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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in billking's LiveJournal:

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Sunday, July 16th, 2017
6:04 pm
McCartney on Tour: Still Worth it? Oh, Yeah!
I saw the July 13 stop of Paul McCartney’s One on One tour at Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, GA. My thoughts on the evening ...

Say what you will about Paul McCartney’s mostly unchanging show and his occasionally faltering voice, it’s still a wonder of nature watching him onstage, thoroughly pleasing an audience for nearly three hours with pop music’s most stellar songbook, served up with charm and whimsy to spare.

Admittedly, when I first saw the set list for the current edition of McCartney's One on One tour, I was a bit underwhelmed, as there was nothing on it that he hadn't done live somewhere before (though “I Wanna Be Your Man” never had been a regular part of the show before this tour).

But, after the amazing 2-hour-53-minute show by the 75-year-old legend at Infinite Energy Arena in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth had finished, I had the usual big smile on my face — as did every other concertgoer I saw.

Yes, as a hardcore fan I would have loved a somewhat fresher selection of tunes. And it baffles me why he skips over a couple of decades of his career like they didn’t exist. As my friend John Sosebee (who attended the show with me and Leslie) noted, the lack of any “Flowers in the Dirt” songs this time around was particularly surprising, considering that album just recently had gotten the archive reissue treatment. “My Brave Face,” a favorite on the first solo tour back in 1989-90, is a terrific tune that drew acclaim at the time and is in a key Paul easily can handle.

Still, there's no denying the sheer entertainment power of the numbers presented onstage. Most of the crowd looked like they are probably getting the same Medicare mailers I am, but there also were youngsters who seemed to appreciate what they were seeing and hearing, including the young lady with green hair and a nose ring in front of me, who stood for most of the show.

It was a great concert, and his voice was surprisingly good, only a bit shaky on a few numbers and never to the point where it really detracted.

Read the rest of my concert review at SOMETHING NEW: The Beatlefan Blog.
Wednesday, January 25th, 2017
9:06 pm
From Happy Hotpoint to TV icon: Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

Even before I saw them, I knew which phrase would be used in many of the headlines over stories about Mary Tyler Moore’s death this week at age 80.
It’s the line that everyone quotes from the instantly hummable theme song used in the iconic opening of her 1970s situation comedy, showing her walking around Minneapolis and then twirling around and throwing her tam o’shanter in the air – a moment immortalized in 2002 by a statue TV Land put up in the Minnesota city.
Still, sometimes, you can’t beat a cliché, because it’s just spot-on: Mary Tyler Moore really did turn the world on with her smile.
Moore and that wide-mouthed, beaming grin were central to two of television’s greatest comedy classics.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the comedy with the hat-throwing opening, has been justifiably lionized for its intelligent scripts and its groundbreaking premise of focusing on an over-30 career woman who was making it on her own just fine without Mr. Right.
But America already had been turned on by Moore during her five-year run as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” starting in 1961.

Laura was groundbreaking in her own way -- a funny, relatable Jackie Kennedy-esque housewife and mother whose penchant for form-fitting Capri pants gave CBS execs and sponsors the jitters before helping launch a ‘60s fashion trend. Even Van Dyke wondered early on whether she was too young to play his wife (10 years his junior), but nobody cared, because Moore’s performance was so completely adorable while also being consistently funny.
Prior to being cast as Laura, Moore mainly was known for having been appliance touting elf Happy Hotpoint, and as the seductive voice and gorgeous legs of the unseen secretary on “Richard Diamond, Private Eye.” But the young actress proved she could more than hold her own in an ensemble cast that included rubber-faced Van Dyke, veteran vaudevillians Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie, and the show’s creator, TV pioneer Carl Reiner.
Whether she was dancing in the living room, getting spaced out on tranquilizers and wine before meeting her in-laws, doing one of her hilariously halting crying scenes, or simply lamenting, “Ohhhh, Rob,” Moore’s Laura was irresistible, and quickly became one of my earliest TV crushes.

After Van Dyke folded the weekly sitcom in 1966 to concentrate on his film career, Moore signed her own movie deal with Universal Pictures, which saw her as a younger Doris Day. But, after getting largely upstaged by Julie Andrews and Carol Channing in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” having her starring role in a Broadway musical based on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” come to an abrupt end when the show closed in previews, and costarring as a doubting nun in “Change of Habit,” one of Elvis Presley’s lesser film vehicles, Moore wisely decided to return to TV.
Moore reteamed with Van Dyke for an acclaimed one-off variety special, then she and her then-husband, TV exec Grant Tinker, managed to sell CBS on starring Moore in her own sitcom as Mary Richards, an associate producer for WJM-TV in Minneapolis who sometimes seemed too nice to be true, but who wasn’t afraid to demand she be paid the same as a male coworker and who was openly on the pill.
Although Moore eventually won four of her seven Emmy Awards for the show, her performance in the central role was undervalued by many critics, with most of the attention going to her brilliant surrounding cast: Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Ted Knight, Betty White and Gavin McLeod. But, just as “The Andy Griffith Show” would have been nothing without Griffith, Moore’s ensemble wouldn’t have had an audience if we hadn’t been tuning in to renew our love affair with Mary.

Moore wasn’t just a force in front of the cameras on that show, either. She and Tinker founded its production company, MTM Enterprises, which went on to spin several other series off Moore’s (including “Rhoda” and “Lou Grant”) and became one of Hollywood’s prestige TV studios, responsible for such fare as “The Bob Newhart Show,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Remington Steele, “ “St. Elsewhere” and “Newhart.”
(Moore and Tinker divorced in 1981, about the time he became head of NBC, but they remained friends. He died a couple of months ago at age 90.)
In the years after “The Mary Tyler Moore” show had left the air in 1977, Moore broadened her acting career, taking on dramatic roles on the big screen as well as in TV movies and on the stage, earning a best actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a cold, repressed mother grieving the loss of her son Robert Redford’s 1980 film “Ordinary People,” and a Tony Award for the Broadway play “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”
She also tried unsuccessfully several times to return to the weekly TV series grind, starring in two short-lived CBS variety shows in the 1978-79 season, the first of which was notable mainly for having David Letterman and Michael Keaton in the supporting cast. (She remained buddies with Letterman, and in later years would guest occasionally on his late-night shows to surprise those who thought of her as America’s sweetheart by telling slightly dirty jokes.)
When CBS announced another sitcom try in 1985, “Mary,” during a time I was covering television for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I had high hopes that Moore would join the list of personal favorites I’d had the good fortune to interview, but it wasn’t to be. The press interviews for the show were done instead by co-star James Farantino. (The show was pretty bad and didn’t last long, amid word that Moore was unhappy with the production team and the direction of the series, perhaps explaining her absence from the advance promotion.)
I did ask Farantino about working with Moore, whose company owned the series, and he noted: “There's no pulling of strings here. Mary does not walk around as head of MTM. As a matter of fact, I didn't even realize she was chairman of the board until we were into our third or fourth show.”
Moore continued to appear in TV films and to guest on other series, and occasionally revisited her past glories. She and Valerie Harper reprised their 1970s characters in the 2001 telefilm “Mary and Rhoda,” and Moore teamed up again with Van Dyke for a PBS adaptation of “The Gin Game” in 2002 and “The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited” in 2004. She and Harper also reunited with their female “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-stars on an episode of the TV Land sitcom “Hot in Cleveland,” featuring Betty White and Georgia Engel.
Moore also became an outspoken animal rights advocate and, having been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in her early 30s, served as the international chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

