Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taking Chances: The Red Bird Label Story

Record labels used to have a certain cache in the days before corporate takeovers and media-mergers began to happen in the eighties. To put it in contemporary marketing lingo, the labels once “branded” their music. Consider Motown: a distinct sound and style that stood for high quality performance and catchy pop R&B. Another might be Elektra records, the West Coast label featuring folkie Judy Collins and The Doors. Sun Records had Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. What would jazz be without Blue Note, Impulse and ECM, each featuring their own distinctive styles? Labels meant something in the middle of the last century before larger companies scooped them all up. Their interest was more in profiting from sales rather than promoting the art form. But there was one label, Red Bird Records, that understood the relationship between good music and the profit motive.

In 1962, American songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, authors of hits for Elvis Presley ("Jailhouse Rock") and The Coasters ("Searchin'"), were ambitious businessmen eager to earn more money for their work. At the time, they were songwriters for Atlantic records earning 2 cents for every single sold of one of their songs. By forming their own company, they would earn 21 cents a record. So they decided it was in their best economic interests to form Red Bird records. Having their own company allowed them to take more risks with their music.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Neglected Gems #2: Watermarks (2004)

It’s a funny thing about movies. They may get critical acclaim, even score some box office success and years later they’re barely mentioned by anyone or even remembered. And there’s often no discernible reason for their fates. I really can’t tell why Neil Jordan’s terrific and accessible heist movie. The Good Thief, which got good reviews when it came out in 2002, has pretty much vanished into the ether. Or why Steve Jordan’s powerful documentary Stevie (2002) failed to match the impact of his earlier 1994 doc Hoop Dreams. Or even why impressive debuts like Jeff Lipsky’s Childhood’s End (1997) didn’t get half the buzz that considerably lesser movies (Wendy and Lucy, Ballast) have acquired upon their subsequent release. In any case, here is the second in a series of disparate movies you really ought to see.

Watermarks is the inspiring story of Hakoah Vienna, a Jewish athletic club formed in 1909 as a reaction to anti-Semitic policies that kept Jews out of gentile clubs in the country. The documentary, which is available on DVD, traces how some 65 years after they were forced to leave Austria, a group of Jewish women athletes return to where it all began. The goal of Hakoah (which means “strength” in Hebrew) was to prove that Jewish athletes could hold their own against their Christian counterparts, dispelling stereotypes of the weak Jew in the process. Hakoah succeeded in spades, with many of its members, in particular the women's swim team, dominating Austrian sports competitions in the 1930s. But the Anschluss, the Nazis' annexation of Austria in 1938, ended all that and forced the Hakoah members to flee for their lives.

Reuniting seven of the women swimmers, all in their 80s, Watermarks, which is directed by Israeli filmmaker Yaron Zilberman, lets them tell their history and that of their tumultuous era, illustrated with archival clips, interviews and footage of them revisiting their old haunts in Vienna. Watermarks succeeds in bringing a forgotten part of history to life. But best of all, it introduces us to some genuinely remarkable individuals who made a significant difference in their time and place.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Process of Mourning: Conor McPherson's The Eclipse (2010)

Iben Hjejle and Ciarán Hinds in The Eclipse 

A few months before my Dad passed away last year, he was in the hospital recovering from a serious infection. On strong painkillers, he kept telling my sister to let “Uncle Maurice know” about something which I don't quite recall. Shortly after, he said something about 'seeing' Uncle Maurice. Uncle Maurice is my Mom's brother, and my father and he had a long, somewhat difficult, relationship. So why, while hallucinating from the painkillers, did he think he saw, or needed to tell Uncle Maurice something (whom he hadn't seen in about seven years)? We had no idea. A handful of days later, I received a phone call that my Uncle had died suddenly. I have always believed that certain people are 'visited,' shall we say, by those who are about to die, or have just passed. Why, nobody can tell, but it seems to happen again and again. This is the one of the ideas percolating in Conor McPherson's fine, neglected/ignored 2010 Irish film, The Eclipse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Long, Strange Trip: Life Among The Dead

It’s no coincidence, of course, that The Grateful Dead Movie will screen at more than 500 theaters across America on the night of April 20. That’s 4/20, dude! The cannabis holiday is celebrated every year throughout the continent. The Toronto festivities, with a march ending at Queen’s Park Circle, drew some 30,000 participants in 2010. The counterculture event is even more significant on Hippie Hill at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The City by the Bay is where the Winterland Ballroom hosted the October 1974 concerts that are in this 1977 rockumentary, now being re-released with additional footage: never-before-seen interviews with Jerry Garcia, its director, and Bob Weir.

