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    Sunday, August 17th, 2014
    8:20 pm
    August 1969: Some Kind of Innocence
    beatles august 69

    (I originally wrote this 20 years ago, and it was published in Beatlefan #90, September, 1994, to mark the 25th anniversary of these events. I thought it would be a good way of now noting the 45th anniversary.)

    It's a year for anniversaries. Beatlemania. D-Day. And observances of the I-remember-where-I-was events that packed that yin-yang summer of 1969.

    Yes, I remember Woodstock. I was there.

    OK, so I wasn't up to my ears in sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and mud on Max Yasgur's New York farm. But I was in Woodstock, in Georgia's Appalachian foothills, where my family was "roughing it" for a week in a rustic cottage — complete with color TV with which to stay in touch with the rest of the world, which seemed to be going mad.

    So it is that my memories of Woodstock and the Manson Family killings forever are entwined with images of us sitting at the breakfast table, trying to pick millions of tiny bones out of the catfish we'd snagged in Lake Allatoona.

    It was as if the spicy social and cultural gumbo that was the ’60s was boiling over in the latter days of summer as my senior year of high school approached. Already in July, we'd had the wild contrast of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in an ancient ceremony and the modern marvel of man walking on the moon — both telecast live around the world via satellite.

    A few days after the moon landing, Teddy Kennedy, who earlier that year was the fifth most admired man in America in a Gallup Poll, had gone on national TV to try explain Mary Jo Kopechne's death in his car at Chappaquidick.

    And then, that jam-packed week at the lake, we heard of the bizarre and bloody Beverly Hills murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends, followed by the similar slaughter of an L.A. grocer and his wife the next day ... Northern Ireland erupting as Catholics and Protestants took their age-old hatred into the streets, prompting the introduction of British troops ... the gathering of more than 400,000 at that place in New York with the same name as our vacation site for a three-day rock fest that became a cultural watershed ... and Hurricane Camille tearing up the Gulf Coast, killing 283.

    We didn't know it yet, but another cultural upheaval was taking place in London,where The Beatles were burning out in a creative supernova. The day before Sharon Tate was butchered, the Fab Four strolled across a certain zebra walk that was to be immortalized in the most famous record album cover of all time.

    Even for those of us who lived it, 1969 seems like another world ... a world where the hot new home entertainment item was the 8-track tape; the hottest new band was Creedence Clearwater Revival; Johnny Cash was pioneering country crossover; adolescent boys were falling in love with Olivia Hussey of "Romeo & Juliet" while Henry Mancini had an unexpected chart-topper with the film's theme song; and Hollywood was courting the burgeoning youth market, with "Goodbye Columbus," "The Wild Bunch" and "Midnight Cowboy." A film that satirized the new sexual freedom, "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," was due out soon and "I Am Curious (Yellow)" was testing pornography laws across the country.

    TV's tame answer to all this sexual license fell well short of Broadway's nudity-laced "Hair" and "Oh! Caluctta!," but some ABC affiliates nevertheless were nervous about the new comedic anthology, "Love, American Style." The networks were on their own youth kick, with Michael Parks roaming the country in search of the Meaning of Life in "Then Came Bronson," cool teens and caring teachers addressing relevant concerns in "Room 222," and Aaron Spelling trying to follow up on his "Mod Squad" success with "The New People," about a group of college kids stranded on a Pacific island who must start all over. For our little brothers and sisters, there was a goofy new sitcom about this lovely lady with three daughters who met this man with three sons of his own. ...

    As school got underway, we seniors briefly lost and regained our off-campus lunch privilege; we argued the upcoming Vietnam Moratorium Day nationwide anti-war protest in Coach Warlick's Current Affairs class; we still watched "Dark Shadows" when we got home; and, in the latter half of September, tracks from the forthcoming "Abbey Road" album started showing up on the radio. Stations in a few cities also began programming the rough-hewn tracks from the abortive "Get Back" album, taken from advance acetates that had leaked out.

    A taste of the times can be had via the "Posters, Incense, and Strobe Candles" bootleg, taken from a recording of WBCN in Boston airing the "Get Back" album on Sept. 22, 1969.

    That same night, on my 17th birthday, The Beatles were seen on TV in a disjointed promotional film for the summer hit "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (with a drum beat replacing each mention of "Christ" and a couple of minutes of "Give Peace a Chance" from that May's Montreal Bed-In inserted in the middle).

    The occasion was the star-loaded premiere — with Tom Jones, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Oliver, Buck Owens, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also on the bill — of ABC's "The Music Scene," a hip but ultimately short-lived variation on "Your Hit Parade" notable mainly for introducing Lily Tomlin.

    Leafing through a TV Guide from that week, and listening to that "Get Back" bootleg, I am swept back to a time when outrage still was tempered with hope, that heady mix of anything-goes and lingering innocence made life a thrilling adventure of discovery, there seemed to be no limits to what we could do ... and when, not coincidentally, The Beatles were at the apex of their musical and cultural influence, a presence so powerful and pervasive that it crossed almost all socio-economic boundaries.

    For our children, it must be difficult to fathom the unique position the Fabs had in1969. But if they imagine the combined impact of Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, David Letterman, Kurt Cobain, Fabio, Madonna and, yes, even dead Elvis — and multiply it several times — they might come close.

    The Beatles occupied a sort of pop culture Mount Olympus. No mere stars, their every move triggered worldwide interest and trends. Their lyrics and even their album covers were examined for meanings in the uniquely ’60s belief that these rock ’n’ roll demi-gods must know something we didn't.

    (This, of course, resulted not only in that ludicrous media uproar in the fall of ’69 now known as the Paul-is-dead hoax, but also in the revelation at the Manson trial a few months later that Crazy Charlie considered The Beatles to be higher beings who were sending him messages through their music. "Helter Skelter," he believed, foretold an impending race war and was the alert for him to get on the right side by slaughtering some pigs. In reality, it used playground imagery as an analogy for sex.)

    Back then, The Beatles were so unbelievably hip that we figured anything they did must be hip, even if it didn't appear so on the surface. I remember when I first heard the "Abbey Road" album: A group of us had gathered at a schoolmate's house to work on a Senior English class report (something boring by Joseph Conrad) and it wasn't long before our attention wavered and we adjourned to Mary's basement bedroom to listen to the new Beatles LP, which I hadn't yet scraped up the bucks to buy.

    Anyway, we listened in awe as Mary guided us through "Abbey Road," and I'll never forget her preface to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," which today is viewed in the same light in which The Beatles themselves saw it — as the "corny" one — but which Mary, who was known as one of the school's artsy intellectuals, imbued with some unknown quasi-mystical meaning beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.

    "This one is too far out," she said breathlessly as the song began.

    And, you know, listening to the tale of Maxwell Edison and his deadly silver hammer in the wake of the summer of '69 ... well, it did seem that way.

    2014 POSTSCRIPT: I recently sent this piece to Mary, who at first didn't recognize herself in it, and then was bemused that I described her as an "artsy intellectual." She also couldn't believe she had ever used the phrase "too far out." I can't swear those were her exact words, but that's definitely how I remembered it 20 years ago, and still do. I also should note that, while I'm not sure anyone would have described me as an "artsy intellectual" in 1969, that's the group I mostly hung out with in high school.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: nostalgic
    Monday, April 21st, 2014
    6:58 pm
    A 50th anniversary tribute to The Beatles' overlooked rock ’n’ roll classic
    secondalbumcover

    For a patchwork album rather hastily put together by Capitol Records to cash in on the peak of Beatlemania, “The Beatles’ Second Album” has proved to be an unlikely classic.

    “Second Album” was the first Beatles album to be assembled by Capitol exclusively for the U.S. market (“Meet the Beatles!” was a reworked, truncated version of the British “With the Beatles” album). The 11 songs were pulled from all over the group's U.K. catalog: the American label used the five “With The Beatles” tracks they hadn’t used on “Meet The Beatles!” — "Roll Over Beethoven," "Please Mister Postman," "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Devil in Her Heart" and "Money (That's What I Want)" — plus three single B-sides ("Thank You Girl," "You Can't Do That" and "I'll Get You"), the smash hit "She Loves You" and the world premiere of two songs — “Long Tall Sally” and “I Call Your Name” — that had been recently recorded for the not-yet-released U.K. “Long Tall Sally” EP.

    The resulting uptempo collection was heavy on rock and soul covers. As Bruce Spizer writes in the new issue of Beatlefan, that might sound “like a recipe for disaster, but the album works spectacularly well. In fact, many of the people who crucify Capitol for its treatment of the Beatles catalog begrudgingly admit or glowingly rave that the LP is a rock ’n’ roll classic.”

    At the time Capitol released the album on April 10, 1964, the top two LPs on the U.S. charts were Capitol's own “Meet The Beatles!” and Vee-Jay’s “Introducing The Beatles” (a result of Capitol having passed on releasing the band's early efforts), so “Second Album” was actually the third Beatles album released in the U.S. However, Capitol maintained “Introducing The Beatles” didn’t count — sort of like the producers of the official James Bond flicks not counting the original "Casino Royale" or "Never Say Never Again."

    Even though the 11 tracks, which clocked in at under half an hour, were drenched in echo and reverb by Capitol’s Dave Dexter Jr., the collection is still considered by many to be the best pure rock ’n’ roll album ever issued under the Fabs’ name.

    Among the highlights: the opening track, a raucous George Harrison-sung version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (which had been a hit single in Canada), John Lennon ripping his way through Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” with the vocal cord-shredding voice he'd used on "Twist and Shout," Paul McCartney matching Little Richard for musical oomph on the new recording of “Long Tall Sally,” and some terrific soul in the band's covers of Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mister Postman.” Those distinctive Beatle backing harmonies really sold "You Really Got a Hold on Me."

    Rounding out the covers was the relatively obscure girl-group number “Devil in Her Heart” (originally done by the Donays as "Devil in His Heart"). And then you had five Beatles originals: the B-sides “Thank You Girl,” “You Can’t Do That” (from the then-current single “Can’t Buy Me Love”) and “I’ll Get You,” all of which featured more of those fab voices harmonizing, with "Thank You Girl" in particular showing off the terrific blending of John's and Paul's voices.

    And then you had the new “I Call Your Name” (one of my all-time favorite Beatles tracks) and, of course, the iconic hit “She Loves You.”

    Unfortunately, over the years, as the U.K. albums were designated the official catalog and the American albums went out of print, “Second Album” became mostly a childhood memory for many. Finally, though, the album resurfaced in 2004 as part of the “Capitol Albums” set, and now it’s back again — both individually and as part of the “U.S. Albums” box.

    The new reissue has the tracks included in both mono and stereo (though this is one album you should always listen to in mono and forget about the primitive stereo versions). And blaring out of my Mac's speakers as I write this, it still sounds flat-out great.

    Capitol Records has a lot to answer for in its handling of The Beatles' music over the years, but when it comes to the “Second Album,” they got it fabulously right.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: enthralled
    Monday, February 10th, 2014
    6:41 pm
    CBS Beatles Special Got the Important Stuff Right
    As I’ve written before, I didn’t listen to Top 40 radio much before The Beatles, so when I tuned in to “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago on Feb. 9, I’d actually never heard a note out of the Fab Four’s music until they launched into “All My Loving,” the first song they performed on that historic telecast.

    That was also how, half a century later, CBS launched its anniversary special, “The Night That Changed America,” with black & white video of the impossibly young-looking Fab Four segueing into Adam Levine and Maroon 5 doing a faithful rendition of the song.

    I wasn’t sure what to expect out of this two-and-a-half-hour special, taped Jan. 27 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, since the Grammy Awards folks behind it had chosen an all-over-the-musical-map approach in lining up talent (an attempt at something for nearly everyone, basically). So there were contemporary pop stars, indie rockers, r&b stars past and present, a grunge legend, classic rockers, a modern blues-rocker, a couple of Nashville performers and, of course, the two surviving Beatles.

    What we got turned out to be a pretty entertaining evening of music that thankfully never lost sight of its purpose: paying tribute to the biggest rock act of the past five decades.

    The special included more clips of The Beatles performing on the “Sullivan” show, frustratingly brief snippets of interviews with Paul and Ringo Starr (separately and together) conducted at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York City by David Letterman, whose CBS “Late Show” originates there, plus interview clips with “Sullivan” show staffers, members of the audience at that 1964 telecast, and one of the other acts from that original show. There was also a rambling, fitfully funny comedic bit with Monty Python’s Eric Idle, who also narrated the well-done biographical segments on the four Beatles.

    Most (not quite all) of the musical matches ended up making sense, even if the lineup of celebs introducing various segments — LL Cool J, Kate Beckinsale, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Jeff Bridges and Sean Penn — seemed pretty random.

    After the telecast opened with the hybrid Beatles/Maroon 5 number, the latter band was given one all to itself and provided a creditable, though unmemorable, rendition of “Ticket to Ride,” sticking pretty much to the original arrangement. Then came Stevie Wonder on “We Can Work It Out”; a sort of Beatles extended family combo consisting of Jeff Lynne (of ELO and Traveling Wilburys fame), Joe Walsh (now Ringo’s brother-in-law) and George Harrison’s son Dhani performing “Something”; folk-popster Ed Sheeran doing a solo “In My Life”; John Mayer and Keith Urban trading vocals and guitar solos on “Don’t Let Me Down”; Katy Perry (wearing what looked like a beach tent) singing “Yesterday”; Imagine Dragons sitting on stools doing “Revolution” on guitars with just a foot-pedal for rhythm; and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl (who referred to The Beatles as “my Mom’s favorite band, my favorite band and now my daughter’s favorite band”) and Lynne teaming up on “Hey Bulldog,” a personal favorite not just because of my University of Georgia leanings.

    Next was the frankly overhyped reunion of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart as the Eurythmics for “The Fool on the Hill,” followed by Alicia Keys and John Legend at facing grand pianos for “Let It Be”; Pharrell Williams (complete with that goofy Vivienne Westwood hat from the Grammys) and Brad Paisley (in his own goofy hat) together on “Here Comes the Sun” (also featuring acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil Beatles musical “LOVE”); and, in the evening’s pre-Beatle high point, Gary Clark Jr. and Walsh on lead guitar and Grohl on drums for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the dual guitar solos toward the end drew cheers from the audience).

    Then it was time for a mini set by Ringo, backed by the house band — featuring Kenny Aronoff (drums), Lenny Castro (percussion), Chris Caswell (keyboard), Peter Frampton (guitar), Rami Jaffe (organ), Steve Lukather (guitar), Greg Phillinganes (keyboard), and Don Was (bass), who also served as musical director. Ringo did “Matchbox” (guitar solo by Frampton), a rocking “Boys” (with Ringo on the drum kit and both Lukather and Frampton taking guitar solos) and “Yellow Submarine” (which saw Ringo go out on the stage runway into the crowd).

    That was followed by McCartney and his ultra tight touring band doing “Birthday,” “Get Back,” a rousing “I Saw Her Standing There” (Beatle spouses Nancy and Barbara were seen dancing while Yoko did some sort of airplane thing and John Lennon’s son Sean played air guitar). Next was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which segued into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and sure enough Ringo trotted out and took the lead vocal alongside Paul. Starr then took to the drums and Macca to his psychedelic piano for “Hey Jude,” which wound up with all the evening’s performers onstage for the finale.

    Both Paul and Ringo paid tribute to the two missing Beatles, Lennon and Harrison, with Starr noting: “We were in a band. It’s called The Beatles. And if we play, John and George are always with us. It’s always John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

    Seeing Ringo and Paul together onstage was, of course, a thrill. Neither’s voice was in top-notch shape, but considering their age and the magnitude of the moment, that was sort of beside the point. And even with the frayed vocals, they still were head and shoulders above everyone else on the bill.

    Otherwise, I’d say the best performances were Clark, Walsh and Grohl’s sizzling “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Grohl and Lynne bashing out “Hey Bulldog,” Lynne, Walsh and Dhani doing a fine “Something” (the younger Harrison looking and sounding uncannily like his dad), Keys and Legend’s gospel-tinged “Let It Be,” Sheeran’s simple, acoustic “In My Life” and the guitar workout on Mayer and Urban’s “Don’t Let Me Down.” I was a little disappointed at first the Dragons didn’t do “Revolution” in their normally outsized style, but I enjoyed their acoustic approach and sparkling harmonies nonetheless. Stevie also doesn’t have quite the voice he used to, but his “We Can Work It Out” (which was a hit for him way back when) was funky fun.

    However, I’ve never liked Annie Lennox and I didn’t think much of her performance. Katy gave an interesting but only partially successful reading of “Yesterday,” with an unusually low, breathy and emotional delivery. I don’t think the number or arrangement really suited her; she didn’t seem her usual confident, sassy self. And I didn’t think the odd pairing of Paisley and Williams really clicked at all.

    I also was a bit disappointed we didn’t get more of Paul, Ringo and Dave at the Sullivan Theatre, but from what my friend Rick Glover was told by a tech at the show, a DVD is probable and likely will have expanded interview segments.

    A few notes about what we didn’t see on the CBS telecast: Macca’s first number, “Magical Mystery Tour,” was cut and “Hey Jude” was edited, with Paul’s trademark call and response routine trimmed. Also, after the performance of “With a Little Help,” Ringo said, “Paul McCartney! Or, Sir Paul, as some like to call him … but I never will!” However, that those last four words were not heard on the CBS telecast. That wasn’t the only bit of brotherly teasing, though. If you looked carefully during the number, when Ringo sang, “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Paul mouthed, “I would.”

    All in all, it was a largely satisfying TV special that paid suitable tribute to one of the most important nights in pop culture history.

    (There’s much more on the Beatles tribute show in Beatlefan #206, with on-the-scene reports and photos from the concert. If you’d like to get a copy, a sample issue costs $7 in the U.S. or $10 abroad, U.S. funds only. Credit cards accepted, as is PayPal (payable to goodypress@mindspring.com). Be sure to specify you want Issue #206. Send to P.O. Box 33515, Decatur GA 30033 or email goodypress@gmail.com.)

    Current Mood: pleased
    Monday, February 3rd, 2014
    9:07 pm
    Imagine That!
    One of my son's friends had quite a memorable few days last week.

    First, he and his bandmates electrified the all-star audience at the Grammy Awards with one of the evening's most energetic performances. Then, the next night, they not only got to perform The Beatles' song "Revolution" with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the audience at the Los Angeles Convention Center, but later, after Paul and Ringo's much-anticipated reunion performance, they were among the assembled stars of the tribute show who got to join the former Beatles onstage for the "Hey Jude" finale. Pretty amazing, as my son put it. Or "terrifying," as one of the other band members put it in a subsequent interview, adding: "That was the most nervous I've ever been in my life. We performed a Beatles cover right in front of Paul and Ringo." Finally, young Bill's friend wound up the week performing with his band as the featured musical guest on "Saturday Night Live."

    If you haven't figured it out by now, my son's buddy plays drums (and sometimes viola) for Imagine Dragons, a rock band that first hit it big a couple of years ago with the anthemic song "It's Time," and then dominated alternative rock radio last year with the ubiquitous "Radioactive" and "Demons."

    The young musician's name is Daniel Platzman, and he graduated from Atlanta's Paideia School a couple of years after my son, and then got a degree in film scoring from prestigious Berklee College of Music before joining the Las Vegas-based Dragons. His parents still live in Atlanta's Druid Hills neighborhood, near Paideia. His band won the Best Rock Performance Grammy, capping a year that saw their "Night Visions" album go platinum in eight countries (including the U.S., where it's sold nearly 2 million copies), Rolling Stone magazine call "Radioactive" the "biggest rock hit of the year," and Billboard magazine declare them top rock act and 2013's "breakthrough band."

    If you don't listen to a lot of contemporary rock, you might not be familiar with Imagine Dragons (though it's hard to believe you could have escaped "Radioactive"), but while they definitely fit into the indie/alternative side of today's music scene, they cite Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel and Harry Nilsson among their major musical influences, which probably explains why I liked this band so much — even before I knew one of the members was not only from Atlanta but a friend of my son.

    All of which leads me into my Quickie look back at some of the music, movies, television shows and books I enjoyed during 2013 ...

    MY TUNES: The aforementioned McCartney provided my favorite album of 2013 with "New," a varied collection that saw Sir Paul's usual memorable melodies placed in slightly updated musical settings thanks to his work with four young producers. Macca also provided one of the best blasts from the past with the deluxe-edition reissue of his classic live set "Wings Over America" (and took home one of his five Grammys from this year's ceremony for it). Looking back over albums I bought in 2013, I see it was mostly an archival sort of year for me, with "The Essential James Taylor," "The Essential Nilsson" and "The Beatles: On Air — Live at the BBC Volume 2" joined by Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones teaming up to remake a classic Everly Brothers album on "Foreverly," the first release of Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck's performance for JFK in "The White House Sessions, Live 1962," Glen Campbell revisiting some of his past hits on "See You There," Willie Nelson dipping into pop and country standards on "Let's Face the Music and Dance," Eric Clapton also doing a covers album in "Old Sock" (joined by McCartney for a remake of "All of Me") and Jeff Lynne reissuing his wonderful 1990 "Armchair Theatre" album (featuring lots of guest work from George Harrison) with a couple of new bonus tracks. Also fitting in with the retro theme were a couple of choice DVD releases: "Ringo at the Ryman" and the long-awaited release of Wings' "Rockshow" film from the band's 1976 tour.