I don’t really know how well the younger generation knows the Van Dyke and Moore sitcoms, but I hope, if they haven’t already, they search them out on Netflix or wherever. Maybe some of the millennials who haven’t abandoned network TV got a chance to sample Moore’s greatness back before Christmas when CBS aired a pair of colorized episodes of the Van Dyke show, including one showing Moore at her nervous best when Laura inadvertently reveals on TV that her husband’s vain boss is secretly bald.
As for those of us who were lucky enough to watch Moore in her prime, we know that, as Van Dyke tweeted after her death, she was simply “the best.”
Another Twitter tribute, posted by Ben Stiller, nicely sums up how fans felt about the lady with the huge, legendary smile:
“I loved Mary Tyler Moore on so many levels … such a huge part of our culture and consciousness.”
Saturday, January 9th, 2016
10:29 pm
A Quickie Look at 2015, and Tackling the ‘Sherlock’ Mystery!
I decided to handle my 2015 year-end entertainment wrap-up again in the Q&A format that I used last year at Leslie’s suggestion. Rather than a comprehensive look at the year in entertainment, these are merely the highlights of what I particularly enjoyed. Here goes …

What did you want and get?

Finally, after years of rumors, The Beatles got around to issuing sort of a “video greatest hits” compilation. And, best of all, they not only upgraded and restored the video, they also paired it with a revised version of the previous “1” collection of their No. 1 hits featuring not just remastered versions of the songs but totally new mixes created by going back to the original session tapes.

You have your choice of just getting the revised “1” album or various CD-DVD-Blu-ray configurations of the expanded package with the videos, dubbed "1+." It's safe to say one or the other is a must-have for any fan. For the casual, perhaps younger fans (who made the original "1" collection of No. 1 hits such a resounding success), it's a chance to finally hear the Fabs' music in the quality today's music buyers have come to expect. The quirky early stereo separation is gone; the voices are centered, the sound is much fuller and sharper. Bass and drums and guitars, in particular, benefit from the remixing, the first done since the 1999 "Yellow Submarine Songtrack."

The older fans, meanwhile, are celebrating The Beatles' Apple Corps finally releasing the band's promo films, along with other video clips, all restored and looking fantastic. You can buy just the CD, but it's highly recommended you go for one of the deluxe sets which add a pair of DVDs or Blu-ray discs (your choice). You'll see "Penny Lane" and "Hello Goodbye" like never before! Apple Corps and Universal get a definite thumbs-up for this project.

Any surprises for you this year?

During a delightful few days visiting with our son Bill in Raleigh, N.C., he arranged a surprise visit to the UNC / Duke Special Collections Library in Chapel Hill, where we viewed some of the private collection donated to the library by Andy Griffith, including letters Andy wrote home when he was a student at UNC and his personal copies of scripts for the first season of "The Andy Griffith Show" and the pilot film of "Matlock," complete with his own handwritten notations and changes! It was fascinating to see how he changed some of Sheriff Andy's dialogue to make it sound more authentically smalltown South. And since I was on location to interview Andy when the "Matlock" film was shooting, that brought back some great memories. For a lifelong Griffith fan, this was a real thrill! Thanks, Bill!

A related surprise over the holidays was CBS combining two episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" that had been colorized to air as a one-hour special on Christmas night! The first was the famed Christmas episode, featuring a Scrooge-like storekeeper trying to dampen the holiday spirits at the Mayberry Jail. That was paired with the “Pickle Story” episode, one of the most popular among series fans, in which Andy and Barney try to figure a way to replace the “kerosene cucumbers” that Aunt Bee insists on serving them. Definitely two TV classics!

What did you want and not get in 2015?

The usual suspects in Beatledom: “Let It Be” and “The Beatles at Shea Stadium.” The former film is long overdue for restoration and rerelease, since it’s been off the market for nearly three decades, while the latter record of the Fabs’ most famous concert, shown as a TV special in 1966, has never been officially released. The Beatles’ Apple Corps has shown tantalizing clips of both in spectacular quality over the years. Maybe this year?

What new TV shows did you take up watching?

Back in the summer, my daughter and I saw a trailer for the new CBS "Supergirl" series in a movie theater and weren't impressed, but I decided to sample the series anyway and was surprised to find it was pretty good. And, as the first season has progressed, it’s gotten even better.

Especially winning is Melissa Benoist as Kara, Superman's Kryptonian cousin, who's just come out of the closet and donned the uniform with the "S" on the chest. (The Man of Steel is an unseen presence in the series.) Benoist is thoroughly believable and charming -- even more so when she's playing Supergirl's "mild-mannered" secret identity.

The surrounding cast is good, too. At first, I thought Calista Flockhart's media magnate Cat Grant (for whom Kara works) was a bit too much of a "Devil Wears Prada" knockoff, but they've started to humanize the character a bit, which helps. This isn't must-see TV, by any means, but it's a fun way to spend an hour.

Staying in the female comic book hero vein, I really enjoyed last winter’s ABC series of Marvel’s “Captain America” TV spinoff, “Agent Carter,” with Hayley Atwell’s title character working at a post-WWII spy agency. I’m looking forward to the second series, due to start later this month.

Any TV shows you dropped?

I decided not to bother with “Homeland” any more, despite feedback from my wife and others that the series got back on track over the past couple of seasons. Basically, I didn’t have time enough to watch all the series that I was more interested in; plus, I wasn’t sure I could take another Claire Danes crying scene!

What other TV shows are you still watching regularly (or have DVR'd for future binge-watching)?

I’m still watching Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” which has rebounded from a mostly disastrous second season (and now is being filmed locally, with Georgia subbing for upstate New York!). I also dip in and out of the various “NCIS” series (I particularly enjoyed an episode over the holiday season that revisited Ducky’s younger days) and I never miss “Elementary,” the smart modern New York City twist on the Sherlock Holmes stories starring the amazing Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as a female Watson. I also still enjoy the interplay of the strong cast of the new “Hawaii Five-0,” even if the plots get a little outlandish at times. And I’ve dipped in and out of the CBS sitcom “Mom,” a surprisingly funny yet unsentimental look at a mother and daughter (effectively played by Allison Janney and Anna Faris) who both are trying to hold on to their precarious sobriety.

I also enjoyed the second season of Starz’s “Black Sails,” a “Treasure Island” prequel starring Toby Stephens as the fabled Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as John Silver before the “long” nickname (and the peg-leg and parrot), and Hannah New as a young woman who acts as the main fence for booty brought into the pirate stronghold of Nassau. The third series of that also is due soon.

Awaiting me on the DVR: the most recent seasons of “Gotham,” “The Americans” and “Turn: Washington’s Spies.”

What about late night?

The last six weeks of “Late Show With David Letterman” was an absolute feast of top-notch guests and memorable musical performances, and the final shows were thoroughly enjoyable and even touching. I never would have expected the likes of Norm Macdonald to get emotional, but there was an extraordinary moment of television when, after telling his favorite Letterman joke, the comic got all choked up, saying: “I know that Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental. But if something is true, it is not sentimental, and I say, in truth, ‘I love you.’”

Me, too.

The months between Dave’s departure and the arrival of the new incarnation of the “Late Show” with Stephen Colbert and a renovated Ed Sullivan Theatre seemed to drag on, but once Colbert arrived he promptly became my late-night must-see viewing.