I haven’t caught either version, but did spend some time with the Dead in May of 1978 on assignment for a Vermont daily newspaper. Although backstage access had been arranged by some well-connected music business person, a big part of our plan was upended when a photographer named Charlie and I got to the Thompson Arena at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Told no cameras, notebooks or tape recorders would be allowed, we were journalists without the necessary tools who managed to persevere. My memorization skills had to kick into high gear. Here’s what happened:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Louise Lecavalier: Still Crazy (But More Glorious) After All These Years

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Deirdre Kelly, to our group.

Louise Lecavalier & Keir Knight (Photo : Massimo Chiarradia)
Dancer Louise Lecavalier's new company is Fou Glorieux, which roughly translated as "glorious craziness." And the craziest thing about it? How mind-blowingly good it is. Fou Glorieux is contemporary Canadian dance at its most kinetically expressive, if not poetically potent. The reason is Lecavalier, the diminutive dynamo whose kamikaze dance style helped make Édouard Lock's La La La Human Steps an international cause célèbre throughout the 1980s and 1990s when she was the Montreal choreographer's hard-bodied, platinum blonde star and muse.

More than a decade after breaking with Lock, the fiftysomething mother of nine year old twin girls is today using her energies to propel her own engine forward. As such Fou Glorieux, which she founded in 2006 to enable her to collaborate with a new and rotating crop of international choreographers, represents her comeback, and with a bang. Her company's Toronto debut last week at the Fleck Dance Theatre, as part of Harbourfront Centre's ongoing World Stage series, was greeted by capacity crowds that erupted in standing ovations for each night of the four-performance run. Their enthusiasm was understandably directed at Lecavalier, a dancer of incomparable style and presence a true original whose physical prowess, not to mention unstoppable energy, kept the eye riveted.

Monday, April 18, 2011

When Andre Met Shawn: A Meal To Remember

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (1981).

Have you ever been in a restaurant and tuned out your companions in order to eavesdrop on a more interesting conversation taking place at the next table? Such behavior is taken for granted by the late director Louis Malle in his eloquent My Dinner With Andre (1981), which remains an appetizing treat. Three decades later, the talk is still illuminating as playwrights Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, also an actor, portray some semblance of themselves when they discuss everything from the universal to the intimate. Permitted to listen in, the audience can satisfy its nosiness while being nourished by the encounter.

There is virtually no physical activity in the 110-minute film, generating the satirical collection of My Dinner with Andre action figures in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996). After an initial journey from New York City’s Lower East Side on the subway, Shawn arrives at a posh eatery (actually shot in Virginia!) to meet Gregory. The two men just sit, savor the food, drink wine and chat, with a few brief interruptions by a slightly disdainful waiter (Jean Lenauer). What keeps it all lively is the sparkle of the dialogue, written by the duo and culled from hours of their taped discussions. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Always With a Little Humour: Tina Fey’s Bossypants

I think Tammy Wynette phrased it quite well when she said that “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.” Despite of how far we’ve come and how some insist that the war on sexism is over, it’s still hard out there for a chick. (Perhaps on planet Margaret Wente it’s already won, but the rest of us are still huddled in the trenches.) In her recent memoir Bossypants (Reagan Arthur, 2011), Tina Fey brilliantly explores how many battles still exist and proves that it is sometimes hard to be a woman. But with the right mind set, it can also be downright hilarious.

In Bossypants, the former SNL writer, actress, and creator of 30 Rock, confronts the trials, tribulations and hilarities of growing up, going for it, getting it, and dealing with the consequences of getting it, in the male-dominated world of comedy-writing and show business. Each of her challenges is approached with a combination of dignity, toughness and, of course, humour. When having to answer those who asked her “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” Fey points out that Donald Trump is probably never asked that same question. Bossypants is part memoir, part self-help guide, and part satirical retort to the absurdities that still exist in gender politics. And Tina Fey rolls it all up into one package. She shows how many of the struggles faced by women can still be dealt with, and overcome, by applying just a little funniness.