Saturday, May 12, 2018

Everything's Cheaper Than It Looks – Neil Young's ROXY: Tonight's the Night Live

Neil Young perfoming Tonight's the Night at the Roxy. (Photo: Getty Images)

Any worthy art stands on its own, as a formalized and unitary capture of experience, apart from the facts of how it was created or released into the world. To be overwhelmed by Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, for instance, you needn’t know a thing about the conditions of its making, its first release, its mutilation, or its eventual rediscovery in a janitor’s closet in an Oslo mental hospital. You needn’t have read a single book about Joan herself, or be aware of Dreyer’s other films. But some works – like, in fact, The Passion of Joan of Arc – are so informed by circumstance and so infused with the extraordinary that to regard them in isolation from their histories seems perverse, and not in the fun way. That applies to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night as much as it does to any rock album. One loved it before ever knowing much about the deaths behind it, or the story of how it came to be; but over time, as that knowing accumulated, the album inevitably took on whole new dimensions, haunted thoughts that are now inseparable from one’s experience of the music itself.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003)

The white colt in Davaa and Falorni's The Story of the Weeping Camel. (Photo: Getty) 

The utterly disarming film The Story of the Weeping Camel is a collaboration between Byambarsuren Davaa, who was trained in Mongolian television, and Luigi Falorni, a cinematographer turned filmmaker, each directing for only the second time. Adopting the celebrated working methods of the first documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty, they put a family who live in the Gobi Desert on camera and have them enact their own story. Soft-faced Ikhee (Ikhbayar Amgaabazar) and his wife Ogdoo (Odgerel Ayusch) live in one yurt with their children – Dude (Enkhbulgan Ikhbayar), who is perhaps fourteen; Ugna (Uuganbaatar Ikhbayar), a little boy of six or seven; and a girl, Guntee (Guntbaatar Ikhbayar), a toddler. The two sets of grandparents live in adjacent yurts and help with the housekeeping, the children, and the animals – the family raises sheep and camels. Part of what marks the arc of the year for them is the births of the camel colts; the movie focuses on the consequences when a beautiful, rust-colored camel gives birth to a white colt after a hard two-day labor, and then rejects her baby.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Sizzling Syncopation: Natasha Powell's Floor'd

The Holla Jazz ensemble performing Floor'd at Winchester Street Theatre (Photo: Tamara Romanchuk)

The stage is bare save for seven wooden chairs lining a back wall in addition to a makeshift bar to the left and an assemblage of musical instruments, including a large stand-up bass, to the right. James Kendal’s spare set design is meant to invoke a jook joint, originally a place where blacks in the American South would go to unwind after laboring all day in a cotton field. Over time, the jook joint evolved into a hotbed of drink, conversation and jazz. With the music came an improvisatory dance that moved in step with the syncopated rhythms. Jazz dance has since stag-leaped its way into Broadway and Hollywood musicals, Disney spectacles and cruise ships, dance schools and cheerleading squads across the continent. Today, it is a legitimate dance style with its own kick-ball-change vocabulary and formalized systems of technique. But at its essence it is a social dance rising like smoke from an unfiltered cigarette in the jook joints of popular song, a heritage choreographer Natasha Powell takes pains to honour in the aptly named Floor’d, her knock-out show of jazz music and dance which debuted at Toronto’s intimate Winchester Street Theatre with four sold-out performances, April 25 to 28.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Music as Primal Therapy: The Loud Memories of Chris Stamey

left: Chris Stamey. (Photo: Daniel Coston)

A Spy in the House of Loud is great title for Chris Stamey's personal memoir, as much about his times as his own role in them, and by way of two other great titles, one from the Anais Nin novel in 1954 and one from the Doors song in 1970. The book is Chris Stamey’s recollections of the cultural period during which music became louder, meaner and funnier: a wild ride by a wild child. After all, Stamey was the force behind the dB’s (both deciBels and decibel breakers, with a superfluous apostrophe) and he definitely knows whereof he speaks, or perhaps he screams.

In addition to borrowing from Anais and referencing Jim Morrison, the title of Stamey’s boldly maniacal yet quietly elegant stroll down memory lane also evokes one of his own songs with the dB’s “A Spy in the House of Love,” from their 1984 album Like This. It doesn’t actually contain any echo of either one, and it doesn’t need to, but what it does do is remind us of a time of phenomenal exuberance in the pop-rock music scene, a time when disco went to hell, at top speed and top volume. The new scene was in fact post-pop writ large. Hence, Stamey’s sonic notion of the "house of loud."

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Neglected Gem: Stormy Monday (1988)

Melanie Griffith and Sean Bean in Stormy Monday (1988).

Set in Newcastle, Stormy Monday is a cool, clean crime drama with an emotional authority that builds quietly and finally takes control. It begins like an Altman picture, but in lower key and smaller scale, with disorienting cuts between characters who don’t realize their fates are about to converge. Kate (Melanie Griffith) is an American woman kept in luxury by a crooked real estate developer who makes both private and public use of her; miserable with herself, she keeps a side job waiting tables, apparently so she can feel halfway honest. The developer, Frank Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texas Machiavelli, is sweeping into Newcastle in advance of “America Week,” a flag-festooned public-relations boondoggle meant to camouflage a fast, cheap buy-out of local businesses. The spanner in the works is Finney (Sting), a well-off but dissolute club owner smart enough to see what Cosmo is up to, and intransigent enough to resist selling. The relative innocent in this land of moral compromise is Brendan (Sean Bean), a rootless apartment sitter who answers a newspaper ad, orders a steak, and finds himself at the center of everyone else’s messes – all of which come to a head at the end of the movie’s three days and nights.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Musical Comedy Revivals: My Fair Lady and The Will Rogers Follies

Harry Haddon-Paton, Lauren Ambrose, and Allan Corduner in Bartlett Sher's My Fair Lady. (Photo: WNYC)

In Bartlett Sher’s lush, rewarding revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, Lauren Ambrose gives the best portrayal I’ve ever seen of Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower seller transformed into an Edwardian lady. Ambrose, best known as one of the co-stars of TV’s Six Feet Under, has only a smattering of theatrical experience (which includes a fine performance in Sher’s production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! in 2006) and no background at all in musicals, but she turns out to have a pellucid lyric soprano voice and an unerring sense of musical-comedy style.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Making a Killing in Hollywood: HBO's Barry

Bill Hader as the title character in HBO's Barry. (Photo: HBO)

The star-struck gangster isn’t exactly a new trope – think Cole Porter’s classic Kiss Me Kate or Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty – but there’s still something different about HBO’s new dark comedy Barry, which follows the title character (played by Bill Hader) as he becomes obsessed with dreams of stardom while trying to shed his former identity as a ruthlessly effective hit man. Perhaps that’s because it’s one of the first attempts (that I can think of, at any rate) to translate this idea to the medium of television.