Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Pleasant Shock to the Senses: Randy Newman's Born Again (1979)

In August 1979, Bob Dylan had just confounded his fans with Slow Train Coming, a full-blown announcement of his coming out as a born-again Christian. That same month, another Jewish performer would also be born again – only not as a Christian. Born Again was the title of a Randy Newman album which might have gone just as far as Dylan's had in alienating his most loyal fans except that it vanished before a whisper of debate could be stirred. Where Dylan has always been an omnipresent figure, an ever-changing undefinable force in the world, Newman is largely invisible to mass culture (except as the guy who writes music for Pixar movies). Dylan is also a performer who is the sum of the masks he wears, where a hidden history lurks behind each face, and behind every recorded album. Newman wears a collection of masks, too, but they are a different set of disguises than Dylan's. Newman's masks (like Woody Allen's) suggest more the harmless invisibility of the nebbish, but they act instead as a veil for the clever satirist. Newman has always been an outsider who with his trojan horse quietly slipped inside.

With a collection of tunes that might be defined as misanthropic 'comedy songs,' Newman took the popular song on Born Again to the edges of cruelty, as if to test the audience's ability to listen to them. Once again using the voice of the untrustworthy narrator, as he had in previous records like Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974), Randy Newman (like Dylan) worked against the grain of mass audience approval. But (unlike Dylan), Newman really had no mass audience to reject him – except that a year earlier, he briefly found one with a notorious hit single called "Short People." Kicking off his otherwise lacklustre Little Criminals (1977) record, "Short People" is a harmless ditty, but it ended up epitomizing Newman's brand of satire and working against it. An obvious broadside attack on the absurdity of prejudice, few, in the end, read this catchy little number that way. Besides his small legion of fans, a whole new audience came to Newman because of "Short People" – and they made him briefly a household name for all the wrong reasons. (As with Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl," the audience responded as if it were a naughty novelty song.) But if his new listeners were enthralled with the narrow-minded protagonist of "Short People," a bigot who begins his ridiculous manifesto over a galloping piano ("Short People got no reason to live"), others were severely pissed off with what they heard. Who else but Newman could write a song about a guy expressing paranoia about tiny folks? The film Freaks did so unintentionally back in 1932, but that movie was hardly a satire; there was a weird sentimentality in the way the movie played on our sympathies for circus dwarfs and pinheads. "Short People" was at the other end of the spectrum. The character Newman created here was pathetic, much like the stalker in his "Suzanne," or the voyeur in "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Contemporary Classic: David Bowie's The Next Day

Not too many years ago David Bowie was the artist to watch. His dynamic musical career continually offered listeners something different at almost every turn. Not content to just release “yet another record,” Bowie always challenged his audience. We never knew what to expect from album to album, each as unique as the last. Every fan eagerly awaited his next move and then, after a world tour called Reality, he decided to call it quits in 2004. Afterwards, he made the occasional surprise appearance with the band Arcade Fire, or turned up at some fashion show. But the fans were still watching, just not necessarily expecting a new album any time soon.

All that changed on January 8th, 2013, Bowie’s 66th birthday with the surprise release of a new single called “Where Are We Now?” a moody ballad that walks us nostalgically through the streets of Berlin, circa 1977. To me it sounded like “Thursday’s Child” from the album, hours (1999). But with the release of the single and an album to follow, Bowie was clearly back in the music business once again. Foregoing any auto-tuning, Bowie’s vocal on “Where Are We Now?" is a little raw. He sounds older and I respect the fact that he’s not hiding behind the mask of Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. This is Bowie in 2013, after some health issues, quietly revealing him in the first of many songs written over the last couple of years.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Kansas Flatlands: Oz the Great and Powerful

James Franco stars in Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful, now in theaters