Colbert goes for a much more diverse mix of guests than the other late-night hosts, mixing millionaire entrepreneurs, authors and scientists in with the usual stars promoting their latest film-show-whatever. His musical guests also have been interesting, and Colbert frequently joins them, including on the wonderful program where he and James Taylor duetted on a lovely version of “You Can Close Your Eyes” and an amusing updating of “Fire and Rain.”

There was also a memorable interview Colbert did with Vice President Joe Biden. It was very emotional and empathetic, and I was tremendously impressed by both men. (It's also something I couldn't imagine seeing any of the other late night hosts doing).

Colbert is also the only late-night host who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s religious, though he’s certainly not afraid to poke fun at his own Roman Catholic faith. The night when avowed atheist Bill Maher guested produced a weird but wonderful back-and-forth that seemed to get under Maher’s skin while Colbert was obviously enjoying himself.

But, for me, the best moments of the new “Late Show” are the bits on current affairs, pop culture and politics that Colbert does from the desk. They’re smart, funny and on target.

Although he hasn’t challenged Jimmy Fallon since premiere week and sometimes has even fallen behind Jimmy Kimmel in the ratings, and not every bit works (a recent visit round the corner to Dave’s old foil Rupert Gee at the Hello Deli fell flat), Colbert is elevating the level of discourse, comedy and political commentary in late-night TV. Check him out if you haven’t already.

What was your favorite album or song of the year?

I mostly bought expanded reissues, like Paul McCartney’s archive editions of “Tug of War” and “Pipes of Peace,” or hits complilations like the 2-CD “Just One Look: The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt” and the very interesting “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City,” issued in conjunction with an exhibit running through this year at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

But I did pick up a few new releases, including James Taylor’s new album, “Before This World,” his first collection of original material since 2002 and his first No. 1 Billboard album; Ringo Starr’s “Postcards From Paradise,” an understated but ingratiating collection of new tunes that had a good four-month run in my car CD player; Bob Dylan’s quirky Sinatra salute, “Shadows in the Night; Diana’s Krall’s intermittently successful pop effort, “Wallflower”; and the return of Jeff Lynne’s ELO on “Alone in the Universe” (which I’ll write more about next time).

However, like the previous year, I mainly listened (usually via radio or YouTube) to a lot of individual songs, most of which were new this year (or, at least, new to me). Those included: the Rebel Light’s “Strangers,” Mumford and Sons’ “Shots” and “Believe” (dropping the banjo for more of a Coldplayesque sound), Modest Mouse’s “Lampshades on Fire,” Beck’s “Country Down,” Wilco’s “Taste the Ceiling” and “Magnetized,” retro soul man Mayer Hawthorne’s “Handy Man,” Imagine Dragons’ “Shots,” Coleman Hell’s “2 Heads,” the Struts’ “Could Have Been Me,” Eagle Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight,” Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’ “S.O.B.” and Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime.”

What were your favorite movies?

I again didn’t get to the cinema to see that many films in 2015, but the ones I did catch were enjoyable. The best, I think was "Mr. Holmes," the quiet but engaging Bill Condon film starring Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes battling a diminishing memory as his housekeeper's young son prods him into telling the true account of the case that forced him into lonely, bee-keeping retirement 30 years earlier.

McKellen was absolutely wonderful in a nuanced, understated performance that shows you're never too old to learn or make personal connections. Laura Linney also did good work as the housekeeper. But it was young Milo Parker, who played her son, who adeptly kept pace with McKellen. Recommended for fans of both McKellen and Holmes!

Runner-up: “SPECTRE,” the latest James Bond adventure. There were a lot of references to the three earlier Daniel Craig 007 pictures as Bond met up with the guy who bragged at being "the author of all your pain." It didn't quite pack the emotional wallop of "Skyfall," but director Sam Mendes turned in another fine effort. Léa Seydoux, a favorite of mine since "Farewell My Queen," made a memorable Bond girl. If Craig does turn in his license to kill and this becomes his last Bond film, it did a good job tying all the adventures he's starred in together.

I also enjoyed “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg's Cold War period piece featuring another wonderful performance by one of our national treasures, Tom Hanks, and "The Man From UNCLE" movie from director Guy Ritchie, who did a good job of capturing the '60s feel (particularly in the colors, editing and music), even if, as Leslie pointed out, the fashions were more mid-'60s than the film's early '60s setting. It was essentially a "prequel" about how Napoleon Solo (played by Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryankin (Armie Hammer) first worked together (reluctantly) and became the men from UNCLE. Not quite the chemistry of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the TV original, but a diverting summer treat.

Anything new on the bookshelf worth noting?

I really enjoyed how Andrew Grant Jackson melded social and musical history in “1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music.” And I’m currently reading a Christmas gift from my son: Daniel de Vise’s “Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show,” a dual biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts and how their time-honored friendship, both on and off-screen, came about.

Those are my 2015 entertainment highlights; please feel free to share your own!

"Sherlock" Spoiler Alert!

The following contains info you might not want to know if you are a “Sherlock” fan but haven’t yet seen the latest adventure …

OK, for the rest of you:

The first movie I saw in the theater in 2016 also turned out to be the first non-football program I watched on TV: "Sherlock: The Abominable Bride," a fun 90-minute special edition of the series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as a modern-day Holmes and Watson in which the producers moved the setting back to Victorian era that gave birth to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. On New Year’s night, we watched the premiere on PBS and then a few days later caught it on the big screen as one of those Fathom Events presentations. (It’s being reshown Jan. 10 on PBS.)

The writing-producing team of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also do the current “Doctor Who” for BBC Wales) had a lot of fun packing the film with the kind of head-scratching moments that fans can puzzle over afterward.

For example, the entire Victorian-era mystery appears to have been a drug-induced sort of daydream in which Holmes sought to use an unsolved mystery from the past to figure out whether his modern-day arch-enemy, Moriarty, could still be alive, as was indicated at the end of the most recent “Sherlock” series.

I found it interesting, though, that out of the many recaps and reviews of the film I read, only one even touched on what, to me and my daughter Olivia, was the knuckleball thrown by the final scene. Most critics focused on the next-to-last scene, where modern-day Sherlock concludes that “of course” Moriarty couldn’t have survived blowing his brains out, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still a threat.

A lot of commentary also was devoted to the feminist subtext of the Victorian portion of “Abominable Bride” and whether, being written by two men, it was really effective.

But what most of these critics overlooked was what my daughter Olivia and I thought was the biggest jaw-dropper: the final scene, in which the Victorian-era Watson is questioning Holmes about the outlandish things like airplanes and telephones, that Sherlock had come up with in a futuristic hallucination. Holmes notes that he’s always felt like a man out of his time.

And then the camera pulls back outside the sitting room window of the Victorian-era 221B to show a modern-day Baker Street with a London bus going by!

My immediate reaction: Have we been St. Elsewhere’d, like the final scene of that series, which revealed it all apparently to have taken place in the mind of an autistic child? Does this mean that the entire modern-day “Sherlock” series has been the hallucinations of the Victorian Holmes?

Perhaps. Or maybe the key to it all is at the start of the film, which briefly recaps the earlier seasons of “Sherlock” and then adds the on-screen caption “Alternatively …”

So, while “Abominable Bride” seems at first to fit in the series continuity, maybe it really is an alternate-universe standalone, and Moffat and Gatiss were just messing with the audience. Guess we'll have to wait for the next series to find out. Anyway, “Abominable Bride” was well done and great fun, whatever it was ...

