Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bad Timing & Bad Business: Big Star and Badfinger

Big Star
Last night, I was watching the riveting and touching documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (which Phil Dyess-Nugent reviewed in Critics at Large last summer) about the Memphis band from the Seventies that eluded commercial success for any number of reasons that you can easily classify as bad timing. While they vanished after three superb albums, they ultimately reached an adoring audience a decade later as various independent bands took up their torch. The film is a fascinating study of love and dedication that doesn't elude the self-destructive drives that come out of artistic obsession. Director Drew DiNicola paints a fascinating portrait of the group with very few colours in his palette to work with. As Stephanie Zacharek wrote in the Village Voice, Big Star: Nobody Can Hurt Me "honors that sense of mystery, telling the band's story as if whispering it through the cracks in a wall. There's very little footage of the band themselves – their elusive magic found its truest expression in the studio rather than before a live audience." Co-founders Chris Bell and Alex Chilton are now gone, but the remaining witnesses fill in a story of artistic achievement that found a pulse in the shadows. Those shadows became a subterranean force for groups like R.E.M., The Flaming Lips and (especially) The Replacements (who wrote a song called "Alex Chilton"). As Robyn Hitchcock says in the picture, "They were like a letter that got lost in the mail." But Hitchcock also reminds us that the letter finally found its destination in the Eighties. (For me, it took my friend, Adam Nayman, to deliver the mail a few years ago. He wasn't around when the band first released #1 Record in 1972. What was my excuse?)

While I happily mulled over the movie, I was reminded of another Seventies band who had a case of bad timing, but with nowhere near the impact of Big Star – and this band had the benefit of being tutored by The Beatles. When The Beatles departed the stage in 1970, there was no shortage of others who tried to fill the gap they were leaving behind. One tragic case, however, turned out to be a band signed to their Apple label. Badfinger were poised through the early Seventies as the new heir to The Beatles, but their legacy ended in bad business, despair and death. Originally a Swansea, Wales group called The Iveys, they first came to the attention of Beatle roadie Mal Evans who was friends with their manager Bill Collins. Since The Beatles were just signing acts to Apple, Mal convinced the Fab Four that The Iveys were worth the bother. Lead guitarist Pete Ham and rhythm guitarist Tom Evans sang with ringing harmonies that strongly evoked Lennon and McCartney, and when Evans played them an Iveys’ demo tape, the whole studio took notice.“It was their uncanny resemblance to the young Beatles that had made everyone sit up and listen,” recalled Apple employee Richard DiLello. “But it was no conscious aping of their benefactors that had produced that similarity of sound.” The Iveys had inherited the yearning spirit of The Beatles rather than being a facsimile of the band. Their first single was the Beatlesque “Maybe Tomorrow,” which made the Top Ten in Europe and Japan in 1968. Due to its success, The Beatles were interested in grooming the band, but weren’t impressed by their name. Apple associate Neil Aspinall thought of Bad Penny, after Humphrey Lyttleton’s “Bad Penny Blues” which had inspired “Lady Madonna.” Ultimately, Badfinger was taken from “Bad Finger Boogie,” the original title of “With a Little Help From My Friends” (because John Lennon had composed the melody using his middle finger when he had hurt his forefinger).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Angels in the Dark: The Church of the Holy Trinity's A Christmas Story

In 1988, the parishioners of Toronto’s radical Church of the Holy Trinity were in a quandary. Should they continue with The Christmas Story, a theatrical pageant recounting the birth of Christ, or scrap the production? Some in the congregation worried that it was out of touch with such contemporary urban issues as homelessness, a cause close to the church’s activist heart. In retrospect, it seems to have been a fuzzy debate. At its core, the Jesus story is about the disenfranchised. It is a story of the poor and the oppressed asserting themselves within a corrupt political system—in short, a story of social revolution. Today, The Christmas Story remains nothing short of relevant. Now in its 76th year and with performances continuing through to Dec. 22, The Christmas Story, perhaps more than ever, speaks directly to the people of Toronto about important issues affecting them in the here and now. Its central metaphor of a light banishing the darkness can be said to hold urgent meaning for a city increasingly defined by a growing divide between rich and poor, not to mention a debased local government whose leader has—by his own admission—lied and debauched himself, among other indiscretions. Or should we say sins? While the story describes the coming of the Messiah—Hark the Herald Angels and all—the underlying message, as articulated by the time-honoured Christmas carol, is God and sinners will be reconciled. In other words, there’s hope yet.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Kick in the Head: Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack

Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack

I’ve never been much interested in clothes, but when I was in my late teens or early twenties, I did develop what I thought of as a signature look: jeans, black T-shirt with denim jacket, and boots. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was very pleased with it. I thought of it as stripped-down, direct, and functional in a way that quietly made a statement, and I think I must have worn it for at least a dozen years before a switch flipped in my brain: I suddenly realized that I had unconsciously lifted my wardrobe from Tom Laughlin in the Billy Jack movies—minus the stupid hat. I was mortified; this was long after the brief window when Billy Jack was considered cool had slammed shut, and I had no personal desire to try to jimmy it back open. But it did make me realize that Billy Jack—or, at least, the second of the four movies he headlined between 1967 and 1977, the one that was actually called Billy Jack—had probably been a bigger deal to me, and to my childhood imagination, than I wanted to admit as a grown-up.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Civil War on Page and Screen

The flurry of commentary last month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination just about drowned out all voices noting the sesquicentennial, in the same week, of another seminal presidential moment: Lincoln's delivery of a certain address at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg. One and a half centuries have passed since that two-minute speech, one and a half centuries since the battle that shares its name. And yet, as we roll into 2014 and begin the fourth of a five-year-long anniversary, Americans still face the imponderable question of the meaning of the Civil War. It demands an answer because the Civil War is the defining event of American identity—how we understand it determines how we understand our national character and purpose. It demands an answer from more than just Americans, too, for the question bears on the broader subjects of the viability of democracy, the ethics of war, and the meaning of human life and effort.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Better Life: Brett Ratner's The Family Man (2000)

Nicolas Cage and Don Cheadle in The Family Man
Every holiday season, people love to put forth their favourite Christmas movies. Some suggest the redemption melodrama, A Christmas Carol (1951), but I prefer the irreverent comic edge of Richard Donner's Scrooged (1988). Many point to Frank Capra's perennial sentimental staple, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), but I've never bought the idea of it being heart-warming. It's a Wonderful Life has always been a film noir in denial. James Stewart plays a decent man driven to suicidal despair by the demands made on him by the small town he lives in. But rather than examine his compulsive need to do for others (rather than satisfy his own needs and desires), the movie has us believe that because of the love of the townsfolk, Stewart gets redeemed rather than trapped by the town and his own neurosis. Brett Ratner's The Family Man, which draws on aspects of both A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, works better. Like those movies, this one also asks: What would you do if you had a second chance? The difference is that Ratner and screenwriters David Diamond and David Weissman don't turn the story into a simple scenario that presents one kind of life as preferable to the other. The redemption their hero earns is discovering that what he's lost truly makes his life satisfying.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Heart and Soul: Camelot & After Midnight

It’s still taken for granted that the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein altered the American musical theatre, but to my mind none of their collaborations stands on equal footing with those of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who overlapped with them. That’s because, even when Rodgers’s music was at its most lush (South Pacific) or most heart-rending (Carousel), Hammerstein’s words, with their resolute banality and didacticism, kept pulling it down to their populist, fake-real-folks level, whereas Lerner’s extraordinarily literate lyrics elevated Loewe’s beautiful tunes. The Austrian-born Loewe, like Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill, brought the melodic legacy of the fin-de-si├Ęcle European operettas, with their swirl of melancholy, to the American stage; you can hear it in ballads like “There But for You Go I” and “From This Day On” (Brigadoon), “I Still See Elisa” and “Another Autumn” (Paint Your Wagon), “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (My Fair Lady), “Before I Gaze at You Again” and “I Loved You Once in Silence” (Camelot). And Lerner, who bore the witty influence of Cole Porter and especially Ira Gershwin but was more of a thinker than either, strove to match him. They were at par on the 1956 My Fair Lady, which is still, I think, the zenith in American lyric writing, and again on the 1960 Camelot, their musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which is currently being revived by Boston’s New Rep Theatre.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Delicious Confection: Soulpepper's Production of Parfumerie

Patricia Fagen & Oliver Dennis in Parfumerie (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The first thing you notice about Soulpepper Theatre’s delightful production of Parfumerie, Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 comedy, is that it is beautiful. Ken MacDonald’s set is a delicious confection of curves and swirls, in ivory and deep pink, setting off Dana Osborne’s rich and evocative costumes. The parfumerie of the title is Hammerschmidt and Company, purveyors of scents, lotions and makeup, as well as various other accoutrements, accessories and gift items (even the items for sale, sprinkled all over the set, are attractive). It is Budapest, in the 1930s, but it could be almost any place or era. This is a tale almost Shakespearean in its elements, a story of love and desire, jealousy and ambition. And Christmas, of course. Mustn’t forget Christmas.