Saturday, September 2, 2017

Man of a Thousand Faces: Eric Clapton Crossroads (1988)

Back in 1970, when Eric Clapton ducked for cover under the name Derek and the Dominos, he actually revealed more of himself than he had earlier in his best music with The Yardbirds, John Mayall and Cream. On the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the passion that drove his voice and his playing also had the element of losing control – as he did playing "Crossroads" with Cream on Wheels of Fire – where the music took hold and pulled him kicking and screaming into its tumult. Since Clapton's addictions, I believe, emerged from that plunge into desperate pleasure, it didn't surprise me that as he tackled the substances, the substance of his music became more careful and craftsman lite. While there may indeed be legitimate reasons for not touching the flames that ignite both your follies and your genius (after all, Derek and the Dominos were decimated by drugs and self-destruction), it may be that Clapton never really had a fully defined personality, a self that might have carried him through his addictions without letting him lose his spark.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Neglected Gem #106: Bad Timing (1980)

Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel in Bad Timing (1980).

The feeble pun of its title is the least of several apparent strikes against Bad Timing, the once-controversial psychological thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg. (At one point it carried the subtitle A Sensual Obsession, which didn’t help.) Among its other off-putting elements are dialogue that often evokes bad New Yorker fiction; a soundtrack which, while wide-ranging (Pachelbel, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, The Who, Harry Partch), is intrusively, even obnoxiously, employed; and a star, Art Garfunkel, whose presence places a question mark at the center of the movie. But for all that, Bad Timing is gripping and lasting, a steel trap whose fingers close slowly but surely. Roeg’s choices, though they often jar against the unwritten rules of psychological thrillers, dramatic realism, or simply agreeable narrative, never feel confused or hedged. The movie knows what it is doing; you may take it, leave it, or, like me, come back every few years to look again.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Partners in Quick-Time – Uncharted: Lost Legacy

Nadine (Laura Bailey) and Chloe (Claudia Black) in Uncharted: Lost Legacy.

Uncharted: Lost Legacy is the result of developer Naughty Dog's making a ton of money on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and deciding to keep that money train a-rollin’, despite the fact that they had publicly declared it to be the final game in the series. You can’t argue with clear market demand, and though the curtain had fallen on Nathan Drake’s personal saga, it was fairly unsurprising to learn this past June that a fifth Uncharted title was in development – this time centering around Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black), treasure hunter and erstwhile Drake love interest. Lost Legacy is a fully stand-alone side story about Frazer teaming up with mercenary Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) to find an artifact called the Tusk of Ganesh in wildest India and prevent a political fanatic from sparking civil war. It makes determined efforts to function as its own game, whose success doesn’t depend on the famous series protagonist – and at that, at least, it succeeds.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Fleetwood Mac, the Time Ghost: Rumours Turns 40

Fleetwood Mac (circa 1968): John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green Jeremy Spencer.

“The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – William Faulkner

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” – Christine McVie

The recent release of a new duo album by Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie is a good opportunity to re-examine the long strange trip of the phenomenal pop band they belong to. Fleetwood Mac was originally formed in 1967 by Peter Green, but Christine Perfect-McVie had already been on the scene in her own remarkable British blues band, Chicken Shack, even before her talented husband became the stellar bass player for one of the most successful rock outfits in music history. 

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been ten years since I published my book on the weird evolutionary leaps of Fleetwood Mac from gritty British blues to shiny Californian pop and yet, incredibly, it’s true. Back then, in 2007, it was the band’s 40th anniversary, hence my title 40 Years of Creative Chaos, and now suddenly I’m having to try and convince my publisher that they definitely deserve a 50th-anniversary update to their twisted saga. I suspect my editor can barely believe that they’re still together, despite the fact that Stevie Nicks has made one of her frequent departures to pursue her solo muse (herself) and Lindsey Buckingham has released an eponymous duet with the other sultry blonde in the group, my far-more-favourite British blues chick turned pop-diva, Christine McVie.