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, July 13th, 2015
8:43 pm
Nashville Cats, Late Late Night TV and Little Miss Puffytail
There are a lot of big names, including three Beatles, on the new compilation “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City,” issued in conjunction with an exhibit running through next year at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. But the real stars of this album are the session musicians, or sidemen, who backed a surprisingly diverse mix of country, pop, folk and rock acts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Inspired primarily by Bob Dylan, who recorded his 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” album there -- and enabled by Cash, who hosted an ABC TV variety hour from Music City -- a wide variety of performers from genres other than country-western started making the trek to Nashville to take advantage of such talents as multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, steel guitarists Pete Drake and Lloyd Green, and bassists Norbert Putnam and Charlie Daniels.

Some classic tracks resulted, and two discs of them have been gathered together for this album, with a couple of lesser-known numbers done by some of the sidemen themselves thrown in for good measure.

“Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” covers roughly the period from 1966 to 1974, more or less chronologically, opening with Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Among the other highlights of the first disc are Cash covering Dylan on “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Dylan doing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” The Byrds’ “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (from their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album), John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” Mike Nesmith and the Monkees’ “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on the Wire” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” -- not a track generally associated with Nashville but partly recorded there.

Disc 2 opens with Dylan and Cash (who had first met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival) duetting on “Girl From the North Country” from Cash’s TV show. Other highlights of the second disc include Joan Baez doing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (recorded when Young came to Nashville to appear on the Cash show), Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (from the splendid album of the same name featuring a host of Nashville legends), Earl Scruggs and Linda Ronstadt on “Silver Wings,” Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes teaming up with Cash and Carl Perkins for “Matchbox” on Cash’s show, and tracks by George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.

Harrison didn’t travel to Nashville to work, like Ringo and Paul did, but he flew Pete Drake over to London for his “All Things Must Pass” sessions, represented here by “Behind That Locked Door.” While in London, Drake invited country music fan Starr to visit Music City to record an album, and the title track of the resulting LP, “Beaucoups of Blues,” is here. And McCartney and Wings spent several weeks in Nashville in the summer of ’74 and among the tracks they recorded there was a country number, “Sally G,” included in this collection.

Plus, there’s a previously unreleased take of Dylan doing “If Not for You” with pedal steel and violin.

This collection does a good job of representing an exciting era of musical cross-pollination.

The two most notable things about James Taylor’s new album, “Before This World,” are that it’s his first collection of original material since 2002, and the album’s first-week sales gave JT his first No. 1 Billboard album … ever, hard as that is to believe.

Ironically, while it’s a completely enjoyable collection of folk-rock tunes ably performed by the 67-year-old Taylor, whose warm, nasal voice doesn’t seem to have changed over the decades, it’s far from his best work. For me, the two best tunes are the album opener, “Today Today Today” (which makes good use of harmonica and fiddle) and “Far Afghanistan,” a sympathetic and yet realistic and questioning look at the latest theater of war for American soldiers.

Otherwise, the tracks mostly blend together as a sort of seamless travelogue (from Massachusetts to Montana), with only “Angels of Fenway,” an ode to the Red Sox beloved by Taylor and his grandma, standing out.

If you like JT, I don’t want to put you off: You’ll probably enjoy this mellow album, which features support from Yo-Yo Ma and Sting. But, really, while most of it is pretty and familiar-sounding, it is not very memorable. These songs may remind you of Taylor’s best work, but they don’t come close to equalling it.

Last time, I wrote about the retirement of one of the giants of late-night television, David Letterman. Now, having watched CBS’ “Late Late Show With James Corden” since its March premiere, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on late night’s newest entry.

So far, British comedian-actor-singer Corden’s weeknight hour is an uneven amalgam of tried-and-true elements (including quite a few running bits openly based on things Letterman did in his early days in late night) and attempts to tweak the formula, with varying degrees of success.

The idea of bringing the guests out at the same time and sitting them together on the couch, a la the BBC’s Graham Norton, is a nice wrinkle when it works, which is usually when the two or three celebs have something in common. When it doesn’t, as on the night when Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and Matthew Perry (“Friends”) obviously could barely tolerate each other, it can be awkwardly uncomfortable.

As an interviewer, Corden is sort of like a British Jimmy Fallon, all goofy puppy-dog enthusiasm, but with self-deprecating charm. Like Fallon, he’s a good singer and some of his best interactions with guests have been musical bits. The game show elements, lifted from Fallon, have been less successful. Overall, Corden mainly needs to tone down the gushing and that high-pitched laugh.

On the subject of music on the show, bandleader-announcer Reggie Watts is more than a little strange, which, again, sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Interestingly, the producers have smartly placed the show’s stunning female bassist, Hagar Ben Ari, just behind Watts, so she’s on-screen regularly, resulting in lots of interest on social media -- and from guest Christoph Waltz, who asked on-camera to be introduced to her.

The interviews aside, the prepared bits are where Corden really shines, including “Carpool Karaoke,” featuring him driving and singing along in the car with such guests as Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson and Iggy Azalea, and the segments where Corden takes over someone’s job for a while (one of those lifts from Letterman). He’s also had some good fun ridiculing his employer, CBS, for its unfathomable decision to run much-seen reruns of its police procedurals as Corden’s post-Letterman lead-in until Stephen Colbert arrives in September.

The main problem with the new “Late Late Show” is that, in the traditional late-night show setting, Corden frequently seems to be trying too hard, especially during the monologues, which are not his strong suit. In fact, the best overall episode so far was the most different one, in which Corden took the whole crew out into a nearby neighborhood and finally found someone willing to let them do a show in his house. From Jeff Goldblum flirting with Jessica, one of the residents, to a game of hide-and-seek in the bedrooms and an intimate living-room musical performance by Beck, the visit to “Tommy’s house” (above) was nicely low-key but thoroughly enjoyable. The producers should consider breaking the format like that more often.

I'm not particularly a fan of AT&T (though I'm a customer), but I like their ads. The previous "It's Not Complicated" series with Beck Bennett (now a featured player on "Saturday Night Live") interviewing pre-schoolers was a favorite.

And his successor, Milana Vayntrub as AT&T saleswoman "Lily Adams," also has caught my fancy. Vayntrub, a veteran of various online comedy shorts as well as a few minor TV roles, strikes just the right adorable/sexy tone in a Zooey Deschanel sort of way. Speaking of "SNL," having watched some of her Yahoo comedy films, I think Vayntrub would make a great addition to the cast of that show, which recently finished what, in my mind, has to be its weakest season in at least a decade. …

If KFC wanted to make use of the Southern gentleman image of its founder, the late Harland Sanders, they would have done better to reuse old footage from the many TV ads he did in his lifetime, rather than their current lame series of ads featuring former “SNL”-er Darrel Hammond doing a ham-fisted, tone-deaf imitation of the colonel. There are many of us around who still remember the Colonel’s frequent TV appearances, and so Hammond’s lame approximation comes off as incredibly fake.