There is no good reason why a fresh movie spinoff of The Wizard of Oz shouldn’t be an eminently doable proposition. The new Disney film Oz the Great and Powerful – a “prequel” directed by Sam Raimi and starring James Franco as a two-bit carny magician who is whisked away to the magical land of Oz and, after proving himself through a series of heroic challenges, installs himself as the Wizard – has inspired a fair amount of anticipatory derision, and even some horrified shudders, as if it could only be an act of sacrilege, ever since it was announced. While the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland is rightly considered a classic, its status as a holy relic, like that of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas, has less to do with its inherent virtues than with the saintly reverence a lot of people seem inclined to feel towards anything they watched on TV ten times when they were kids. Years ago, this kind of living room repeat-viewing exposure was a rare phenomenon, but now that cable movie channels and home video have been a fixture of American life for so long that people who grew up on them are reaching maturity and getting jobs writing about movies, we’re seeing beloved-classic status automatically assigned to some real pieces of shit: movies from Top Gun, Caddyshack, Three Amigos, and even Sneakers

How would L. Frank Baum, the author of the original Oz books, feel about the idea that his masterwork was something more fragile and delicate than another potential franchise tent pole? He’d probably feel that he worked his hands to the bone to grow that tree and he didn’t need anyone getting in the way of it being properly sapped. Baum was an aspiring actor and playwright whose dreams of the stage had ruined him financially before he finally sat down and started writing children’s books. He wrote fourteen Oz books in all – the first great, long-running modern franchise of children’s fiction.  Baum charmed readers partly by using a theatrical ham’s instinct for showmanship as a substitute for the “mythic” qualities of European fairy tales. (Once Baum struck gold, he was quick to adapt his own work to the stage, and toured with a show that utilized film, slides, and live performers that promised a “travelogue” of Oz.) 

Judy Garland and Ray Bolger, off to see the Wizard in 1939
Pauline Kael wrote of the 1939 movie that Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger were so memorable as the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow because they understood “that the roles are vaudeville-comedy turns." The characters, and what the right kind of performers can bring to them, are at the core of Oz’s appeal, but every screen attempt to recapture that appeal – the 1978 movie of the Broadway musical The Wiz, Disney’s previous attempt to reboot the franchise with the 1985 Return to Oz, and the 2007 TV miniseries Tin Manhave gone big on concept at the expense of the characters. Much the same thing happens in Oz the Great and Powerful, but where some of the previous Oz films at least counted as honest failures by talented people committed to something they’d overthought, this movie doesn’t really have a concept so much as a marketing plan. It has a flat, defeated, half-hearted feeling that’s a little reminiscent of David Lynch’s Duneanother case of a gifted, idiosyncratic director “adapting” unusual material for a film that he has been made to understand isn’t really his project.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Critic's Notes & Frames, Part III

The Rolling Stones often had great B-sides on their singles ("Sad Day," "Long Long While," "Who's Driving Your Plane?"). "Child of the Moon," which backed "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is a particular favourite. It was their last bit of psychedelia before heading into the harder rock and country blues of Beggars Banquet. A contemporary band, Radon Daughters, have done the song justice by turning its acid tinged balladry into a tough piece of baroque pop.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Stompin' Tom Connors: An Appreciation

When Stompin' Tom Connors died last Wednesday at the age of 77, just about every Canadian could quote one of his songs. That reward alone was enough for Connors whose final statement, issued March 7, 2013, thanked the fans not just for his success but also for his identity. "I want all my fans, past, present, or future, to know that without you, there would have not been any Stompin' Tom." Ironically, in the first volume of his autobiography published in 1995, Connors states, "I didn't set out to create a special image. It was created for me, partially by the media. And, to be honest, I have sometimes enjoyed playing along."

Image aside, Connors had a unique ability to write songs about ordinary people and make them extraordinary. He wrote about miners, bus drivers, tobacco pickers and hockey Moms. He wrote about small town Canada as if he was born in the very city or town he sang about, ("Sudbury Saturday Night") or he could express in no uncertain terms the pain of picking tobacco ("Tillsonburg"), a job he actually held for a couple weeks when he was a teenager. For a musical map of Stompin Tom, click here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Staging Dementia: MTC’s The Other Place