    My taste was much more up-to-date, however, when it came to individual songs I collected during the year. Besides those Imagine Dragons tracks, my favorites included Justin Timberlake's "Suit and Tie," Alicia Keys' "This Girl Is on Fire," the Lumineers' "Stubborn Love," Frank Turner's "Recovery," Atlas Genius' "Trojans," Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound," 30 Seconds to Mars' "Up in the Air," the Neighbourhood's "Sweater Weather," New Politics' "Harlem," Fitz and the Tantrums' "Out of My League," the Silversun Pickups' "The Pit," Lorde's "Royals," Coldplay's "Atlas" and Anoushka Shankar and half-sister Norah Jones teaming up on "Traces of You." I must admit, though, that one of my favorite musical moments of 2013 was Badfinger's classic 1970s radio hit "Baby Blue" getting new chart and sales life thanks to being included in the closing scene of the much-watched series finale of "Breaking Bad" (resulting in a new Badfinger compilation, "Timeless: The Musical Legacy," coming out). Too bad only one of the band members was still alive to enjoy the return to the spotlight.

    AT THE MOVIES: For various reasons — a combination of schedule problems and fewer films that interested me — I saw about half as many movies in 2013 as I usually do. But they were a pretty stellar half dozen, starting out early in the year with the justifiably acclaimed 2012 release "Zero Dark Thirty." As the year went on, I really enjoyed the thankfully darker reboot of Superman in "Man of Steel"; the low-key but enthralling British spy/conspiracy thriller "Closed Circuit" (starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall and a host of familiar and always reliable U.K. performers); fellow Athens, Ga., native Jim Ponsoldt's wonderful coming-of-age film with a difference, "The Spectacular Now," shot in my hometown and featuring stars of tomorrow Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller; Peter Jackson's nonstop adventure "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (providing a fresh chance to appreciate "Lost" veteran Evangeline Lily); and the unexpectedly touching "Saving Mr. Banks," with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as "Mary Poppins" creator P.L. Travers in a performance whose omission from the recently announced Oscar nominations is a travesty.

    ON THE TUBE: While I made fewer trips to the cinema in 2013, I became a regular viewer of more TV series than usual, thanks in part to the abundance of quality productions from cable/satellite channels that in many cases were vastly superior to what the main broadcast networks were offering. Among my must-see programs last year were the confusing but thoroughly enjoyable series finale of Fox's "Fringe," the superb interplay between Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in CBS' surprisingly good Sherlock Holmes rethink "Elementary" (which wound up with a superlative, twisty two-part first-season ender featuring the sublime Natalie Dormer), the engrossing final season of Starz' bloody epic "Spartacus," Matthew Macfadyen in the handsomely staged Victorian-era BBC America detective drama "Ripper Street," BBC America's mindbending cloning adventure "Orphan Black" (with bravura multiple performances by star Tatiana Maslany), FX's excellent 1980s spy drama "The Americans" (which actually made you care about the magnificent Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a couple of Russian moles living in suburban DC), Don Draper (Jon Hamm) spiraling downward as AMC's "Mad Men" started off muddled but returned to form by season's end, personal favorite Diane Kruger in the murky, slow-burn FX cop thriller "The Bridge," the third season of "Homeland" on Showtime and the second season of Aaron Sorkin's liberal talkfest "The Newsroom" on HBO (both infuriating at times but still worthwhile), the enjoyable blending of "Masterpiece Theatre" costume drama and sex romp in Starz' "The White Queen," the superbly cast "Masters of Sex" (starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan) on Showtime, former Time Lord David Tennant in the compelling murder mystery of BBC America's "Broadchurch" (even if the accents were at times impenetrable), the bonkers but wonderfully entertaining mash-up of Revolutionary War history and demon-of-the-week procedural in Fox's short-run first season of "Sleepy Hollow" (with leads Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie having the best chemistry on network TV) and James Spader consistently watchable in NBC's slow-to-grab-me-but-finally-did conspiracy tale "The Blacklist."

    ON THE SHELF: Mostly I still buy and read books the old-fashioned way: bound volumes of words printed on paper. But I did finally get a Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas, and the first title I bought for it was "Got That Something! How the Beatles' ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ Changed Everything," an e-book by my longtime friend (and Beatlefan contributor) Allan Kozinn. I recommend it highly. A couple of other Fabs-related titles that Beatles fans definitely should check out are "Tune In: The Beatles — All These Years," the exhaustive first volume of a planned trilogy by top Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, and (for the more hardcore fans) Kevin Howlett's "The Beatles: The BBC Archives, 1962-1970," which recounts the band's early years performing live for the Beeb. Other titles I recommend: Guy Adams' "The Sherlock Files: The Official Companion to the Hit Television Series" (all about the marvelous BBC contemporary Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman), Robert Sellers' "Very Naughty Boys: The Amazing True Story of HandMade Films" (the story of George Harrison's foray into the movie business), NPR comic book expert Glen Weldon's "Superman: The Unauthorized Biography" (a more fannish take on the Man of Steel than the more pop culture-ish "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" by Larry Tye), and Alyn Shipton's "Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter," the story of one of pop music's most spectacularly talented and self-destructive personalities, Harry Nilsson.

    That's a rundown of what I enjoyed in entertainment in 2013. Feel free to share your own favorites from the year or discuss any of mine. Just click on "comment" below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: rejuvenated
    Monday, December 30th, 2013
    9:25 pm
    A Quickie Visit Back to Dec. 30, 1978
    Year-end "best" and "worst" lists are an entertainment media tradition, and next time out I'll share my thoughts on the highs and lows of this past year. But as 2013 draws to a close, I thought it might be fun to jump into the Wayback Machine and check out some highlights from a piece of mine published 35 years ago today in WEEKEND, as the Saturday combined edition of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution was known at the time.

    I was covering the pop music beat full-time in those days, and the occasion was my third annual Weekend Music Awards. Looking over my picks, I find some that I can still agree with fully and others that make me shake my head a bit. Anyway, let's have a little fun reliving the musical year 1978 ...

    My tastes were pretty mainstream in those days, and that's reflected in my pick as Best Album of the Year — "52nd Street" by Billy Joel (still a pretty good selection, I think). As I noted, though, it was a tough choice, as there were loads of good albums out that year, including: The Rolling Stones' "Some Girls," Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," Wings' "London Town," Steely Dan's "Aja," Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy," The Atlanta Rhythm Section's "Champagne Jam," Sea Level's "Cats on the Coast," Linda Ronstadt's "Living in the USA," Bob Dylan's "Street Legal," Gerry Rafferty's "City to City" and Jimmy Buffett's "Son of a Son of a Sailor." I also made special note that the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack album didn't make my list!

    For Best Single (back in the day when those little slices of musical heaven still were released in stores) I chose the Stones' "Miss You," despite noting that "the bass line did tread awfully close to disco." As you are probably surmising already, disco was one of my least favorite trends of the musical year ’78. Other great singles from that year that I cited were Billy Joel's "My Life," Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg's "Power of Gold," Heart's "Straight on for You," Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues," Little River Band's "Reminiscing," Alicia Bridges' "I Love the Night Life" (OK, I didn't hate all disco), Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache," Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" (in my defense, they were an Atlanta-based group at the time!), Natalie Cole's "Our Love," ARS' "Imaginary Lover," Wings' "Mull of Kintyre," Art Garfunkel's "Wonderful World," Sea Level's "That's Your Secret" and the Pointer Sisters' cover of the Bruce Springsteen song "Fire."

    Springsteen was my pick as Best Male Performer, a turnaround from my stance three years earlier when I resisted the hype overload that saw him simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. I wrote in 1978 that I based his selection as my male performer of the year largely on him being the best live performer around, though I thought "his albums aren't as great as they're cracked up to be." Seems I was still resisting just a little. I also picked the Boss' concert at the Fox Theatre as the Best Atlanta Concert of that year, writing: "I've never seen a performance with such nonstop intensity before." Runners-up for Best Male Performer were Dylan, Chuck Mangione, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel and Bob Seger. And the honorable mentions in the concert category were the Stones at the Fox, Billy Joel at the Omni, Mangione at the Fox and Jimmy Buffett at the Fox.

    My Best Female Performer was Ronstadt (a repeat pick from the year before) and Best Group was Steely Dan, "for being the intelligent alternative to the Bee Gees on the radio airwaves all year." Actually, I kind of went off the Dan not long after that, and to this day still prefer their earlier work.

    A little home-cooking showed up again in my choice of Best Producer, which went to Buddy Buie, the man behind the Atlanta Rhythm Section. I picked him over Peter Asher, Todd Rundgren, Phil Ramone, McCartney and Maurice White. My Best New Artist was Meat Loaf (I still had not embraced the New Wave), and my Bright New Faces honor roll included The Cars, Nicolette Larson, Bonnie Tyler, Eddie Money, Karla Bonoff and Kate Bush (one of my few nods to the musical avant garde at that time).

    On the other side of the 1978 musical ledger, I awarded Worst Album of the Year to the "Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band" movie soundtrack featuring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, which I called "a travesty." And all these years later I see no reason to reconsider that opinion. Other albums that I hated that year included Ted Nugent's "Weekend Warriors," Devo's "Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!" (another head-shaker now) and Andy Gibb's "Shadow Dancing." I gave the baby Gibb the Worst Single award for "Love Is Thicker Than Water" and cited it as "proof positive that little brothers should stay out of the music business." Also in the running for Worst Single were Nick Gilder's "Hot Child in the City," Chic's "Dance, Dance, Dance," Barry Manilow's two-fer of "Can't Smile Without You" and "Copacabana" and Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" (I think the latter was maybe a case of Top 40 radio play fatigue).

    And my pick as Worst Atlanta Concert went to the historic U.S. debut of the Sex Pistols at the Great Southeast Music Hall (which I covered not just for the Constitution, but also for Billboard, the Chicago Daily News and I forget which London paper). I summed it up as "talentless noise." That's one extreme opinion I haven't backed off from over the years.

    AT THE MOVIES: My daughter and I saw the new film "Saving Mr. Banks," about Walt Disney's efforts to get the prickly, intractable British author P.L. Travers to let him make a film of her Mary Poppins character. The cast is extremely good — topped, of course, by the marvelous Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney. It's not the corporate PR exercise some critics feared. In fact, there's a bit of fun poked at the Disney studio's relentless upbeat atmosphere and its ubiquitous merchandising. (The latter produces one anachronism we spotted: A stuffed bear of the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh in 1961 — five years before the first of the studio's Pooh films was made.) "Saving Mr. Banks" also is not just the British-American culture clash comedy I expected (though that is a strong element of the movie). Instead, the film takes a dual track, alternating scenes between the author's troubled childhood in Australia with a charming but ne'er-do-well drunken banker father she adored (Colin Farrell), and her visit to Hollywood in 1961 to consult with the Disney filmmakers and decide whether she was going to finally grant Walt the rights to the character. Some of the scenes — particularly involving Travers as a child in Australia — are heartbreaking. (Annie Rose Buckley, who plays the young Travers, is especially good.) There's also a climactic scene between Hanks and Thompson that is quite touching. Overall, the film elicits a mix of laughter and tears, and Livvy and I recommend it highly. Thompson deserves all the awards talk she's getting. ...

    Livvy and I also caught "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," the second film in the new Peter Jackson Tolkien trilogy. While you might have a hard time picking up what's going on if you haven't seen the first "Hobbit" film (or even if you haven't watched it in a year or so!), this one thankfully doesn't spend the first third of its 2-hour, 40-minute length introducing characters and set-ups like the last one did. It's mostly nonstop adventure the whole way. Martin Freeman seems more fully invested in his Bilbo character this time around and even the band of dwarves are more fully rounded than in the first film. The emphasis on action makes up for having Ian McKellen's Gandalf offstage much of the time, and a real plus is the addition of the new-for-film character of female Elf warrior Tauriel, played by the always-watchable Evangeline Lilly of "Lost" fame. Of course, being the second part of a trilogy, that means the ending is really sort of a "to be continued ... " but the film is still satisfying and Livvy and I both enjoyed it. We give it a definite thumbs up. (At the "Hobbit" screening, we also saw an early advance teaser for "Interstellar," Christopher Nolan's new sci-fi epic starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, due next November. I think they had me at "Christopher Nolan" ... )

    ON THE TELLY: Home for the holidays, our son Bill has been DVRing every episode he can of the latterday "Doctor Who," which he's recently gotten into. While I've watched the occasional episode since the series was reborn as a more adult time-travel sci-fi offering in 2005, I've never been as immersed in it as I was Christmas week, and I must say I was very favorably impressed. Yes, some of the plotting is impossibly convoluted (young Bill hadn't watched enough to be able to answer many of my questions), but what I discovered was, that doesn't really matter. You don't have to understand all the background of the characters and who the latest villains are and where they came from in order to appreciate the sharp writing, fine performances — and the fact that the producers have a knack for casting extremely attractive and talented young British actresses among the Doctor's cohorts. (Current companion Jenna Coleman is absolutely stunning.) Two episodes I thought were particularly good (and which I later found out are among fan favorites) were "The Girl Who Waited" and "Blink." In "Girl," featuring most recent series star Matt Smith as the titular Time Lord, the Doctor's companions are Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Amy (Karen Gillan), a married couple. Amy somehow gets separated from them in an alien resort and winds up in a different time stream, resulting in the Doctor and Rory having to decide whether to rescue Amy as they know her or a somewhat embittered older version of her who's been waiting 36 years for them to come get her, and who doesn't want to give up her existence in favor of her younger self. The scene where Rory must decide whether to keep the door to the TARDIS (the Doctor's time-traveling vehicle) closed to older Amy is quite intense. "Blink," from David Tennant's time as the Time Lord, boasts a couple of marvelous twists and turns on the complications of time travel, in addition to some creepy Weeping Angel "statues," and makes fine use of a young Carey Mulligan. Even after my son returns to Chapel Hill, I think I'll continue checking out his stash of "Who" episodes!

    ON THE BOOKSHELF: On Facebook recently, my childhood buddy David Brown tagged me in his list of 10 books that made an impression on him, and as part of the exercise I had to post my own list. Here's what I came up with: "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer"/"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, "The Complete Sherlock Holmes" by Arthur Conan Doyle, "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens, "Palgrave's The Complete Golden Treasury" (thanks to Miss Lucy Clark in seventh grade), "Rape of the Fair Country" by Alexander Cordell (set in the area of Wales where my mother was born), "Rabbit, Run" by John Updike (the first "adult" novel I ever read, back when I was 14 or 15), "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, "All the President's Men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "Beatles Forever" by Nicholas Schaffner and "In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead" by James Lee Burke (which prompted me to read most of Burke's colorful series of Louisiana-set Dave Robicheaux mysteries).

    Plus, here's a second list of 10 books that left their mark on me that covers quite a few years: "The Poky Little Puppy" by Janette Sebring Lowrey (my favorite book as a preschooler, and I read it to my two kids), "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss, "A Child's Garden of Verses" by Robert Louis Stevenson (my daughter Olivia found my old copy of this when she was young and it became one of her favorites), "The Tower Treasure" by Franklin W. Dixon (actually written by Leslie McFarlane; I devoured the Hardy Boys series when I was in fifth and sixth grades), "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, "The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings" by Edgar Allen Poe (my friend Timothy Thomason and I both became fans of this in seventh grade), "The Ghosts of Herty Field" by John F. Stegeman (a history of early University of Georgia football), "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell, "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller (plus I've seen it on Broadway!) and "Fatherland" by Robert Harris (my favorite of the alternate history genre).

    Feel free to share your own list of books that made an impression on you. And if you'd like to add to or have your say about anything else in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: nostalgic
    Monday, October 28th, 2013
    8:52 pm
    New McCartney Album Defies Some Listeners' Expectations
    On first listen, Paul McCartney's first studio album of new material in six years might not "sound" like a traditional Macca album to many people, thanks to the somewhat edgier musical settings chosen by the four young producers he worked with. Oh, the hooky melodies are pure McCartney and many of the tracks bring to mind earlier works — his last couple of studio albums, his more experimental ambient efforts under the Fireman name, his days with Wings and even his original foursome from Liverpool. But longtime McCartney listeners might be given pause, at least initially, by the efforts of the producers on the album "New" to make Sir Paul's music sound more contemporary and give it a bit of an indie vibe.

    However, after you've lived a while with the album, released two weeks ago, it becomes clear that, aside from the production touches, there's nothing really "new" here. The tracks are still styles we’ve become accustomed to Paul doing, from catchy pop-rock to acoustic ballads to upbeat rockers to techno dance music to rockabilly. The sort of variety that used to show up on Beatles albums is still McCartney's musical hallmark. Critics who try to pigeon-hole him as a thumbs-up popster, crooner of silly love songs or vintage rock ’n’ roller betray their lack of familiarity with the constant stylistic wanderlust that always has characterized his music. (Sometime collaborator Elvis Costello, another stylistic vagabond, acknowledged his and McCartney's insatiable curiosity recently when he said that's the proper way to approach music: "Have all the experiences, not just one.")

    Even the au courant production tricks used on the "New" album are, in many cases, simply updated throwbacks to earlier eras — just about all of which have been bridged by McCartney's career. Whether you think the vocal processing or electronic flourishes or tape loops or layered backings freshen his sound or distract from the melodies will depend on how just how locked in you are to what is perceived as Paul's "traditional" sound (which, for the audience at large, means the way he sounded with The Beatles and Wings).

    Handling production are Paul Epworth (known for his work with Adele), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Duran Duran), Ethan Johns (Laura Marling, Kings of Leon) and Giles Martin, Beatles producer George Martin’s son, who did The Beatles’ “LOVE” album. Martin also contributed some production to some of the others’ tracks and was executive producer of the album with McCartney. There are several stand-out tracks and none that is really wince-inducing in this collection, which finds an apparently energized Macca at times playful, nostalgic, romantic, enigmatic and even a trifle embittered.

    The album opens with one of the Epworth tracks, “Save Us,” a propulsive rocker that is driven by an insistent, fuzzy guitar hook reminiscent of the Strokes and is backed by rich harmonies. It’s rather like I’d imagine Wings would sound circa 2013. Next up is one of my favorites, “Alligator,” a slyly sexy pop-rocker produced by throwback specialist Ronson that is the album’s best marriage of melody and contemporary production. The track, which has some familiar McCartney chord progressions, features a distinctive flute-like synth line and a slower middle portion sung in falsetto, plus one of those uniquely Macca sexual analogies: “I need somebody who’s a sweet communicator I can give my alligator to.” Chomp, chomp.

    Martin’s first track is “On My Way to Work,” a slow acoustic guitar number with a thumping beat based on Macca’s memories of his brief time working in Liverpool as a delivery truck driver’s assistant. It also makes use of a string section and initially sounds Beatlesque, but Martin spices things up with some squalling guitars as the production gradually gets heavier. A nice lyrical twist is that the reminiscing Macca recalls dreaming of finding a soulmate. “But all the time I thought of you, how far away the future seemed, how could I have so many dreams, and one of them not come true.”

    Then comes “Queenie Eye,” another Epworth production and the album’s second radio single. At first, this struck me as a strange track that would have been better suited as a nonalbum B-side, but its quirky lyrical rhymes, based on a childhood game Macca played in Liverpool, and energetic beat quickly grew on me. This track also has one of several mid-song slower breaks with falsetto vocals that show up on this album, no matter who's producing.

    “Early Days,” produced by Johns (son of producer Glyn Johns, who worked with The Beatles and, briefly, Wings) is a lovely autobiographical acoustic number featuring a undoctored, frayed, timeworn McCartney vocal that is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “American Recordings” period. Besides harking back to The Beatles’ early days, the lyrics jab those who profess to know what went on with the Fabs but who weren’t actually there. (Mark Lewisohn, the Beatles biographer of the hour, seems to think Macca is taking a shot at him here, but to me it seems more likely to be aimed at the likes of past writers such as Philip Norman who tried to boost John Lennon's importance in the group at McCartney's expense.)

    The title track and first single, “New,” produced by Ronson with a nice use of horns, is a terrific, bouncy number with a wonderful melody. It’s ironic, considering its title (about Macca’s relationship with third wife Nancy), but it’s the most retro-sounding song on the album, bringing to mind “Revolver”-era Beatles. The coda with Brian Wilson-ish harmonies is a nice touch. “Appreciate,” produced by Martin, is a slightly psychedelic dance track (what would a McCartney album be without one of those?). It has an echoey beat, noisy techno backing and gets into a nice groove. Another Martin track, “Everybody Out There,” was designed to be an audience-participation number in concert. It has a nice hooky guitar riff reminiscent of the “Flaming Pie” era and its shout out to today's indie scene is a sort of neo-folky Lumineersy chorus.

    For me, the album’s only real misfire is “Hosanna,” a droney acoustic ballad produced by Johns that meanders along in search of a melody. It does have an interesting, prominent bass line, though.

    “I Can Bet,” produced by Martin, is another updated Wingsy pop-rock track with a thundering beat and sexy lyrics. You can definitely picture Linda playing the synthesizer solo. “Looking at Her” is a romantic midtempo number with a quintessentially Macca chorus. It’s sung in that higher, lighter voice Paul used on his pop standards album but producer Martin throws in a bit of acid house backing with fuzzy guitar. McCartney also trots out the old mellotron and Moog on this track. And “Road,” produced by Epworth, is another trippy number, reminiscent of “Pretty Little Head” from the "Press to Play" album in the mid-1980s. It has a spacey backing using xylophone and a processed vocal. The “heading for the light” chorus will stick in your head.

