Absolutely Free was the fulfillment of those ambitions. On the inside cover of Freak Out!, Frank Zappa listed all those who had an impact on his work. But it’s on Absolutely Free that you can actually hear the presence of Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, Lenny Bruce, and Edgard Varèse. Freak Out! was a beautifully designed map for The Mothers’ music, while Absolutely Free actually takes you places. Critic Greil Marcus wrote, in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, that “on this early effort the wit was liberating, the noise of the band not merely Absurdist but actually absurd. . . .”

Absolutely Free was indeed an oratorio of ridiculous extremes – performed at breakneck speed – with a tangy political satire woven into a musical embroidery. The history of 20th century music, from Stravinsky to The Supremes, happily plays bumper cars and lives up to the title of the record. No genre gets excluded – or not satirized. “We play the new free music – music as absolutely free, unencumbered by American cultural suppression,” Zappa announced. “We are systematically trying to do away with the creative roadblocks that our helpful American educational system has installed to make sure nothing creative leaks through to mass audiences. . . . The same patriotic feeling expressed in songs like ‘The Green Beret’ and ‘Day of Decision’ are embodied in our every performance, only on a more abstract level. . . .We represent the only true patriotism left.” This abstract example of true patriotism barely leaves you time to catch your breath, and the musical quotes just go whizzing past. And the album’s title turns out to be more than apt. All of Zappa’s musical ideas happily and freely collide in the rush hour traffic.

Monday, June 19, 2017

London Revivals, Part I: Political Morality Plays

Andrew Garfield and Nathan Stewart-Jarre in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

This piece contains reviews for the National Theatre's Angels in America, Donmar Warehouse's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Young Vic's Life of Galileo.

The hottest ticket in London this summer – aside from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, just beginning its second year in the West End – is the National Theatre revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield. I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm about it, but then I’m the stubborn cuss who doesn’t like Angels in America. No one could say that I haven’t done due diligence with the play. I saw Part I: Millennium Approaches, in its original National Theatre production in 1992 (with Henry Goodman as Roy Cohn), and both Part I and Part II: Perestroika, on Broadway in 1993 (with Ron Liebman as Cohn, Stephen Spinella as Prior Walter, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper Pitt and Jeffrey Wright as Belize). I’ve also seen Mike Nichols’s 2003 HBO film version (with a cast including Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Patrick Wilson, and James Cromwell).

Kushner subtitled the work, which runs for seven hours and forty minutes in its complete form at the National, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and clearly one of the elements that critics and prize-winning committees and the vast number of theatre professors who regularly include it on the syllabi of modern drama classes respond to is the enormity of its ambitions. It’s intended to be a chronicle of the AIDS crisis from the point of view of the gay community; a coming-out play; an excoriation of the repressive spirit of Republican politics targeted specifically at Roy Cohn (played by Lane in this latest production), Joe McCarthy’s counsel and a Department of Justice prosecutor at the Rosenberg trial, and a closeted gay man who died of AIDS in 1986; and a comparative exploration of Mormonism, Protestantism and Judaism focusing on politics and sexuality at the end of the twentieth century, with a disquisition on race in America. Three of the characters are Mormon, three are Jewish, one is white Protestant and one is African American, and there are many others, the roles divided among a small cast whose efforts, in any production of the play, are equivalent in physical endurance alone to running a pair of marathons. In style Angels in America is alternately realist, surrealist and Brechtian, with interludes of satirical caricature.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Very Well Put: Watching Barney Miller in 2017

Jack Soo, Abe Vigoda and Hal Linden Barney Miller.

Det. Sgt. Yemana
: No, I don't watch shows like that. I can't enjoy them because, being a cop myself, I spot the mistakes and inaccuracies and the fantastic things that in real life never happen.
Victim: On the show they caught him!
Yemana: Good example!
Barney Miller ("Copy Cat," Season 4)
Barney Miller was in prime time and syndication throughout my childhood and, while I've long had strong memories of the show, until recently I hadn't watched a full episode in decades. But a few weeks ago, prompted by my reading of Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz's TV (The Book), my wife and I sat down to watch the series from the beginning. The groundbreaking sitcom – a multi-ethnic ensemble comedy set in New York City's fictional 12th Precinct – ran on ABC from 1975 to 1982, starring Tony-award winning Broadway actor Hal Linden as the eponymous Captain Miller. Running from the last days of the Ford administration to the early days of Reagan, Barney Miller offers a current viewer a sustained window into a turbulent decade, even though nearly every scene is set within the crumbling four walls of a second-floor Lower Manhattan squad room. The show has had its successors (most notably Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine), but it holds up brilliantly on its own terms. As a social document of its time, it is unquestionably relevant, but as a comedy Barney Miller is just plain delightful, notably of and ahead of its time: well-crafted and hilarious, pointed and sensitive, as often literate as it is slapstick.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Embracing the Banal: Two Celebrity Bios by Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn

Gene Wilder

If you are a huge admirer of the diverse talents of the gifted comic actors the late Gene Wilder and Goldie Hawn, you won't find much evidence of those qualities in their digressive and disappointing memoirs: Wilder's Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art and Hawn's A Lotus Grows in the Mud (both released in 2005). One of the biggest ironies of popular celebrity autobiographies is that whenever the authors go to great lengths in telling us how they struggled through personal trials and tribulations, very little of what makes them appealing as artists comes across. They are out to prove that, deep down, they are really ordinary folks just like us. They, too, face insecurities, damaged relationships and death.