Of course, the company CEO recently said he didn't care if a large percentage of the audience hates the ads, because at least they have an opinion. Which, I believe, says something about how far KFC has sunk as a brand. Then again, these are the folks who came up with the infamous Double Down. …

While on the subject of TV commercials, I acknowledge that coming up with ways to advertise a product like toilet paper can be problematic, with those awful animated ads about the Charmin bears worrying about bits of paper left behind on their rump being a great example of how not to do it. And Cottonelle’s current “go commando” campaign is pretty questionable, too.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Quilted Northern’s unusual “Designed to Be Forgotten” ads, which have the narrator sharing the imagined lamentations of bathroom decorative figurines. While those who use Quilted Northern can forget the experience, the ads note, Daddy Gator, Little Miss Puffytail, and Great Grandpa Thaddeus must endlessly bear witness to the toilet activities … and can’t forget. The best of the series is the ad with Little Miss Puffytail, who, the narrator says, can only dream of “the sweet sweet swing of a careless elbow” to smash her into a million pieces. Now, that’s an ad you won’t forget.

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.
Sunday, May 3rd, 2015
10:09 pm
Coming Full Circle in Late Night
Watching “The Late Show With David Letterman” on CBS these days definitely is bittersweet.

On the one hand, I'm savoring the last weeks of Letterman before his May 20 finale on the “Late Show.” It’s like a victory lap: Dave's going out at the top of his game. Great guests; a relaxed, playful Letterman; a nod to familiar, beloved bits; and top-notch music.

At the same time, it’s hard to imagine the late-night network comedy scene without him. I don’t think I’m overselling it at all when I say we haven’t seen a departure of this magnitude since Johnny Carson on May 22, 1992.

I’ve enjoyed Conan and both “the Jimmys,” as Letterman likes to call Fallon and Kimmel, and I’m a fan of Stephen Colbert, who will take over the “Late Show” Sept. 8. But Dave will leave a gap none of them is capable of filling. No matter how popular they become and how many viral clips on YouTube Fallon and the others launch, no one is ever going to say about them what a CBS promo for a May 4 prime-time Letterman tribute special accurately says: “He reinvented late-night television.”

Yes, Johnny Carson was and always will be the king, as Letterman has always said of his mentor, but when Letterman became the first occupant of the “Late Night” slot on NBC behind “Tonight” in 1982, he debuted a new-age version of the late-night talk show. While paying tribute to and building on the foundation Carson had laid, Letterman turned the format inside-out with a postmodern approach that appealed to a younger audience as it mocked network TV conventions.

A big part of Letterman’s appeal was his snarkiness, but that proved to be sort of a two-edged sword. While it endeared him to the hipper elements of the late-night audience, it probably cost him a promotion to “Tonight,” with NBC deciding to go with the safer, more traditional Jay Leno when Carson departed. (Carson preferred Dave and actually sent Letterman jokes for his monologue in retirement.)

Although Dave started out on top initially after moving to the hallowed Ed Sullivan Theater with his own show on CBS opposite “Tonight,” Jay’s blander, more predictable brand of comedy ultimately drew the larger audience. A lot of people apparently viewed Dave as something of a misanthrope. Still, Letterman managed to make himself a late-night institution while trailing Leno in the ratings, and those of us who appreciated his good-natured goofiness laced with a rattle snake-quick (and just as deadly) sarcasm stayed loyal.

And that was despite the fact that Letterman didn’t really seem to give a damn whether we liked him or not. Young Dave was a smartass while older Dave could be just plain irascible. And, admittedly, in his third decade in late-night he sometimes seemed to be coasting – though when something major happened on the national scene, particularly a tragedy like 9/11, it was Letterman who we looked to for a summing up that allowed us to move on.

And, actually, after his 2000 quintuple bypass surgery and his late fatherhood with the birth of son Harry 11 years ago, Dave even managed to become something approaching lovable. As Steve Martin told him amid his 2009 sex scandal (which I previously wrote about), "It proves that you're a human being. And we weren't really that sure before."

Still, it’s the classic Letterman comedy bits and interactions with guests that we’ll miss, and many of them are featured in “David Letterman: A Life on Television,” the May 4 retrospective hosted by Ray Romano (whose “Everybody Loves Raymond” was produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company).

From the Top 10 list, Stupid Human Tricks, the forays around the corner to Rupert Jee’s Hello Deli, making celebrities out of production staffers like stage manager Biff Henderson, the wacky man-on-the-street bits (my favorite had Dave send Rupert out with an earpiece with the instruction to repeat whatever random thing Letterman said to complete strangers) to the annual Christmas show’s Lone Ranger story and throwing the footballs at the pizza atop the tree, Dave’s late-night comedy “furniture” set a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential TV template that Fallon, Kimmel, etc. continue to utilize.

And then there were unforgettable bits with his guests: From Cher calling Dave an asshole and Drew Barrymore flashing him to Letterman dicing up an unresponsive Joaquin Phoenix and telling Bill O’Reilly that 60 percent of what he says is “crap,” Dave’s interviews had an unpredictable nature missing on many others.

I even have a couple of personal Letterman memories: sitting in the audience for a mid-1980s “Late Night” show (Bill Murray was the guest and Dave did one of his prank telephone calls); and snapping a picture of my son posing with Rupert (who tried to hide a cigarette behind his leg) in front of his deli in the late ’90s.

I’ve remained a Letterman viewer throughout his run, but Dave’s last month has been particularly enjoyable, as favorites who’ve visited the show scores of times over the years drop by not to promote a new film or TV special but to say a fond farewell and share wonderful stories.

Michael Keaton showed a clip from when he and Dave were in the cast of a short-lived Mary Tyler Moore variety show. It was Mary singing "With a Little Luck" (the Wings song) while Keaton and Dave and others danced behind her. Dave crawled under his desk and refused to watch.

Billy Crystal paid tribute to Dave with one of his patented musical parodies. And Jerry Seinfeld came out on his recent visit and did the exact same stand-up routine he first did on the Letterman show 33 years ago. Then, during the interview, he and Letterman swapped seats and he was interviewing Dave. Fellow heart surgery veteran John Mellencamp came out for his interview smoking a cigarette, leaving Dave gobsmacked. And “Jungle” Jack Hanna visited one more time to let Dave do his Carson-inspired fear-of-wild-animals shtick. When they came back on camera after a collection of clips from Hanna’s many visits through the years, Hanna was visibly emotional, wiping his eyes.

Meanwhile, the Letterman musical guests have been going from strength to strength in Dave's last month on the "Late Show," including such highlights as having the likes of Todd Rundren sit in with Paul Shaffer and the band, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires doing Letterman favorite Warren Zevon's "Mutineer," Elvis Costello doing “Everyday I Write the Book” in his 27th appearance on the show, Tracy Chapman and John Mayer performing special requests from Dave (“Stand By Me” and “American Pie,” respectively), and Steve Martin teaming up with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Mark O'Connor and Amos Lee for a rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Still to come are some of Dave’s favorite guests from over the years, including Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Bill Murray. While Hanks was Letterman’s last guest on his NBC show (before Dave hopped on a horse and rode off into the sunset), it’s considered virtually a lock that Murray, who was the first guest on both “Late Night” and “Late Show,” will be the main guest on the final show.

It will be one of television’s changing-of-the-guard moments, as Letterman, who arrived as one of the young turks, leaves as what he called one of the “old guys in suits.”

I expect I’ll react something like “Jungle” Jack.

Feel free to share your own favorite Letterman moments in the comments below. You don’t have to be registered with Live Journal. Next time: Saying hello to a new face on the late-night scene.