    At this point, some might be wondering, “What about a traditional Macca piano love ballad?” Well, on the regular album, “Road” is followed, after a bit of silence, by an unlisted “hidden” track, “Scared,” produced by Martin. (“Scared” comes after the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition.) It’s the ballad you’ve been expecting, presented in a spare production with a naked, rough-edged vocal. Besides Paul’s piano, it has stand-up bass and vibraphone. Not a classic right off the bat, but it also grows on you.

    The deluxe edition features a couple of excellent bonus tracks (by all means, if you're going to get "New," go for the deluxe edition in the blue cover rather than the standard version in the orangey-red cover). “Turned Out,” produced by Johns, is an upbeat, catchy tune with a Wilburys-ish backing featuring Paul on his cigar-box guitar. And “Get Me Out of Here,” produced by Martin, is an acoustic guitar country blues number done rockabilly style with a thunderous beat and backing vocals straight out of an early Elvis record. Macca at one point throws in the line “I’m a celebrity ... ,” making reference to one of Britain’s cheesier reality TV series.

    Released only on the Japanese deluxe edition is another bonus track, “Struggle,” a very dark, moody ambient techno piece with lots of layered sound and chant-like backing vocals. It sounds like a Fireman outtake.

    All in all, “New” shows that, at 71, Macca continues to enjoy not only making music but confounding our expectations of how it will be presented. As he sings in “I Can Bet,” “What I’m going to do next, I leave entirely to your imagination.”

    QUICKIES: OK, some of you might not be ready yet to think about Christmas music, but then there's my daughter Olivia, who's almost always ready for a bit of fa-la-la. For some of us, the most wonderful time of the year arrives Tuesday, Oct. 29, with Real Gone Music's release of Andy Williams' "The Complete Christmas Recordings." Included in the two-disc set are Andy's three Xmas collections ("The Andy Williams Christmas Album" — 1963, "Merry Christmas" — 1965 and "Christmas Present" — 1974), as well as bonus tracks (including "White Christmas" in Spanish and Italian). ... Also out Tuesday from Legacy is "The Essential James Taylor," a two-disc compilation of JT's best, including a couple of live tracks. Sounds like an essential purchase to me. ... Reprise Records has an interesting release coming Nov. 25: Norah Jones and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong treaming up on "Foreverly," a track-for-track remake of the Everly Brothers' classic 1958 album, "Songs Our Daddy Taught Us."

    ON THE TUBE: The only new fall series that has become every-week viewing for me is Fox's new fantasy adventure series "Sleepy Hollow." It's a bizarre mash-up of Washington Irving, the Book of Revelation, witches, demons and fish-out-of-water humor. But as Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit. And while none of the show's story bears very close examination — and some parts are pretty silly — it's quite entertaining, especially Tom Mison as Icabod Crane, who's woken up after 250 years, right at the same time the Hessian horseman he beheaded in the Revolutionary War shows up in Sleepy Hollow. In addition to figuring out the 21st century (there was an amusing bit in the pilot about the proliferation of Starbucks — "Is it a law?" Crane asks) Ichabod has to deal with his witch wife from the 1700s appearing to him to provide some cryptic guidance and beg him to get her out of some sort of purgatory. Nicole Beharie is also very good as the cop whose childhood demonic vision gave her reason to believe Crane's crazy story is true. The chemistry between Mison and Beharie is quite engaging. The first episode (repeated recently before the series took off a couple of weeks for baseball) was one of the best pilots I've seen in years. Some of the subsequent episodes have found the overarching Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mythology getting a bit too convoluted and the demon-of-the-week plots a little over the top, even for this series, while the humorous interplay between the two leads that was a highlight of the pilot has been in shorter supply. Hopefully they'll arrive at a better balance. It's not a difficult concept to pick up even if you haven't seen earlier episodes, so if you're looking for a diverting Monday night hour, this is worth checking out. ...

    The other new show I've caught a couple of episodes of is NBC's "The Blacklist," which also airs on Mondays, but, frankly, I didn't see anything to make me add it to my must-see DVR list. If I'm not otherwise occupied, I'll watch it, but it's not must-see TV. ... My favorite returning network show, "Elementary," is off to a really good start in its sophomore season. This modern-day New York-set Sherlock Holmes is nicely done and leads Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu also have great chemistry. If you're a Holmes fan and haven't yet discovered this Thursday night show, you need to make a point of catching it. ...

    We really enjoyed Starz's recently completed "The White Queen" (even though it necessitated reading up on the War of the Roses). While the BBC decided just to make the one series, the good news is that Starz hopes to develop "The White Princess," a stand-alone sequel miniseries also based on Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War novels. It may not be strictly accurate historically, but it's enjoyable TV. ... Two other cable/satellite shows I'm watching each week are the third season of CIA thriller "Homeland" (which got off to a slow, confusing start but has finally gotten on track) and the new "Masters of Sex," a 1950s-set show about the developing work (and relationship) of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. While Michael Sheen plays Masters as a slightly off-putting cold fish, Lizzy Caplan is quite enticing as Johnson, his secretary-turned-colleague (and future wife). Plus, of course, the show's concept allows plenty of folks to get naked and have sex without it seeming gratuitous. ...

    Not that there's anything wrong with a little gratuitous sex on satellite — speaking of which, "The Spartacus Saga: Uncut" is coming to Starz Oct. 26, with all four seasons of the show repeating on Saturdays in extended episodes featuring bonus footage previously available only on the Blu-ray discs. Host of the repeats is Liam McIntyre, who inherited the title role from original series star Andy Whitfield after the latter became ill and died.

    Leslie and I are pleased to announce the debut of SOMETHING NEW: The Beatlefan Blog! It's a new outlet where we'll offer exclusive opinion pieces, news updates, articles that won't appear in Beatlefan magazine and more! The first post: London Editor Simon Rogers offers his thoughts on the new Mark Lewisohn Beatles biography. Check it out:
    http://beatlefansomethingnew.wordpress.com/

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: pleased
    Monday, August 26th, 2013
    10:10 pm
    A Supporting Role for My Hometown, Plus Batman, Summer TV and More!
    Even if Sundance Festival favorite "The Spectacular Now" wasn't one of the most favorably reviewed films of the year, I would have gone to see it anyway because the director, James Ponsoldt, also hails from my hometown of Athens and shot the film there last summer.

    But you don't have to be from Athens to enjoy the film, which is why it's drawn raves from the likes of The New Yorker and USA Today. While it does fall into the general "coming of age" genre, Ponsoldt's movie avoids most of the cliches and stereotypes of such films with its remarkably unsentimental story of a smart but unambitious and hard-partying charmer who winds up dating a quiet, bookish girl he's barely noticed before.

    Self-destructive Sutter (Miles Teller), who drinks too much and whose mother won't even tell him where his ne’er-do-well father lives, is completely focused on living totally in the moment — the "now" — and not worrying about what lies ahead, while gentle soul Aimee already has her future planned out for herself (if she can just get up the gumption to break away from her stifling mother).

    The conventions of the teen film mostly get turned on their ear in "The Spectacular Now." Do they meet cute? Well, only if you think her coming across him passed out in a front yard while she does her mother's early-morning paper route is cute. They are the proverbial opposites that attract, but actually have much more in common, primarily in their troubled home lives, than you'd initially think. Is the path of true romance a rocky one? Yeah. Do they overcome all obstacles? Not really. And while the film's ending can be viewed as hopeful, if not outright happy, it's also a bit ambivalent (if you see it, watch Aimee's face closely in the final scene).

    Teller and Woodley are both extremely natural and charismatic actors who deserve the rave reviews they've gotten. I think Woodley ("The Descendants") could be our next Jennifer Lawrence. And the supporting cast is very strong, too, from Athens area native and UGA alum Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sutter's parents to Brie Larson ("United States of Tara") as the school beauty who dumps Sutter and Bob Odenkirk ("Breaking Bad") as Sutter's boss at a local menswear store.

    And for those who know the Classic City, Athens, while never named in the film, is prominently featured, with lots of recognizable locations (including legendary local record store Wuxtry and several bars), the halls of Clarke Central High School (formerly Athens High in my day and an ironic choice since Ponsoldt went to crosstown rival Cedar Shoals), Clarke County schoolbuses, and Sutter even wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a local restaurant.

    But what I got a real kick out of came at the movie's very end: In the credits, after all the local businesses and institutions that helped out with the film are listed, Ponsoldt gives a shout out to "the kind, cool, gracious people of Athens, Georgia." And then he adds: "Go Dawgs!"

    How cool is that?

    ON THE TUBE: Largely eschewing reruns, I've watched much more original television than usual this summer — and it's all been on satellite/cable channels rather than the traditional broadcast networks.

    I admit that I initially tuned into FX's cop thriller "The Bridge" primarily for Diane Kruger, but the slow-burn story of an American cop who has Asperger syndrome (Kruger) and a Mexican cop with a troubled marriage (Demián Bichir) who team up to try and solve a mysterious killing soon had me hooked. Besides the mysterious serial killer, there are side stories involving Mexican drug lords, illegal immigration and a fair amount of sex.

    Meanwhile, a couple of new series from Britain have become regular viewing for Leslie and me. "Broadchurch" on BBC America is a pretty engrossing small-town murder mystery with well-drawn characters and a lot of suspects. David Tennant (formerly of "Doctor Who") leads a good cast.

    The other new BBC series, "The White Queen" on Starz, is set in the War of the Roses. It's more "Masterpiece" with sex and nudity than "Game of Thrones," but that's not necessarily a bad thing, as the latter is almost impenetrable if you haven't been with it from the start. The 10-part series is based on Philippa Gregory's novel "The Cousin's War," and the very strong British cast features Max Irons as Edward IV, newcomer Rebecca Ferguson as his commoner Queen (who wound up being Henry VIII's grandmother), along with strong support from the likes of Janet McTeer and James Frain. Unfortunately, I read recently that the BBC doesn't plan continuing the story with a sequel based on Gregory's "The White Princess."

    And then there's the new series of HBO's "The Newsroom," the Aaron Sorkin behind-the-scenes look at a cable TV news network, starring Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston. This season, there's a bit more emphasis on the news process itself and a bit less on the soapy relationships (though there's still some of that), but basically it's still what you'd expect from Sorkin: challenging drama with overly glib dialogue and righteously liberal politics. Still works for me.

    QUICKIES: The weekend fanboy social media outcry over the news that Ben Affleck will play Batman/Bruce Wayne in conflict with Henry Cavill's Superman/Clark Kent in Zack Snyder's sequel to "Man of Steel" reminds me of the uproar created a few years ago when Daniel Craig was announced as the new James Bond. All those dire exclamations of how wrong he was for the part ("He's blond!") were soon forgotten when "Casino Royale" proved to be among the best-ever 007 films. I like what Joss Whedon, director of rival Marvel's "The Avengers," said on Twitter of the Batman casting news: "Affleck'll crush it. He's got the chops, he's got the chin — just needs the material." Indeed. Whedon added: "Affleck and Cavill toe to toe — I'm in." Me, too. ...

    Speaking of Cavill, the good news concerning the upcoming movie remake of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." from director Guy Ritchie is that the current movie Superman has taken over the role of Napoleon Solo previously reported to have been miscast with Tom Cruise. Armie Hammer will play Illya Kuryakin and Hugh Grant has joined the cast as the head of British Naval Intelligence. The cast also includes Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ("Anna Karenina") and Elisabeth Debicki ("The Great Gatsby"). Richie will co-write the script with Lionel Wigram, who wrote both of Richie's Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. Filming is due to begin in September for a 2014 release. ...

    I was really saddened by the news Linda Ronstadt is suffering from Parkinson's disease and is no longer able to sing. In her prime, she had a remarkable voice and was one of rock's biggest stars. I recently got a DVD of her 1977 concert at the Fox Theatre (which I covered), and I was reminded again of what a fantastic talent she was. Here's a clip:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eo0pC6228dM

    East meets West: Sisters Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones (daughters of the late Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar) team up on "Traces of You," from a forthcoming album by Anoushka, and the video was done by film director Joe Wright ("Pride & Prejudice," "Atonement"). Check it out:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturevideo/musicvideo/10263706/Anoushka-Shankar-and-Norah-Jones-Traces-of-You-exclusive-video.html

    NPR is streaming Neko Case's new album, "The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You." I really love her voice and I like the production on much of this album, but I just wish the tunes themselves were stronger. See what you think:
    http://www.npr.org/series/98679384/first-listen

    NPR also is streaming highlights from from Bob Dylan's "Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)":
    http://www.npr.org/2013/08/18/210228529/first-listen-bob-dylan-highlights-from-another-self-portrait-1969-1971

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.
    Monday, July 1st, 2013
    7:10 pm
    From Roman slaves and Russian spies to a new Man of Steel
    I've been reading lately about how the traditional TV networks are rediscovering limited-run series — formerly known as the miniseries — in an effort to bolster their dwindling audience by emulating the round-the-calendar use of short-run series favored by cable channels.

    Looking back over my own viewing habits the past few months, I've concluded there's something to that line of thinking. It's been an unusual television season for me in that I've been a regular weekly viewer of an unprecedented number of series — and yet all but a couple have been on cable rather than on the traditional networks.

    On the network side, the high point definitely was CBS' Sherlock Holmes series "Elementary" — somewhat surprisingly so in that it was obviously emulating the BBC/PBS "Sherlock" in re-setting Holmes and Watson in the modern day. I tuned in initially wondering whether Jonny Lee Miller could possibly compete with the wonderful work Benedict Cumberbatch has done in the two brief series of "Sherlock."

    He did just fine, thank you, and "Elementary" proved to be a fresh, different take on Holmes and Watson thanks to its twists —setting the show in New York City, having Holmes be a recovering drug addict (rather than an occasional user when he's bored) and making Watson a woman (played by Lucy Liu). That was nothing, though, compared with the surprises in the fantastic season finale featuring the sublime Natalie Dormer as Holmes' one great love ... and arch enemy. Yes — SPOILER ALERT! — Irene Adler turned out to be Moriarty. The interplay between Miller, Liu and Dormer was electric — there was definitely some work meriting Emmy consideration in that episode.

    But beyond that, most of my unusually heavy viewing this winter and spring was on cable, starting with the final season of Starz' bloody, sexy and very much underrated "Spartacus," which managed to hold my interest despite the fact that anyone with a passing knowledge of Roman history knew how it was going to end.

    Then came the British import "Ripper Street" on BBC America, with Matthew Macfadyen as a Scotland Yard detective exploring the nascent field of forensics while policing the worst area of Victorian London in the aftermath of the Jack the Ripper killings. Yes, it was a tad formulaic in that it featured yet another damaged detective, but it was well cast and handsomely staged.

    Over on FX, "The Americans" gave last fall's "Homeland" a run for its money as the season's best series, cable or broadcast, with its through-the-looking-glass tale of a couple of Soviet spies living as a suburban American couple outside D.C. at the dawn of the Reagan era. The series was tensely plotted and took a couple of unexpected turns, but the best part was the relationship between the couple, played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who had a hard time figuring out whether theirs was still a "fake" marriage after 20 years of living together and a couple of kids. The ultimate accolade for the show is that you found yourself rooting for them not to get caught, even if you didn't want their missions to succeed. This one's getting a lot of Emmy talk.

    A much lower-profile but no less enthralling entry was the BBC America original series "Orphan Black," a sci-fi thriller that featured a tour de force series of performances (playing very different cloned "sisters") by Canadian star Tatiana Maslany. She definitely deserves an Emmy. On top of that, though, the premise was set up in an intriguing way, so it wasn't just your typical "conspiracy" plot. And the writing was smart and sassy — great dialogue! If you haven't watched the series, try catching up online or check it out on DVD and Blu-ray (out July 16).

    And then there's the grandaddy of prestigious cable series, "Mad Men," which recently wound up its sixth and penultimate series. Actually, I know several folks who became disenchanted with the show this season and, frankly, it did get off to a muddled start with antihero ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in a malaise that saw him returning to his cheating ways and drinking more heavily than ever amid all the turmoil of 1968. However, I thought "Mad Men" got back on track midway through the season and wound up with a terrific series of challenging episodes as Don hit bottom, professionally and personally, while ex-wife Betty (January Jones) — a complete bore in the previous couple of seasons — got her mojo back (and, as my son noted, got "thin and hot" again). It's going to be really interesting to see how creator Matthew Weiner wraps this up next year.

    Bottom line: As Alec Baldwin noted recently in the Guardian, "Cable TV is the bastion of great acting now." And there's more to look forward to this summer, what with the return of "The Newsroom" and the debuts of "The Bridge" and "Broadchurch."

    AT THE MOVIES: While I've been watching more TV series this year, I've conversely been going to the movies much less than usual. At a point in the year where I've typically seen close to a half-dozen films, so far in 2013 I've seen only two. Partly, that's been because I've been busy and it's been tough to fit moviegoing (and blogging here) into my schedule, but also there just hasn't been much I've wanted to see badly enough to head to the multiplex.

    An exception was "Man of Steel," which I caught today. I must say it's my favorite Superman film so far. Not perfect by any means, but finally we have a movie version of the original comic book superhero that isn't saddled with a campy tone or buffoonish bad guys.

    In fact, there's very little humor in it at all. If the charming lighter side of the Christopher Reeve incarnation of the character was your favorite thing about those films, well, you probably won't like this one.

    But if you welcomed the dark, gritty tone created by Christopher Nolan for his "Dark Knight" Batman films, you'll find this new approach to Superman very similar — not a surprise since Nolan produced and co-wrote it.

    I had minor quibbles — the Kryptonian prologue went on too long and the battle scenes were a bit Transformer-ish for my taste — but Amy Adams kicks butt as Lois Lane and I really liked Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Kal-El (the name "Superman" is only uttered once in the film). I've read a couple of reviews that complained about a lack of chemistry between Adams and Cavill, but I very much disagree. I thought their scenes together were terrific.

    There are a couple of new wrinkles in the Superman legend introduced here — I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that Lois knows Clark Kent's secret from midway in the film — but overall I thought it was true to the spirit of the comic books and showed great respect for the material — like I said, no spoofy bad guys or phone booth jokes. Plus, it succeeds on its own terms, rather than trying to ride the coattails of the Reeve films like 2006's underwhelming "Superman Returns" did.

    If you liked Nolan's Batman films but are on the fence about seeing this one, I'd recommend giving it a try.

    Speaking of Superman, I've enjoyed reading Larry Tye's "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" this summer. Tye provides a vivid picture of the mostly Jewish creators of the Man of Steel in the comics as well as on radio, TV, Broadway and film, while also placing the character in a larger social context. Pop culture history at its best.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.
    Monday, April 1st, 2013
    9:21 pm
    Renewing the Late Night Shuffle, and the Lost Art of TV Conversation
    Remember the protracted Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien "Tonight Show" debacle three years ago, a classic case of corporate ineptitude/mismanagement in which the NBC television network managed to diminish one of its longstanding tentpole programs, turn its 10 p.m. weeknight time slot into a ratings sinkhole, embarrass one of the network's major names and lose a promising younger star at the same time?

    Now, apparently having learned nothing about the way to deal with the thorny problem of replacing the still top-rated but older-skewing Leno, the Peacock Network (currently owned by the evil Comcast Empire) apparently is bumbling its way through still another installment of its late-night follies.

    The New York Times (which has owned the late-night news beat going back to 1992 and NBC's original Johnny Carson-Leno-Letterman cock-up) recently reported that sometime in 2014 NBC plans on replacing 62-year-old Leno as host of the 11:35 p.m. "Tonight" broadcast with "Saturday Night Live" alum Jimmy Fallon, 38, who currently mans the desk at the 12:25 a.m. "Late Night" franchise started by Letterman and previously home to O'Brien.

    (UPDATE: Leno made it official Wednesday, April 3, announcing he will wrap up his 22 years as host of "The Tonight Show" in the spring of 2014 — some seven months before his contract was officially due to end. Fallon will "transition into new hosting duties on 'The Tonight Show'" after Leno ends his run, NBC said in a statement.The network also confirmed it was moving "The Tonight Show" from its Burbank studio, outside Los Angeles, to New York, where it began in 1954.)

    It appears NBC's decision to cut and run has been prompted at least in part by the success ABC's Jimmy Kimmel is having in the coveted 18-34 demographic since his program was moved up ahead of "Nightline."

    But the awkward way NBC's determination to again force Leno out of the "Tonight" host seat has leaked out — amid pointed barbs about the network's ratings collapse and reptillian execs in Leno's usually innocuous monologues — has given late-night observers a feeling of deja vu all over again. As my old schoolmate, Associated Press TV critic Frazier Moore, noted: "Name an NBC program with more laughs, intrigue, double-dealing and disgrace than when the network moved Jay Leno to prime time and handed Conan O'Brien the 'Tonight' show, then reversed itself several months later, bringing back Leno and losing Conan (along with his $45 million exit payment). These days NBC's prime time is in shambles. Bungling at 'Today' ended NBC's morning dominance. Can NBC go three-for-three by screwing with its late-night lineup?"

    Actually, I have no problem with Fallon replacing Leno, whose bloated ego; tired, predictable jokes; and skim-the-surface interviews long ago bolstered my inclination to stick with Letterman even on one of Dave's off nights. Fallon is an ingratiating presence on the tube and probably will provide a less-jarring transition for Jay's not particularly demanding audience than just about any other likely choice as new host for "Tonight." And the reported plans to keep Fallon based in New York City, rather than move him to Leno's base of L.A., seems like a good idea, since Fallon definitely has more of an East Coast orientation.