Although some readers might find comfort in recognizing some of their own traits in these stars, the fact is that celebrities don't abide like average people. Artists make their living doing work that springs largely from their passions and abilities; the general public earns its living by having a job. Celebrities appearing ordinary, though, is part of what makes this genre so popular. Like most TV talk shows, these books contain an abundance of familiar anecdotes about learning life's important lessons, rather than revealing what makes them so compelling in their craft. Wilder and Hawn aren't negligible talents. Yet A Lotus Grows in the Mud and (to a lesser degree) Kiss Me Like a Stranger fall into the same category of celebrity bios as those written by much lesser talents. The memoirs share a dogged impulse to strip away the appealing ingredients of their own distinctive gifts and embrace the banal.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Wonder Woman: Myth and Man

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman. (Photo: Clay Enos/Warner Bros)

Chris Pine has so much unfussy charm and is at home in so many different kinds of movies (and periods) that it’s easy to underrate him – to assume that he merely coasts on his good looks and camera savvy. He’s certainly got plenty of both, but he’s like a young Joel McCrea: his humor is in his natural responses to the untoward situations his characters find themselves in (even when he’s playing Cinderella’s prince in Into the Woods) and his sexiness derives from his unwavering presentness – his ability to be all there, physically and emotionally, in every scene. The only time I didn’t buy what he was doing on screen was in Hell or High Water, and there the fault was with Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, not with Pine. Some of his best work has gone virtually unseen – in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, where he was the best of all the movie Jack Ryans, and in The Finest Hours, where he played a Coast Guard sailor on a dramatically against-the-odds rescue mission, and especially in the gentle post-apocalyptic three-hander Z for Zachariah, where he shared the screen with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Director Denys Arcand (1986)

Rémy Girard in Denys Arcand's Le déclin de l'empire américain (1986).

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1983, one of those people was French-Canadian film director Denys Arcand.

At the time of our conversation, his film Le déclin de l'empire Américain (The Decline of the American Empire) had just been released. The movie would go on to win nine Genie Awards (including Best Motion Picture) and become the first Canadian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Arcand also wrote and filmed two sequels, 2003's Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) and 2007's L'age des ténèbres (Days of Darkness). Both movies would also be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, with Les Invasions winning – and becoming the first Canadian film ever so honoured. 

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Denys Arcand as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1986.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Time Waits for No One

Coming back to Ryerson University to teach a film course for the first time since being diagnosed with cancer over a year ago, I decided to start with a class about the nature of time. Even though I had had the idea shortly before I became sick, it had acquired some poignancy during the months of treatment. Time wasn't just the philosophical exercise I first considered, but a tangible entity that I was growing quite intimate with. I came to see that you can't beat time because – to paraphrase George Harrison – time flows on within you and without you. We may try to organize time through our calendars and appointment books to construct a linear path of going forward through the weeks, months and years. But we can run out of time despite what our daytimer tells us. When we are awake, we are conscious of time passing. Yet we sleep for eight hours a night and it never seems like eight hours when we open our eyes to the morning.

Time is independent of our existence whether we are conscious of it or not. It may be one reason why some of us fear going to sleep at night because it's then that our futile control over time slips out of our grasp. As we enter the world of dreams, time shifts into realms of abstract reality. It's movies that allow us to experience time in that abstract reality, as if we were to find ourselves in a waking dream. Perhaps that's why some people fear movies and choose to attend only some pictures, while avoiding others that may disturb their sense of order. Unlike in the other arts such as literature, theatre, opera and the visual arts, where we can experience a work in linear time – giving us full control of what we read, watch and hear – movies are about surrendering our control to the eye of the camera and the sensibility of the person behind the lens.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kicking Up The Dirt: New Albums by Andrew Combs & Paul Weller

With a voice that is a cross between Don McLean and Ray LaMontagne, Andrew Combs's effervescent sound is impossible to resist. His new album Canyons On My Mind (New West) is a charmer, to say the least. But behind all that charm is a lot of gold, as we learn how serious this young songwriter from Texas reveals himself to be. The first track is an edgy rock song called “Heart of Wonder” with its Andy MacKay (Roxy Music) sax solo, but it’s a bit of a ruse. Combs is a country artist, after all, so I don't think he’s going to fool anyone with his fondness for glam-rock. So he mixes it up on this record with a variety of 11 songs that sound fresh to my ears. For instance, “Rose Colored Blues” could have been recorded in the mid-sixties with its simple string arrangement and up-tempo, “countrypolitan” feel. It’s really nice to hear a new generation proudly wearing their Glen Campbell t-shirts in the studio. On each track he sounds focused and committed. There's nothing worse than hearing a singer who isn’t fully committed to his or her own songs.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Shakespeare on Love: Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Antony & Cleopatra

The cast and (right) John Pfumojena and Anita-Joy Uwajeh in Emma Rice's Twelfth Night. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

There wasn’t a single performer on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe in the current Twelfth Night whom I didn’t like. Emma Rice’s rambunctious, free-form production underlines the idea that love makes adults behave like adolescents in the flurry of their first crushes. When Viola (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), disguised as Cesario, is next to Duke Orsino (Joshua Lacey), she can’t stop grinning and giggling; she’s happy to serve as his go-between with Olivia (Annette McLaughlin), whom he’s been trying without success to court, because when she presses the button of the portable tape player he handed her and spins the ridiculous love song he’s recorded for Olivia, she gets a chance to hear his voice in absentia. She doesn’t find his would-be-hipster self-presentation foolish; everything he does enchants her. (And it’s hard not to like the guy, who may be deluded about his own feelings for Olivia but is touchingly sincere and doesn’t have an unkind bone in his body.) Olivia, still in mourning for her brother, has no patience for Orsino’s suit, and she’s so poised and reasonable that she comes across as a good decade older than he is. But when young Cesario shows up at her door she flips for him and we see the schoolgirl side of her: fluttery, alternately assertive and self-denigrating, incapable of muting her affections. Among this talented company, McLaughlin gives the most accomplished performance – her grounded physicality and firm, fluid command of the language make Olivia’s sudden loss of control hilariously unexpected.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novels about the Third Reich, Part One: Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue

