Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Truth is Out There: Frederick Wiseman's La Danse

These days, documentaries that tend to get commercial release are usually one of three kinds. There are the docs that feature the director as star, notably the films of Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story, Sicko) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?). There are the documentaries that really prove that truth is indeed stranger than fiction (Capturing the Friedmans, Crazy Love, Grizzly Man). There are the docs that are tied into current societal concerns and issues (An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc., The Cove). And then there’s Frederick Wiseman.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Ironic Groove: Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3's Propellor Time

I’ve always found Robyn Hitchcock’s music to be mystical, but not in the LSD sense of the word. His albums create a world that is ethereal and often filled with sadness. As a songwriter, he always succeeds in blending melancholy lyrics with uplifting music. On his new release with his current touring group, the Venus 3 (Peter Buck, guitar, Scott McCaughey, bass and Bill Rieflin, drums), Hitchcock sounds inspired and positive. Recorded in 2006, Propellor Time has a similar feel to Goodnight Oslo (2009) and Ole Tarantula (2007) a steady, consistent groove with great harmonies and ironic lyrics. The album opens with a trip to the "Star of Venus," a song about love and its ideals: “You must have seen it coming, a long long time ago, the ship of all your feelings, shipwrecked in one go.” The title track has a Syd Barrett-like delivery, a song so dreamy that you’re caught up in its 'psychedelic' despair. The last track, "Evolove," is a deliberate shot at creationists, done with humour and great phrasing. But the most positive song is "The Afterlife" where “everyone is made of meat/They’re full of life and life is sweet.” Hitchcock’s mystical world comes full circle on Propellor Time.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An Equally Important Performer: S Epatha Merkerson Departs Law & Order

She has outlasted four district attorneys, six prosecutors and eight pairs of detectives, but Lieutenant Anita Van Buren will soon follow in their footsteps when she departs from her Manhattan NYPD job. What’s not known is if that exit might come in the form of a resignation or death, since the longtime Law & Order character has been battling cancer in the most poignant subplot of this NBC show’s twentieth season.

Feel free to insert that familiar scene-separating electronic interlude here: Cha-chung!

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson, 57, who has portrayed Van Buren since 1993, recently announced her decision to quit the series after 16 years. But she actually goes further back than that with the program, having appeared as the mother of a very young victim in “Mushrooms,” about a cruel mistake that leads to a child’s murder. Written by Robert Palm, this stunning first-season episode reveals illiteracy as a culprit in the case of an adolescent who shoots an infant; unable to read, the boy went to the wrong place when a drug lord hired him to assassinate someone at another address written on a scrap of paper.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Mozart of Mayhem: Spike Jones and His City Slickers

While re-watching The Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931) last week on TCM, I was trying to think of who might possibly be their musical equivalent. (Of course, The Marx Brothers had their own fair share of musical absurdity in their comedies.) Ultimately, I didn’t have to look too much farther than Spike Jones and His City Slickers. From the early forties to the mid-fifties, Spike Jones and his group tore into the pomposity of high culture with a savage intent. Jones implemented a storehouse of rude sounds that made composer Erik Satie’s experiments in Parade (1916) seem polite.

Jones turned musical history into a broadly satirical farce. He made a mockery of honoured classics like Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which he recast as a ridiculously hysterical horse race. The unbearably dippy standard “Love in Bloom” was torn to shreds in much the same manner that The Marx Brothers laid waste to Il Travatore in A Night at the Opera (1935). Johann Strauss’ delicate Blue Danube waltz was transformed into a drunken brawl (in contrast to the lame reverence shown by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In their assault on Bizet’s Carmen, the group’s “messy-soprano” Eileen Gallagher is heard frightening off three bulls with the mere shriek of her opening aria. Michael “Cub” Coda, of The Brownsville Station (who once sang about "Smoking in the Boy's Room"), remembers his father seeing Spike Jones at the Michigan Theatre in Detroit back in 1945. “They were crazy,” he recalled his dad telling him. “The stage went black and all these sirens and gunshots started going off. Then the stage lit up and it was Spike Jones and His City Slickers…They had a guy playing a toilet seat with strings on it, people onstage wearing wigs and crazy outfits – oh geez, they were nuts.” This nutty group spent their career blowing raspberries at High Art. And they did it with an all-American gusto.