Current Mood: melancholy
Monday, March 2nd, 2015
7:43 pm
Some entertaining distractions from the long winter
Listening to music and watching TV are great ways to pass the time when the weather outside is frightful, so here’s a quick look at what I’ve been playing and watching recently.

ringo postcards

First up, an advance of Ringo Starr’s “Postcards From Paradise,” which is due for release March 31:

This latest collection of 11 songs, on which Ringo also has acted as producer, is a very pleasant and enjoyable fellow traveler with his two previous efforts, consisting largely of midtempo rockers that lyrically offer 12-step-worthy tidbits of Ringo’s upbeat philosophy on life, and musically feature some top-notch playing by the celebrated drummer and his friends — including Joe Walsh, Benmont Tench and Peter Frampton, plus his current band members featuring Steve Lukather and Todd Rundgren.

The thing I like about Ringo producing himself, as he’s done on his three most recent albums, is the organic feel of the recordings, which I find refreshing after years of former producer Mark Hudson’s catchy but sometimes cloying faux-Beatles pop. There’s a comfortable groove to these tracks that makes it sound as if the musicians had a lot of fun making the album.

The downside, though, is this album, like his other recent efforts, misses those earworm musical hooks that were Hudson’s trademark.

The album gets off to a strong start with the fourth installment of Ringo’s ongoing musical autobiography-in-song, a track called “Rory and the Hurricanes.” With its guitars and organ and prominent use of female backing vocalists, the number has a suitably early ’60s feel, as Ringo sings of visiting London with his old band. He namechecks the legendary Two i’s coffeebar and U.K. proto rock star Tommy Steele, but plays it coy when he notes that the next time he hit London, “I was with you know who.”

Also one of the album’s stronger efforts is the next track, “You Bring the Party Down,” on which Ringo appears to be making a sales pitch for clean-living to someone who is “still living off your memories of when you were in the band.” This one is notable for a taste of what sounds like sitar, and for a strong guitar solo.

The momentum falls off a bit with “Bridges,” which offers one of Ringo’s obvious metaphors for dealing with life’s choices (“crossing bridges is the best way to grow”). Not a great tune, but there’s some really stinging guitar work showcased in an extended solo.

Next up is the title track, which Universal sent out as an advance promotional digital “single.” Unfortunately, “Postcards From Paradise” is the album’s weakest song, a plodding rocker on which Ringo and his cohorts have created lyrics by stringing together lots of Beatles and solo Beatle song titles. An example: “And I ain’t going nowhere man / Because I want to hold your hand / It’s like I said the night before / I’ll love you when I’m 64.” That tells you pretty much all you need to know about it.

(You can watch a "lyric video" for the song at the link below. The video is a lot more clever than the song itself.)


The next chapter in Ringo’s musical testimony for a post-rehab life comes in “Right Side of the Road,” a lyrical cousin of “Bridges.” The musical backing is the highlight, with another extended guitar solo.

Next up are a pair of tracks that are among the album’s best, and it’s worth noting that on both of them Ringo departs a bit from his usual musical formula. “Not Looking Back” is a piano-driven ballad with strings on which Ringo sings about preferring to look forward. It has a nice violin solo. And “Bamboula” is a fun, moderately upbeat number about New Orleans, with some horns and accordion mixed in for Creole-Cajun flavor, along with very danceable percussion. (The title comes from the name of a type of bamboo drum that slaves brought over from Africa.) It’s good enough to make you overlook a few tortured rhymes in the lyrics.

The most notable aspect of the next track, “Island in the Sun,” is that it’s the first time Ringo has recorded with his current All Starr Band. Loping along to an almost-reggae beat and with some tropical-sounding percussion, it is enlivened mainly by its sax solo.

“Touch and Go” is a decent slice of neo mid-’60s rock. Better is “Confirmation,” a slightly upbeat, horn-backed love song about living life with no regrets. As Ringo sings (presumably to wife Barbara), “If I had known then what I know now / I’d do it all again with you anyhow.” He again makes nice use of his female backing vocalists on the title chorus.

The album concludes with “Let Love Lead,” which provides another summing up of Ringo’s philosophy: When in doubt ... (see title). This one offers more tasty guitar licks in an extended instrumental portion that closes it out.

All in all, this album is goodtime, unchallenging listening that is no more musically relevant than what any other stars Ringo’s age are doing. But, if you’ve liked his music in the past, I think you’ll enjoy it.

dylan shadows in the night

The winter release that has drawn some of the best critical press and yet is viewed by many potential listeners with some trepidation is Bob Dylan’s “Shadows in the Night,” on which the rock legend covers 10 numbers from the Frank Sinatra songbook.

If you’ve heard the sandpapery croak that has passed for Dylan’s singing voice in recent years or have heard him make his own standards nearly unrecognizable in concert, you might expect Bob covering the Chairman of the Board to be awkward at best and painful at worst. But, actually, what you get here is a respectful, if at times a little surreal, collection of performances, self-produced by Dylan (under his “Jack Frost” alias) with his band providing understated, country-tinged backing that replaces the usual orchestration with simple pedal-steel or Hawaiian guitar. Bob isn’t messing around here.

It’s all done at a stately pace that would be as soothing as a Norah Jones album if it weren’t for the occasional instance of Dylan’s voice cracking as it reaches for a note. Yes, it might take a track or two for your ears to fully adjust to Bob in crooner mode, but once you do, the result is downright charming. Dylan sticks to the melodies, and his aged voice gives these songs a certain gravitas that they might lack in the usual lounge music setting.

True, at times, like when he’s taking on Johnny Mercer’s “Autumn Leaves” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening,” the overall feeling is rather like an acid-drenched cocktail lounge scene from a David Lynch movie.

But, at his best on “Shadows in the Night,” Dylan comes off more as a worldweary, bruised romantic.

The album opens and ends with two of its best tracks: “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “That Lucky Old Sun,” which Dylan pretty much makes his own. Other highlights include “Stay With Me,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “What’ll I Do.”

If, like one of my brothers, you never thought Dylan could sing even at his peak, this collection might be too much of a stretch for you. But if you’ve ever gotten any pleasure from the long, varied career of His Bobness, you should find this latest chapter satisfying.

diana krall wallflower

The third album that I’ve spent a lot of time listening to recently is Diana’s Krall’s long-awaited “Wallflower,” originally set for release last fall and then delayed when the accompanying tour was postponed because of a lengthy bout with bronchitis.

“Wallflower” continues Krall’s musical exploration outside her usual jazz home. Last time, on “Glad Rag Doll,” the pianist-vocalist was trying out early 20th century honky tonk music. This time, with one exception, it’s a collection of cover versions of pop-rock tunes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

Thanks to Krall’s enchantingly smoky vocals, the resulting album is always listenable and enjoyable, and at times flirts with the greatness that fans might have expected. But an overreliance on songs that already have been covered to death (does anyone really need another version of “Desperado”?), too few instances of putting a fresh spin on a familiar tune, and producer David Foster’s penchant for drowning everything in strings keep “Wallflower” from being the album it could have been.

There’s not even that much of Krall’s tasty piano-playing, with Foster himself handling most of the keyboards. And it’s mostly taken at a somnambulant pace, relieved only by the occasional Latin rhythm (“California Dreaming” and “I Can’t Tell You Why”) and a brief bust of ’60s dance pop in a duet with Britain’s Georgie Fame on his hit “Yeh Yeh” as one of the four bonus tracks included on the Amazon version.