Novelist Philip Kerr. (Photo: Alberto Estevez)

A new release of a Philip Kerr novel is always a welcome addition to an oeuvre of more than thirty books, including his highly received Bernie Gunther novels. From the 1989 publication of March Violets to Prussian Blue (Marian Wood Books/Bantam, 2017), Kerr has now churned out twelve novels about the acerbic-tongued German detective who has led a checkered life in the trenches of World War One, as a homicide Berlin cop working for Kripo (the criminal division of the German police), as a private detective, as a reluctant member of the SS during World War II, as a Soviet POW, and as a fugitive living under aliases in places such as Argentina and France. Throughout, Kerr’s historical research is impeccable, enabling him to convey vividly the atmospherics of the times and delineate adroitly the historical actors. Because his focus is on character and hard-boiled Chandlerian dialogue – the cynical wise-cracking Gunther rarely abstains from verbal jousts with often powerful personalities – Kerr astutely avoids providing unnecessary expository information unless it is revealed through the characters and is vital to our understanding of the period.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Rewriting History: Edith Wharton’s The Shadow of a Doubt

Author and playwright Edith Wharton 

The discovery of a neglected work by Edith Wharton has understandably made headlines in a number of high-profile publications, in particular The New Yorker. However, the story behind Wharton's play, The Shadow of a Doubt, and its reemergence into the public consciousness is more complicated than the oversimplified narrative of a “lost” play being plucked from oblivion by intrepid scholars, and it points to the messy way in which we build and organize our ostensibly tidy literary and theatrical canons. The Shadow of a Doubt has made the news thanks to the efforts of Dr. Mary Chinery and Dr. Laura Rattray, two scholars from Georgian Court University and the University of Glasgow, respectively, who began discussing the little-known work at a conference and subsequently examined a manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin. They’ve reproduced the manuscript, typos and all, and it’s available to read in The Edith Wharton Review. It’s free at the time of this writing, but will eventually disappear behind a paywall; you can find it here, along with the accompanying article by Drs. Chinery and Rattray. (They also spoke with me on the Theatre History Podcast to explain the play’s significance.)

The Shadow of a Doubt primarily offers a starring vehicle for the actress playing its heroine, Kate Derwent. Kate, a former nurse, has married her late patient’s husband John, who grew close to her during his wife’s final days. Given the circumstances of their meeting, as well as Kate’s lowlier background, it’s not surprising that their union occasions some tension within John’s wider family and social circles. His father-in-law, Lord Osterleigh, is particularly skeptical, his granddaughter Sylvia’s evident affection notwithstanding. (She keeps calling Kate “Mamma,” even though her stepmother, fearful of being seen to supplant Sylvia’s late mother Agnes too completely, encourages the girl to call her by her first name.) The arrival of a disgraced doctor, Carruthers, throws this uneasy situation into turmoil; he’s threatening, in a plot device that’s clearly taken from the well-made-play tradition of Ibsen and his predecessors, to ruin Kate’s reputation by revealing information about how the first Mrs. Derwent met her end.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Wizard of Lies: The Con Man as Misanthrope

Nathan Darrow, Robert De Niro, and Alessandro Nivola in HBO's The Wizard of Lies.

The American con man first shows up in nineteenth-century American literature in the inventions of Herman Melville (The Confidence-Man, 1857) and Mark Twain (the Duke and the King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884). The two archetypal con men in American drama are Hickey, the salesman and son of a preacher man in Eugene O’Neill’s 1947 play The Iceman Cometh, and “Professor” Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s 1957 musical The Music Man – characters immortalized by two great American actors, Jason Robards in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 TV transcription of Iceman and Robert Preston in the 1962 movie of Willson’s musical (both recreating legendary performances they had originally given on the stage). Hickey has sold himself on his own con, though in the play, it turns out, what he’s peddling is death of the spirit: he tricks his barroom buddies into losing faith in their own illusions (“pipe dreams” is O’Neill’s phrase) but doing so hollows them out. Only the eleventh-hour realization that he’s been cherishing his own delusion restores them to their happy drunken selves, safe in their pipe dreams once again. Hill manages to convince the citizens of an insulated early-twentieth-century Iowa town that a boys’ marching band will solve problems they never had in the first place. Hill is operating on the principle Hickey sets out in O’Neill’s play for the success of any sale: figure out what the customer wants and then convince him that only you can supply it. River City doesn’t need a boys’ band, but, though Willson presents them comically, Hill plays on small-town Midwestern prejudices – small-mindedness, corseted sexuality, a suspicion of liberalism in any of its forms – and then presents his product, musical instruments, as a way to guard against the things the citizens fear will corrupt their youth. Like The Iceman Cometh, The Music Man has a twist: as it turns out, River City does need that band and Harold Hill (softened by the love of a good woman, Marian the librarian) winds up a hero. But what puts the sale over  long before that reversal is a commodity that Hill and Hickey both have plenty of: charm. It’s the con artist’s ace in the hole.

