Saturday, October 6, 2012

Neglected Gem #25: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

William Finley as the Phantom
Director Brian De Palma has accumulated a long list of neglected gems (The Fury, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Redacted), but the one whose neglect makes the least sense is his ingenious satirical rock musical, Phantom of the Paradise (1974). Fiendishly clever and percolating with film-making fever, De Palma provides ingenious allusions to Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Picture of Dorian Gray. (Last year, while teaching a class on Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, I had more angry responses to this picture than some of De Palma's more inflammatory work.) But this pulsing musical comedy is an exhilarating modern retelling of the Faust myth (with roots in Dante's Divine Comedy) wherein a man becomes so consumed by his thirst for divine knowledge that he sells his soul to the Devil. In Phantom of the Paradise, though, the thirst is for something perhaps a little less lofty: rock immortality.

As a parable, the Faust myth has fascinated a long list of artists from all fields (for maybe the obvious reason that the hunger for immortal acclaim is at its root). The allure of the story inspired Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, which was written as far back as 1591, three years before the author was killed in a street brawl. Mozart also caught the bug in 1775 when he composed his opera Don Giovanni, a Don Juan story that the composer was inspired to turn into a Faustian one. Hector Berlioz composed a colourful dramatic cantata, The Damnation of Faust, but (like De Palma's Phantom) it was greeted with little enthusiasm when it premièred in Paris in 1846. On the other hand, Charles Gounod, whose previous work had gone unnoticed, had his first major success with his opera Faust in 1859. Italian painter and composer Arrigo Boito, who found early fame writing librettos for Verdi's Otello (1886) and Falstaff (1893), turned to Goethe's Faust for higher glory in his opera, Mefistofele (1886). Even modernist composers couldn't resist the seduction of the tale. In Igor Stravinsky's 1918 chamber work, L'Histoire du Soldat (A Soldier's Tale), the Devil (in disguise) offers a soldier an old book filled with wisdom in exchange for his violin. American composer, Frank Zappa, who fell in love with Stravinsky's work as a teenager, reworked L'Histoire du Soldat in 1976 into a wickedly profane and funny oratorio, "Titties 'n' Beer," in which the Devil devours a motorcycle outlaw's girlfriend, plus his case of beer, which he says he'll return in exchange for the biker's soul.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Every Inch the Southern Gentleman: Quiet About It – A Tribute Album to Jesse Winchester

When I first heard about Jesse Winchester, back in the early ‘70s, his first album had not yet been released. Rumours flew that it was Bob Dylan recording under another name. It was probably down to the fact that he was managed by Albert Grossman (Dylan’s long-time manager), and was connected to The Band: Robbie Robertson produced his eponymously named first album. All it took was a look at the cover photo, and a listen, to know this was somebody new. Levon Helm played mandolin and drums on a track or two, the great unsung guitarist David Rea was present, but it was truly a songwriter’s record. I loved that first album, so much so that I have bought three or four copies of it over the years.

A year and a half ago Jesse was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. His friends decided to create the tribute album, Quiet About It, for him. He has some major friends. They appear here at their own expense. That’s right; they paid for their own sessions. Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and more. The album was released on Buffett’s Mailboat Records label. Jesse survived the treatments; he’s cancer free, but he moves a bit slower these days. After a recent concert I spoke with him. He was seated on a big old couch, out of puff, but every inch the Southern gentleman. The songs display the same generosity of spirit he showed that night. He spoke with everyone who had something to say, and signed CDs and LPs for 30 minutes. He deserved a tribute.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The (Funny) Way We Live Now: Modern Family

The cast of Modern Family.

Note: The following contains spoilers.