What’s wrong with the album, and what it could have been, are encapsulated in one track, Leon Russell’s “Superstar.” Krall does a fine job of singing it, and a slightly jazzy bass line added in the middle works well, but the rest is all Mantovani-like orchestration.

Likewise, Foster’s MOR production on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” done as a duet with Michael Buble, seems completely at odds with the quirky, suicidal lyrics.

The two best numbers on the album are also the two least-known. The title track is a downbeat Bob Dylan tune from 1971, which thankfully is done in a sort of country-folk style, with a fiddle and guitar replacing Foster’s usual strings. And the album’s only new song, Paul McCartney’s “If I Take You Home Tonight” (which was written for but not used on his “Kisses on the Bottom” album on which Krall worked), is a wistfully romantic ballad that provides a perfect showcase for Krall’s voice.

Another highlight is one of those bonus tracks, a simple, beautiful take of Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” done as a very slow ballad featuring a melancholy Krall vocal that seems to take the lyrics to heart.

I’d love to hear what Krall could have made of this concept with, say, her husband, Elvis Costello, at the controls instead of Foster. Chalk this up as a missed opportunity.

Meanwhile, two of my regular series on the tube wound up their seasons last week.

sleep hollow

Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” rebounded from what had been a mostly disastrous season (creatively and ratings-wise) with a smart finale that reversed the series’ usual format. The series, which drew praise in its first season for its crazy mixture of the supernatural, history, horror and comedy, revolves around Revolutionary War spy Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who awakens in the 21st century, where he teams up with a police officer (Nichole Beharie) to battle demons shepherding the Apocalypse.

Unfortunately, in the second season the producers derailed the show by introducing too many other regulars, most notably Crane’s 18th century witch wife, Katrina (Katia Winter), fresh from Purgatory. This put a not-very-enticing triangle at the heart of the show and diluted the focus on Mison and Beharie, who have terrific chemistry. Also, an overemphasis on an arcane, convoluted story arc made the show tough viewing for those who hadn’t been along for the ride since the start, and ratings plunged.

So, in the last few episodes, the writers set to work shedding characters, and the finale saw Abbie transported by the now-evil but somewhat inept Katrina’s spell back to the 1700s, where she had to convince an unknowing Ichabod that she was his partner from the future and they had to stop his wife’s demonic doings (and undo the spell). The fish-out-of-water humor that made Crane’s arrival in modern America such fun got a nice reverse twist.

SPOILER ALERT! By episode’s end, Katrina was vanquished and the core cast of regulars were all back in the present day and ready for more adventures, assuming Fox chooses to grant them that opportunity. If not, well, at least it didn’t end on a cliffhanger.

agent carter

Also, Marvel’s “Captain America” TV spinoff, “Agent Carter,” wound up its eight-episode run on ABC with Hayley Atwell’s title character showing the condescending old boys’ club at a post-WWII spy agency how to kick butt.

The furiously-paced period piece, set in 1946, looked great. The plots and action definitely showed their comic book origins, but the series wasn’t afraid to kill off regulars and Atwell proved herself a terrific lead. Here’s hoping we get more of “Agent Carter” next season.

black sails

I’m also enjoying the second season of Starz’s “Black Sails,” a “Treasure Island” prequel starring Toby Stephens as the fabled Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as John Silver before the “long” nickname (and the peg-leg and parrot), and Hannah New as a young woman who acts as the main fence for booty brought into the pirate stronghold of Nassau. (She’s also the romantic partner of the scheming madam of a whorehouse plus at least two pirate captains. Busy girl.)

The interweaving storylines occasionally can be a bit difficult to keep track of, but the writers in the second season have managed a better mix of bloody action and pirate politics, and the flashbacks to Flint’s pre-pirate days have provided not just a deeper characterization, but a neat plot twist that casts the captain in a whole new light. Two episodes remain in this series and, again, I’m hoping for more.

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, January 5th, 2015
11:09 pm
A Quick Look Back at 2014 in Entertainment
I decided to handle my year-end entertainment wrap-up a little differently this year, reviewing 2014 in a Q&A format suggested by my inquisitive wife, Leslie. Here we go …

What did you want and get?

paul ringo grammys

I was gratified to see lots of special attention to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Between Paul and Ringo teaming up for a special performance at the Grammys and again at the end of CBS’ “The Night That Changed America” tribute concert special and the release of a box set of the “U.S. Albums,” February was pretty special for fans of the Fabs.

Also: a front-row seat for the world premiere of the 50th anniversary remastered reissue of “A Hard Day’s Night” (complete with Q&A appearance by director Dick Lester) at the British Film Institute in London (thanks to my pal Simon Rogers), and a McCartney concert in Atlanta for the first time since 2009. Hard to top either of those experiences.

What did you want and not get?

The rumored official compilation of The Beatles' promo films/music videos, which never came to pass.


What new TV shows did you take up watching?

A pair of series on Starz: the stylish pirate adventure "Black Sails" and the Scottish time travel rom-dram "Outlander." Plus, "Gotham," the thankfully dark, gritty Batman prequel that premiered this fall on Fox, as well as Showtime's horror mash-up "Penny Dreadful" (which was hard to follow at times but had some amazing work by the always worth-watching Eva Green).

Any TV shows you dropped?

I bailed out of HBO's "True Detective," even though what I saw was excellent, simply because I didn't have the time to keep up with it and didn't want another series sitting unwatched on my DVR. I originally had planned on watching Fox's "Gracepoint," a remake of the BBC's "Broadchurch" (which was excellent), but after finding out that the American version was an almost literal remake (except for naming a different killer at the end), I passed it up. I had previously dropped HBO's "True Blood" two or three seasons ago, but I did return for the series finale episode, which was merely OK. I had never regularly watched "How I Met Your Mother," but I did watch the much-dissed final episode and didn't find it nearly as bad as many fans seemed to think.

What other TV shows are you still watching regularly (or have DVR'd for future binge-watching)?

The third series of the superb "Sherlock" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on "Mystery!," the second season of Fox's humor-horror supernatural romp "Sleepy Hollow," CBS' mondern-day Sherlock Holmes series "Elementary" (which has thrived by going its own way while still remaining true to the basic premise of the original stories), the terrific second season of BBC America's "Orphan Black" (with star Tatiana Maslany continuing to amaze with her multi-clone performance), several good old reliable CBS procedurals (the various "NCIS" series, when I can catch them, and the modern-day "Hawaii Five-O"), the second season of FX's excellent cold war spy drama "The Americans," AMC's revolutionary war adventure "Turn: Washington's Spies," NBC's "The Blacklist" (mainly for the ultra cool James Spader), and HBO's hardhitting comedy/news series "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." Also, I really enjoyed "American Experience: 1964" and what episodes I got to see of Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts" documentary series on PBS. I hope to catch up on the most recent episodes of "Mad Men" and "Homeland," too. Leslie tells me the latter was a terrific return to form for a series that had gone badly off-track in the previous season.

What about late night?

