Saturday, May 30, 2015

Objects of Love/Targets of Hate: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Help! (1965)

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' second feature film, Help!, which never quite achieved the acclaim of their debut, A Hard Day's Night (1964), perhaps due to its being a James Bond pastiche. But maybe the antic nature of the picture was also a harbinger of the turmoil to follow in 1966. Here is an edited and revised piece on Help! from my book, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Greenwood-Praeger, 2009).

In early February 1965, before heading off to the Bahamas with Richard Lester to film their next feature, Help!, The Beatles began the New Year with a radical new single. "Ticket to Ride" which was released in April, and provided a heavy beat decorated with happily ringing guitar arpeggios. Composed and sung by Lennon, "Ticket to Ride" was initially mistaken as a reference to a British Railways ticket to the town of Ryde, but it's actually about a girl who is taking a ticket out of her life with the singer. If the promise of love and affection, with all its implications, were resoundingly affirmed on "From Me to You" and "All My Loving," "Ticket to Ride," illustrated that unconditional love was just the start of something. In the composition, the singer knows he's sad that his lover has left him, but he also knows that she's leaving because his whole lifestyle is bringing her down. The promises he's made have become promises that he can't keep. His appeals ultimately have become more desperate  even as vindictive as in "You Can't Do That"  when he demands that she simply do right by him. He has nothing to offer her but the aching sound of his voice.

On "Yes It Is," the B-side to "Ticket to Ride," Lennon makes sure you know that he's been abandoned. In one of his most haunting performances, Lennon revisits the melody of "This Boy," only this time the boy has lost any hope of getting his loved one back. In "Yes It Is," you feel the weight of her absence, just as James Stewart felt with Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), where he's obsessed by her loss. But where Stewart's fixation drove him to re-make his current lover in the image of the woman he believed he'd lost, Lennon wants no evidence reminding him of her. He wants his present lover deprived of the colours that suggest her memory  especially the colour red. The effect is eerily gothic. "'Yes It Is' is positively 19th Century in its haunted feverishness, its Poe-like invocation of the colour scarlet, and its hint that the lost lover of its lyric is dead," wrote critic Ian MacDonald of "Yes it Is." "The fantasy figure conjured here is probably a transmutation of Lennon's dead, red-haired mother, Julia." Lennon's ties to his tragic past, the ghosts he once believed rock & roll might finally exorcise, have become the bedrock of his strongest work. As he desperately tries to shake off the power that this lost woman has over him, Harrison's whining guitar, affected by a newly purchased volume pedal, provides the tears that Lennon himself can't shed.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Language of Dreams: Chef's Table

Massimo Bottura is one of six chefs profiled on Netflix's new documentary series, Chef's Table.

"Tradition sometimes doesn't respect the ingredients."
                  – Massimo Bottura, in the first episode of Netflix's Chef's Table.
I'm no foodie, although I have been known to eat – sometimes several times in a single week. For years, I've contemplated signing up for cooking classes (but never pulled the trigger) and one day, bank account permitting, I would love to own a world-class knife set. My relationship to food is erratic at best (a fact testified to by my rollercoasting blood sugar), and my relationship to food television is almost nonexistent. As deep as my love of television goes, cooking shows rarely make the cut – with Heston Blumenthal's short-lived BBC series In Search of Perfection (2006-2007) being an informative and entertaining exception to that rule (but who among us could resist the promise of the perfect Peking duck recipe?). And so if not for my wife deliberately calling me in to watch the last 10 minutes or so of the first episode of Chef's Table three nights ago, I might never have even seen the new Netflix documentary series. As it was, I sat down on the couch with her and was immediately drawn in – and even though it was already past 1 A.M., we didn't stand up until the credits rolled on Episode 2.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mesmerizing Motion: Interview with Louise Lecavalier

Louise Lecavalier first made her mark in 1988 as the lead member of Montreal’s internationally celebrated contemporary dance company, La La La Human Steps, executing airborne barrel rolls and other gravity-defying manoeuvres with the speed and stealth of a human torpedo. Born in Montreal in 1958, the dancer once called “a flame on legs” had originally studied classical ballet and modern dance, becoming a professional at 19 when she joined Quebec’s now defunct, Le Groupe de Nouvelle Aire. There, she met fellow dancer Édouard Lock who found in her petite but powerful physique all the inspiration he needed to become a world renowned choreographer with Lecavalier as his steady partner in creation.

Lock and Lecavalier became one of those once-in-a-lifetime dance partnerships; he tirelessly invented, and she fearlessly executed anything he threw at her, including air pirouettes and hard crashes to the ground. Together, they invented a new, and Canadian-made, theatricalized slam-dancing aesthetic that became widely imitated. But no one could replicate Lecavalier. Few had her strength or stamina. By age 32, Canada’s first contemporary dance superstar was making international headlines with her striking platinum blonde looks, powerhouse body and mesmerizing androgynous presence. In 1985, she became the first Canadian to win a prestigious Bessie Award in New York for her hyper-athletic performance in Lock’s 1983 work, Businessman in the Process of Becoming an Angel. She had won fans around the world dancing as part of David Bowie’s stadium rock tour in 1990, and Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark concert series in Germany with the classical group, the Ensemble Modern, in 1992. Months after her 40th birthday, in 1999 Lecavalier quit La La La Human Steps to start a family and a new phase of her career, first as an independent dancer, and then, as of 2006, as artistic director of her own Montreal production company, Fou Glorieux, showcasing work made for and performed by her on the international stage. In 2008, Lecavalier was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and last year, she received a Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in Dance. At age 56, the force of nature (and mother of teenage twin girls) is still performing. This month, she brings her solo show, So Blue, which features her own choreography, to Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre for two shows only, May 29 and 30. In anticipation, Deirdre Kelly recently caught up with Lecavalier to find out how she keeps the creative fires burning.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Get Me Memphis, Tennessee: The Beatles, Stax Studios, and the Sessions That Weren't