John Schiappa and Laurie Metcalf in The Other Place, at the Manhattan Theatre Club (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Putting us in the perspective of a character whose point of view is skewed in some way by radical physical or psychological distress poses a tricky challenge for playwrights and directors. (It’s the motivation for the first experiments in expressionism in the movies: the plot of the first expressionistic film, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, turns out to be a paranoid fantasy concocted by an institutionalized madman.) Arthur Kopit tried it back in the seventies with Wings, which attempted to sketch the world as a woman who’s had a stroke experiences it, and both he and the actress, Constance Cummings, received rave notices – though the fact that the play is revived so seldom suggests that it wasn’t as successful as critics believed at the time. (I didn’t think Cummings was very good either.) Playwright Sharr White and actress Laurie Metcalf have received the same kind of praise for The Other Place, which closed two weeks ago at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The play concerns Juliana, a woman in her early fifties with a rare kind of dementia that not only causes paranoid outbursts – the first occuring at a medical conference where Juliana, a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, is (ironically) pitching a new neurological drug – but also provokes her into believing that her husband, Ian (Bill Pullman, in an extraordinarily sensitive performance), is cheating on her with a younger woman and planning to divorce her and, most dramatically, that their teenage daughter, who disappeared a decade ago, has contacted her.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

American Composer: Frank Zappa's Understanding America

“It's all one album,” Frank Zappa once told journalist Jerry Hopkins in characterizing his work during an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1968. With only three releases to his credit, and long before he'd come to accumulate close to 100 records of satirical rock, orchestral, ballet, electronic and jazz scores, Zappa already fully grasped the “conceptual continuity” of his project/object. “I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order,” he said. “It still would make one piece of music you could listen to.” In 1993, a couple of years before he would die from prostate cancer, Zappa followed through on that suggestion. He took a razor blade to his back catalogue with the purpose of creating a caustic, but passionate musical portrait of the nation that produced him. Understanding America is a two-CD musical anthology unceremoniously put out last fall by Zappa Records through the distribution of Universal (who recently re-released, with huge sonic improvements, his large body of work). But given the little fanfare provided its arrival, you might as well call it The Mystery Disc. The CD comes with a stark 1975 black-and-white photo of the composer on the front cover, a didactic title, no track listing on the back cover, no accounting of the various musicians who play on it, no background notes on the songs (including which year they were recorded and what albums they first appeared on), and scant explanation concerning the context of the new album except for cryptic pronouncements that it's a record about “love, peace, justice and the American way.” (Its very design prompted a friend of mine who saw it to ask: “Is this a bootleg?”)

If the proposed audience for Understanding America is the Zappa fan, it might make sense to avoid redundancies by leaving out information that's already been absorbed into the DNA of the initiated. But what will the uninitiated make of this release? Some fans have already panned the album on websites and chat rooms complaining that it uses the old reverb-drenched digital mixes instead of the new cleaner and dryer ones (but what other mixes would he use since Zappa sequenced this release while he was still alive?). They're also arguing about the inclusions of some songs and the omissions of others (as if this were yet another 'greatest hits' package). How about the new listeners to Zappa's music? Since it's unlikely to get reviewed by contemporary pop critics, Understanding America not only doesn't stand a chance of being understood, it likely won't be realized either. And that would be a huge loss. Drawing from a vast and varied selection of Zappa's compositions, Understanding America is a musical jig-saw puzzle piecing together a political heritage embroidered with assassinations, deep racial divisions, religious zealotry, cultural elitism, and witch hunts. (The album traces chronologically – with a couple of detours – the dramatic changes in the political and social landscape from the era of Lyndon Johnson to the end of the first Bush presidency.) It also provides a unified field theory of Zappa's disparate selection of songs. Understanding America gives listeners a perceptively potent framework; one in which to examine the conflicting characteristics of American life, as well as providing a completely new contextual ground in which to experience Frank Zappa's music. One of the great ironies of Understanding America, however, is that the work included on it ended up embraced more by dissidents behind the original Iron Curtain (who even did prison time for embracing it) than by Americans deprived of his music by radio stations who censored it. Understanding America sets out to test the strengths of American democracy, too, by holding the country to the promises held in its founding documents by primarily shedding light on its failings. And because of Zappa's openness to such diverse musical genres, he draws from a huge storehouse of self-expression to do so.