I continue to watch the soon-to-depart "Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS (with the recent final Christmas show being a particular favorite) and used to enjoy Craig Ferguson's crazy bits with his gay robot skeleton sidekick on CBS' "Late Late Show" before he departed. I also dip into the new "Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon and "Late Night" with Seth Meyers on NBC. Fallon is best with his pop-culture set pieces and musical interactions with guests (and the Roots are a great band), though his gushing fanboy interviews can be a bit much. Meyers is still feeling his way. The monologue and desk pieces he does are reminiscent of his "SNL" "Weekend Update" days and are usually fun, but the interviews are hit-or-miss and his interactions with band leader Fred Armisen (also late of "SNL") are lame and very repetitive. I'm looking forward to seeing what British comic actor James Corden does with CBS' "Late Late Show," starting in March.

Any off-the-wall viewing choices?

My daughter Livvy has gotten me into watching "Chopped," one of the myriad cooking competition shows that seem to have taken over the Food Network since the days I was a regular viewer. I have to admit it is kind of addictive, especially when they do special competitions like their teen tournament and a recent one involving past champions. Also, normally I wouldn't go near ABC's "The Bachelorette," but I confess to having watched this past summer's finale of the series, because I wanted to see if the bachelorette (an Atlanta prosecutor) chose former Georgia Bulldog football player Josh Murray (brother of former UGA quarterback Aaron). She did. Livvy followed the show on Twitter as we were watching, and the tweets from his old teammates were a lot of fun.

jenna coleman

Favorite performers in prime-time series?

I really like the chemistry between Ichabod Crane (British actor Tim Misson) and Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) on "Sleepy Hollow" (though this season it's been diluted somewhat by the arrival of his 18th century wife fresh from Purgatory — don't ask!). I wish they hadn't just killed off the character played by Orlando Jones, but, considering what kind of show it is, I have a feeling that won't stop him from continuing to appear. I watch "Hawaii Five-O" mainly for the interplay between stars Alex O'Loughlin, Scott Caan (son of James), Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park. I also like the chemistry between Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) and Watson (Lucy Liu) on "Elementary, and I am quite taken with Holmes' new protege Kitty Winter on the series, played with great charm by a young actress with the wonderfully British name of Ophelia Lovibond. I also really like Irish actress Caitriona Balfe, who stars in "Outlander." And on BBC America's "Doctor Who," I have no problem with the new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, though I haven't quite warmed up to him as much as his two predecessors in the role (Matt Smith and David Tennant). However, Jenna Coleman, who plays holdover companion Clara on the series, is my main TV crush these days.

george psychedelic small

What was your favorite album or song of the year?

I didn't buy that many albums in 2014, and most of the ones I did were expanded deluxe reissues, including Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, Roy Orbison's "Mystery Girl Deluxe," McCartney's "Venus and Mars" and "Wings at the Speed of Sound" Deluxe Editions and George Harrison's "The Apple Years 1968-75" box set. Plus, the aforementioned box set of The Beatles' "U.S. Albums" (of which "The Beatles' Second Album" was a particular favorite). And, in a throwback from my days covering the music scene, a combo reissue of Sea Level's "Cats on the Coast" and "On the Edge." On DVD, I picked up the Criterion Collection reissue of "A Hard Day's Night" and also got "Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration."

The only new or almost-new albums not related to The Beatles that I bought last year were Tom Petty's "Hypnotic Eye," Imagine Dragons' "Night Visions" and Coldplay's "Ghost Stories," all of which I enjoyed.

Mainly, I listened (usually via radio or YouTube) to a lot of individual songs, most of which were new this year (or, at least, new to me). Those included: "Different Days" by Jason Isbell, "Weight" by Mikal Cronin, "Fugitive Air" by Of Montreal, "Brighter!" by Cass McCombs, "Love Me Again" by John Newman, "Kiss of Fate" by Black Prairie, "Lazaretto" by Jack White, "Come Pick Me Up" by Ryan Adams, "Blood on Your Bootheels" by Caroline Rose, "Pompeii" by Bastille, "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, "The Walker" by Fitz and the Tantrums, "Take It or Leave It" by Cage the Elephant, "I Wanna Get Better" by Bleachers, "Dangerous" by Big Data featuring Joywave, "Come With Me Now" by Kongos, "Take Me to Church" by Hozier, "Riptide" by Vance Joy, "Team" by Lorde, "Habits (Stay High)" by Tove Lo, "My Sweet Summer" by Dirty Heads, "Bad Blood" by Bastille, "Cool Kids" by Echosmith, "Stolen Dance" by Milky Chance, "Do I Wanna Know?" by Arctic Monkeys, "Superheroes" by The Script, "Fever" by the Black Keys, "Fool's Gold" by Fitz and the Tantrums, "Rude" by Magic!, "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon and "I Bet My Life" by Imagine Dragons. I also really liked "Keep Banging On," the number Craig Ferguson opened his final "Late Late Show" with, though it hasn't been made available anywhere else at this writing.

What album or song disappointed you?

"The Art of McCartney," an expansive tribute set featuring lots of big names (from Billy Joel, Steve Miller and Heart to Willie Nelson, B.B. King and even Bob Dylan!) covering Macca's tunes, but rarely with any originality. Mostly they just aped the McCartney/Wings originals, which seemed like a lot of wasted effort.

imitation gmae

What were your favorite movies? Any disappointments?

I didn't get the chance to see that many films in 2014, and the ones I did catch were movies I was pretty sure I'd enjoy. So, no disappointments.

The best of the bunch was "The Imitation Game," the film about computer grandaddy Alan Turing and how the Nazis' Enigma code was cracked in WWII. Based on his starring performance, Benedict Cumberbatch looks like a very strong contender for a Best Actor Oscar, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the always fine Keira Knightley get a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

Runner-up goes to "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," in which Peter Jackson did a really good job winding up the series with an entertaining, exciting film in which good prevails, but not without cost. The film segues well into the previous "Lord of the Rings" series (and ties the lthree "Hobbit" films together nicely) and should make for a tremendous box set of all six films, as my daughter Livvy noted.

Also recommended: the "A Hard Day's Night" reissue, "Monuments Men" (George Clooney's drama about the Allies' efforts in WWII to save great works of art from the Nazis) and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (which was as much government conspiracy thriller as it was super hero adventure). I wanted to see "Gone Girl," but it was gone from area cinemas before my schedule eased up.

got that something

Anything new on the bookshelf worth noting?

I naturally read a bunch of Beatles-related books, but the best by far was my friend Allan Kozinn's ebook "Got That Something! How the Beatles' 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' Changed Everything." Aside from local histories about my favorite towns (Athens, Abergavenny and Atlanta), I also picked up several titles in 2014 that I'm reading or intend to read: "Moriarty," a Sherlock Holmes-related novel by Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the most recent authorized Holmes story ("The House of Silk"); "1965: The Year Modern Britain Was Born" by Christopher Bray; and a pair of books on the Southern rock bands (Allman Brothers, etc.) that I covered in my rock critic days: "Rebel Yell: An Oral History of Southern Rock" by Michael Buffalo Smith, and "Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock" by Scott B. Bomar. I hope to soon pick up copy of "Hope: Entertainer of the Century," the Bob Hope bio by one of my favorite former coworkers, Richard Zoglin.

All in all, not a great year in entertainment, but still one with moments worth savoring.

If you'd like to take a shot at answering any or all of these questions about your 2014 entertainment experiences, just click on comment below. You don't have to be registered with Live Journal.

Current Mood: contemplative
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.

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

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.

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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:

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:

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:

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:

NPR also is streaming highlights from from Bob Dylan's "Another Self Portrait (1969-1971)":

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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.

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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:

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:

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:

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.

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