Saturday, May 22, 2010

Whodunit!: Clue: The Movie

Thank goodness for videotape. After watching Clue: The Movie (1985) for the first time this past weekend I find myself conflicted, not unlike a guilty man pleading innocence before an unforgiving jury of his peers. On one hand I found myself thoroughly enjoying the cavalcade of familiar faces, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull etc., chewing up the scenery, while on the other hand I couldn't help but think about how much I would have despised the film if I'd caught it during its original theatrical run.

Jonathan Lynn's film used an interesting advertising tactic to raise curiosity; he offered viewers three different endings which would be equally distributed and randomly attached to every film print. Surprise! The problem with this tactic is that with any other film it would promote repeated viewings but by the halfway mark in Clue you should realize that this film's conclusion will prove somewhat irrelevant. It never really mattered if it was Colonel Mustard in the observatory with the candlestick or Ms.Scarlet with the knife in the kitchen. Being offered one of three endings gave the impression that ‘whodunit’ was a question we cared to have answered. We were being told a joke for an hour and a half but the filmmakers missed the punch line. No wonder most critics panned it and its box office numbers were lackluster upon its initial release.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Elvis Costello’s Cultural Boycott of Israel: Rank Hypocrisy and Naiveté

Elvis Costello’s recent decision to cancel his two upcoming shows in Israel because of his concerns about the plight of the Palestinians, and Israeli government policy towards them, is problematic and offensive on so many levels; I scarcely know where to begin. But let’s hear from the man himself, who just recently told The Jerusalem Post, "I know from the experience of a friend who is from Israel and from people who have worked there that there is a difference of opinion there among Israelis regarding their government's policies. It seems to me that dialogue is essential....The people who call for a boycott of Israel own the narrow view that performing there must be about profit and endorsing the hawkish policy of the government. It's like never appearing in the U.S. because you didn't like Bush's policies or boycotting England because of Margaret Thatcher."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pat Metheny's Rube Goldberg Concert at Massey Hall: May 13, 2010

I can't say I've ever been a big or even moderate fan of Pat Metheny, but whenever I've heard his music I've always been impressed by his playing. My wife has been a fan for years, though, so when it was announced he would be playing Massey Hall she suggested we go (she hadn't seen him for a long time and she wanted me to see him perform). Expecting Metheny and a band (he has in the past played with great players, so the possibility of watching Metheny exchanging licks with other talented musicians sounded promising), we bought tickets and on May 13th headed back to Massey (after our last visit there on March 9 to see Jamie Cullum). We went in completely blind to what he was doing on this tour.

The stage was simple, with packing crates visible near the stage, a piano on one side, two vibraphones and a single cymbal on the other. A couple of Persian-style rugs covered the stage and a clumsily arrayed red curtain covered the back of the stage. About 15 minutes late, Metheny took the stage by himself, sat down, bent over his guitar and proceeded to play the first of three pieces. It was masterful playing, full of ingenious rhythms and great musicianship. Then a roadie charged out, gave him a guitar with what looked like a stumpy second fret sticking out of the top. It turned out to be a combination guitar and harp called a Pikasso. Custom-built for Metheny by Torontonian Linda Manzer, it had 42 strings that allowed Metheny to play guitar and harp simultaneously. That should have been a clue. Twenty minutes passed and he had yet to say a thing to the audience other than mouthing some genuine-looking "thank yous."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marking Time: Willie Nelson's Country Music

Willie Nelson's varied musical history ranges from the Gypsy Swing of Django Reinhardt to the honky-tonk of Hank Williams. His diverse output includes pop, jazz and country music. Last year, for instance, Nelson released one of the best country albums of 2009 with Asleep at the Wheel. It was a straight-ahead inspired recording from the first note to the last. For 2010, Nelson has released a pure, unadorned masterpiece simply called, Country Music, produced by T-Bone Burnett. It features Buddy Miller on electric guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Jim Lauderdale singing harmony. It's been released on Rounder Records, one of the best advocates of contemporary country and folk music for many years. The cover features an image of a large empty barn and the sessions were recorded in Nashville. So everything about this album spells "country." Musically, Nelson covers songs from his own catalogue as a songwriter, and pulls a few selections from the pens of Ray Price, Doc Watson and Hank Williams. The outstanding tracks for me, though, are three traditional songs arranged by Burnett and Nelson. These are "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," "I am A Pilgrim," and "Nobody's Fault But Mine." Nelson's aging voice on these songs is the unpretentious marking of an important and reflective time in his life, now that he's over 75 years. So in spite of his varied musical history, the man is most comfortable under the influence of "country music."

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The World's Most Obscene Pop Song: The Story of Louie Louie

Thoreau believed that an American popular tune could be quoted meaningfully in a symphony in the same way that an American colloquialism could work in a sentence. But it's unlikely that Thoreau would have considered "Louie Louie" a worthy example of this. While "Louie Louie" began as a lovely calypso tune written and recorded by Richard Berry, one of Los Angeles' most influential R&B performers, his composition would soon become the ultimate sex-joke song -- and it dogged his career. Although it was considered obscene because of its barely intelligible lyrics (and recorded by just about everyone: The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Barry White -- even Iggy Pop), the lewd interpretation is due to The Kingsmen, a Top 40 cover band from Portland, Oregon.