    But the prospect of Fallon leaving 12:35 and moving up an hour has set off lots of speculation about the ripple effect it's likely to have on the late-night TV scene. Rumored possible contenders to replace Fallon at "Late Night" range from controversial radio legend Howard Stern to the seemingly more likely Seth Meyers, who does "Weekend Update" on "SNL," which, like "Late Night," is produced by Lorne Michaels.

    And what does the future hold for CBS' "Late Show" when Letterman retires, which is expected to be in a couple of years?

    While Craig Ferguson, whose 12:35 a.m. "Late Late Show" is produced by Letterman's Worldwide Pants company, reportedly has a contractual right of first refusal, it's hard to see the multitalented Scotsman really wanting to smooth the rough edges off his offbeat late late-night act for the earlier audience. CraigyFerg's act — with its gay skeleton robot announcer, triple entendres and dancing horse — doesn't seem an ideal fit for the more mainstream 11:35 time slot.

    Trying to lure Kimmel, an avowed Letterman disciple, away from ABC (possibly resulting in a bidding war) would be one option. Or CBS might try to up its hip quotient considerably by hiring Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert away from Comedy Central. (The pending vacancy at CBS is considered one of the reasons NBC wants to go ahead and lock Fallon into its own 11:35 spot.) Of the two, Stewart has the larger following and is brilliant at skewering political targets, but isn't a much better interviewer than Fallon.

    One thing that's considered highly unlikely is a major network return for O'Brien, who's now toiling in the relative obscurity of basic cable's TBS, where he draws well among younger viewers but doesn't pull much of an audience beyond that and seems as trendy as last year's news.

    (For an interesting analysis of the major late night hosts with comparisons to old-time hosts like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, check out a piece Ken Tucker wrote for Grantland:
    http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9097994/assessing-state-late-night-television-shows-turbulent-week

    Speaking of the erudite Cavett, Tucker raises a valid point: None of the current crop of late-night hosts has proved to be a particularly adept conversationalist. The days of Cavett spending an hour talking with the likes of Groucho Marx or John Lennon are long gone. Ferguson probably could do it, if he weren't so focused on sillyness — at least, based on the no-audience one-guest installment of his show he did with fellow Brit Stephen Fry about three years ago. But the fact that he's never repeated that critically praised experiment would seem to indicate he's not really interested.

    As for the others, if they're not fawning over a guest (Fallon's specialty), they mostly serve up softball questions punctuated by a couple of one-liners as a familar stream of celebs stop by to promote their latest movie, TV show or whatever. Even Letterman is guilty of this, though with the right guest the quick-witted, acerbic old man of late night still can leave the younger hosts floundering in his wake.

    I really wonder whether any of the younger hosts will be able to handle serious interviews with politicians or experts on important subjects, as Letterman can do, or help the viewing audience get past tough times like 9/11 — again, as Dave did. Fallon's taped bits and game parodies are clever and fun, but his interviews are strictly schmoozefests. I like Kimmel and I like the way he openly patterns himself after Dave, but I'm not sure he has the gravitas; we'll see.

    I actually think Colbert might be CBS' best choice as a successor to Letterman. In that new role, he could finally drop the faux-conservative persona, and he might well prove to be as interesting and charming as he is when he guests on talk shows. 

    MY TUNES: Eric Clapton's recently released "Old Sock" (Bushbranch/Surfdog) is a low-key, fitfully satisfying collection of cover tunes plus a couple of new songs turned out by some of the folks he collaborated with on the album, Slowhand's 21st studio effort. When it all clicks, as on the Great American Songbook standard "All of Me," which features Paul McCartney duetting with Clapton as well as playing stand-up bass, it's a delight. The two classic rockers' aging voices blend beautifully on the jazzy honkytonk rendition of the Gerald Marks tune. There's more good stuff, including a countryish rendition of the old folk standard "Goodnight Irene"; a bluesy take of Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues" that boasts Steve Winwood on Hammond B3 organ and some tasty guitar work by Clapton; rootsy versions of the show tune "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" and the country oldie "Born to Lose" that are nicely flavored with pedal steel, accordion and dobro; and a laid-back, jazzy rendition of the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay" that calls to mind McCartney's "Kisses on the Bottom" standards album from last year. But even with guest appearances by the likes of Taj Mahal, JJ Cale and Chaka Khan too much of the album comes off as generic Clapton, with too little time devoted to his guitar-playing and an overreliance on cod-reggae rhythms to try and inject some bounce into the proceedings. I'd advise downloading the best tracks mentioned above and skipping the album as a whole.

    AT THE MOVIES: I was both pleased and disappointed by the recent news that the long-in-gestation big-screen version of "The Man From UNCLE" is moving ahead. The good news: Guy Ritchie, who's done the recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, appears to be taking the helm as the picture's director. The bad news: The departure from the project of George Clooney because of back trouble (Clooney's pal Steven Soderbergh previously was set to direct). Clooney would have been a brilliant choice to follow in Robert Vaughn's urbane steps as Napoleon Solo. His replacement, Tom Cruise, not so much. Leslie said she thinks Cruise would be better suited as a villain from THRUSH, and I'm inclined to agree. She also suggests that the producers should have Vaughn and David McCallum in the film, perhaps as senior officials at UNCLE. Personally, I think McCallum, who's in the ultra successful longrunning hit "NCIS" on CBS, would make a perfect successor to Leo G. Carroll, who played UNCLE boss Alexander Waverly in the original series. As for who should take McCallum's place as Solo's Russian partner, Illya Kuryakin, I'm inclined to think Jude Law, who has been so successful as second banana Watson in Ritchie's Holmes flicks, is the perfect choice. What do you think?

    ON THE TUBE: Leslie and I caught the premiere of "Orphan Black" on BBC America Saturday night. It's an intriguing premise (a petty criminal sees her identical double commit suicide and then impulsively tries to assume her identity — not really a spoiler as the previews have tipped you off to that) and star Tatiana Maslany is undeniably appealing and sexy. But for most of the first episode her lead character wasn't very likable or relatable. And neither were any of the other characters. Toward the end, as things started to spin out of control for her, I started to feel a bit of empathy, so I think I'll give this series a shot. But that raises a point that's bothered me about some other recent series, most notably HBO's sex-and-whine-fest "Girls." The writing is clever, but there aren't any characters you can really like or even relate to. The central character, played and written by Lena Dunham, is irritatingly self-involved, and even the show's least obnoxious character, played by Allison Williams (daughter of NBC news anchor Brian), is hopelessly neurotic. It all gets tiresome. By comparison, the achievement of the producers/writers of FX's very adult current series "The Americans," about a pair of Russian spies posing as a suburban married couple living near Washington early in the Reagan era, is that much more impressive. You actually find yourself liking and wanting things to work out well for a couple of KGB agents (wonderfully played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) rather than the FBI folks trying to thwart them!

    BEATLES TALK: To mark the 200th issue of Beatlefan magazine, I chatted recently with Beatles Examiner Steve Marinucci and syndicated radio host Ken Michaels for their "Things We Said Today" Beatles podcast. We talk about how the magazine got started, its most memorable moments, controversial articles over the years, and much more. If you're of a Fab Four persuasion, check it out. It can be downloaded in the iTunes store or you can just click on the link below and listen to it streaming:
    http://beatlesexaminer.podbean.com/

    For more of my thoughts on TV, movies, music and pop culture in general, check out my posts on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/badston.

    And if you'd like to comment on anything in this column, feel free to click on comments below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: contemplative
    Monday, January 14th, 2013
    5:15 pm
    Another Quickie look back: Highs and lows of 2012
    Back in December, when I was writing the holiday letter of family news we send out to friends, it struck me that no matter how many good things happened to the Kings in 2012 — and there were a lot of them — a tinge of sadness permeated the year because of the passing of my 89-year-old father.

    Likewise, looking back now at the year 2012 in entertainment, I got a lot of pleasure out of quite a few performances, but what stands out the most to me are the many talented favorites we lost during the year — most notably my favorite television performer of all time, Andy Griffith. But there were so many more, including Dick Clark, Ernest Borgnine, Robin Gibb, Davy Jones, Andy Williams, Ravi Shankar, Victor Spinetti, Earl Scruggs, Larry Hagman, Dave Brubeck, Charles Durning, Jack Klugman and Jonathan Frid.

    So with a final tip of the hat to the departed, let me quickly catch up now on what I enjoyed over the holiday period and run through the highlights of the rest of 2012's offerings ...

    AT THE MOVIES: I'd never seen any production of "Les Miserables" before, but my daughter Olivia is a big fan of the stage musical so I went with her to see the movie version, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not your typical movie adaptation of a stage musical in that the actors sang "live" on the set, rather than miming to a prerecorded track, which added considerably to the realism. And the story is almost entirely sung, rather than having people suddenly break into song between dialogue as is done in most musicals. Not everyone in the cast had a Broadway-ready singing voice, but that also made it seem a bit more real, I thought. Not being familiar with the play, I was a bit surprised that Anne Hathaway's character was in the fairly lengthy film for such a short time, but she makes quite an impression anyway, especially the "I Dreamed a Dream" number. And she has a wonderful voice. Hugh Jackman was fantastic, as expected. And while Russell Crowe is no balladeer, he did quite a good job. Amanda Seyfried was a little shrill in the upper register but was a suitably lovely Cosette. All in all, a good movie musical for those who generally don't like movie musicals.

    Olivia and I also saw "The Hobbit" and, quite frankly, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Yes, it's too long. The opening part tends to drag a bit as it sets up the back-story (including a cameo by Elijah Wood as Frodo from "Lord of the Rings") and introduces the 13 dwarves who make up Bilbo and Gandalf's companions on the story's quest. It easily could have been trimmed a half-hour off the 2-hour-46-minute running time. And, yes, it will take maybe 10 minutes or so for your eyes become accustomed to the higher frame-speed at which director Peter Jackson shot the film. At first, the picture looks a bit unreal (even for a fantasy story) and lacks some of the warmth of traditional film. But after you adjust, you'll find the higher definition pays off, especially in the scenes with Gollum (which takes the motion-capture technology to new heights). The film may start slow, but once the journey is under way it's one adventure after another as they battle their way through trolls, orcs and goblins. As Olivia said, you hardly get a chance to catch a breath between action sequences. And Martin Freeman (of "Sherlock" and the British "The Office" fame) does a wonderful job of filling out the character of the younger Bilbo. Ian McKellen does his usual fine job as Gandalf, Andy Serkins is superb as Gollum, and among the new additions, Richard Armitage is impressive as head dwarf Thorin Oakenshield. Some critics have complained you can't tell the dwarves apart, but I didn't find that to be the case (though I couldn't remember their names). Despite its length, it doesn't feel padded once you get past the opening, and the addition of material from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Rings" appendices that doesn't appear in the original "Hobbit" novel provides a nice portentious bridge to the "Rings" trilogy. Overall, it's a well-done film that fans of Jackson's "Rings" trilogy shouldn't miss.

    The only film I went to the cinema to see twice in 2012 was the latest James Bond epic, "Skyfall." I first saw it with my daughter and then went back with Leslie, so obviously I really enjoyed it. It manages to update the old 007 movie formula (with self-contained debate about whether agents like Bond are still needed in the cyber age) with quite a few nods to the past. There's the usual carnage, but a surprisingly large amount of it is old-fashioned low-tech stuff. We revisit Bond's and M's pasts. And there's quite a twist toward the end that allows Daniel Craig to once again personalize and humanize his Bond, as he did in "Casino Royale." Highly recommended.

    But if I had to pick one film that I went to see last year that I'd rank above all the others, it would be the superb "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," a dark, moody, slow-burn puzzler of a Cold War spy story with no car chases or explosions. Gary Oldman was fantastic as the taciturn but always watchful George Smiley.

    Other films I saw in 2012 that I thought were exceptional included the English-language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara; Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," which was well-done sci-fi horror with a terrific performance by Noomi Rapace; and "The Dark Knight Rises," in which Christopher Nolan wrapped up his Batman trilogy in thrilling style, with epic scope, stunning pictures, superb action and a refreshingly dark, somber tone. Christian Bale and Anne Hathaway headed an excellent cast.

    Films that didn't quite rank with those but which I still enjoyed: "Farewell, My Queen," a subtitled French period costume drama about the confusion and intrigue at Versailles during the outbreak of the French Revolution with wonderful performances by Lea Seydoux and Diane Kruger; "Arbitrage," a nifty financial thriller that has a top-notch cast featuring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth and Stuart Margolin; and the indie film "Safety Not Guaranteed," a quirky sort-of time travel tale that really was more a comedic character study/relationship film.

    The only film I went to see last year that I really did not enjoy was the Tim Burton remake of "Dark Shadows," starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire. It started out with promise, mixing humor and horror, but the film went completely off the rails in the second half, with an over-the-top climax that seemed like they were just throwing every horror movie cliche they could think of at the screen, whether it made any sense or not.

    ON THE TUBE: If you've ever been a Sherlock Holmes fan and you haven't been following CBS' "Elementary" series, you're missing a treat. What started out as something in between PBS' similarly modernized "Sherlock" and a typical CBS procedural has grown much more complex and interesting. "Sherlock" is more closely tied to the Conan Doyle canon, but that isn't always an advantage (the British series' updating of "Hounds of the Baskervilles" having been a bit of a disappointment). Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes in "Elementary" is every bit as arrogant and brilliant, but is more human and vulnerable than Benedict Cumberbatch's rather cold, cruel Holmes in "Sherlock." And Lucy Liu's female Watson is less traditional than Martin Freeman's in "Sherlock," but no less interesting. The interplay between Miller and Liu gets better as the back story of both (none of which is traditional Holmes) is unreeled. Both series offer new twists on such Holmes staples as Irene Adler and Moriarty. I'm a fan of both series, but "Elementary" is a lot more accesssible, not least because it's available weekly while "Sherlock" is very limited (six episodes in two years so far). I highly recommend "Elementary."

    As for the rest of my television highlights from 2012, I'd give the top spot to the second season of Showtime's terrorist conspiracy thriller "Homeland," which kept throwing viewers curve balls and had a wonderful Anglo-American cast headed by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin. I absolutely loved the way the big twist in the season finale sends this series in a completely unexpected direction.

    Also still among TV's best was AMC's period piece "Mad Men," which moved into 1966, touching on various mileposts of the era, from race relations to the obstacles faced by career women to tripping on LSD. Watching the superb cast topped by Jon Hamm and John Slattery explore their flawed but fascinating characters was as satisfying as ever. And a worthy newcomer was Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom" on HBO, which managed to blend media self-scrutiny and soap opera while making serious political points. Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer headed another wonderfully talented cast.

    Other TV offerings I really enjoyed included the gritty BBC America Civil War-era series "Copper"; "Game Change," the superb HBO movie starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin; the off-the-charts sci-fi weirdness of the final series of J.J. Abrams' "Fringe" on Fox; the interplay between the regular cast members on CBS' sometimes-over-the-top procedural "Hawaii Five-O"; and the skewering of West Wing stereotypes in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus HBO satire "Veep." As for "Girls," the Lena Dunham 20-something sex comedy for HBO that did so well at Sunday night's Golden Globes, I admired the clever, at times brutal, self-portrait of a coddled generation, but found it difficult to actually like any of the characters. I'm still watching, though.

    Most lamented loss of the year on TV was another J.J. Abrams series on Fox, "Alcatraz," which had an intriguing time-bending premise but apparently moved too slowly for the prime-time network audience. Too bad.

    MY TUNES: My favorite album release of 2012 was Paul McCartney's tasty stroll down Tin Pan Alley for "Kisses on the Bottom." Backed by a terrific jazz band headed by Diana Krall, Macca came up with a sublime collection of pop standards plus a couple of new tunes that fit right in. Another favorite was George Harrison's "Early Takes Volume 1," a collection of demos and early versions of songs that was enthralling in its simplicity. Other albums from last year that I enjoyed included Bob Dylan's "Tempest," Krall's own "Glad Rag Doll," Jeff Lynne's "Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra," Carole King's "The Legendary Demos," Joe Walsh's "Analog Man," the Decemberists' "We All Raise Our Voices to the Air" (a career-spanning live collection), Mumford and Sons' "Babel" and the gorgeous folk harmonies of the Staves' "Dead & Born & Grown."

    Among the individual tracks I really enjoyed last year were Eric Hutchinson's "Watching You Watch Him," Gotye's song-of-the-year contender "Somebody That I Used to Know," the Black Keys' "Lonely Boy" (actually released in late 2011 but an alternative radio staple in 2012), the Shins' "Simple Song," John Mayer's "Shadow Days" and "Queen of California," Of Monsters and Men's "Little Talks," the Lumineers' "Ho Hey," Phillip Phillips' "Home," Imagine Dragons' "It's Time," Anna Sun's "This House Is Falling Apart," Mumford and Sons' "I Will Wait," Tristan Prettyman's "My Oh My" and Ringo Starr's remake of his '70s tune "Wings," as recorded live at Atlanta's Fox Theatre. Seeing Ringo's All Starrs at the Fox with Leslie and Livvy was my only concert foray of the year and a totally enjoyable one!

    ON THE SHELF: Among the DVD releases I really enjoyed this year were the remastered version of The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," McCartney doing his pop standards thing live at the historic Capitol Studios for "Live Kisses," the deluxe set of Martin Scorsese's "George Harrison: Living in the Material World" (including a very nice book), "Sherlock: Season 2," "Strange Fruit: The Beatles' Apple Records" and the Criterion Collection reissue of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps." Books from 2012 I can recommend: Larry Tye's "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," Coyne S. Sanders and Tom Gilbert's "Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz," "James Bond: 50 Years of Movie Posters," Robert Rodriguez's "Revolver: How The Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll," the updating of Alan Barnes' "Sherlock Holmes On Screen: The Complete Film and TV History," and, for history buffs, Antony Beevor's "The Second World War."

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column or share your own favorites from 2012, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: contemplative
    Thursday, December 13th, 2012
    6:33 pm
    12.12.12: The Concert That Wouldn't End
    By the time Paul McCartney took the stage at the marathon 12.12.12 benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy relief, it was 12.13.12.

    At five hours and 50 minutes, watching the whole thing was something of an endurance test, though it was worth it since concerts like this only seem to come around a couple of times a decade. (Thankfully, I should say, since they're usually precipitated by some sad event.)

    This one had a pretty varied 40-minute set by McCartney, with five rockers and two ballads. I know some folks found it a bit lacking in the unforgettable sing-along classic quotient, but I was actually glad he skipped the overdone "Hey Jude" that he so often does at these all-star things. And the number he did with the members of Nirvana, while not a great song, was an exciting, generation-spanning performance.

    I also was relieved that McCartney's infamously time-worn voice wasn't the shakiest on display at Madison Square Garden (that dubious honor belonging to a rather strangled-sounding Roger Daltrey).

    Highlights of the evening, besides Macca's set, included Bruce Springsteen's heartfelt half-hour opening sequence, the middle portion of The Who's somewhat meandering set, Billy Joel singing the exact songs the New York crowd wanted to hear, Michael Stipe joining Chris Martin (with a shout out to my hometown of Athens!) and an impressive solo turn by Alicia Keys, the sole female headliner. I could have done without Kanye West and his leather skirt, though.

    But the low point of the evening, not counting Adam Sandler's and Jon Bon Jovi's haircuts, definitely was the dragging, unfunny "Drunk Uncle" sketch by Seth Meyers and Bobby Moynihan of "Saturday Night Live." Brian Williams mistakenly referring to Pete Townshend as Keith Moon in one of his phone-bank segments came a close second.

    All in all, it was a well-produced show that needed trimming back by at least an hour, even if it was largely a dream bill of aging classic rockers that may well never be repeated.

    "This has to be the largest collection of old British musicians ever at Madison Square Garden," Mick Jagger joked at one point. However, the best line went to Coldplay's Martin, who noted he was the youngest performer on the bill (actually, that was Keys) and cheekily suggested audience members should figure their donation for the evening by calculating the average age of the concert's performers. "I think you'll raise billions," he said.

    Of course, the solid gold lineup was deliberate, as one of the concert's producers noted backstage: It was aimed squarely at baby boomers, who have the most money to donate. Still, you've got to wonder why they think boomers wouldn't have been spurred to open their wallets by a couple of more women on the bill.

    Taking a closer look at the evening's performances, I thought Springsteen provided a suitable serving of gravitas with the likes of "Land of Hope and Dreams," "Wrecking Ball" and "My City in Ruins." And, considering they're fellow Jersey boys, the duet with Bon Jovi on "Born to Run" was predictable but acceptable (though I thought the Boss returning the favor on "Who Says You Can't Go Home" during Bon Jovi's set was a bit of overkill in a show that was destined to run way too long).

    The Roger Waters segment of Pink Floyd tunes provided another of the evening's superstar team-ups when Eddie Vedder joined him to sing "Comfortably Numb." Overall, though, Waters' presentation of music from "The Wall" and "The Dark Side of the Moon" came off a bit lacking in the sort of emotion that fuels shows like this. And David Gilmour's guitar definitely was missed. Plus, as my son noted, without the full light show those numbers aren't as satisfying.

    Bon Jovi's “It’s My Life,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” leading up to his second duet with Springsteen weren't bad (again, except for the hair) and certainly were on point with the audience at Madison Square Garden.

    Eric Clapton's set was surprisingly low-key, as he did a couple of more obscure songs in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Got to Get Better in a Little While” before trotting out the familiar “Crossroads."