In the HBO movie The Wizard of Lies, Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff explores a different sort of con man – one that is, I think, an archetypal American character for the twenty-first century.  Under Barry Levinson’s focused, probing direction, De Niro gives his finest performance in years. It’s the De Niro we recognize: charismatic, authoritative, but ill at ease in the world as the result of an essential misanthropy. The casting is perfect, because in the movie’s view – the screenplay by Samuel Baum, Sam Levinson and John Burnham Schwartz is based on Diana Henriques’s 2011 book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust – Madoff’s ability to manipulate the men and women he defrauded out of an estimated $64.8 billion in the most extensive Ponzi scheme ever perpetrated is based not on charm but on a combination of charisma and an aura of unassailable authority. Madoff, the one-time non-executive chairman of NASDAQ, presented himself to his clients – many of them long-time friends, some of them family members, and one, Elie Wiesel, the image of integrity and an icon in modern Jewish history – as the undisputed expert, the sole man who could navigate the treacherous waters of finance even in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn. Madoff, as we see in the film, shifts in and out of the roles of trusted family friend and adviser, father figure, rabbi and noodge, alternately lecturing and consoling, bullying and reassuring. His aura of immovable certainty is his client’s bulwark. The fact that he isn’t charming is, for these (mostly) Jews who pride themselves on their tough-mindedness and skepticism, part and parcel of what makes him so trustworthy. How can such an irascible, street-smart, no-bullshit guy be, in fact, sitting on a fortune made of paper and feathers?  His refusal to kiss his clients’ asses, in tandem with his unchallengeable air of authority, is the ultimate con. When Bernie Madoff turns out to be a fraud, trust really is dead.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Unsquare Dance: Baby Driver

Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González and Jon Hamm in Edgar Wright's Baby Driver.

Baby Driver sings. Its protagonist doesn’t (he’s tight-lipped, only speaking when it’s absolutely necessary), but the film hums and taps and grooves with such reckless energy that it spills out of the screen and washes over you. If Edgar Wright’s latest film – possibly his most pure and bombastic expression yet – doesn’t get your toes tapping and your heart racing, then I suspect that hot red human blood doesn’t run through your veins. Even the inhumanly criminal are still painfully, hilariously human in Baby Driver. It’s an absolute blast.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Integral: The Ambient Paintings of Bruno Kurz

Northern Light, Red by Bruno Kurz. (Acrylic & oil on metal, 2017)

“We must not stare at our mortal world’s kaleidoscope in fascination or despair; we must watch it closely for the advent of new meanings.”  – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

For reasons so mysterious that I prefer not to fully examine their origins, once again Bruno Kurz has produced elegant and restrained visual works, often in pigment or resin on metal, which seem to me to convey the immaterial aura of living music. They vibrate on some subliminal wavelength which, once found, never subsides, and instead continues to build itself into a silent roar which is not deafening at all but rather is mind expanding. Can paintings ever be like a kind of homeopathic medicine? These appear to be. They take aspects or elements of nature, such as those of the landscape, of light, of horizons, of ice, of fields, of fog, of water, but rather than representing them they use their raw materials to construct spiritual experiences of transcendence. Ambient painting is not aggressive but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. On the contrary, an ambient painting is so quietly powerful that it waits patiently for us to be strong enough to share its company.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

When Suggestion Becomes Statement: John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
(Photo: Karolina Kuras)

Ballets there are many. But few have the equivalent of a PG-13 rating. Tickets to the student matinee of the National Ballet of Canada's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts through June 10, come with a warning that the "mature subject matter" – often a euphemism for pornography – is suitable for grades 10 and up only.

But relax. While the depictions of suicide, prostitution and rape are graphic, they are not corrupting. Neither are they sordid or morbid or at risk of getting anyone arrested. John Neumeier's ballet, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, shines a light on life's underbelly, its dark perversions, while also making room for a fantastical dreamer like Blanche DuBois. It's a stunning achievement, despite a few bumps encountered along Streetcar's fabled route. To wit: the first act threatens to be boring while the second pokes you in the eye with a prolonged act of forcible violation as repellent as it is artistically risqué. Subtlety takes a backseat to psychology, the result of a need to know about underlying causes, blunting the overall impact.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Woyzeck, Salomé, Horror: A Panoply of Theatrical Styles

John Boyega and Sarah Greene in Woyzeck at London's Old Vic. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Modernism in the theatre is dated from 1879, the year Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, so Woyzeck, discovered, unfinished, after its author Georg Büchner’s death in 1837 (at twenty-three, from typhus), is a startling anomaly that theatre historians have never been able to account for. Inspired by newspaper accounts of a Leipzig wigmaker who was executed for murdering his lover, Woyzeck is the brutal, unadorned tragedy of the social oppression of an ordinary man. The soldier Woyzeck, desperate for money to support his girlfriend Marie and their child, performs menial jobs for his captain and signs up for medical experiments that eat away at his brain; when Marie cheats on him with a handsome drum major, he stabs her to death. Büchner’s point of view is that his protagonist, used by the Captain and the Doctor and treated like dirt, is the victim of society and particularly of the military life that enslaves and dehumanizes the common recruit. (The Catholic Church, too, which condemns them for having a child out of wedlock, ranks among Woyzeck’s oppressors; spiritually as well as economically he is on society’s bottom rung.) Büchner wrote during the age of romanticism. (The earliest of his three plays, Danton’s Death, set during the French Revolution, is certainly a romantic drama.) Romanticism in both drama and literature celebrated the misfit, the rebel, the outcast, like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but Woyzeck, spat upon and abandoned to an ignominious fate, is as much a modernist creation as the slum dwellers in Gorky’s turn-of-the-century The Lower Depths. Moreover, as world theatre was moving closer and closer to realism, Woyzeck anticipated expressionism, the first of the anti-realist movements. In the second half of the play Büchner employs distortion to suggest how his protagonist’s encroaching madness alters his perception.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Who's Next: BBC's Class

Sophie Hopkins, Jordan Renzo, Fady Elsayed, Vivian Oparah, and Greg Austin in Class.

This review contains some general spoilers for the first season of Class.  