Modern Family (ABC), like The Big Bang Theory (CBS), is an excellent comedy that offers up likeable, compelling characters while not forgetting to make the viewer laugh. But while The Big Bang Theory is an old-fashioned – in style – comedy, with a laugh track, videotaped before a live audience with a two camera system, Modern Family is a more modern creature, a filmed on location, single-camera show without a laugh track. But just as The Big Bang Theory also uses hip lingo and au courant situations, Modern Family displays a taste for old-school humour, pratfalls, slapstick and the like. Melding those two disparate elements make it a very unique series indeed. The best two comedies on television both can claim that stature, allowing each to make their distinctive mark.

In so many significant ways, Modern Family is the finest exemplar of how we actually are today. Created by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not the Taxi/Back to the Future actor), with nine other writers on the producing team, it centres on three Los Angeles, California-based families, who are related to each other in various ways. The traditional nuclear family, the Dunphys, are represented by Claire (Julie Bowen), a stay-at-home mother (yes, they still exist!), Phil (Ty Burrell), a real estate agent, and their three kids, Haley (Sarah Hyland), Alex (Ariel Winter) and Luke (Nolan Gould). Claire’s father, curmudgeonly business owner Jay Pritchett (Ed O’Neill) has a blended family, made up of his Colombian second wife Gloria (Sofia Vergara) and her preternaturally grown-up teenage son Manny (Rico Rodriguez). And Claire’s brother, Jay’s son, lawyer Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) also has a stay-at-home partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet); the couple recently adopted a Vietnamese girl Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons). Each week, interspersed with one-on-one interviews by an off-camera individual for a purported mock documentary, Modern Family wrings smart and knowing episodes out of seemingly ordinary, even banal scenarios that nevertheless result in some of the funniest moments ever seen on network TV. It’s not surprising it dominated the comedy categories at last week’s Emmy Awards. (It won for Best Comedy series, and there were nods for Bowen and Stonestreet as Best Supporting Actress and Actor, respectively, and a Best Directing award for Levitan.). This is one show that deserves the accolades it regularly receives.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Excerpt from Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly

She is known world-wide as The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, the only sculpture created by the French artist, Edgar Degas. She stands, defiantly, in ballet's fourth position, jutting her chin out at her audience, as if arrogantly telling her viewers to stand clear. Leave her alone. But since her unveiling in Paris towards the end of the 19th century, many instead have wanted a close up view of the statuette in order to understand the sitter's aura of smug self-possession. It is often – and widely – said that she is arrogant. A spoiled brat. But a close examination of the life of Marie Van Goethem, the real-life ballerina who posed for Degas, reveals that the dancer was spoiled alright – victimized by poverty and the sexual exploitation that ran rampant through her profession. When Marie was a young dancer at the Paris Opéra, the legendary theatre was known as the Brothel of France. Evidence shows that she was a gutter sylph who had tried to make good. But circumstances were strongly against her. Degas, it seems, pitied her. In rendering her as thin and anything but glamorous, he was, in his way, championing her cause. He immortalized her suffering. That look on her face is the look of a girl determined to fight off all predators. Unfortunately, for Marie it was a losing battle. This is her story:
The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas.

The life of the ballet girl was indeed harsh, and the choices she had to make just to survive sometimes backfired on her and her family members, who had rested all their hopes for success on her malnourished shoulders. An 1859 article published in London Society entitled “The Ballet Girls of Paris” played up the flip side of the pleasure-seeking fantasy for those ballerinas who gambled with their bodies and lost, saying that they were to be found “in hospitals, in streets begging, or worse, in asylums, in gaols, at the solemn little Morgue by the banks of the Seine—very rarely that we do not hear of them in places of misery, in the somber realms of wretchedness. Their lives are frail and brittle, and break often under their burdens.”