    The Rolling Stones' brief two-song segment consisted of shambolic (even by Stones standards) performances of "You Got Me Rockin'" (one of the most uninspired choices of the entire show) and "Jumping Jack Flash." I understand they had a concert in New Jersey set for the next night and don't like back-to-back shows, but their presentation frankly came off a bit perfunctory — and deservedly drew a couple of barbed references by actor Steve Buscemi in the between-sets segment that followed. He joked that the producers made room for him by cutting the Stones short: "I said, 'If they play more than two songs, I'm out of here.'"

    New York City native Keys, alone at the piano, impressed me greatly with her impassioned renditions of “Brand New Me” (a post-breakup ballad that some critics thought an odd choice but which I thought was in keeping with the rather defiant mood of the evening) and “No One,” which was turned into a love song for the Big Apple (and featured this century's twist on my generation's penchant for holding up cigarette lighters at concerts — now replaced by glowing cellphones).

    When it comes to The Who, perhaps I was expecting too much as I remember their absolutely killer set at the similar 9/11 concert on the same stage, but their six-song segment was a bit of a mixed bag. The "kids" started out alright with "Who Are You," but then presented "Bell Boy," complete with the late Keith Moon singing the lead vocal on the video screen while Daltry had his back to the audience. I realize they're prepping a "Quadrophenia" tour and Moon is a beloved figure, but the mini-tribute to him seemed out of place at this show. Things got back on track with "Pinball Wizard"/"See Me, Feel Me" and "Baba O'Reilly" (with Pete Townshend altering the lyrics to "a Sandy wasteland" at one point), but "Love, Reign O'er Me" dragged a bit, and winding up with "Tea & Theatre," an acoustic number unknown to most in both the arena and the worldwide viewing audience, was definitely anti-climactic.

    Like I said earlier, Daltrey's voice wasn't in the best shape, either, and his efforts at his trademark lariat-style mic swinging were a trifle underwhelming, but he did provide one of the evening's more tweet-worthy moments with his geezerdom-defying glistening bared chest.

    Kanye West went the medley route, cramming in abbreviated versions of nearly a dozen of his hits, only one of which ("Jesus Walks") I recognized. I'm just not into hip-hop. If I'd been in the arena, that would have been the opportunity to take Townshend's advice and "have a fucking beer!"

    Long Island native Billy Joel might not look the part of the cocksure rock 'n' roller any more, but musically he was his usual reliable self, running through a set of tunes that resonated with the audience, starting with his post-Sandy rewrite of “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)" and continuing through "Moving Out (Anthony's Song)" and a snippet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" leading into the obligatory "New York State of Mind." The latter wasn't as emotional a performance as at the 9/11 concert, but still satisfied. Then came a toe-tapping "River of Dreams" and a pair of Joel classics in "You May Be Right" and "Only the Good Die Young."

    Joel also served as a pugnacious voice for the folks in the region slammed by Sandy when he said, “We’re going to get through all this. This is New York and New Jersey and Long Island, and we’re just too mean to lay down and die.”

    Chris Martin had another nice quip when he came on past midnight representing the younger branch of British rock, saying, "I know you really wanted One Direction, but it's way past their bedtime. That's why you get one-quarter of Coldplay." Which was enough to satisfy, as Martin did a nice acoustic guitar version of "Viva La Vida" and a solo piano take of "Us Against the World" before providing one of the evening's few real surprises by bringing Stipe "out of retirement" to join him on a version of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."

    Ringo might not appreciate Martin saying he had to get off the stage quickly to make way for "The Beatles," but when McCartney and his touring band finally took the stage at 12:35 a.m., Beatles is what we got, at least initially, as Paul, dressed casually in a white shirt and light blue jeans, established his rocker bona fides right away by opening with a rousing "Helter Skelter."

    Then came "Let Me Roll It," which provides Macca a chance to play some lead on his color-splashed Gibson (though I wish he had played more), and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" on the grand piano. While I always enjoy the two Wings tunes, I can see my son's point that they perhaps weren't the best choices for this setting. As he put it, "'Let Me Roll It' is too slow and '1985' changes tempo too much to develop any kind of groove with those abrupt 'oooh oooh ohh' interludes. They are decent songs, but just didn't work for the setting."

    Probably neither did Macca's recent "My Valentine," which works better in the jazz setting in which it originally was recorded, but it did at least provide an opportunity to bring Diana Krall out on piano, thus doubling the number of big-name women participating in the concert. (It would have been great to have Clapton playing the guitar solo he performed on the record, but by the time Paul took the stage Eric, whose set had been hours earlier, was probably at home in bed watching the show on the tube.) The next tune, "Blackbird," is also a ballad, but it's such a beloved one that it was a pretty safe choice, even if, as my daughter ruefully noted, it does showcase the limitations of Sir Paul's 70-year-old voice. One hiccup: The earnest if clunky intros to the two ballads, in which Paul tried a bit too hard to connect the circumstances in which they were written to Sandy. Awkward, but his heart was in the right place.

    Then it was time for the teaming of Macca with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear of Nirvana for "Cut Me Some Slack," a tune they all recently recorded for the soundtrack of a film Grohl is making about the Sound City studios. I thought the song had a nice "Helter Skelter"-ish groove, even if it didn't have much of a melody. It definitely fit in well in such a show, and I got a kick out of Macca playing slide on a cool-looking cigar box-style 4-string guitar with resonator.

    McCartney then was rejoined by his band for a choice Beatles selection, "I've Got a Feeling," followed by a real crowd-pleaser in the bombastic "Live and Let Die," which had such intense flashpots and fireworks at the end that Macca said it left him blinded. I got the impression he may have been only half-joking. All in all, a solid Macca set worth staying up late to catch.

    That wasn't the end, although the concert finale wasn't the expected all-star jam. Instead, Macca was joined onstage by many of the heroes of the aftermath of Sandy while Keys took over the piano to belt out her "Empire State of Mind." It was a suitable New York-centric selection, but the sight of her singing while Macca, wearing a firefighter's hat, swayed and posed for pictures onstage with the various first-responders made for a slightly odd wrap-up to the marathon show.

    And so the concert that wouldn't end finally did. Of course, it wasn't nearly as long as Live Aid; it simply felt that way at times. But it was definitely for a good cause and boasted enough memorable musical moments to be considered an overall success.

    Let's just hope it's a few years before we have to do this again, and, when we do, these aging superstars are still around to heed the call.
    Monday, October 29th, 2012
    8:10 pm
    Of missiles, mystery tours and more
    Already this year we've marked numerous notable 50th anniversaries, from the founding of the U.S. Navy SEALS, K-mart and WalMart to the launch of Telstar, the first communications satellite; the first performance by the Rolling Stones; Johnny Carson's first "Tonight Show"; the release of the first James Bond movie; and quite a few landmark Beatles events, including Ringo joining the band and the release of their first single, "Love Me Do."

    Quite a year, 1962.

    Sunday marked another anniversary: 50 years since the conclusion of what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the closest we ever came to the Cold War with the Soviet Union becoming a nuclear war.

    Many young people probably don't have a clue what that was all about; others know it was when President John F. Kennedy announced that U.S. spy planes had spotted Russian missile bases in Cuba, just 90 miles away. In a game of global brinksmanship, JFK ordered a U.S. naval blockade of Cuba that could well have brought armageddon had Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev not backed down and agreed to dismantle and remove all offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba.

    But what the history books can't really capture for those who came after is just how nerve-wracking those 13 days in October 1962 were for the American people. Perhaps if they recall the paranoia that immediately followed 9/11, when people were busy sealing their windows with duct tape, they can get some idea of what it was like in October 1962.

    I remember a classmate begging off from some after-school event because he had to go straight home and help his mom work on preparing a fallout shelter. Remember those? The idea was to protect your family from radioactive fallout in the event of a Russian nuclear attack. Sometimes it was a sealed off basement or inner room of a house. The more elaborate, like my great Uncle Leon's, were underground bunkers complete with air filters and provisions for an extended stay. Fortunately, Uncle Leon's was only ever used for storing his wife's homemade jams and preserves.

    Those families that didn't have shelters made plans as best they could. My wife Leslie recalls her mother gathering jugs of water in the inner hallway of their house, where her family would have gathered. I remember asking my Mom what we would do and she told me we'd go to the downtown building of the bank my Dad worked for, which was one of those community fallout shelters where volunteers periodically were locked up for a few days as a drill.

    I clearly remember watching the president's TV address to the nation announcing the crisis and later watching live coverage of the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, taking on the Soviet representative, famously telling him he was prepared to wait "until hell freezes over" for an answer. My Welsh-born Mom had become a naturalized U.S. citizen specifically so she could vote for Stevenson in the 1956 presidential race and she was a big fan of his. I remember her cheering him on in perhaps his finest hour.

    I also remember one evening when a plane with a big red star on the side flew low over the neighborhood, leading some nervous kids to declare that it probably was Russian.

    Strangely, though, I don't recall really being scared. I was only 10 and perhaps the magnitude of it all escaped me. Or maybe I just had faith the president would do what was necessary to keep us from going to war.

    I think it was only in retrospect, as I got older, that I realized how close we came to the precipice during that time. Watching the excellent 1974 made-for-TV drama "The Missiles of October," starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as his brother Bobby, really brought it home.
    As U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a fellow Georgian, noted back in ’62, "We were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked."

    ON VIDEO: I’ve always been fascinated with The Beatles' “Magical Mystery Tour,” recently remastered and reissued on DVD and Blu-ray. The movie has long had a bad rap as a rare creative misstep by the Fab Four. When it first was shown as a holiday special on British TV the day after Christmas 1967, viewers were aghast. NBC bailed out of airing it in the States, relegating it to college screening rooms and the midnight movie circuit.

    It's easy to see why viewers expecting something along the lines of the Richard Lester-directed moptop romps “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” were nonplussed by this nonlinear film, which really was an elaborate "home movie" of the Fab Four and friends riding a bus around southern England in a vain search for a plotline. Just about everyone agreed the music was great, but most folks were like the girl with whom I attended a college screening of the film, who declared it "too far out." I’ve heard even longtime Beatles fans dismiss it as “unwatchable.”

    Actually, once you get past The Beatles' psychedelic garb and the weird camera effects, it's not that far out at all. Based on a working class U.K. tradition of mystery bus trips, the film is closer to vaudeville than avant-garde, what with its lampooning of various British stereotypes and its reliance on visual jokes. As British writer Barry Miles points out in the booklet accompanying the deluxe box set edition of the film's reissue, "Magical Mystery Tour" was "a visual equivalent of 'Sgt. Pepper': It broke all kinds of rules, it used some avant-garde ideas, but it made sure that there was something for everyone. The Beatles were never exclusive, never part of a trendy clique; they were open, democratic, inclusive. There was room on the bus for everyone."

    Attempts to pitch "Magical Mystery Tour" as cutting-edge cinema are probably overreaching, but watch it as sort of an extended music video and it's hard to resist a very stoned Paul McCartney dancing around in France for "The Fool on the Hill," the swaying policemen in the tripped-out “I Am the Walrus” segment or, best of all, the Fabs trotting down a winding staircase in white tuxes for the affectionate send-up of movie musicals in the "Your Mother Should Know" finale.

    AT THE MOVIES: Leslie and I recently went to see "Arbitrage," a nifty financial thriller that has a top-notch cast featuring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth and Stuart Margolin. Even though Gere plays a not-quite-Bernie Madoff type whose corporate and personal transgressions don't make him a very sympathetic character, you find yourself rooting for him anyway as his troubles turn deadly and threaten his blameless friends and family. Nate Parker particularly shines in a key supporting role. Not a must-see, but certainly a worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

    ON THE RADIO: I'm trying to wrap my head around what's happening in Atlanta radio, but it makes no sense. Entertainment Weekly recently noted that the biggest music debut of 2012 doesn't belong to a pop act like One Direction or Justin Bieber, but to the jangly British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons, whose banjo-infused "Babel" debuted atop Billboard's album chart, selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week.

    And yet as of last week there isn't a single commercial radio station in Atlanta on which I can regularly hear Mumford & Sons. Or other alternative acts like Avett Brothers or the Shins or the Decemberists or Death Cab for Cutie or even much of the fairly mainstream music of Coldplay and the Dave Matthews Band.

    Dave FM, which for the past eight years had been Atlanta's "adult rock" or album-alternative station, has been switched over to sports talk by CBS, its owner. So while someone seems to think there's room in town for three stations chattering about the NFL, half a dozen Top 40 formats aimed at teenagers, a couple of rednecky country stations, several r&b or rap outlets and even several Spanish-language stations, there isn't even one non-college station that plays the Drive-By Truckers or the Lumineers.

    If I don't want to hear Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and George Thorogood cycling incessantly on our "classic hits" station or have my ears assaulted by likes of AC/DC and Metallica on a "rock" station that features infantile jocks aiming their "humor" at the NASCAR crowd, it seems I'm out of luck. Unless I want to pay for Sirius/XM, which I don't.

    So much for the diversity of the marketplace.

    ON THE TUBE: The only new TV series I've added to my regular viewing so far this fall season is "Elementary," the CBS series that updates Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to a contemporary setting, much like the BBC/PBS "Sherlock" already did, but with a twist: While Holmes is still British (played by the excellent Jonny Lee Miller), he's now a recovering drug addict living in the Big Apple and consulting with the NYPD. And Watson is his female "sober companion," a disgraced former doctor played by Lucy Liu. Unlike "Sherlock," which cleverly updates Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, "Elementary" is essentially another CBS procedural, though a cut above most of them. The best part about it, so far, is the interplay between Miller and Liu as Holmes and Watson. Miller's Holmes is every bit as brilliant as Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock in the British series, but a bit more human and humane. And Liu's Watson doesn't take nearly as much guff from the brilliant detective as most portrayals of Holmes' companion usually do. So far, the producers have wisely avoided introducing any sexual tension between the two, but their exchanges still bristle with electricity. ... Also highly recommended is the second season of Showtime's terrorist conspiracy thriller "Homeland," which keeps throwing viewers curve balls and has an absolutely wonderful Anglo-American cast headed by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and Mandy Patinkin.

    MY TUNES: Recent albums I've picked up that are worth recommending: Bob Dylan's "Tempest," Diana Krall's "Glad Rag Doll" and Jeff Lynne's "Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra." I can give a conditional recommendation to Lynne's other new release, "Long Wave."

    The Dylan album continues in the blues-based rootsy vein of his past few releases, with the most notable development this time out being his move back toward very long story songs. Once you get used to his voice, which these days sounds like something you'd expect from a Batman villain, the music and lyrics reward repeated playings. My favorites are "Soon After," which has a countryish feel and is sung in a more tender voice than his usual growl, and "Scarlet Town," a haunting tune that has a nice melodic hook and makes good use of a mournful fiddle. The two tracks that have drawn the most attention close the album: the title number, an epic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, and "Roll on John," a surprisingly sentimental tribute to John Lennon that quotes from some of the Beatle's lyrics.

    Krall's change-of-pace "Glad Rag Doll" sees the jazz pianist-vocalist leaving behind her usual ultra cool lounge vibe for a sampling of vintage and mostly obscure jazz-Americana-blues-r&b tunes from the 1920s and ’30s under the guidance of producer T Bone Burnett. The whole album is enjoyable, but the high points are a version of "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" featuring some surprisingly grungy guitar by Marc Ribot, and the bluesy piano piece "Here Lies Love." Also fun is the swinging rockabilly treatment of "I'm a Little Mixed Up," the cowboy ballad "Prairie Lullaby," and the blues-rockabilly-jazz fusion of "Lonely Avenue," which would sound right at home on the soundtrack of HBO's campy vampire series "True Blood."

    The more successful of the two Lynne albums is "Mr Blue Sky," which is an ELO greatest hits album for which Lynne has recorded new versions of the songs that are basically note-for-note copies of the originals. For my money, the title song is still ELO's best. "Long Wave" has Lynne covering songs that inspired him, including "Beyond the Sea," "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" and "At Last." The album gets off to a poor start with renditions of Charles Aznavour's "She" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "If I Loved You" that don't really suit Lynne's voice or production style. Much better is his version of the Rolling Stones' "Mercy, Mercy," which is very reminiscent of his work with the Traveling Wilburys; his acoustic rendition of fellow Wilbury Roy Orbison's "Running Scared"; his classic pop treatment of Rodgers & Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (the album's best showcase for Lynne's vocal abilities); and a soft rockabilly reading of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." Overall, it's a collection that mostly will appeal to hardcore Lynne fans.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: contemplative
    Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
    12:06 am
    Another of McCartney’s 'Great Performances'
    In the wake of his high-profile but disappointing, rather croaky one-off performances this summer at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee concert and the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, it wouldn’t be surprising for some viewers — and even Paul McCartney fans — to be a bit gunshy about yet another chance to catch Macca singing on TV. But “Paul McCartney’s Live Kisses,” premiering Sept. 7 on “Great Performances” (check local listings), sees Sir Paul definitely living up to the title of the PBS arts series.

    Taken from a February iTunes Webcast to promote McCartney’s “Kisses on the Bottom” album of pop standards done with Diana Krall and a group of top-flight jazz musicians, this is a low-key, thoroughly charming performance by McCartney, whose atypically restrained vocals here actually sound better live on some of the tunes than on the album itself, with less reliance on the use of falsetto.

    Several of the musicians interviewed in this film by Jonas Akerlund talk about the tremendous musical history of the famed Capitol Studios in Hollywood where Macca is performing (and where much of the album was recorded) and the legendary names like Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole who have worked there. Soaking up all that pop music history seems to have affected both the backing band and the evening’s star. All appear to be enjoying themselves, sharing lots of smiles and chuckles, with even the musicians applauding after some numbers.

    Akerlund, known primarily for directing music videos and commercials, includes some color background footage, but the performance and interviews have been stylishly shot in black & white, with lots of different camera angles.

    One of the things that made the “Kisses” album such a delightful surprise (and the same is true for this special) is that McCartney hasn’t gone just for the predictable chestnuts that performers usually do for these standards albums. Yes, there are some classics that everyone will instantly recognize, but other tunes performed are offbeat choices that will be “new” to many viewers.

    The performance opens with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” with Abe Laboriel Jr. from Paul’s touring band providing the backing vocal. Next is the lovely “Home (When Shadows Fall),” which features some McCartney family snapshots blended in with the studio performance.

    Then come several interview clips, including bits with Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, both of whom joined McCartney on the album, though they don’t participate in this live performance. After that is “The Glory of Love” (again with backing by Abe), followed by a performance of “More I Cannot Wish You,” utilizing a split screen. At the end of that little-known Frank Loesser tune from the stage version (but not the film) of “Guys and Dolls,” Macca obviously is moved by the song’s tender advice from a parent to a child, noting, “That one gets me.”

    Next comes “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” on which Macca is backed vocally by both Laboriel and Krall. Then we have Joe Walsh, Wonder and Clapton talking about McCartney. Speaking of the “Kisses” project, Walsh says, “I think he’s very brave to do this ... It’s a different Paul than we all know — and it’s wonderful.”

    That leads into the only Macca original included in the special, “My Valentine,” written “for Nancy,” his new wife, with Walsh handling the acoustic guitar solo that Clapton did on the album. Then comes the classic song “Always,” followed by Clapton noting that, like Paul, he grew up with these tunes. Adds Wonder: “A great song is a great song, no matter when you hear it.”

    The fun Fats Waller number “My Very Good Friend the Milkman” is next, and it appears to be a favorite of everyone involved. Macca notes that he’s a bit “intimidated” by the great jazz musicians surrounding him, but they all seem very appreciative of what he’s doing. The performance winds up with the bluesy “Get Yourself Another Fool,” with Walsh on electric guitar.

    The briskly paced hour should prove entertaining for both fans of McCartney and those who appreciate classic pop tunes (a good portion of the PBS audience, I’d wager). If there’s any justice, this program will prompt more people to seek out “Kisses on the Bottom,” one of the most adventurous albums in McCartney’s catalog.

    AT THE MOVIES: Leslie and I went to see "Farewell, My Queen," a subtitled French period costume drama about the confusion and intrigue at Versailles during the outbreak of the French Revolution. The very pretty and talented Lea Seydoux (whom we'd previously seen as the king’s wife in Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood") plays a lady-in-waiting who acts as reader to Queen Marie Antoinette. The queen is played brilliantly by one of my favorites, Diane Kruger, who manages to be simultaneously sympathetic and selfish. At times, you'll wonder at the devotion of Sidonie (Seydoux) to the queen, even when absolutely outrageous demands are made, until you realize that without the queen this ambitious young woman has no existence at all and is, as she says, "no one." The period detail in the production is magnificent and the tension building throughout the film is palpable. This one is definitely worth seeing if you're at all partial to costume dramas.

    ON THE TUBE: The season finale of HBO's "The Newsroom" drama about a cable news operation was vintage Aaron Sorkin: overstuffed with rapid, clever, punchy dialogue; a plot that veered all over the place; and a cogent political point made with, naturally, a bit of self-righteous hyperbole. Irritating and overly glib at times, "The Newsroom" tackled serious issues facing people in the news business these days but remained rewarding viewing most of its first season, even in the soap opera-ish parts about the staff's personal lives.

    The most powerful writing by Sorkin in the finale was anchor Will McAvoy (a terrific Jeff Daniels) detailing the tea party's "ideological purity, [view of] compromise as weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, denying science, unmoved by facts, undeterred by new information, a hostile fear of progress, a demonization of education, a need to control women’s bodies, severe xenophobia, tribal mentality, intolerance of dissent and a pathological hatred of the U.S. government." He summed it up memorably: "They can call themselves the tea party. They can call themselves conservatives and they can even call themselves Republicans, though Republicans certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are: the American Taliban.” Nicely done.