One night in 1963, during a concert date, Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely witnessed a group of people dancing in orgiastic ecstasy around the jukebox before the band hit the stage. The song playing was something called "Louie Louie" by The Wailers (no relation to Bob Marley's group). The Kingsmen decided that they wanted some of that same action, and so they set out to learn the song. Ely made a mistake, however, by giving the band the wrong arrangement of the Wailers' interpretation. The arrangement was crude with a relentlessly thumping beat pounded out on the guitar and organ. Nevertheless, the song had the desired effect at The Kingsmen's concerts. The band cut a single of "Louie Louie" in May 1963, with the hope of having their first hit song. With its famous opening notes of DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA -- DUH-DUH-DUH -- DA-DA, and Ely slurring every insinuating word he could dream up, the only recognizable lyrics were the song's title.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fearless Etheridge: Fearless Love

I’ve always had great respect for Melissa Etheridge. She entered the music business as a hard-edged rocker often compared, at best, to Janis Joplin or at worst, to Bruce Springsteen. So many great singers have lost the “comparison” battle and faded into obscurity, but not Etheridge. She stayed focused on important political, environmental, and sexual orientation issues that continue to have a strong appeal for her fans. By taking those risks, Etheridge stood above the commercial expectations and forged her own direction overcoming the weight of the publicity of her first marriage and her greatest battle, defeating cancer in 2005.

Fearless Love is her first album of new songs in a couple of years, and it’s as strong as any she’s ever written and released. The title track drives hard like a U2 song as Etheridge yearns for “a fearless love; I won’t settle for anything else." On "Drag Me Away," her most personal song in years, she talks about her fight for life and love with allusions to fighting cancer: "I will not be a hostage to my own dis-ease," she says. Fearless Love is as powerful a “coming out” record as Etheridge has ever written, but this time the feelings are raw. Instead of anger we get a deeper expression of the ache she has suffered over the recent years. I wish the production wasn’t so over-the-top save for the closer, "Gently We Row," a fine example of Etheridge’s strength as a vocalist. I understand that she’s performing some of these songs solo, which is a much more preferable and intimate way to hear them.

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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost and Found: John Huston's The Dead

It’s a good thing that I have friends with sharp tastes in movies. Otherwise I would have been totally oblivious to the news last fall that John Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” was finally available on DVD. (It was pretty much ignored by DVD reviewers despite getting two nominated Academy Awards upon its release almost 25 years ago.)

Huston was a prolific director of many substantial and influential pictures based on literature including his 1941 debut The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), the underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985). His career had small triumphs like A Walk with Love and Death (1969) and Wise Blood (1979), along with ambitious failures such as Moby Dick (1956), Freud (1962) and Fat City (1972), and basic bummers like the musical Annie (1982). The Dead was a triumph of adversity given that Huston was near the end of his life and directing most of the picture from a wheelchair between toots of air in an oxygen tent. Along with Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), The Dead is a nothing less than a masterful summing up picture.

Joyce’s short story gathered in his remarkable anthology Dubliners (1916) brought together a series of tales that make up a moral history of his home city. The book amounts to an astonishing collection of contemplative prose. Each story, concluding with “The Dead,” reveals what critic Harry Levin called “a progression from childhood to maturity, broadening from private to public scope.” In achieving this, Dubliners has more than a passing acquaintance with mortality. In the opening story, “The Sisters,” a young boy overhears a conversation about the death of a priest that has profound impact on his life whereas the concluding story “The Dead” is about how the chance hearing of a song at the conclusion of the Feast of Epiphany in 1904 invokes the memory of a deceased lover.

John Huston’s The Dead is a significant chamber work, re-imagined through Chekhov, that builds to an epiphany where the past gathers profound weight in the present. The story begins at the Dublin home of two old spinsters and their niece who are hosting their annual dinner party for friends and relatives. As the group wines and dines, sharing music and poetry, their casual conversation begins to uncover assumptions, perceived injustices, and judgments. Social proprieties slowly wither as the evening progresses. Huston directs these scenes as if he were a casual observer quietly peeling away the undercurrents of friction between family and friends. Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) arrives with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) and we soon learn that Gabriel, an academic, is uncomfortable with his station in life. He fears that he’s a man who knows everything and yet understands nothing. Gabriel comes to confront that contradiction just as he and Gretta are departing for the evening. When she hears tenor Bartell d’Arcy (Frank Patterson) sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a traditional Irish ballad which tells the story of a young girl who is made pregnant by a man and then seeks refuge after giving birth, the poignant stillness of Bartell’s voice freezes her on the staircase and transports her beyond the evening to a place beyond time.

When they return to their room, Gabriel feels sexually drawn to his wife but still finds her distant and melancholy. When he questions her reasons for this detached mood, she tells him the story of a young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who once sang her that song, but died of consumption at 17. Hearing the song that evening leads her to believe that he may have died for her. As Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel begins to feel insignificant in both his marriage and life having never felt anything so deeply rendered before. In the story, after Gretta reveals what the song has invoked in her, Joyce describes Gabriel’s state of mind in a stream of astonishingly suggestive passages. Huston alters it into a soliloquy that rides on a riverbed of recollection filled with self-doubt. Aided by Alex North’s delicate score, which does subtle variations on “The Lass of Aughrim,” Huston undercuts our desire to turn memory into nostalgia by illuminating just how fleeting time, purpose and loss can be. His son, Tony Huston, also did a masterful job of adapting the story making only minimal changes that captured the substance of the text without losing Joyce’s plaintive voice.

Ironically, when The Dead came out on DVD on November 3, 2009, ten minutes of footage was missing from the picture. The distributor, Lionsgate, quickly promised the complete version later that month, but I have yet to check out whether that’s been done. And so far, there’s no way to know since nobody’s talking about this neglected gem. In coming back to life, The Dead is still sadly in purgatory.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.