Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

September 13, 2017

Film/Theatre

Film: Mid-life Makeovers
Nobody’s Watching; Red Trees; Year by the Sea; The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis

Nobody’s Watching (Dir.: Julia Solomonoff)
Film Forum
With a dozen features and shorts to her credit, as a magnet for scores of awards, prizes and grants, and with solid relationships with the best and brightest of Europe and Latin America as collaborators and supporters, Solomonoff has made a movie which everyone should watch. It’s confident, as smooth and addictive as her talent can spin it out, with a well-meaning but feckless hero (Guillermo Pfening, Jury Prize for Best Actor at Tribeca, 2017) who grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. When he finally becomes his own man, you’ll want – you’ll need – to cheer.

The story of this actor, a soap opera star in Argentina, and an undocumented gay immigrant/babysitter in New York waiting for a big part in a big international film that never materializes, touches on every hot button issue in the book without ever slowing down or going stale. Pfening is surrounded by an ensemble cast that works all the time, yet the work seems effortless, the actors always at ease. As it moves between New York and Buenos Aires, Nobody’s Watching transports you right to its deeply satisfying conclusion, Solomonoff’s gift to those who will be grateful to share her talents and the shine of her cast and crew. You will miss them all when the last frame turns to black.

Red Trees (Dir./Writer: Maria Willer) Quad Cinema
This is one gorgeous film, pulsing with the life of the mind, the heart and the eye; Marina Willer’s tribute to her father, Alfred Willer, who became a survivor and a man of the world. That world, in all its complexity and angst is revealed through his memories (poignant, rich—a repository of cultures with many origins and great depth) of Central Europe and, later, Brazil, where he eventually found residence and raised his 
family after World War II. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1781157492/red-trees-a-short-film-by-marina-willer

What sets it apart from many memoirs is its access to Willer’s visual skills (she’s a partner of the design firm, Pentagram), equaled by the work of DP César Charlone’s (City of God; The Constant Gardener) cinematography; it’s a match made in heaven. Because Alfred Willer (a chemist by trade) was also an artist, a musician, and a writer whose journals provide his eyewitness to history, the director had an embarrassment of riches from which to create her work. She chose wisely and well, visiting many of the locations in Czechoslovakia in which her father had grown up, and in Brazil, where she lived most of her own life after the family arrived there in 1947.

If you have ever wondered what the period between the wars was like in a Europe that nurtured and respected high culture before it was smashed beyond repair, see Red Trees. You will find its music, its art and its literature. But before you weep for what was lost, you will be transported to what was found afterwards: a tribute to resilience, to acceptance, and the hope of diversity as the promise of the future. Let’s say that the film, for all its searing images and words, begins with Bach and ends with Leonard Cohen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wOlGJFkqic;
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NU5FPAR7ass

Year by the Sea (Dir./Writer: Alexander Janko) Landmark Sunshine;
Lincoln Plaza
The press conference following the press screening of Year by the Sea was an astonishing love-fest as cast and crew described the long journey from Joan Anderson’s Times’ best-seller to the final cut that has just opened. While the production seems to have benefited from the kumbaya atmosphere that prevailed on location and set, the most astonishing aspect of its journey was the story of how Janko (a prolific musician, composer and arranger) found Anderson’s novel, persuaded her to come on board, to mentor him as he adapted her book into a script, and support him to direct it as his debut feature. But, without question, the revelation that she, as the novel’s author, was present on-set during the entire production and that she and Janko are still friends was nothing short of amazing. While many directors will not permit an author of source material, or even the script writer, anywhere near their shooting schedule, Year by the Sea was definitely its own movie; a communal effort from a community that has remained together. Add to that the fact that Anderson’s book is not a novel, but a personal memoir of her transformation from hausfrau to the fully realized woman she has clearly become, and it is even more exceptional.