    Overall, the first season of “The Newsroom” was uneven but never less than entertaining, with a strong cast — particularly Daniels, Emily Mortimer (as his executive producer and ex-lover) and Sam Waterston (as the crusty news department chief). Jane Fonda also had a nice recurring turn (including in the finale) playing against type as a sort of American female Rupert Murdoch media mogul.

    Thanks, HBO, for another show we couldn't see anywhere else. ...

    I thought the first two episodes (a two-part story) of the new BBC America series "Copper," set in Civil War era New York City, got off to a very promising start.

    The characterization of emotionally damaged (of course!) police detective Kevin Corcoran (played by Brit Tom Weston-Jones, previously seen over here on “MI5”) could use a bit more fleshing out, as could some of the supporting characters, especially his hooker girlfriend (played by Franka Potente of "Bourne Identity" fame). But the period detail is terrific, the untenable situation of the free black doctor (Ato Essandoh) who helps Corcoran out with forensic work provides valuable historical context, and the shoot-first style of policing makes for an interesting contrast with contemporary cop shows.

    So does the fact that, because of police corruption, solving the crime doesn't necessarily bring justice, which in the second installment prompts Corcoran to resort to some rather brutal tactics (and a pretty shocking scene involving a young girl and the rich man who has victimized her).

    This series has some talented people behind it, including executive producer Barry Levinson and co-creators Tom Fontana (“Oz”) and Will Rokos (“Southland”). The 19th century New York it offers is ugly, dirty and dangerous, as are the characters, but the end result is gripping viewing. I’m hooked.

    QUICKIES: Most of the media and social media reaction to the death of first man on the moon Neil Armstrong seemed to come from those of us who are old enough to remember that momentous event. I think perhaps the younger generations don't really appreciate what a giant leap for mankind that really was and how courageous the astronauts were. Reading about how the computer flight plan had the lunar module set to land in a bad spot on the side of a crater and how Armstrong had to take manual control and find a spot to set it down, with only 20 seconds of fuel left, is just one indication of how risky an adventure this was. These guys didn't just sit in a tin can while a computer did all the work!

    I’m really looking forward to the return of the thriller “Homeland,” with the second season premiering Sept. 30 on Showtime. The deadly dance between disgraced bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and war hero/would-be sleeper terrorist Nicolas Brody (Damian Lewis) is one of the most watchable relationships on the tube in a long time. Here’s a preview trailer for Season 2:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Xh_TPjZJCRc

    Speaking of sleeper agents, just based on the description provided by TV Line, a forthcoming new series on FX sounds like it’ll be worth checking out. In “The Americans,” set in D.C. during the cold war era of the 1980s, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a pair of KGB spies posing as married suburban Americans. Tensions heighten when an FBI agent working in counterterrorism (played by Noah Emmerich) happens to move in next door to them. …

    Ain’t It Cool news reports that, thanks to TCM and in celebration of Universal Pictures’ 100th anniversary, some classic films that have been restored for Blu-ray are going to get one-night runs in cinemas nationwide. They are: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (Sept. 19), “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” starring Boris Karloff (Oct. 24) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Gregory Peck (Nov. 15). Each film will start at 7 p.m. local time with special 2 p.m. matinees playing in select theaters.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: pleased
    Sunday, July 22nd, 2012
    11:03 pm
    This Dark Knight rises to the occasion
    NOTE: A couple of mild spoilers are included in the following review of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I don’t think they’ll ruin the film for anyone, but if you plan on seeing it and don’t want to know anything in advance, wait and read this afterward. Now, on to the review …

    Christopher Nolan set quite a task for himself in closing out his Batman trilogy.

    After all, with 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” featuring Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as the Joker, Nolan created what my son rightly describes as “about as close to a flawless Batman movie as I think is possible.”

    Young Bill got to see the latest film, “The Dark Knight Rises,” a couple of days before I did and had sent the advance word that this one has less of the nuance and character development of the second film and shows its hand more, but still was quite good and very enjoyable.

    After my daughter and I saw the new film this weekend, I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment, but I’m even more enthusiastic about it. Livvy and I both had the same reaction after the film had ended: Wow.

    Nolan has wrapped up the trilogy in thrilling style, with epic scope, stunning pictures, superb action (which thankfully isn’t all computer-generated like in most of today’s films) and a refreshingly dark, somber tone in keeping with the gritty, more reality-based approach that sets Nolan’s films apart from other comic book/super hero tales.

    Like my son, I’n not sure if any Batman film (or, for that matter, any superhero film) can top "The Dark Knight" (whose only major flaw, as far as I’m concerned, was the miscasting of Maggie Gyllenhaal). This one comes awfully close, however. It may not have a showy (but deservedly praised) performance like Ledger’s in the previous film, but as a whole it is entirely satisfying.

    One major reason is that this film is Christian Bale's finest performance as Bruce Wayne/The Batman. I still think Michael Keaton probably remains my all-time favorite in that role (though the films he did with Tim Burton overall fall short of Nolan’s work with the character). But in his third go-round as the Batman Bale manages to imbue the millionaire vigilante with a rather selfless nobility, even when working behind the cowl. You can believe that he’s willing to sacrifice himself to save his city.

    Also a tremendous plus in “The Dark Knight Rises” is the super-talented Anne Hathaway as sassy cat burglar Selina Kyle (they never use the name “Catwoman” and while she wears a sexy catsuit, what at first appear to be “ears” on her head are actually night-vision goggles pulled back). The onscreen chemistry between Bale and Hathaway is tremendous and you’ll probably regret that while she and the Batman share a kiss, the film’s one romantic scene isn’t with her. (More on that in a bit.)

    Returning cast members Gary Oldman as police Commissioner Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as Wayne’s butler/substitute father figure Alfred are both excellent, as usual, and fellow Brit Tom Hardy does a good job as villain Bane, despite the fact the mask he wears obscures some of his dialogue (at least, in a regular cinema; I don’t know if the sound mix is any better in an Imax theater). Bane, an apparent terrorist, is a formidable opponent and the fight scenes between him and the hobbled Batman, who’s just coming back from eight years in retirement, are almost painful to watch. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a rising young policeman drawn to the iconic myth of the Batman is a welcome and effective addition.

    The bedroom scene I referred to earlier involves not Selina but Marion Cotillard as Miranda Tate, Bruce Wayne’s partner in an erstwhile fusion energy project that he mothballed because of its potential to be weaponized … which shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler as to what’s going on in this film. Unfortunately, as my son indicated, there’s no real development of the relationship between Miranda and Bruce before they hop into bed. I’ll be interested to see if there’s more to that twosome in the expanded director’s cut that we’ll no doubt get eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. Likewise, Selina’s semi-intriguing lesbian sidekick (who’s played a much bigger role in the comic books) is there, but just barely.

    Some reviewers have made much of a supposed 9/11 subtext in the film’s treatment of Gotham City (which pretty obviously looks like the Big Apple in Nolan’s take on the legend), but I actually think there was more of that in the previous film. I never actually had even a fleeting thought of the attack on the World Trade Center while watching this movie. Others have noted that Bane’s army of terrorists looks suspiciously like the denizens of the various Occupy protest camps and wondered if the scenes of them doing battle with the boys in blue is making a political statement (which Nolan has denied). But I think that view misses the fact that Bane’s supposed revolution of the downtrodden is actually a facade for what’s really a quest for personal vengeance, plus he’s in league with at least one of Gotham’s financial fatcats.

    This is the end of Nolan’s trilogy, so there’s a finality to the concluding act that is both sad and satisfying. But while the director has said he won’t make any more Batman films, he leaves the possibility of a spinoff or two at the end.

    My initial feeling is that my son is right, and “The Dark Knight Rises,” while a very worthy entry in the Batman canon and head and shoulders above most superhero flicks, doesn’t quite match the previous film’s complex tango between good and evil in the form of Ledger’s Joker and Bale’s Dark Knight — or the duality of hero and villain as two sides of the same coin.

    But I definitely want to see “The Dark Knight Rises” again. And I might want to revisit that verdict after I do.

    POSTSCRIPT 1: The tragedy at an early screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., is horrifying and scary in its randomness, but I never even gave it a second thought when Livvy and I set out to see the film. Then someone on Facebook asked wasn’t I scared to go? Really!!? No, I said. People die on the roads every day, but that doesn’t stop me from driving my car. If you started thinking like that, the temptation would be to hide away in your home and never come out. The other reaction to the tragedy that gets under my skin comes from those well-meaning but misguided folks who harrumph about violence in films and try to lay some blame for what happened in Colorado on the film industry in general and “The Dark Knight Rises” in particular. Hogwash. If we blame anything, it should be the ease in this country with which deranged people can get their hands on automatic, military-style weapons that law-abiding citizens have absolutely no legitimate need to own!

    POSTSCRIPT 2: I really liked a piece on the Ain’t It Cool site running down the best cinematic Batmen, and I agree with his top three: Michael Keaton, whose Bruce Wayne has a touch of crazy (hey, normal folks don’t dress up as bats) and has a damaged quality but still seems to enjoy fighting crime; Christian Bale, the hardest-working Batman; and Kevin Conroy, who voiced the Dark Knight in the 1990s animated TV series that my son grew up with. Val Kilmer? Not so much a fan of his take on the character. And I don't think I could include Adam West and George Clooney in consideration at all. I just hated those incarnations too much. Here’s a link to the piece:
    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/57082

    What about you? Who’s your favorite Batman? Is there a cinematic superhero you prefer to the Dark Knight? What are your views of comic book films in general? If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: impressed
    Monday, July 16th, 2012
    10:08 pm
    Generation gap skews listing of most memorable TV moments
    Whenever lists of the greatest, best or most memorable anything are compiled these days, there's usually a noticeable generation gap involved, with the results dominated by those to whom a rotary phone or eight-track tape are quaint (or even unknown) relics from the past.

    So it was last week, when Sony Electronics and the Nielsen television research company released the results of a survey on the most memorable moments shared by television viewers over the past 50 years. Scanning the top 20 answers, I was gobsmacked, as the British might say, to see no mention of Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon. (That ranked only 21st on the list.) Nor did JFK's assassination or President Nixon's resignation rank very high.

    That's because those unforgettable events, which most people of my generation experienced via television, simply didn't register at all among viewers aged 18 to 34, according to an AP report on the survey. The oldest event to appear in the rankings for that age group was the 1980 shooting of John Lennon. The coverage of the Kennedy assassination registered only with folks 55 and older, who ranked it No. 2. Overall, it finished in 15th place.

    Topping the list for everyone, regardless of age, was an event that no doubt made everyone's list: The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Here's the top 20:

    1. Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (2001)
    2. Hurricane Katrina (2005)
    3. The O.J. Simpson verdict (1995)
    4. The Challenger space shuttle explodes (1986)
    5. Death of Osama bin Laden (2011)
    6. The O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase (1994)
    7. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011)
    8. Columbine school shooting (1999)
    9. BP oil spill in Gulf of Mexico (2010)
    10. Princess Diana's funeral (1997)
    11. Death of Whitney Houston (2012)
    12. Capture and execution of Saddam Hussein (2006)
    13. Barack Obama election night speech (2008)
    14. Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (2011)
    15. John F. Kennedy assassination (1963)
    16. Oklahoma City bombing (1995)
    17. Bush/Gore disputed election (2000)
    18. Los Angeles riots, Rodney King beating (1992)
    19. Casey Anthony murder trial verdict (2011)
    20. John F. Kennedy funeral (1963)

    You'll note the past few years are disproportionately represented. Actually, after looking at that list I'm wondering if some of the respondents thought they were supposed to be listing biggest news events, as opposed to most memorable TV moments. I can't recall one single TV broadcast from the BP oil spill that seared its way into my memory. Likewise Columbine. And while the horrifying footage of the Challenger space shuttle exploding was watched by most of us, that was mainly as an after-the-fact replay: Few saw it as it happened.

    As for OJ's ride in the Bronco, it might have made for can't-turn-it-off viewing in the way that any car chase (even one that slow) generally does, but I can't believe it fits Sony's supposed criteria of an event that made an impact on you and for which you can remember where you were and who you were with when you saw it.

    Also, some entries on the list just plain baffle me. I don't think I watched a single minute of the Casey Anthony murder trial. And the death of Whitney Houston earlier this year listed as one of the most memorable TV moments of the past 50 years? Really?

    I'm surprised no "Dancing With the Stars" finale made the list.

    Speaking of which, the people behind the survey expected major entertainment events on TV that drew huge audiences to rate higher than they did. The Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" broke viewing records and changed the lives of millions of American youth, but it only ranked 43rd, one spot ahead of the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of "Dallas" (which became a national obsession; I recall watching it at a viewing party at a coworker's home).

    The study, conducted this past February, was based on an online questionnaire of 1,077 adults selected as a scientific sample from among Nielsen's panel of people measured for television ratings.

    I wasn't one of them, but if I had been, here's what I would have listed as my 10 most memorable TV moments of the past 50 years, dating to when I was 10 years old:

    1. Watching man's first step on the moon. I don't think live television — or history in the making — gets much bigger than that. Earlier that day, watching Walter Cronkite let out a sigh of relief and wipe his eyes after we all heard that "The Eagle has landed" was pretty goosebump-inducing, too.
    2. The JFK assassination coverage. More specifically, Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald live on television as we sat watching over Sunday lunch, John-John saluting his dad's coffin, the skittish riderless horse in the procession, and the cracked note blown by the solo trumpeter at Arlington.
    3. The plane hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center on live TV while I worked with the rest of the staff of The Atlanta Journal to get out an extra about the first tower. Our jaws collectively dropped.
    4. The Beatles on the Sullivan show. While I didn't take up guitar like so many boys who caught that show and thought, "That's what I want to do," it definitely shaped the rest of my life. If I expanded the list to 20, I'd also find room for getting to see the Fab Four record "All You Need Is Love" on the then-unprecedented live global "Our World" satellite telecast while I taped the audio on a little 3-inch reel-to-reel recorder.
    5. Nixon's resignation speech. I watched it by myself on a b&w portable in my first apartment, and then joined fellow journalists at an Atlanta tavern to hoist a few in celebration.
    6. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, which I seem to recall being carried live by the networks, though I'm not sure if they aired all of it. Regardless, rarely does oratory reach such heights.
    7. The return of the Apollo 13 crew. I was a high school senior on lunch break and was sitting in one of the jam-packed TV rooms of a local eatery called the Varsity. When the camera scanning the sky finally picked up a tiny parachute, the entire place erupted as everyone jumped to their feet, cheering. A spine-tingling moment.
    8. Jim McKay's voice breaking as he announced the deaths of the Israeli Olympic team members in Munich: "They're all gone."
    9. A joint entry: The 1968 funerals for MLK (particularly the procession through the heavily guarded streets of Atlanta) and RFK (most notably, Teddy Kennedy's quavering voice as he delivered the eulogy for his brother).
    10. CNN's "Boys of Baghdad" — Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman — describing the opening bombardment of the first Gulf War. I couldn't get over the fact that I remembered Holliman as a Top 40 deejay in my hometown while I was in junior high.

    If I did carry the list beyond a top 10, I'd include a few sports moments like Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles?" finish to the underdog USA team's unexpected ice hockey victory over the Russians at the 1980 winter Olympics, or more entertainment highlights. Plus, a moment or two from the recent past, including election night coverage of the 2008 presidential race and President Obama's address to the nation announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.

    But limiting it to 10, these are one boomer's most memorable TV moments of the past 50 years. Feel free to share your own.

    And you kids, get off my lawn!

    IN CONCERT: Leslie, Livvy and I saw Ringo Starr and his latest incarnation of the All Starr Band recently at Atlanta's fabulous Fox Theatre, a great place to see a show. Leslie and I particularly enjoyed the Santana tunes done by Gregg Rolie ("Evil Ways," "Black Magic Woman" and "Everybody's Everything"), as well as Todd Rundgren's numbers. Most of the crowd also liked the Toto songs performed by Steve Lukather, and I didn't mind them. In terms of musicianship, I thought this was one of Ringo's better bands in recent years, especially Lukather on guitar for the Santana numbers. Livvy, who was seeing her fourth Ringo concert, enjoyed the show but actually preferred the 2010 band in terms of music; this show was a bit too much classic rock for her. (She said it reminded her of a live version of The River (the Atlanta "classic hits" radio station). She also would have preferred more Ringo, as would all of us. He was in great voice and very personable, and I liked the way he changed things up a bit by opening with "Matchbox." He did his usual tunes plus a couple of new songs: "Wings" (which isn't about his former bandmate's group) was well received by the crowd at the just-about-full Fox, though "Anthem" ended up as a beer-run song for a lot of folks. Of course, I still don't understand Ringo's refusal to do "Octopus's Garden" (he says he already has one "underwater" song in "Yellow Submarine"), and I can't believe he's never done one of his own hits ("Only You") in concert. Still, it was a fun and satisfying show overall.  

    AT THE MOVIES: Leslie and I went to see Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," which was the first of the "Alien" films I've ever seen in its entirety. It was excellent — even when it was gross, which is pretty much a given with this genre full of creatures bursting out of people. There were even some thoughtful bits about why we choose to believe in things we can't prove. I mainly went because of Noomi Rapace, who was wonderful in the original Swedish trilogy based on the Stieg Larsson books and woefully underused in the last Sherlock Holmes film. She's terrific here, playing sort of the prequel's equivalent of the Ripley role that made Sigourney Weaver a legend in the original. And Michael Fassbender is great as the creepy robot. Lots of action, with only one and a half survivors at the end (makes sense if you see the film), leaving the prospect for the inevitable sequel. (What do you call the sequel to a prequel?) Anyway, it's top-notch sci-fi/horror. ... We also saw the indie film "Safety Not Guaranteed," and I enjoyed it more than Leslie did. Main thing to know is that although it's about some magazine staffers trying to get a story on a guy who's advertising for a companion to travel through time with him, this is not a sci-fi time travel flick. It's more a comedic character study/relationship film in which time travel, or the possibility, is just a plot device. A lot of familiar TV faces (not big names) are in the cast, though the best are the central twosome played by Aubrey Plaza (of "Parks and Rec") and Mark Duplass, who was one of the producers of the Washington state-set film, along with his brother. Not a great movie, but a pleasant way to spend 86 minutes on a summer afternoon.

    ON THE TUBE: I wasn't sure whether I was going to stick with HBO's "The Newsroom" after the first episode — I thought parts of it were a litle predictable/trite, and there was a bit too much speechifying for my taste, though that's typical of any Aaron Sorkin show. But I have to admit I'm enjoying it several episodes in, and I like the way Sorkin has set it in the not-too-distant past, allowing him to make use of the fact that we know how the news events being covered will turn out. The characters are all still impossibly glib and quick, but the cast (headed by Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston) is very strong and Sorkin has landed some telling blows on some of my favorite villains, especially the tea party. ... I'd never watched USA's spy series "Burn Notice" until Leslie started getting caught up in those marathons that seem to pop up just about every weekend. Now, I think I'm hooked. Yes, it's every bit as formulaic as any police procedural (it's more of an espionage procedural, with the central character explaining why and how spies do things), but the central cast of Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell (who I remember fondly from "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.") and Sharon Gless has great chemistry. Plus the stories are fun. You could call it popcorn television. ... I haven't yet made up my mind about whether USA's new series, "Political Animals," is worth continued viewing. Unlike, say, Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing," the 90-minute pilot never gave the impression that its creators really understand how Washington works. It's basically by-the-numbers soap opera with the lead characters being thinly veiled knockoffs of the Clintons with a bit of the Kennedys thrown in, only without the charm or charisma of either. The supporting characters are your basic sudsy stereotypes (gay cocaine-using son, bulimic future daughter-in-law, ex-president's pneumatic starlet girlfriend), though the sex is a bit more graphic than you generally see on basic cable. Still, there's no denying the appeal of Sigourney Weaver, who plays the former first lady turned secretary of state. If the producers could find a way to keep her on camera all the time, it might be worth watching. ... While we're talking about TV series with White House settings, when I first encountered HBO’s recently concluded “Veep,” a political satire starring Julia Louis Dreyfuss as the vice president, I wasn’t sure what to make of it other than its writers certainly enjoyed using the f-word just about every other line. But I've been told by someone who should know that the show’s fairly brutal portrayal of executive branch aides was pretty much on the nose. After seeing mostly pieces of episodes, I caught all of the first season's last two and was impressed.

    ON VIDEO: Nowadays, hardly a week goes by that a film or TV show isn't filming in Georgia, but when the movie adaptation of James Dickey's novel "Deliverance" first came out in 1972, the fact that it was filmed on location in the Peach State made it something of a rarity. To mark the 40th anniversary of its release, the film that made Burt Reynolds a star has been reissued in a special Blu-ray edition featuring a 42-page book. The print itself is the same restored version issued five years ago on DVD. It's still a terrific adventure. Anyway, this gives me an excuse to tell my favorite "Deliverance" story: First, you have to remember that Ned Beatty, who plays the guy raped by hillbillies in "Deliverance," later headlined a short-lived TV series called "Szysznyk" (pronounced Shiznick). Leslie's brother-in-law, who has a down-home way with words, told me one time that he knew someone whose brother, I think it was, played one of the hillbillies in "Deliverance." Only the way he put it was: "Yeah, his brother was the guy who cornholed Shiznick in Deliverance." Since then, I've never been able to think of that scene any other way. And I also can't bring myself to call that beanbag game that college football tailgaters play by its popular name: "cornhole."