For the past eight weeks, Doctor Who's tenth season has had a new companion on Saturday evenings over at BBC America: Class, a teen-centred spin-off of the BBC's flagship science-fiction series that was broadcast on BBC3 in the UK in late 2016. Last night, alongside the gut-wrenching conclusion of Doctor Who's midseason three-parter, the eighth and final episode of Class's first season also aired – and so it seems a perfect time to reflect on the latest entry into the still-expanding Doctor Who universe.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Neglected Gem #101: A Civil Action (1998)

John Travolta in A Civil Action

If you’re a big fan of Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, the 1995 bestseller about how the Boston lawyer Jan Schlichtman forfeited a civil-action suit against two chemical companies, Grace and Beatrice, for polluting the water supply in Woburn, Massachusetts, then the movie adaptation may drive you crazy. The writer-director, Steve Zaillian, takes major liberties with both the narrative and character of Schlichtman (played by John Travolta); he pares down Harr’s long, winding report of the case and shapes it into a melodrama – much as the writers on the TV series The Practice did when they borrowed the story for an arc centered around the firm’s proletarian lawyer, Jimmy Berlutti (Michael Badalucco). But I’m not sure how a filmmaker could remain faithful to Harr’s material and make it dramatic at the same time. The book bogs down in the middle – just as the case itself did – in endless scientific testimony, and it never recovers its momentum. Despite its colorful, complicated hero, who becomes so obsessed with the case that he drives his firm into bankruptcy, A Civil Action is an obstacle course for a moviemaker. Zaillian’s film may bowdlerize its subject in the course of streamlining it, but it’s a snappy, ingeniously crafted piece of rabble-rousing dramaturgy – a cross between a Warner Brothers urban potboiler from the thirties and a meaty thesis picture like Twelve Angry Men, which gives a large cast of talented actors plenty to do.

Friday, June 2, 2017

To Have and to Hold: The Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Edition

Dreaming Pepper: The Beatles in costume.


Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in North America exactly 50 years ago today. Among the many things that were possible then and are impossible now is the unanimity that welcomed The Beatles’ eighth album as a culminating event in cultural history – if not History. “The closest that Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815,” critic Langdon Winner famously wrote at the time, “was the week that the Sgt. Pepper album was released.” An assertion so sweeping wouldn’t survive an hour in the social-media wind tunnel of today: experts both bona fide and instant would descend on it with annotated lists of other, far more unifying events. (Thus missing, as experts often do, the rhetorical value of overstatement: there’s a reason those words are still being quoted today.) But one unity Sgt. Pepper undoubtedly did effect was a new fusion of High and Low, of marketplace and ivory tower. It was embraced not only by pop fans, who kept it at #1 throughout the Summer of Love, but also highbrows previously dismissive of popular taste. Composer Ned Rorem believed the album announced “a new and glorious renaissance of song,” while literary scholar Richard Poirier called it “an eruption … for which no one could have been wholly prepared.” Wagner and Eliot, Monteverdi and Joyce were invoked for comparison.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Gods & Monsters – Alien: Covenant & the Enigma of Ridley Scott

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant.

I find Ridley Scott’s career as a filmmaker endlessly fascinating, and endlessly confusing. Who else in popular cinema has made such a name for himself yet squandered that artistic reputation with as many misfires and disappointments? I don’t think the man has made a really good movie since Black Hawk Down in 2001, and even that endorsement comes with its own list of qualifications and asterisks. It’s gotten to the point where I’m viewing his back catalogue, full of films that were personal touchstones in my cinematic education, with sudden suspicion. Has he ever actually made a truly great movie?

There’s only one Ridley Scott film that, no matter how many times I put it through the ringer, always comes out clean on the other side. So if he can be said to have made a perfect movie, an unassailable jewel of form and function, it’s Alien. It can be incredibly frustrating to face down yet another entry in the Alien franchise when it’s still unclear why exactly we would want or need one, after the purity and simplicity of that slasher flick in space from 1979. With the benefit of hindsight, I guess it’s easy to identify Scott’s insistence on returning to this material as a fervent need to recapture the magic that launched his career in the first place (not to mention a need to cash in on his prior success and good will after so many failed attempts at trying something different). But I believe Scott’s capable of much more than that, and his refusal – even at this late-career stage – to capitalize on that potential has worn very thin indeed.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Covering Tom Waits and Bob Dylan

The music of Tom Waits offers a wide palette for singers, but rarely do instrumentalists cover his songs. Dirt In The Ground (Independent) is the second album of Waits covers by the jazz ensemble known as Innocent When You Dream. The band is led by New York native Aaron Shragge, who plays a dragon mouth trumpet, a modified horn specifically shaped to “expand the trumpet’s melodic capacity,” according to his description. The result is a warmer, more ancient sound to the instrument that complements the worldly and melodic sounds of Waits's music. The quintet’s first release was back in 2010, on the simply titled Innocent When You Dream: Celebrating The Music of Tom Waits (Collective Records). While I missed that release, I was pleased to discover this new record of eleven Waits songs beautifully rendered in all their splendour by Shragge’s band. The quintet features Jonathan Lindhorst on tenor sax, Ryan Butler on guitar, Nico Dunn on drums, and Dan Fortin on bass. Three tracks on the album also feature Joe Grass on pedal steel guitar. The album was recorded in Montreal at Studio 270 and the results are wonderful. The band understands the earthiness of Waits's music from the bottom up as opposed to a top-down approach that only works if you’re playing for a vocalist. This quintet has a lot more freedom to play Waits as a joyful grind with melody. Highlights include the quintet’s versions of “Chicago” and “Down In The Hole,” but I also love the ballads “Ol 55” and “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Delightful Diversion: Shaw Festival's Me and My Girl

Michael Therriault and Elodie Gillett in the Shaw Festival production of Me and My Girl.  (Photo: David Cooper) 

Me and My Girl, the 1930s musical with a revised book by British writer and comedian Stephen Fry, knocked them dead, as they used to say in the theatre, when it opened Saturday night at the Shaw Festival. The audience jumped to its feet for a roaring standing ovation which rightly praised Ashlie Corcoran's rollicking direction along with the crackerjack cast featuring Michael Therriault and Kristi Frank in lead roles.