Karen Allen plays Anderson with real conviction, aided and abetted by her two best friends: Celia Imrie as psychoanalyst Eric Ericson’s free-spirited wife and caregiver, and S. Epatha Merkelson as the long-suffering and empathetic agent who shepherded Anderson through the process of turning her life into her best-selling book. Together, they spend a year in a remote New England fishing village while Anderson (and the husband she has been living apart from who works through a transformation of his own) learns how to balance self-realization with loving support. The preview audience was deeply enthusiastic, and the film will resonate with many viewers, just as the book did with its readers.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (Dirs./Writers: Francisco Marquez, Andrea Testa) VOD
Also an adaptation (this time from a novel by Humberto Constantini), The Long Night, for all its modest resources, is an absolute gem! The hero, once a low-key revolutionary poet, has settled into a life of middle-class comfort with his wife and friends. Until he’s contacted by an old friend and fellow-traveler who asks him for a favor that can put him at serious risk in Argentina’s new post-revolutionary society.

It’s not the story itself, but the way it’s told and especially the way its reluctant hero (the outstanding Diego Velazquez), allows us to feel the pain of his struggle and its resolution. Very much worth keeping an eye out for its VOD release later this fall.

Theater

Caught Van Gogh’s Ear at the Signature Theater and was intrigued by its synesthesia, with music of the period (played live by a fluid group of strings and piano)used to enhance and amplify Van Gogh’s paintings and distress. Together, the music (including songs performed by Chad Johnson as Vincent’s brother, Theo, and Renee Tatum in dual roles of sister-in-law and lover) and scripted lines (based primarily on Vincent’s letters) spoken by Carter Hudson as the brilliant artist captured the ecstasy of Impressionism when it ignited a fin-de-siècle revolution. David Bengali’s projections and the set and costumes by Vanessa James (especially those worn by the musicians) kept the fires burning up to the inevitable finale.

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century, which created Van Gogh’s Ear, has two more productions waiting in the wings: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dec 21 – Jan 7) and Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart (May 17 – June 17). While co-existing in the same century, the three subjects could not be more different; it will be fascinating to see how – and where — they take us. http://romanticcentury.org/

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Apollo’s Girl

July 24, 2017

Theatre/Film

Measure for Measure
(Dir.: Simon Godwin)
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky
Shakespeare Center
Since TFANA’s move to Brooklyn to inaugurate its new theater with Julie Taymor’s magical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/apollos-girl-54/, it has been emphasizing the director’s art, seeking new takes on the classics for its new audiences. Simon Godwin’s recent view of Measure for Measure was no exception. Godwin arrived from London with a formidable portfolio of reviews and awards, keen to reveal his solutions to this “problem play” and how to update an Elizabethan plot and setting so its relevance was underscored, yet its original context respected. 
Solutions: keep the city (Vienna) and its period styles, but modernize the costumes of some of the characters; here, the less-humane wear post-WW II business attire to indicate their administrative functions. Also, think of the subtext (which would have been familiar to London audiences in 1604): the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England; it had driven Henry VIII to close the monasteries and convents, and fears of STDs and plague had also caused closings of the theaters and brothels as well, banishing them to the outskirts of town.

Vienna, a Catholic city, was known for its strict morality. Leave it to Shakespeare to marry the two geographies to make his points. And leave it to Shakespeare to focus on the elasticity of his characters’ interpretation and behavior as they confront that morality. They are marvelous at arguing their positions (you can always count on a good argument, and Measure for Measure doesn’t stint on chastity vs. promiscuity, or justice vs. corruption), and marvelously flexible at justifying their frequent changes of heart and mind. You will spot some thought-provoking parallels to 21st-century dilemmas. And of course there will be marriages in the end, following many reversals and equal measures of comedy and bloodshed. What would Shakespeare be without them?

A particularly confident and appealing cast included outstanding work from Jonathan Cake, Thomas Jay Ryan and the wondrous Cara Ricketts, who took no prisoners and gave the language and ideas their due in every scene. As a special treat, Godwin created a labyrinthine brothel to lead us into the theater; its dim lighting, erotic paraphernalia and actors energetically miming some of its featured activities were a way to get us in the mood for the play that followed. Expanding on that theme, Act Two opened in a nightclub run by Mariana (Merritt Janson) who sang a modern version of “Take, oh take, those lips away…” It was not altogether logical, but Ms. Janson was definitely one terrific singer!