Spike Jones & His City Slickers
Hailing from Long Beach, California, Jones first put together a college dance band that he patterned after Red Nichols’ Five Pennies. But performing standards bored him to pieces. When he met the multi-talented Del Porter, who played xylophone, violin, sax, and clarinet, and had hung out with the great impressionist Mel Blanc, Jones saw the possibility for integrating a little mayhem into the mix. They began as the Feather Merchants, but by the end of the thirties, they became Spike Jones and His City Slickers and their distinct lunacy caught the attention of RCA Records. By this time, the group included violinist Carl Greyson, whose tenor vocal style displayed a twisted grin in songs like “Cocktails For Two”; Red Ingle, who mutilated the sentimental weepie “Chloe,” turning it into a beautiful act of desperate desecration; Winstead “Doodles” Weaver, a former comedian who created the droll voice of the race-track announcer on the William Tell Overture; Freddie Morgan, a goofy-faced, mad banjo player; “Babyface” George David Rock, a trumpet player with the sweet kid voice in “All I Want For Christmas”; and Dr. Horatio Q. Birdbath (a.k.a. Purves Pullen) who contributed mightily to the massacre of “Love in Bloom.” Sir Frederick Gas (a.k.a. Earl Bennett) provided ample demonstrations of his peculiar emissions on songs like “Happy New Year” and “Knock Knock.” The City Slickers dressed like inebriated renegades out of a Preston Sturges comedy, with loud clothes and goofy hats. Their stage presence was a dada explosion from Dogpatch.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Casablanca's Dark Angel: Confidential Agent (1945)

Sixty-eight years after its release, Casablanca (1942) still continues to justifiably enthrall audiences. Born out of difficult casting (George Raft and Hedy Lamar was one scenario; Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan was supposedly another) and a catastrophic screenplay that had no ending, Casablanca has gone on to become a film that many consider one of America's finest ever made. However, the other night, I stumbled across a film on TCM (thank God for Turner Classic Movies) that I had never heard of, but after seeing it I think it should have become a dark companion piece to Casablanca (or perhaps Casablanca's dark angel). It's called Confidential Agent (1945) and it was pretty damn good - but I understand why it's not remembered, even though it's a pity it isn't. Based on a book by Graham Greene and starring Charles Boyer and Lauren Bacall, it told the story of Luis Denard (Boyer) a representative (confidential agent) of the Spanish republican government who in 1937 came on a desperate mission to England to buy millions of £ in coal that his government would then use to create munitions. All of this was done in an attempt to defeat the fascists led by Francisco Franco and Hitler's air force. At every turn, he was either looked at with suspicion by the naive Brits because he was a "foreigner," or he was threatened by fascist agents who had followed him to - or resided in - England.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Chloe Sevigny's True Confessions: More On Big Love's Worst Season

Chloe Sevigny’s recent candid comments on how bad this past season Chloe Sevigny's recent candid comments on how bad this past season of HBO’s Big Love was confirms what I wrote recently about the sad decline of the series. (See Big Love: Or the (Sometime) Tyranny of the Cable Networks from Thursday, March 11/10 on Critics at Large.) I was wrong only about the reasons for the show being handed a short slate of nine episodes instead of the ten it got last season (and the 12 each for seasons one and two). I had speculated that HBO was trying to jazz up the show and insisting its creators cram more storylines into the series - from Bill Henrickson running for political office to a gothic incest / artificial insemination plot - to make it move faster. But Sevigny, when asked on the A.V. Club website why it was so over the top this year, had this to say:

Sunday, April 4, 2010

21st Century Be-Bop: Dave Holland Octet's Pathways

Dave Holland’s latest album is a triumph of ensemble playing and composition. But this statement could have been written about his last 4 recordings either with his Big Band or Quintet. This album, recorded live at New York’s Birdland club over 4 nights in January 2009, is the first featuring an Octet. The title track written by Holland is built upon a driving rhythm that sets the tone for the entire record. Gary Smulyan gets the first solo on baritone sax and it’s an earthly delight. Holland’s funky bass line on “How’s Never?” sets a pattern and the band plays against the pulse for the duration. But like most of the music written by Holland, the path is never smooth or straight. There’s variety in the musical journey that’s full of surprises which is why Holland and his first-rate groups are so great to hear. It’s music written to make you lean forward in your chair - or turn up the volume on your iPod. This is particularly true on a composition called, “Ebb and Flow”, which is nicely arranged to accommodate the ensemble and soloists, Kevin Eubanks [trombone] and Chris Potter [tenor]. The album closes with “Shadow Dance” which works a steady, slow groove before jumping into hard-bop drive. Pathways is Be Bop for the 21st Century.

--John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.