The show, which continues at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 14, has launched new artistic director Tim Carroll's first season at the helm of Shaw, the Niagara-the-Lake theatre festival committed to staging the dramatic works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw along with the other works from the Shavian era, with a bang. There's no shortage of enthusiasm here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

New Takes on Modernist Classics

Dani De Waal, Miles Anderson, and Mary VanArsdel in Heartbreak House. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This piece contains reviews of Hartford Stage's Heartbreak House, Irish Repertory Theatre's The Emperor Jones, National Theatre's Hedda Gabler, and John Golden Theatre's A Doll’s House, Part 2.

When Andrew Long strides onstage in Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage as captain of industry Boss Mangan, made up and bewigged to look like a parody of Donald Trump, the production utterly loses its moorings. I guess that the director, Darko Tresnjak, couldn’t resist – but he should have. George Bernard Shaw’s “fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes,” as the playwright billed it, written during the First World War but not performed until 1919, is a one-of-a-kind high comedy: Shaw’s take on Chekhov transforms him in the process, but the experiment has an equally transformative effect on Shaw. The dialogue sounds like Shaw, the sly challenges to accepted social and political attitudes smack of Shaw, but the air of fatalistic melancholy (inspired by the fact of the war) is distinctly Chekhovian, and the result is a play unlike anything else Shaw ever wrote. Transposing a replica of Trump out of Saturday Night Live isn’t meant to transport the play to the present day (the actors are still wearing Edwardian outfits) but to make it relevant to contemporary audiences, as if one of the undisputed masterpieces of the modern theatre didn’t already offer enough to engage them. And the decision to Trump Mangan makes nonsense out of the proceedings. Every time he makes a comment about politics, the audience laughs – not because it’s witty or the actor has mined its comic potential but because we make the connection to Trump, even though the connection isn’t real but merely a red arrow inked by Tresnjak on the surface of Shaw’s text. Everything the character says and does, everything about the way he looks and the way he sounds, takes us out of the play.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Spirit of David McCullough in The American Spirit

David McCullough, author of The American Spirit. (Photo by William B. McCullough)

“We must all read history…”  – John Adams, in a letter he wrote to his wife Abigail  
“Make the love of learning central to your life.” – David McCullough in The American Spirit
Most people may know David McCullough for his rich baritone voice as the narrator of Ken Burns’s landmark PBS series, The Civil War, or as the host for twelve years of The American Experience. He is also well known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams – the latter adapted into an engrossing HBO series. He has written prize-winning studies on the young Teddy Roosevelt and the building of the Panama Canal. He was the subject of a wonderful portrait as a historian, raconteur and family man in the 2008 documentary Painting with Words, which is included on the John Adams DVD. In 2006, he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can earn. Most recently, he has turned his attention to collecting his finest speeches over almost thirty years delivered at university commencements, historical societies, both Houses of Congress and the White House. The result is the lovely The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (Simon & Schuster, 2017) which says as much about himself as about the subjects of his mini-essays.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Relentless Beauty: Dion’s Kickin’ Child

Some things take time. For instance, it took time for people to recognize Dion – born Dion DiMucci in the Bronx in 1939 – as one of the most protean figures in rock ‘n’ roll. He has had more distinct artistic phases, and been more impressive in each, than almost anyone. As a teenager fronting his neighborhood group The Belmonts, he was an architect of doo-wop (“I Wonder Why,” “Love Came to Me”); as a soloist, he lit up the early sixties with a string of cool, slick hits (“The Wanderer,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna the Prima Donna”). He made the Top 40 five times in 1963 alone. Then came The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and Dion, along with his lesser contemporaries, was cast into darkness and doubt. Despite that, and despite a heroin addiction he’d picked up in his teens, he kept recording. He wouldn’t chart again until 1968, with the post-assassination tearjerker “Abraham, Martin and John,” and a supporting album, Dion, that encompassed Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Wonder in a strange and beautiful hippie-folkie mélange. In succeeding decades, as a born-again Christian, he made music that was often banal, and sometimes perversely fascinating (Born to Be with You, his 1975 collaboration with Phil Spector); most recently, he’s done a series of acclaimed blues-based albums, commencing with 2006’s Bronx Blues.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Podcast: Interview with Novelist Judith Guest (1983)

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People in 1980. (Photo courtesy the author)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts, at CJRT-FM (today Jazz 91.1) in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1983, one of those people was American novelist Judith Guest.

When I sat down with Guest, her second novel Second Heaven had just been published. Her first novel, Ordinary People (published in 1976), had been adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent in 1980 – garnering six Academy Award nominations and winning four, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Robert Redford) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Judith Guest as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1983.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Group Therapy: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Chris Pratt, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Saldana, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Adjusting to the popularity and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a continuous learning process for me ever since Iron Man in 2008. At first, it was breathlessly exciting to see an interconnected series of films based on beloved characters that was as bright and entertaining as we all hoped comic book adaptations would be (something that the awkward years between Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins couldn’t ever convincingly prove). Then, fatigue set in: we’re closing in on a decade since Robert Downey Jr. made his triumphant career comeback as Tony Stark, and the structural patterns of this entire enterprise have now become clear even to the most willfully oblivious fanboy. The cracks in the façade have started to show, and Marvel Studios now faces its greatest challenge yet in maintaining the momentum of their blockbuster machine, by keeping us all engaged despite the fact that we’re all sick to death of these goddamn superhero movies.