Even more incredibly, or at least ironically, Fleetwood Mac is being given a special award next year which cements their acclaim in even more glowing terms: the Recording Academy’s 2018 MusiCares Person of the Year, an honour that will be extended to the veteran rockers in conjunction with the 60th Grammy Awards. Amazingly, the Grammys themselves are only ten years older than this stalwart but grizzled crew of pop wizards. The award singles out musicians both for their artistry and for their frequent philanthropic contributions, with previous recipients including Dylan, McCartney and Stevie Wonder.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hitting the Jackpot: Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival

Evan Buliung (centre) with members of the company, in Guys and Dolls at the Stratford Festival. (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Let there be no confusion. In Guys and Dolls, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical at Canada's Stratford Festival until the end of October, men are men and women are, well, the dolls in the musical comedy Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser created almost 70 years ago when gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression were a whole lot less complicated than they are today. Based on newspaper man Damon Runyon's 1930s collection of short stories about the denizens of New York's Depression-era underworld, the show is a throwback. But a rollicking one that makes no apologies for wanting to revel in stereotypical portraits of gangsters, gamblers and showgirls with seam-stockinged gams.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Prince of Broadway: Overstuffed and Undernourished

 Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper and Tony Yazbeck in Prince of Broadway. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The new revue Prince of Broadway, built around the career of Harold Prince, is like an all-you-can-eat buffet at a mediocre restaurant. It runs just over two and a half hours and contains thirty-five songs from sixteen musicals (plus a finale, “Do the Work,” written especially for the show by Jason Robert Brown, who also contributed arrangements and orchestrations), presented in mostly tepid reproductions intended to conjure up the feel of their sources, one after another. (Susan Stroman, who co-directed with Prince and choreographed, has barely left her mark on them.) The entire project is misconceived. It makes sense to plan an evening around the work of a theatrical artist whose work is distinctive and unified; that’s what the joyous 1999 Fosse! did, and Ain’t Misbehavin’ and several Stephen Sondheim revues. But you can’t get a sense of the shows Prince has directed by restaging numbers from them: a pair of singers in working-class Victorian costumes standing in front of a flat don’t suggest the spectacle of Sweeney Todd (1979) and eight actors in shtetl garb dancing briefly across the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre are more like a parody of Fiddler on the Roof (1964) than an evocation of it. You’d need the original set designs and, more importantly, the original performers to provide any indication of what these musicals meant. Prince of Broadway doesn’t even distinguish between the shows Prince directed and the ones he only produced, like Damn Yankees (1955), West Side Story (1957) and Fiddler – as if there were no difference between what directors and producers do. In a lengthy program note, Prince credits dozens of collaborators, yet the revue implicitly tells us that he was the creative force behind every one of these shows, even when other people devised their staging and helmed their rehearsals. This is a vanity production that verges on the delusional.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Another America: Remembering Dick Gregory 1932-2017

I arrived home this past week from a short holiday in Florida to the sad news that activist and comedian Dick Gregory had gone to spirit at the age of 84. Although in recent years, Gregory existed more on the periphery of mainstream culture, a barely remembered figure of an earlier era of Civil Rights reforms and anti-war ferment, he was nevertheless still being sought out by eager young videographers who'd visit his home as if on a pilgrimage. With the goal of consulting with a famous relic of another America, they sought him out for help in making sense of the current one. But often the Gregory you'd find on YouTube of their quests from those endless sojourns was a ranting hermit caught up in Truther campaigns who saw conspiracies in everything including "faked" moon landings, 9/11, Prince's death (which he believed was murder), the Rodney King beating tapes (the C.I.A. and the Australian "secret police" were behind the people who filmed it), Bill Cosby being framed for sexual assault because he was attempting to buy a major media company, etc. Yet Dick Gregory's flights of fantasy, often painfully funny to watch (especially since his proteges didn't possess his knowledge and experience of history), did little to diminish his authenticity as a powerful advocate for justice. Whatever outlandish tale Gregory would tell those budding militants, he seemed to speak for the idea of a country that they felt was in jeopardy of disappearing, and it was that very notion of a nation, containing a citizenry that he was once a prominent part of, that these willing apprentices appeared to see rapidly vanishing before their eyes. The fact that Gregory died as white supremacists and American Nazis marched freely and candidly in Charlottesville makes their view even more vividly painful to consider.