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: contemplative
    Monday, July 9th, 2012
    5:02 pm
    More than just 'Andy of Mayberry'
    An awful lot has been written about Andy Griffith in the past week, most of it focusing rightfully on his iconic portrayal of Sheriff Andy Taylor over the eight seasons of "The Andy Griffith Show" in the 1960s, with a nod toward his successful return to series TV in the 1980s-90s with "Matlock."

    As anyone who knows me can attest, Griffith's hallowed sitcom classic is my all-time favorite, and my brothers and my daughter and I know many of the episodes practically verbatim.

    But I've written about "TAGS" here before. And as a nearly lifetime fan who had the privilege of interviewing him five times over the course of my career — including one in-depth conversation that took up most of a morning while on location with him in Middle Georgia for a TV movie — I thought perhaps I could provide a somewhat broader perspective on Griffith's career.

    Besides Andy Taylor and Ben Matlock, probably Griffith's best-known part is Will Stockdale, the barefoot boy from the Georgia hill country who gets drafted and manages to make a mockery of the military way of doing things in "No Time for Sergeants." It's an admittedly broad role that Griffith played first on live TV, then on Broadway and finally in the movies, and it's a comedy classic. It also introduced him to his future costar and forever pal, Don Knotts.

    Griffith's comedy chops already had been evident, starting out when the University of North Carolina graduate and former music teacher was doing stand-up in the early 1950s as Deacon Andy Griffith in places like Atlanta's old Henry Grady Hotel and later on the "Ed Sullivan Show," establishing his reputation as a great storyteller by putting a cornpone twist on everything from William Shakespeare to sports. The latter resulted in a million-selling 1954 recording, "What It Was, Was Football." His catch phrase in those days was his characteristically gracious response to his audience's laughter: "I apreciate it."

    Often overlooked, however was Griffith's considerable ability as a dramatic actor, first on view in his debut film in 1957, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd." Playing "Lonesome" Rhodes, a drunken Southern drifter who gets "discovered" and becomes an overnight TV star, the neophyte Griffith more than holds his own in a stellar cast that includes Walter Mathau, Patricia Neal, Tony Franciosa and Lee Remick. His searing portrayal of a ruthlessly ambitious media sensation who becomes a victim of his own megalomania is about as far from Andy Taylor as he possibly could have gotten.

    Ironically, Griffith ended up having to return to Lonesome Rhodes territory in the middle of his career when he found it difficult to move out of the shadow of Mayberry's finest.

    After retiring from "The Andy Griffith Show" in 1968 with it at the very top of the ratings, Griffith's career foundered a bit. Having whiffed in a brief stint starring in family films ("Angel in My Pocket"), he tried to return to weekly TV with the overly earnest and stiflingly "relevant" dramedy "Headmaster." It sank like a rock, as did a midseason morphing of that show into "The New Andy Griffith Show," which tried to return him to his previous small-town glory, this time as a mayor in North Carolina. It was a painfully uneven (and mostly unfunny) effort that made "Mayberry RFD," the mediocre spinoff from his earlier show that his company produced, look good by comparison.

    Griffith took a series of small supporting roles, including a priest in the drug-abuse TV movie "Go Ask Alice," and then concluded that he needed to shake up his professional image by playing a villain. Thus came "Pray for the Wildcats," a 1974 telefilm in which Griffith got ruthless again as a sadistic bully of a businessman who turns killer.

    Griffith later told me that while he was filming that role, he had a terrible nightmare in which he brutally killed his good friend Don Knotts. His therapist told him the dream was a manifestation of him trying to kill his old image. The same year he played another ruthless businessman who plays the most dangerous game in "Savages," a similar TV film.

    He wasn't quite ready to give up on playing the good guy, though. Griffith bought the TV rights to the book from which the James Garner film "They Only Kill Their Masters" was taken, returning to law enforcement as the police chief of a small northern California resort town where people had a tendency to turn up dead. Through an initial TV movie ("Winter Kill"), a summer replacement series ("Adams of Eagle Lake") and two more TV movies, Griffith stubbornly tried to make a go of the character (whose name changed from one incarnation to another, though the setting remained the same). Two of those films, 1977's "The Girl in the Empty Grave" and "Deadly Game," used to show up frequently for years on Ted Turner's old Superstation.

    Griffith continued to take guest roles in dramatic films and miniseries, including an LBJ-ish character in "Washington Behind Closed Doors."

    Then came another TV series, with him starring as a crafty junk dealer who manages to outwit the FBI and launch his own moon mission in 1979's "Salvage 1." The pilot film was a nifty blending of comedy and adventure, with Griffith's Harry Broderick coming across as something of a rascal, but the weekly installments that followed were a major letdown due to undeveloped characters and improbable plots. When I talked with him about the show, Griffith railed against the poor scripts and the lack of control he had in the short-lived series.

    Griffith returned to a mix of supporting and leading roles, mostly on TV, and two years later hit a dramatic peak as a bitter father trying to prove his Houston socialite daughter was murdered by her doctor husband in "Murder in Texas," a Dick Clark-produced miniseries based on the same case that inspired Tommy Thompson's best-selling "Blood and Money."

    When I reviewed the miniseries, I wrote that Griffith deserved an Emmy for the role of Ash Robinson, and sure enough "Murder in Texas" finally brought him his first Emmy nomination (as incredible as that might seem since Knotts won five Emmys for "The Andy Griffith Show"). He didn't win, though, and speaking of the Emmy ceremony, Griffith told me, "That's the last damn time I ever show up for one of those things!"

    He turned in another strong, chillingly evil performance in the 1983 true-crime TV film "Murder in Coweta County," playing an arrogant, wealthy Georgia landowner who thinks he can get away with homicide, only to be tripped up by the dogged work of a lawman played by Johnny Cash. It was on the set of that film that I got to spend quite a bit of time with Griffith.

    He was about to undertake another villainous role as serial killer Foxy Funderburke in the terrific 1983 miniseries "Chiefs," based on a best-seller by Stuart Woods, when he was felled by Guillain-Barre syndrome. Keith Carradine took over the role in his place.

    Fortunately, Griffith recovered, though three years later while filming in Atlanta he showed me that he still had to wear braces in his shoes to deal with the after-effects of the illness. He continued a mix of TV and movie supporting roles, including as the bad guy in the big-screen Western spoof "Rustlers' Rhapsody."

    Then he caught a career break thanks to former network president Fred Silverman, who spotted him in a small but significant part as the wily prosecutor who finally brought Jeffrey MacDonald to justice in the 1984 miniseries based on the true-crime best-seller "Fatal Vision."

    Silverman told partner Dean Hargrove that they needed to create a TV series around Griffith as a Southern lawyer ... and thus was born "Matlock."

    At the same time, Griffith was returning to the scene of his career's happiest and most successful days, reassembling the cast of his old sitcom for "Return to Mayberry," the highest-rated TV movie of 1986. NBC, which aired the film, wanted more, suggesting a "Christmas in Mayberry" follow-up, he told me, but by then the deal was set for Griffith to return to weekly television in "Matlock," and he just didn't have time to do another Mayberry sequel. He did, however, find recurring roles for Knotts and other Mayberry denizens in "Matlock."

    Playing Ben Matlock, a crafty, Harvard-educated but folksy Atlanta attorney, Griffith was back in his element, and the viewing audience embraced his return, keeping the courtroom drama on the air for nine seasons. Although set in Atlanta, only the pilot film, "Diary of a Perfect Murder," was actually filmed in the Georgia capital, and it was on location for filming at the legendary Limelight disco that I again had the immense pleasure of chatting with him.

    The end of "Matlock" in 1995 was by no means the end of Griffith's career, however. He continued to do TV movies, usually playing a grandfather role, and drew critical plaudits in 2007 for his spotlight-stealing return to the big screen as crusty diner owner Old Joe in the whimsical Keri Russell indie comedy-drama "Waitress."

    He also returned to his musical roots in the mid-1990s, recording a series of Top 10 gospel albums that won him a Grammy award. I gave those albums to my father, who was just about as big an Andy fan as my brothers and me. We used to sit around during our Sunday visits with Dad at his assisted-living home, listening to Andy sing the likes of "Church in the Wildwood."

    So it was that Andy Griffith provided the soundtrack to the last week of Dad's life, as we literally played one of his gospel discs around the clock in my father's hospice room.

    So I guess it won't surprise you to hear that when my brother Jonathan called me last Tuesday morning to tell me that Griffith had died, it hit a little closer to home than the death of a show business personality usually does.

    Over the course of more than five decades Griffith had provided me with many hours of pleasure, and a mutual love of his work bound three generations of our family together.

    Thanks, Andy, for all the laughs and tears.

    I appreciate it.

    Current Mood: sad
    Tuesday, May 29th, 2012
    6:35 pm
    My Tunes: Carole King, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh and the Beach Boys
    I've been listening to an unusual number of new and forthcoming albums while I've been working over the past month or so, and I thought I'd share some thoughts about them.

    Two of the recent releases are similar in that they are collections of demo recordings and early takes that originally weren't intended for public consumption: Carole King's "The Legendary Demos" and George Harrison's "Early Takes Volume 1."

    As most King fans know, she got her start as a staff songwriter back in the Brill Building days before becoming a justly acclaimed singer-songwriter in her own right with her classic 1971 album "Tapestry" (which, I think I've noted before, is just about the only non-Beatle album I've bought in multiple formats, including LP, eight-track and various CD packagings).

    Half of the album features tracks that eventually showed up on "Tapestry," including "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" (recorded first by Aretha Franklin), and while they're not drastically different from the final versions on that album, there's an added intimacy in the demos of such numbers as "Way Over Yonder," "It's Too Late" and "You've Got a Friend" (which King gave first to James Taylor).

    The rest of the selections represent work King did (mostly with then-husband Gerry Goffin) for other artists. Some of the songs are very familiar, while others are not. So we get to hear her original of "Pleasant Valley Sunday," which was a big hit for the Monkees as well as "So Goes Love," which also was for the Monkees but didn't get released until long after the band had broken up. Others that were quite successful include "Take Good Care of My Baby," a big hit for Bobby Vee and others; "Crying in the Rain" (a hit for the Everly Brothers); and "Just Once in My Life" (a Righteous Brothers hit). Then there are obscurities such as "Like Little Children" (done by the Knickerbockers and then not released for many years) and "Yours Until Tomorrow," a lovely romantic ballad that was recorded by a host of performers, from Engelbert Humperdinck to Cher, but never was a hit.

    Whether it's the early versions of the hits or the more obscure tracks, this collection nicely showcases King's songwriting range and should please longtime fans.

    "Early Takes Volume 1," the collection of demos and early takes by Harrison, originally was released in Britain as a bonus disc with the Martin Scorsese Harrison documentary, but has been issued on its own as well as with the DVD in the U.S. It's of even greater interest than the King demo collection because of the contrast between the simple, unadorned performances here and the better-known finished versions of the songs, most of which got the Phil Spector wall-of-sound treatment.

    Six of the 10 tracks in this set are songs that ended up on the "All Things Must Pass" album: “My Sweet Lord,” “Run of the Mill,” "I'd Have You Anytime," "Awaiting on You All," "Behind That Locked Door" and that album's title song. "Woman Don't You Cry for Me" wound up on the "33 1/3" album and "The Light That Has Lighted the World" was done for the "Living in the Material World" album, while covers of "Let It Be Me" and Bob Dylan's "Mama You've Been on My Mind" never showed up on a finished album and date from later (though exactly when is hard to say since no recording data is included, unfortunately).

    Harrison is known for his gorgeous demos, and fans have been familiar with some of these takes for years thanks to bootlegs. It's nice to finally have them officially released, however. And while I'd have liked a more generous serving than we get here, at least the "Volume 1" in the title promises more. And, in fact, Beatles producer George Martin's son Giles, who assembled this collection, says in a forthcoming interview in Beatlefan magazine that more volumes are planned. Let's hope we don't have to wait too long.

    The album that's actually been occupying most of my listening time recently is the remastered reissue of Paul McCartney’s “Ram.”

    As I wrote in the last Beatlefan, I have vivid memories of the album's original release. I was browsing in a record store called the Music Grotto on lunch break from college one day in May 1971 when I heard a ukulele start plunking on the sound system and immediately recognized it as McCartney. They’d just unpacked the album and told me I was the first to buy it. I carried it with me to class and couldn’t wait to get home and pop it on my turntable.

    When I did, I remember I particularly liked the opening track, “Too Many People,” the intricate harmonies of “Dear Boy,” the bizarre rocker “Monkberry Moon Delight” (which struck me as a euphemism, though I wasn’t quite sure for what), the simple ditty “Heart of the Country” and the gorgeous Brian Wilson-ish closing track, “The Back Seat of My Car.” Plus, of course, the album’s multi-part big production, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which became a smash radio hit and topped the charts that summer.

    Probably because it drew mixed to negative reviews at the time from the rock press, who saw McCartney as the villain in the breakup of The Beatles and seemed to resent him billing the album as by "Paul and Linda McCartney," "Ram" often has been overlooked in assessments of Sir Paul's solo career. But thanks to this marvelous-sounding reissue perhaps now the album will get some credit for its mix of downhome charm and rather sophisticated production.

    An enjoyable bonus disc with the reissue includes the contemporaneous non-album single and B-sides "Another Day," "Oh Woman, Oh Why" and "Little Woman Love," plus five outtakes.

    I've also been listening to an advance disc of "Analog Man," Joe Walsh's first solo album in 20 years, which is due for release June 5. I've never been that big a follower of Walsh's non-Eagles work, but I appreciate the Traveling Wilburys vibe that infuses this collection, largely thanks to Walsh working with Jeff Lynne as producer. Walsh's brother-in-law, Ringo Starr, also shows up playing drums on two numbers.

    The hallmarks of Walsh's past work are here, including the sardonic humor and his distinctive guitar playing. My favorite tracks are the country-rock "Lucky That Way," which turned out to be something of a sequel to his hit "Life's Been Good," the lovely "Family" (with David Crosby and Graham Nash providing the harmonies) and the catchy "One Day at a Time," on which Lynne's musical influence is most obvious.

    Finally, the most recent arrival I've been listening to is the Beach Boys' reunion album, "That's Why God Made the Radio," which also comes out June 5. The credits say the album was "produced" by Brian Wilson with Mike Love as "executive producer," but that it was "recorded" by Joe Thomas, who takes a co-writing credit on all the tracks except one Mike Love number. From what I hear on the grapevine, Thomas was the key creative player in this album.

    No matter, the sound is pure Beach Boys — which is both the album's strength and weakness. Aside from the dreamy opening instrumental track, "Think About the Days," the first three-quarters of the album comes off as the Beach Boys doing the Beach Boys — like a tribute band, only with the original players and new songs that aren't particularly memorable.

    All the tracks make for pleasant listening, and there are snatches that are very pretty. The rich harmonies are what you'd expect. And there are lots of familiar riffs and vocal bits that conjure up past Beach Boys numbers. However, after a while they come off as a bit manipulative, sort of like all the musical Beatle-isms that Mark Hudson used to cram into the albums he produced for Ringo Starr. Also, there's something about a bunch of 70-year-old guys singing about surfing that just seems a trifle ridiculous.

    My interest perked up, though, with the last four songs — "Strange World," "From There to Back Again," "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone." At that point the material becomes a bit more contemplative, bittersweet and, frankly, more in keeping with where the Beach Boys are at this time of life.

    The difference between the two approaches was summed up for me in the recent Billboard interview with the band members. Love said the musical reunion was "like 1965 again," while Wilson noted, "Actually, it's like revisiting an old town you used to live in 20 years ago."

    I think the latter part of the album is more successful in capturing that feeling.


    AT THE MOVIES: After debating back and forth about whether I wanted to see the Tim Burton version of "Dark Shadows," I finally decided to take it in, joined by my daughter Olivia. She knew nothing about the original TV show on which it's based, while I was a big fan back in the late '60s, when we'd rush home from school to catch the gothic horror-soap with Jonathan Frid as the first sympathetic vampire. I also enjoyed the brief 1991 prime-time TV remake with Ben Cross.

    After the movie was over, Olivia asked me what I'd grade it on a scale of 1-10 and I said a 5. She agreed, saying other than a few witty lines, she didn't think it had much to offer.

    My problem was it seemed director Burton and star Jonnny Depp couldn't make up their minds what sort of film they wanted to make — a spoof or an homage to the original series. It would have been better had it been one or the other.

    The film started out with promise, mixing humor and horror as it made 18th century vampire Barnabas Collins (Depp) something of a fish out of water when he's released from his coffin in 1972. And before Burton had her start destroying (if not chewing) the scenery, the normally delightful Eva Green was interesting as Barbabas' nemesis, the vengeful witch Angelique.

    But the film went completely off the rails in the second half. The over-the-top climax seemed like they were just throwing in every horror movie cliche they could think of, whether it made any sense or not. And there was no attempt at character development or any coherence in terms of the plot.

    Unless you're a major Depp fan, no need to bother with this.

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: chipper
    Monday, April 23rd, 2012
    8:58 pm
    The day Dick Clark called to talk about The Beatles
    "Time, it seems, finally has caught up with Dick Clark."

    That was the opening to a piece I wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April 1989 when Clark, then still a youthful-looking 59, was preparing to end his 33-year reign as "America's oldest living teenager" by handing over the hosting chores of a diminished "American Bandstand" to 26-year-old David Hirsch as the show moved to the USA cable channel.

    Unfortunately for Hirsch (there's a trivia stumper for you!), the show he inherited was but a shadow of the pioneering televised sock hop that in its heyday could make or break records. "Bandstand" mercifully came to an end six months later.

    But my premature verdict on Dick Clark's race with time proved to be off by a mere 23 years, as he continued to not only be a major producer of television programming but also showed up regularly on TV, even though after suffering a debilitating 2004 stroke his screen time was reduced to his brave, if awkward, "New Year's Rockin' Eve" segments as co-host with Ryan Seacrest.

    (As I noted here after his return on the 2005 telecast, for a guy who'd made his career out of being perpetually young and glib, it must have been hell for Clark to go on camera with his speech obviously still quite impaired from the stroke. A gutty performance.)

    Finally, though, time did catch up with Clark last week at age 82.

    While most of today's younger viewers probably associated Clark primarily with New Year's Eve, for their parents' generation he was a practically ubiquitous and extremely formative presence on the tube and in the music business.

    "Bandstand" originated in September 1952 as a local show on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV. Clark became the show's host in 1956 and the next year gave it national exposure on ABC, where it aired every weekday afternoon and quickly became a sensation, drawing at one point almost a million fan letters a week.

    It was a simple formula: hit records, attractive kids having fun and quick glimpses of popular personalities lip-syncing their hits ("Bandstand" never had a large enough budget for live musical performances), all presided over by a genial host. Much of Middle America still might have found rock 'n' roll threatening at that point, but Clark came across like a well-dressed, clean-cut, articulate older brother and made "Bandstand" acceptable viewing in most homes.

    In addition to popularizing such dance crazes as the Twist, the Pony, the Watusi and the Mashed Potato, "Bandstand" became a national launching pad for pop music talent. The "Rate-a-Record" segment — "I give it a 95, Dick. It's got a good beat; you can dance to it" — became a part of Americana.

    The impressive list of stars making their national TV debut on "Bandstand" included Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Jackson Five, Talking Heads and Prince. (Though it should be pointed out that Clark spent nearly as much airtime pushing such soon-to-be-forgotten acts as the DiFranco Family as he did future legends.)

    Probably the major name to come out of "Bandstand" was Clark himself, the only TV personality to simultaneously host programs on all three networks and in syndication. At ABC's behest, he divested his lucrative record industry businesses in 1959 during the "payola" scandal over disc jockeys being paid to play certain records (and subsequently cleared himself during congressional hearings). But that didn't stop him from diversifying into concert promotion, acting and hosting game shows, most notably the "$10,000 Pyramid" (and its various higher-valued offspring). He also was host of a couple of nationally syndicated radio countdown shows for years and produced various "Bandstand" siblings, incuding "Where the Action Is."

    Indeed, it was as a TV producer that Clark hit his stride. Dick Clark Productions was behind the American Music Awards, Academy of Country Music Awards, Golden Globes and Daytime Emmy telecasts in addition to the ABC New Year's Eve show. Turning out an average of 150 hours of programming a year at his peak, Clark showed a knack for mass-appeal (if lowbrow) fare. Although one of his latter-day productions, the nostalgic 2002-2005 drama "American Dreams," drew critical praise, more typical of his output were his many "bloopers" shows. It's what onetime NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff (an admirer and major customer) called "fast-food programming ... the McDonald's of television."

    Clark, who amassed a personal fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, defended his programming in a 1984 interview, saying, "I am in a commercial business. What is wrong with giving people what they want and enjoy?"

    For most of three decades, that included "Bandstand, " which Clark continued to host. But the rise of MTV and video music in the '80s accelerated the dissipation of the show's power and impact that had begun after it moved to Los Angeles in March 1964 and started airing just once a week. Eventually, the audience dwindled as well.

    But there's no denying the important role Clark played in the evolution of American pop music into the broad-based money-making machine it became. He spearheaded the rise of such teen idols of the late '50s and early '60s as Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell. And he provided one of the first national TV showcases for black entertainers. Despite Ku Klux Klan threats, Clark presented Atlanta's first integrated concert bill at the Lakewood Fairgrounds in 1958 for a live Saturday night TV show that he also hosted for 2 1/2 years.