For my part, making this adjustment meant tempering my expectations. I’ve learned never to expect any Marvel movie to be better than the one that preceded it, and this leaves me in a state of nearly always being pleasantly surprised at how competent, engaging, and sometimes genuinely stirring these films manage to be. With few exceptions, the MCU has become very nearly perfect in how authentically “comic-booky” it is: these films are episodic, interconnected, emotionally heightened, character-driven, and disposable in the same way that their source material is. (I admit that I tend to forget each film almost immediately after I see it, and the next one’s sure to be hot on its heels anyway.) There might not be a better example of this formula’s success than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and there might not be a better possible follow-up to that film than Vol. 2.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Beyond Borders: The Paintings of Sarah Merry

Gaman Maman 8 (2013) by Sarah Merry. (All works referenced are oil on canvas)

“No painting stops with itself, or is complete in and of itself. It is a continuation of all previous paintings and is renewed in all successive ones . . ." – Clyfford Still
Imagine a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to derive pleasure and joy from whatever kind of art you happen to like, with or without the stamp of approval from some museum director or other. A world where different styles of art are merely shifting countries on a map with blurring borders which easily allows you to travel freely from one to the other without a taste passport stamped by an official in a rumpled uniform that stands for uniformity and not much else. In such a world, the value of a picture, whether it was a drawing, a painting, a photograph or even, for that matter, a movie, would be calculated only in terms of how liberated you felt while viewing it rather than how much you knew about the esoteric industry or arcane labour laws that produced it.

Welcome to such a world, a small but inviting country whose borders are only as firm as the imagination of the visitor and viewer. This is what painting looks like when an artist drives at full speed forward with their foot off the stylistic brakes but with a steady hand on the thematic steering wheel and a firm grasp of the principles at work below the surface of art history. Why slow down as you approach an aesthetic intersection when you can clearly recognize a road sign that links Johannes Vermeer with Helen Frankenthaler, a sign which is telling you to accelerate even more, to speed to your heart’s content? The answer is clear once we become conversant with the subterranean and interior dimensions of painting.

Consider it done, because your heart’s content is precisely what should guide you in making the decision to purchase a piece for art for your own personal environment. Visual art, and especially painting, has always been the passionate pursuit of an elusive prey without a speed limit: a domain where sometimes the pursuer can even be ahead of the pursued, and where the astute consumer can be comfortable conversing casually with the artisan who makes their dreams available for your private access. On the planet of painting occupied by Sarah Merry, which orbits the twin suns of representation and abstraction with equal finesse, it is not only feasible but also desirable to shift attention and focus from the real to the imaginary and back again.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dissidence in Dance: Boris Eifman and Red Giselle

A scene from Eifman Ballet's Red Giselle. (Photo courtesy of Eifman Ballet)

The Red Giselle is a many-layered, historically complex full-length work. Its choreographer, Boris Eifman, is no less complicated. He is the leader of the Eifman Ballet, the contemporary classical Russian ballet company from St. Petersburg currently on a 40th anniversary tour of North America. The company touched down in Toronto for three performances of Red Giselle at the Sony Centre, May 11-13. It next presents the work at New York City Center, June 2 through 11. But let's back up a minute. Contemporary. Classical. Russian. Ballet. These are words not usually found in the same sentence.

Russian ballet is a purist art form. Its origins can be found in the court of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, who brought sophistication to the Russian court by way of the French which she imported from Paris along with French ballet masters. Ballet in Russia has never been mere entertainment. It is a set of rules for idealized behaviour. Embodying that ideal is the ballerina, and in Russia the ballerina rules supreme. Russia is unique in that regard. No other nation reveres the ballerina as much; in Russia, she is both cultural icon and national symbol, a source of pride. Eifman knows the importance of the ballerina's iconography in Russia and pays homage to it in Red Giselle.

Monday, May 22, 2017

High Comedies: Six Degrees of Separation and Present Laughter

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in Six Degrees of Separation. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The current Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation begins badly and doesn’t find its feet until its leading lady, Allison Janney, does – about two-thirds of the way through, during her reading of the speech that gives the play its title. The play, a brilliant high comedy, is about the way a young hustler named Paul disrupts the lives of a number of people whose paths he crosses, most (but not quite all) of whom belong to the New York elite of the last decade of the twentieth century. Paul is an outsider in every conceivable way: he’s black (race in this play equates to class), gay and homeless. When a moneyed M.I.T. undergraduate named Trent Conway picks him up on the streets of Boston and takes him home, Paul makes a deal with him – sex in exchange for information about the prep-school classmates in Trent’s address book, now enrolled at various Ivy League colleges. (Trent is delighted to furnish details: not only does he consider he’s getting fair return for the favor, but his sexuality has always made him feel like an outsider too; he fantasizes that he can turn Paul into such an appealing faux aristocrat that when Trent shows up on his arm everyone will just have to accept them both.) Then Paul presents himself at the doors of their parents, bleeding from a self-inflicted stab wound he says he incurred during a mugging, claiming to know their children. He also professes to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and all of the aristocrats whose homes he’s entered on false pretenses are sufficiently impressed to take him in for the night. Paul is a scam artist and a narcissist; he’s also, it turns out, delusional. He starts to believe he really is Sidney Poitier’s son, and then he believes his other invention: that he’s the illegitimate son of Flan Kittredge, the art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa, shows him the most kindness. Six Degrees of Separation is about connection and imagination as well as class (a theme of all high comedy). But it isn’t centrally about Paul. He’s the catalyst whose interactions with those he comes across – Trent and the aspiring, adventure-seeking young actor from Utah, Rick (Rick and his wife Elizabeth also take Paul in, when they find him sleeping in Central Park) and the Kittredges – act in various ways on their imaginations. The protagonist of the play is Ouisa, who undergoes the most profound change as a result of meeting him.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Post Mortems: Frequency, Making History, and Emerald City

Leighton Meester, Adam Pally, and Yassir Lester in Making History.