Marie van Goethem was one of those girls.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Deirdre Kelly Discusses Her New Book: Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection

Deirdre Kelly (Photo: John Cullen)

Deirdre Kelly has been obsessed with dance and the ballerina since she was three years old. Much of her professional writing life has been devoted to looking at ballet and dance. Now, in her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books: an imprint of D&M Publishers), she pulls back the curtain and gives us a rare peak behind the scenes at what it means in the past and the present to be a ballerina. She sat down with David Churchill recently to discuss her book and the history of the ballerina. Tomorrow, we will run an excerpt from her new book.

dc: What was the inspiration for writing the book?

dk: There's a macro and micro reason. I've been a professional dance critic for close to, gulp, 30 years. I truly have been fascinated by ballerinas from since the age of three. One of my first memories was incessantly drawing ballerinas together with flying fish and other powerful creatures of nature. Then I started writing about dance when I was 15 before taking creative writing in high school and going to University of Toronto. I first started to professionally cover dance at The Varsity, the University's oldest newspaper. Then I went to the Globe and Mail right out of university and was the dance critic there for 16 years. So, I actually identify myself as a dance lover, dance writer, dance critic. Someone who thinks about it a lot and writes about it.

There are other reasons I became fascinated with this topic. I was concerned with a kind of schizophrenia that I saw in this particular culture which came in the form of a major seed planted by the Kimberly Glasco case at the end of the '90s. [The late] Frank Magazine broke it, but I took that story out of the gate for the Globe and Mail and it became an international cause célèbre. It also sparked a national debate in Canada about just what the role of the ballerina was in the 21st century, and what was the role of the artistic director. However, I also learned that that wasn't the whole issue. At the time I remember being quite fascinated, saddened and horrified that while Glasco had a real right to voice her complaint about perceived injustices within the company, The National Ballet of Canada took umbrage. Now she was entitled to raise those concerns at board meetings as an elected dancer's rep, and yet, her company tried to silence her by firing her. But more to the point it was the reaction of the Canadian people that really surprised me. People seemed very uncomfortable about a ballerina opening her mouth to say anything, but especially to complain about injustices within her profession. I even saw headlines describing her as an “uppity ballerina,” and other almost antediluvian things said about her. It became an unbelievable backlash against this woman who opened her mouth. It was so antiquated and frankly quite shocking in this day and age. And it really did drive home that the iconography of the ballerina as the 'delicate, lilly-white being' is so deeply entrenched in the popular imagination that people cannot seem to brook a ballerina “stepping out of line/stepping away from the ranks.". It got me thinking about the metaphor of the ballet itself where it is celebrated as being a culture of uniformity and conformity.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thriller: Donna Murphy on the Musical Stage

Donna Murphy in LoveMusik in 2007

We seem to be living in a golden age of musical-theatre women. The one whose name is most often on everyone’s lips is Kelli O’Hara, with her simon-pure soprano embroidered by often startlingly impassioned phrasing, whether the character she’s playing is fragile (The Light in the Piazza) or essentially conventional (South Pacific). Victoria Clark has a wide emotional range and suggests a complex response to the world deriving from accumulated experience; as O’Hara’s mother in Piazza, perhaps the best musical-theatre role ever written for a middle-aged actress, she managed to balance romantic skepticism (based on her own disappointing marriage) and optimism (based on an awakening awareness of the romantic possibilities for her damaged daughter). On the other end of the scale of middle-aged performers, Patti LuPone is a diva with grit in place of glamour, a gleaming sense of irony and an unerring instinct for how to make a song dramatic, whether in the old-fashioned Broadway manner (Gypsy) or in the Brechtian style (Sweeney Todd). Marin Mazzie, who’s been around since Ragtime and the marvelous Kathleen Marshall production of Kiss Me, Kate, has a warm soprano and an expansive presence that effortlessly fills a Broadway house. Sutton Foster has a more streamlined personality – she’s colder but more dazzling, and the best lead dancer around, as she demonstrated most recently in Marshall’s Anything Goes. Celia Keenan-Bolger is diminutive but she has a powerful core of feeling; she’s mostly attracted notice in comic roles (recently Peter and the Starcatcher), but she can be amazing in dramatic ones that call for arias of longing – Merrily We Roll Along, the Encores! revival of that Marc Blitzstein rarity Juno. Laura Benanti has a frisky, inventive wit: her show-stopping “Model Behavior” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is the funniest musical performance I can remember seeing on a stage since Angela Lansbury introduced “The Worst Pies in London” in the original cast of Sweeney Todd nearly three and a half decades ago. Among the clowns, Faith Prince seems to have been largely forgotten – she’s become a cabaret performer – but when she starred in a revival of Bells Are Ringing on Broadway in 2001, she proved to be almost a match for the original star, the late Judy Holliday, plus she made the lilting Jule Styne melodies sound sweeter than they ever had before. Kristin Chenoweth can be hilarious, but vocally there’s almost nothing she can’t pull off (her album, Let Yourself Go, is a virtuoso accomplishment), and she was heartbreaking in the revival of the Bacharach-David Promises, Promises a couple of seasons ago. And any era that produces Audra McDonald, owner of the most versatile and most expressive dramatic singing voice since Barbra Streisand, would need to be considered a golden age by definition.