    Still, more often, Clark avoided controversy. He dropped Jerry Lee Lewis from his shows after the flap over the singer marrying his 13-year-old cousin. And, as I noted in that 1989 piece, he hedged his bets when a furor erupted over John Lennon's remark that The Beatles were more popular with kids than Jesus Christ, offering viewers the chance to send in unwanted Beatles items if they were disenchanted with the Fab Four, and then in the next breath introducing the group's latest single, "Yellow Submarine."

    The inclusion of a mention of that waffling on The Beatles led to my last direct contact with Clark. Previously, I'd met him a couple of times at network TV press gatherings for some of the shows he hosted and/or produced, and at one such affair I'd chatted with him briefly about what happened to The Beatles' lawsuit against him over his "Birth of The Beatles" TV movie. (He said they'd "settled," and when I asked if that meant he'd paid The Beatles off, he held his fingers together closely to indicate, yes, but it hadn't cost him very much.)

    Anyway, a couple of weeks after the 1989 article ran in the paper, my office phone rang and it was Dick Clark calling! He'd read the article and was complimentary about it, but he wanted to pick one bone with me: Where, he asked, had I come up with the idea that he'd offered to hold a bonfire of Beatles items? He was pretty sure, he said, that he'd never done any such thing.

    "That came from my own memory," I told him, relating how I recalled clearly as a teenager watching him try to straddle the fence on the issue on a late-summer 1966 installment of "Bandstand."

    I'll give him credit: He didn't tell me I was full of it. Instead, he again said he had no recollection of doing that and indicated he was going to go back and check the videotape to see what it showed.

    I never heard back from him, so I don't know if he ever checked the archives or not. But whether he was right or I was, there's no denying that straddling the middle of the road over the course of his career paid off hugely for Dick Clark.

    But as he noted, what's wrong with giving folks what they want and enjoy? Clark had an unprecedented knack for knowing what that was.

    I don't think we'll see the likes of him again.

    ANOTHER LOSS: I never got to meet Jonathan Frid, the Shakespearean actor who became a teen idol and TV sensation playing Barnabas Collins, the sympathetic vampire on the 1960s gothic soap "Dark Shadows."

    Back when I was covering television, a veteran publicist at ABC, who was friends with Frid, urged me to try looking him up on one of my trips to New York City, telling me what a lovely guy he was and how much he'd love to talk about the old days. I really wish now I had done that, but unfortunately I never was able to work it into my always-tight schedule on those trips.

    I would have enjoyed meeting Frid, because I was an avid fan of "Dark Shadows" in high school. I remember I was aware of the program in its early days, before Frid joined the cast and became a phenomenon, but I generally avoided daytime soaps of any sort. Then, in the fall of 1967, my brothers started watching the after-school show with some neighborhood pals and told me about it. Intrigued, I tuned in and immediately got hooked by Frid's conflicted portrayal of a reluctant vampire awakened long after his time, the show's serial mash-up of elements from myriad monster and suspense movies, and the comely young witches and damsels in distress. (Angelique! Maggie!)

    I remained a faithful viewer of the show, went to see the two feature films that were spun off from it, and even bought the soundtrack LP of Robert Cobert's haunting "Dark Shadows" music. But as a freshman in college I missed the latter months of "Dark Shadows" because it conflicted with my class schedule — this being the era before VCRs and digital recorders. I wanted to skip class to watch the final installment but couldn't do so because of a test. So my Mom volunteered to watch the show for me and gave me a report.

    A couple of decades later I tuned in every week to the short-lived prime time version of "Dark Shadows" starring Ben Cross as Barnabas — an earnest, serious remake that didn't last very long.

    And now, coming right on the heels of Frid's death on May 11, we'll finally get another big-screen "Dark Shadows," this one starring Johnny Depp and Eva Green.

    I was pleased to read what the new Barnabas had to say after Frid's passing. “Jonathan Frid was the reason I used to run home from school to watch ‘Dark Shadows,’” Depp said. ”His elegance and grace was an inspiration then and will continue to remain one forever more. When I had the honor to finally meet him [Frid has a cameo in the new film], he generously passed the torch of Barnabas.”

    Unfortunately, I have a feeling I'm going to want to take a torch to the new version of the tale of Collinwood, which director Tim Burton has reimagined as a campy comedy. I've hated campiness ever since the Adam West "Batman" unleashed a flood of tongue-in-cheek programming (and ruined several previously good shows) back in 1966. Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" took a similarly campy big-screen approach to that character and nearly killed it as a movie franchise, before Christopher Nolan got things back on track with a serious approach, resulting in "The Dark Knight."

    Too bad it's not Nolan reviving Barnabas and "Dark Shadows." I think that might have made a more suitable tribute to Jonathan Frid.

    ON THE TUBE: I spent much of Sunday afternoon catching up on the new season of AMC's "Mad Men," and I'm pleased to say it's still the best series on television. The stylish period piece has moved into 1966 now and is touching on various mileposts of the era, from race relations to the obstacles faced by career women to tripping on LSD. Watching the superb cast explore their flawed but fascinating characters is as satisfying as ever. ... I've also caught the first two episodes of "Girls," the new HBO comedy that provides a sort of millennial generation updating of "Sex and the City." Created by 26-year-old wunderkind Lena Dunham, who plays one of the four young women the show revolves around, "Girls" offers some witty dialogue and isn't afraid to let its central characters come off as spoiled brats with little more in their lives than a sense of entitlement. But that's also a problem: The characters are not very sympathetic. And for a show that spends much of its time focusing on sex, it features some of the unsexiest couplings ever filmed. The verdict is still out on this one.

    A QUICKIE: I love Norah Jones' voice and I commend her for trying to shake up her sound a bit by teaming up with producer Danger Mouse (another UGA alum) for her new album, "Little Broken Hearts," out May 1.There's only one problem: mediocre material. For me, there wasn't really one keeper in the bunch. Let me know what you think. You can listen to the album streaming courtesy of NPR and the Guardian:
    http://www.npr.org/2012/04/15/150302373/first-listen-norah-jones-little-broken-hearts
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2012/apr/16/norah-jones-little-broken-hearts-stream

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: sad
    Monday, March 12th, 2012
    10:30 pm
    It's not the sexy TV ads that are going too far
    Sexy ads aren't anything new, especially on TV, so it's a little surprising the amount of comment directed to the most recent sexed up Carl's Jr./Hardee's spot, featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton getting practically horizontal with a literally saucy Southwest Patty Melt.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdGsKzmCgB0

    The hamburger chain, which in the past has used Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian in similar ads, is known for marketing to hormone-driven teenage males, and the Upton ad is just more of the same, if a little more blatant than its predecessors.

    It's an approach used more and more to peddle foodstuffs, such as in the spot with the widening eyes of a young woman seemingly having an orgasmic reaction to ... eating a York Peppermint Patty.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB1rNAzVSa8

    It's kind of ironic that ads for beer and food are often more forthrightly aimed at the libido than those ubiquitous but romantically coy spots for Cialis and other products more directly connected to the sex act. Even in the area of products enhancing lovemaking, however, TV commercials are getting a bit more, um, pointed.

    Like those ads for K-Y Intense, a product that purports to enhance female satisfaction. In most of the spots, we see a rather shy couple who don't exactly look like models sitting on a bed and talking about what happens when they use Intense. Then there's usually a cut-away shot of firecrackers exploding, followed by the couple sprawled out on the bed in post-coital bliss.

    Actually, I think a more subtle approach in the latest K-Y Intense campaign is much more effective. That's where the proper British couple is talking in code over breakfast about the "amazing" desert with cinnamon and nutmeg they had the night before, with subtitles letting you know what they're actually talking about. "Mmmm, nutmeg," says the woman at the end, while the subtitle says, "K-Y."
    http://www.bestads.tv/view/5855/ky-intense-cinnamon-and-nutmeg/

    Subtle isn't exactly the word I'd use to describe the "bush" ad for Schick's Quattro TrimStyle. I remember the first time I saw it, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing: As a slinky model walked along, the various trees and shrubs she passed suddenly took on topiary shapes resembling some of the more common styles for trimming feminine pubic hair. Certainly a memorable bit of advertising, though.
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/schicks-trim-your-bush-commercial

    I don't mind ads pushing the envelope when it comes to being sexy, but there's another recent trend in TV commercials that I think definitely has gone too far. For lack of a better term, let's call it bathroom talk.

    It started when the Charmin bear ads started making their point with mama and papa bears trying to stop a cub from going around with bits of inferior toilet tissue stuck to his rear end.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLKTUsyCMcg

    Then there was the Huggies ad with a dad trying to change his son's diaper while the kid destroys a hotel room with a stream like a fire hose. OK, parents of boys can see the exaggerated humor in the situation, but still ...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNqL28QK3pg

    I can't find any redeeming qualities at all, however, in the Wal-Mart ad that has a man sniffing his wife's armpits on the dance floor to make sure her Degree deoderant has worked.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwxhySdJ_2I

    And the recent animated "heavy dooty" ad for Luvs that has squatting babies competing in a contest to see who can fill their diaper the most is just plain disgusting. What can the makers of this ad have been thinking?
    http://www.adstorical.com/commercial/2575/luvs-diapers-heavy-dooty-championship/

    Not exactly the kind of work that ad agency is likely to submit for the Clio Awards.

    ON THE TUBE: I hadn't originally planned on watching "Game Change," the HBO movie based on the best-selling book about the McCain-Palin campaign that debuted this past weekend. But then I caught portions of a couple of airings and was so impressed that I made a point of watching the entire film.

    It's not a work likely to change your view of former Alaska Gov. and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin — if you were horrified in 2008 by the thought of such an uninformed, inexperienced media creation being one beat of a 72-year-old heart away from the presidency, as a character notes in the film, "Game Change" will leave you even more relieved the American electorate didn't buy her. And if you are a Palin fan, you probably will want to label it "fiction" like Palin herself has done.

    But keep in mind that this isn't some Democratic Party screed against the darling of arch conservatives — it's a McCain campaign insider's view of Palin as seen by Republican stalwarts like Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, played in the film by a terrific Woody Harrelson and Sarah Paulson.

    The filmmakers have skillfully blended actual news footage of such figures as Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, and Barack Obama and Joe "Obiden," as Palin wanted to call him, with very strong portrayals of the McCain campaign principals.

    Julianne Moore manages to look and sound like Palin while avoiding coming off as a caricature. True, Palin comes out of the film looking pretty bad, but Moore's performance isn't completely unsympathetic. In fact, during scenes where Palin hugs Down syndrome children and their parents on the campaign trail and when she's painfully watching herself being lampooned on TV by Tina Fey, even a confirmed Democrat is likely to feel some sympathy for her. She obviously wasn't prepared to be thrust into the spotlight like that. As Ed Harris' McCain says at one point, "That poor girl. She wasn't ready for this." But then there also are moments where Moore's Palin comes off as an uncooperative, self-involved bitch.

    Much more positive overall is the film's take on McCain, who battles to keep the campaign from going off the deep end while still trying to derail Obama, and who warns Palin at the end not to get caught up with Rush Limbaugh and the extremists he fears will ruin the GOP.

    In the end, "Game Change" is one of the more successful efforts in HBO's long string of reality-based telemovies, thanks to both a crackerjack script by Danny Strong and strong performances by the top-notch cast. If anything, what you'll take away from it isn't what an ill-prepared candidate Palin was, but more a cautionary tale about the things politicians and their aides are forced to do in nowadays out of desperation. It'll be interesting to see what sort of film HBO gets out of the 2012 race.

    MY TUNES: My son introduced me to the music of The Shins a few years ago. Here's their latest, "Simple Song," which I've been enjoying recently:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyAJ4V06izg

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: surprised
    Monday, March 5th, 2012
    6:47 pm
    Stroll down Tin Pan Alley stirs childhood memories
    Back in the pre-Beatles days of my youth in the 1950s and early '60s, rock 'n' roll was "teenage music," the soundtrack for my brothers and me making fun of the dancers on "American Bandstand" on weekday afternoons.

    Musically, my upbringing was much more immersed in the pop standards and Broadway tunes that were played on the middle-of-the-road station to which my parents kept their bedroom radio tuned. Many a night I recall falling asleep listening to the sounds of the great American songbook on a nightly show that WGAU called "Dancing in the Dark."

    So I have a history with the type of music Paul McCartney has chosen to record with Diana Krall and a group of jazz musicians for his "Kisses on the Bottom" album.

    Just as McCartney himself does. These are the type of songs his dad played on the piano at the family sing-alongs that happened whenever the McCartney clan got together. As Paul recalls in the liner notes to his new album, "For years I've been wanting to do some of the old songs that my parents' generation used to sing at New Year. ... the carpets would get rolled back, all the women would sit around with their little drinks of rum-and-black, gin-and-it, Babycham; someone would play the piano and it was normally my Dad. They would sing these old songs all night: 'When the Red Red Robin,' 'Carolina Moon.' And I took all of that in."

    The result, despite the fact that McCartney wrote only two of the songs on "Kisses on the Bottom," is perhaps the most deeply personal album he's ever done. This music means something to him, strikes an emotional chord with him, and it shows in his performance.

    As he has noted, McCartney is far from the first musician from the rock ’n’ roll generation to tackle pop standards. But rarely has this golden material been approached on one of these latterday collections with the superb taste, charm and class that Macca has brought to his stroll down Tin Pan Alley.

    It helps that he’s surrounded himself with a first-class cast of folks from the jazz-pop side of the musical spectrum who know this material intimately, including producer Tommy LiPuma and pianist Diana Krall (his pal Elvis Costello's wife, who also handled most of the rhythm arrangements).

    The entire collection is very laid-back and jazzy and finds Paul in crooner mode. On most of the tracks, McCartney sings in a very light, almost breathy style. At times his nearly 70-year-old voice may be frayed around the edges, but that fits the mood of the album. And some of the tracks see him singing with a sensitivity to the lyric that you rarely hear in the rock world.

    This is Macca exploring new vocal territory. While his vocals no doubt would have been technically stronger 20 years ago, he gives heartfelt readings of the lyrics that hit the mark. As a friend said, there’s a sort of “September of his years” feel to the album.

    Also, the choice of material is sublime, ranging from classic tunes that anyone over 50 should know well to lesser-known but tasty selections.

    McCartney didn’t limit himself to songs from the old family sing-alongs, with LiPuma and Krall suggesting a couple of numbers that Macca didn’t even know. So it’s like McCartney and his listeners alike are exploring a cool musical treasure chest. Macca told Billboard he and the musicians “went in there and enjoyed the songs,” and it sounds like that.

    Another plus is the cool vibe provided by the band. With lots of acoustic guitar and brushes on the drums, the playing suits the material and the production style perfectly, especially Krall’s delightfully understated piano playing and the use of a stand-up bass.

    The album opens with a jaunty midtempo “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” (The album’s cheeky title comes from a line in this song.) The band is in a nice groove right from the start, with Krall’s piano solo a particular highlight.

    Next up is a lush, string-backed treatment of “Home (When Shadows Fall),” a fairly obscure ballad. Macca gives a very tender reading to the song, at times in almost a half-whisper.

    The pace picks up with a sprightly rendition of Harold Arlen's “It’s Only a Paper Moon," featuring the unexpected but effective addition of a fiddle.

    Macca’s vocal limitations show just a bit on that number, as they do on an orchestrated version of Frank Loesser’s “More I Cannot Wish You,” a song from the stage musical “Guys and Dolls” that didn’t make it into the film score (and a tune McCartney's company owns). Still, Paul offers a very appropriate reading of the poignant lyrics, which he’s noted in the play are sung by a grandfather to a young girl and which struck home with him in terms of his daughter Beatrice.

    He sounds more sure of himself on “The Glory of Love,” which prominently features John Clayton’s distinctive stand-up bass as lead instrument.

    One of the more left-field choices on the album is the Tommy Dorsey hit “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” which features strings and piano in a lovely orchestral arrangement by pop veteran Johnny Mandel.

    One of the more upbeat numbers on the easygoing, mellow album is Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” which has a memorable piano solo by Krall.

    Next is “My Valentine,” the first of the new McCartney songs, featuring Eric Clapton on acoustic guitar. I find myself wishing there were some vocal harmonies on this one, but the ballad has one of those sneaky McCartney melodies that grows on you, and I have to admit it holds its own pretty well amid these classic pop numbers.

    Next is an orchestrated version of Irving Berlin’s “Always,” a tune associated with Frank Sinatra. Sir Paul is no Old Blue Eyes, but he acquits himself pretty well here. I particularly like John Pizzarelli’s acoustic guitar on the intro and solo.

    Another oddball but choice selection is the Fats Waller tune “My Very Good Friend the Milkman,” which has some of Macca’s airiest vocals, supplemented by whistling. There’s a very nice use of trombone on this number, particularly in the solo.

    Then comes another well-known classic in “Bye Bye Blackbird,” which is done here as a languid torchy ballad complete with the lesser known introduction, as opposed to the upbeat Dixieland version of the same song that Ringo Starr did on his own 1970 collection of standards, “Sentimental Journey.” Krall shines again here on piano and the brushes on the drums set just the right intimate mood.

    One of the album’s high points is “Get Yourself Another Fool,” a tune associated with Sam Cooke and done here in a very jazzy arrangement with bluesy electric guitar by Clapton and a particularly strong vocal by Paul, who uses his regular singing voice on this one.

    Another treat is “The Inch Worm,” first done by Danny Kaye in the film “Hans Christian Andersen.” Having children join in singing the arithmetic chorus is a charming touch.

    The regular album winds up with the other new McCartney song, “Only Our Hearts,” an orchestrated, string- and flute-backed ballad with solo harmonica played by Stevie Wonder. It’s Macca at his most romantic and, again, feels right at home amid these pop standards.

    Two bonus tracks are included on the “deluxe” version of the album sold at Target as well as on iTunes. The first is a remake of “Baby’s Request,” the tune from Wings’ “Back to the Egg” album that Macca originally wrote with the Mills Brothers in mind. A delightful surprise is a brand-new upbeat instrumental reprise added at the end.

    The other bonus track is “My One and Only Love,” a song most famously recorded by Sinatra. The gently orchestrated version here features more tasty piano by Krall and one of Macca’s most tender vocals (almost falsetto at times).

    There’s not a duff selection in the bunch. Macca summed it up rather well when he described "Kisses" as "an album you listen to at home after work, with a glass of wine or a cup of tea.”

    One to savor, in other words.

    AT THE MOVIES: Leslie and I have caught two films so far this year. The superb "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a dark, moody, slow-burn puzzler of a Cold War spy story — no car chases or explosions. It takes a while to get going, but the British cast is fantastic, especially Gary Oldman as taciturn but always watchful George Smiley. Highly recommended. And having seen all three of the original Swedish films based on Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, we weren't sure what our reaction would be to the English-language remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but we really enjoyed it. There are few differences from the original, including a slightly more bittersweet ending that is more true to the book in some respects. I didn't think I'd like Rooney Mara as much in the role of Lisbeth, having been wowed by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish films, but she's excellent. And Daniel Craig is, too, in a very un-Bond way. Highly recommended if you don't mind films that get a bit graphic in their sex and violence.

    ON THE TUBE: My favorite new show of the midseason is "Alcatraz" (Mondays on Fox), from "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams. While my son was in town, he watched an episode with me, and I think he's hooked now, too. It's a sci-fi mystery that posits that when the Alcatraz prison closed in 1963, it was because the inmates and guards just suddenly vanished into thin air. And now, one by one, they're showing up again and running amok in modern-day San Francisco. It has all the hallmarks of an Abrams show, including a sudden revelations out of left field that leave you even more puzzled than you started out and, for some, a frustratingly slow pace at moving the conspiracy (or whatever it is) along. But while the overall story arc might be dawdling, the weekly encounters with the miscreants from the past are briskly told. Ingratiating Jorge Garcia plays one of the three key figures as a smarter version of the Hurley character that was such a favorite of "Lost" fans, but unfortunately his is the only character that's really been well developed so far. Sarah Jones is appealing but her detective character needs more emotional depth, and Sam Neill's mysterious government man is still a bit two-dimensional. And, unfortunately, the delightful Parminder Nagra ("Bend It Like Beckham") has spent too much time in a coma! I've read that the audience for the series has fallen off over the past month, probably a sign that Abrams needs to speed things up. In the Twitter era, I'm not sure viewers have the patience that the "Lost" audience showed in waiting years for answers.

    MY TUNES: I first encountered Eric Hutchinson doing his song "Watching You Watch Him" on the Letterman show and the song was still in my head the next day, always a good sign. As my friend Al Sussman said, he has sort of a Marshall Crenshaw thing going on. Check it out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EqARZh9g7o

    The big indie hit right now is Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," which also buried itself in my brain the first time I heard it back in January:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UVNT4wvIGY

    And here's a cool cover of the tune by Walk Off the Earth featuring the entire band playing one guitar:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9NF2edxy-M

    There's a civic debate going on right now in my hometown of Athens about a proposed Wal-Mart development on the edge of the historic downtown area. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, Mike Mills of the former R.E.M. and other Athens musicians banded together as The Downtown 13 with a protest tune, "After It's Gone."
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ87g7uPyaY&feature=player_embedded

    Finally, the morning after my Dad died, I dug up this David Gates performance of Bread's "Everything I Own." I always loved that tune but didn't discover until years later that it was Gates' tribute to his father. That adds a dimension to the tune that really hit home.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pfTfMoR8sg

    If you'd like to add to or have your say about anything in this column, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

    Current Mood: nostalgic
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