Yesterday brought news of the upcoming auction sale of a letter written by George Harrison in May 1966 to Atlanta disc jockey Paul Drew. It’s not the biggest news in the world: Beatle letters are sold all the time, along with hand-dashed lyrics, napkin doodles, and other flotsam. But for fans, this particular letter holds a goodie. George confirms, in passing, a story long claimed as true—that the Beatles in their heyday sought, with some seriousness and deliberation, to make a record elsewhere than at Abbey Road. That “somewhere” was Stax Studios in Memphis—the same legendary set of soundrooms where in 1966 giants like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MGs, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Don Covay were recording their deathless sides—and, like the Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys, etc., doing their damnedest to match and challenge the Beatles’ front-running position in the pop market and pop world.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Nostalgia For The Future: Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland

I wore a NASA t-shirt to a screening of Tomorrowland with no idea of how prescient that choice of clothing would turn out to be. Sure, the film stars Brittany Robertson as the precocious teen-genius daughter of a NASA engineer, and she chases after her dad’s battered NASA ballcap like Indiana Jones by way of Nancy Drew whenever an action sequence snatches it from her head. But unbeknownst to me, our shared affinity for American space agency branding marked me, like Robertson’s character Casey Newton, as a dreamer – and a perfect subsection of Tomorrowland’s target demographic.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Playing the Crowd: Fun Home and Kiss Me, Kate

Cast members of Fun Home, at the Public Theatre. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Fun Home, the musical based on the memoir Alison Bechdel wrote in the form of a graphic novel, sold out during several runs at the Public Theatre and has recently opened to great acclaim on Broadway; it’s been showered with Tony nominations and a national tour is on the books. The audience I saw it with cheered every song – the confessional numbers, the self-actualization numbers, the mournful yet rousing protests against the repressed, homophobic society that dooms the narrator/protagonist Alison’s father to life as a closeted gay man, (mostly) remote from his children, and eventually to suicide. In the book Alison doesn’t know for sure whether her dad, Bruce, deliberately stepped in front of a truck just three months after she came out to her parents or if it was an accident. Lisa Kron, the play’s librettist, eliminates the ambiguity; her version of the material gets rid of all the mystery around the character, though perhaps, with a flesh-and-blood actor in the role, his motivations are at any rate less likely to stay hidden. Bechdel’s book is brainy and quirky, but I didn’t respond to it with the enthusiasm many other people felt; I found it a cool, unemotional reading experience. Kron strengthens the dramatic arc – Alison’s sexual and artistic coming of age and her coming to terms with her father’s elusiveness and the overlap in their desires and their personalities – and warms up the story. It’s practically a textbook example of how to put together a successful twenty-first-century musical play, with a sympathetic, forthright lesbian, an older-generation gay dad, a square peg who’s struggled all his life to fit into a round hole, and his put-upon wife, who’s spent all the years of their marriage trying to make him happy but whom he’s closed out. Alison, the narrator, who’s moving into middle age and trying to make sense of her mixed-up childhood – lived in a small Pennsylvania town where her father doubled as funeral home director and high-school English teacher – and her cataclysmic college years, is the ideal heroine for a contemporary liberal audience, while Bruce’s is the perfect symbolic tragedy for an age that wants to embrace sexual diversity and pummel prejudice against a homosexual lifestyle out of existence. You can’t object to the play’s values – but “values” aren’t a theatrical virtue. You might be put off, as I was, by the musical’s triteness and banality, and by the way it pushes the audience’s buttons.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The King's Domain: Laurence Lemieux's Looking for Elvis

Looking for Elvis (photo by John Lauener).

Elvis Presley was recently back in the building belonging to Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, the dance company located in Toronto's Regent Park. The occasion was Looking for Elvis, the work created by the Quebec-born choreographer and dancer Laurence Lemieux in 2014 and recently remounted at the intimate The Citadel performing space on Parliament St. for four nights of performances during the first week of May. As he did the first time around, Elvis appeared in the piece as a casualty of his own fame. But with Lemieux having sharpened the focus on his isolation within the culture of celebrity, the poignancy of his end-of-life story was heightened, resulting in a more nuanced encounter of the King. Looking for Elvis shared the program with a 2010 work inspired by another great of 20th century American popular music, James Kudelka's The Man in Black set to a sextet of haunting end-of-life songs by Johnny Cash (and danced in cowboy boots by the National Ballet of Canada in 2013). Both works were united by their use of popular music to get inside the memories and emotions of their viewing public and by a shared masculine sensibility.