I’d be hard put to pick a favorite, but no one thrills me more on stage than Donna Murphy. Movie buffs who recognize her name from the tiny parts she’s essayed in blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 and The Bourne Legacy have no idea what she’s like on stage, where she’s always a headliner. I first saw her in a production of Pal Joey at Boston’s Huntington Theatre in 1992, as Vera, the brittle, knowing older woman who keeps the ambitious womanizer Joey, but throws him out on his ass when he proves to be more trouble than she figures he’s worth. Vera is the high-comic element in the low-down, hard-boiled John O’Hara/Rodgers and Hart material, and Murphy’s confidence in the role was almost alarming; you wondered where she could have acquired it before she’d even turned thirty-five. Two years later she had her first Broadway lead, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion. Since then she’s been seen as Anna in The King and I (my impatience with Rodgers and Hammerstein kept me away from that one); as Ruth in Wonderful Town (first at Encores! and then in a full-scale Broadway expansion, both directed by Kathleen Marshall); as Lotte Lenya in Lovemusik; with Victoria Clark in Follies; in a misbegotten and short-lived original piece called The People in the Picture; and as the Witch in Into the Woods, in Central Park last summer. She was a sensationally effective as Phyllis in Follies – sardonic yet wistful, giving that self-consciously clever poison-pen letter “Could I Leave You” much more a kick than it deserved, and exuberantly leggy, like a sleek version of Charlotte Greenwood, in “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” But her finest work has been in Passion, Wonderful Town and Lovemusik.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Risk-Free Music With a Good Sound: The Sheepdogs

A few years ago legendary musician Tom Petty made an appearance on the Charlie Rose program to discuss the music business, and more specifically rock. Rose asked him about the health of the genre; Petty’s reply: “It’s asleep.” But one could say that it has been asleep for many years, at least, as the kind of pure, unadulterated music that bands like Petty’s Heartbreakers once did between 1967 and 1975. If I were posed such a question myself, I might submit that music, and in particular rock & roll, has evolved by borrowing influences across a number of genres rather than branching out from the same, extended blues roots.

The Sheepdogs, the Canadian quartet from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, may be the last link to any pure form of rock music. Rooted in the blues, yet forged by the tough sound of electric guitars, The Sheepdogs have always reminded me of a blend of styles from such roots rock bands as The Grateful Dead, CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd. But as an up and coming Canadian act, whose first three records barely scratched the all-important American market, The Sheepdogs finally got launched into stardom by making the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2011. Thus a new rock music saviour was born and the band was signed to Atlantic Records. Produced by Patrick Carney, of The Black Keys, this self-titled release is an album specifically focused to introduce the band to a larger audience. Unfortunately, while the record may generate wider appeal, it does nothing to alert or awaken the music from Tom Petty’s defined slumber. (The Foo Fighters did that!)