Perhaps the biggest event of the television season is the one that didn't happen earlier this month, after an 12th-hour deal between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the major networks and studios averted an imminent writers' strike. True, a WGA strike threatens every decade, but the memory of the 100-day strike of 2007-2008 still looms pretty large, and with television's continually evolving face, the content of these regular negotiations always offers the rawest insight into the state of the industry, as years-old collective agreements hit headlong with new norms: 2007 revolved mainly around the surge of web-streaming, and the most recent almost-strike focused on the now-established shorter seasons of some of television's most prestigious shows. To add to the general anxiety, this year the talks also fell at roughly the same time that the networks were making their final decisions on which shows would be returning for another season and which would be axed. While some of my favourite shows (like ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which sat on the bubble for most of its impressive, often heartbreaking, 4th season) got last-minute pickups, there were a couple of painful casualties. Below are a few of my reflections on the 2016-2017 season that was, and won't be again.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Star Vehicle: NBC’s Great News

Briga Heelan and Andrea Martin in Great News

30 Rock is dead; long live 30 Rock. Tina Fey’s acclaimed comedy, based on her experiences as a writer on Saturday Night Live, was one of the funniest shows on television for much of its seven-season run. Long after its series finale, its influence remains evident in shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fey’s recent Netflix collaboration with Robert Carlock, and NBC’s new (and recently renewed) sitcom Great News, which in many ways feels like the most obvious heir apparent. It was created by 30 Rock veteran Tracey Wigfield and features Fey and Carlock as executive producers, and the fact that it takes place in a New Jersey news studio makes it a workplace comedy that functions in much the same way that 30 Rock, with its eponymous setting, did.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Compulsive Spirits – Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective

Red Rust Hills, 1930, by Georgia O'Keeffe.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Felicity Somerset, to our group.

"Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done and where I have been that should be of interest.” – Georgia O'Keeffe
I have long been an admirer of the art of Georgia O'Keeffe so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which opened to the public on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The exhibition was curated and mounted by London's Tate Modern, with tour partners Bank Austria Kunstforum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is completing its tour here in Toronto and will be at the AGO until July 30.

As its title suggests, this exhibition is a retrospective of O'Keeffe’s six decades of work. It takes a chronological approach and begins with some early charcoal abstracts from 1917, and includes watercolour paintings and pastels as well as one sculpture. Most of the images are painted in oils. The exhibition ends with some of her late abstracts from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her place in art history marks her as a leader in American modernist and abstract work and these themes are fully explored in the exhibition.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Broken Dreams: Rewatching The West Wing in the Age of Trump

Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing.

When it premiered in 1999, The West Wing was a Platonic ideal, an optimistic, aspirational dream about what American politics could someday be. I recently indulged a craving to rewatch it (which, in hindsight, can only be categorized as the screech of my drowning mind grasping for purchase on saner shores), and I was shocked to discover that now, in 2017, it's not just aspirational – it's pure fantasy. The West Wing isn’t terribly realistic, but I never thought I'd see it as downright escapist. I used to think House of Cards was like The West Wing's evil twin, showing us the dark flip side of political motivations and maneuvering – but we live in a world where the Netflix drama's cautionary storytelling has been rendered irrelevant by the much worse reality we've been forced to accept. The political America that The West Wing depicts, a place of competence, hard work, cooperation, and hope, seems as fantastical and far away to my modern eyes as the forest moon of Endor. Maybe that’s why my brain reached out towards it. I just needed to escape, if only for an hour at a time, into a world where things made sense.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Above a Whisper: Diana Krall’s Turn Up The Quiet

Diana Krall with producer Tommy LiPuma in 2001. (Photo: Bruce Gilbert)

In 1997, jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall released an album of standards called Love Scenes on the prestigious label known as Impulse! Records. It was a game-changer for the young musician, eager to showcase her great band featuring Russell Malone, guitar, and Christian McBride, bass. The setting was simple: no strings or elaborate orchestral accompaniment. It was a record that captured the band at its peak, à la Nat King Cole back in the forties. Cole’s intimate singing created a kind of chamber jazz that was easy to listen to and could swing like crazy. For Krall, who toured festivals around the world with her own trio, it was a turning point in her career. She was on a major label and fully supported by producer Tommy LiPuma, who encouraged Krall to feel every lyric and experiment with different tempos on a wide-ranging selection of songs about love. The 13 tracks on Love Scenes are deeply felt by Krall and each work is treated with respect and was arranged to suit her singing style at the time. Krall perfectly blended the edginess of Carmen McRae with the sexiness of Julie London. It was the album that put Krall on the international jazz map but I think it typecast her as a chanteuse rather than as an adventurous jazz artist who loves to sing.

On May 5 this year, twenty years after the release of Love Scenes, Diana Krall released her new album, with the cute title Turn Up The Quiet, on the equally prestigious Verve label, distributed by Universal. Tommy LiPuma, who, sadly, died March 17, 2017 at the age of 80, produced the album. It was his last gig as a producer. (Krall speaks highly of her late producer and mentor in the June 2017 issue of Downbeat Magazine.) LiPuma’s award-winning career in music was never in doubt. He helped an all-star roster of great singers reach wider recognition with varying degrees of financial and artistic success. Among his most famous prodigies were George Benson, Dave Mason, Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole, whose album Unforgettable went 7-times platinum in the United States. When he met Diana Krall – a native of Nanaimo, British Columbia – the two began a long artistic collaboration that resulted in 12 albums, millions in sales and worldwide acclaim. Their first record, released in 1995, was Only Trust Your Heart (GRP), when Krall was 30 years old. It peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Jazz Album chart.