Speaking of new audiences, one of TFANA’s recent coups was their double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, brilliantly directed by Arin Arbus and brilliantly double cast with Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, who played to the rapt and discerning crowds filling the house for the marathon. In general, TFANA’s audiences are enthusiastic, but this time there were a lot of New York actors who came to learn from the fun, and ticket-holders from London, Berlin and California who had flown in to experience a theatrical summit. http://www.tfana.org/about/production-history/dolls-house-father/overview#Media

The 2017-2018 season will bring new productions and outreach programs for those who truly relish theatre and are smart enough to plan in advance. Stay tuned for details and tickets: www.tfana.org.

The Fencer (Dir.: Klaus Häro. Writer: Anna Heinämaa)
NYC Angelika; Lincoln Plaza
National: http://www.cafilm.org/thefencer/

The reasons for The Fencer’s presence on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film will be immediately apparent from its cinematography (Tuomo Hutri); design (Jaagup Roomet) and flawless editing (Ueli Christen/Tambet Tasuji). Director Klaus Häro has made an excellently paced film that flows effortlessly; its cast (especially Märt Avandi in the title role), from supporting to bit players, is alive in every moment of the story. And if elements of the story seem familiar, the beauty of the production and the truth of its emotions and settings will keep you engaged.

What is not familiar to Americans is the reality of the complex politics that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century elsewhere, especially the impact of successive occupations by Nazis and Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (The Fencer is based on a true story that takes place in Estonia). It imposed an explosive climate that ruined many lives and twisted the natural civic order for decades, laying waste cultures and traditions that recovered only slowly after the double blows of World War II and the Cold War. Millions were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The Fencer makes this landscape clear in the swift progression of its tale, yet enriches every chapter and location with the tiny details that add a real sense of place and character and what it was like to be there; so you feel part of the story, rather than a bystander watching it unfold. The film’s perfect balance between issues and textures is extraordinary, like the positions, the moves and the concentration required to excel at the sport that gives the film its title. In the end, the sheer grace of the production and level of art and craft it exhibits make it a standout.

 

Kékszakállú (Dir.: Gastón Solnicki)
NYC Elinor Bunin Munro Center
Argentina seems to produce some of the most interesting (and puzzling) films around, and Kékszakállú is both. Gastón Solnicki claims it was inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; a haunting work whose origins lie in Perrault’s French fairytales, or earlier (in real life) in Brittany. In every version there is darkness and mystery. Yet Kékszakállú is more often full of light and always full of water.

The wealthy young women whose repose and aimlessness Solnicki captures are on the verge of adulthood. They find themselves on diving boards in public pools, paddling in hidden gardens, swimming in the ocean, and resting in front of pipes billowing steam in a sausage plant. There is little dialogue; from time to time, excerpts from Bartok accompany their action. It’s something of a social commentary (though an elliptical one), with the foreshadowing of socioeconomic difficulties to come. Yet Solnicki’s saturated images and the music create a sense of dread that gradually and subtly intensifies. The last frames reveal one of the women standing on a ferry with her suitcase, relocating, perhaps to a better life. But has she (or any of the other women) grown up? That’s for you to decide. If you like very elegantly filmed mysteries, this one’s for you to solve.

 

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There’s good news and bad news…

The good news: Damian Woetzel has been appointed the new President of Juilliard.

 

The bad news: our Commander-in-Chief is draining the swamp and creating a tar pit.

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

Apollo’s Girl

January 26, 2017

Music

apollo-and-lyre

NYFOS: It Doesn’t Get Any More Russian Than This…

If you walk through Red Square you can see Lenin, a triumph of chemistry, still lying in his tomb, or celebrate the riot of Byzantine colors and shapes that is St. Basil’s Cathedral, or pick up something new and expensive at one of GUM’s 1,200 shops. But if you want to see something so Russian it will break your heart and make you weep, walk to the Moscow Conservatory, where ghosts of aristocrats hover still. In front of its iron fence, Tchaikovsky’s statue sits on his pedestal, surrounded by trees and the scent of lilacs in the summer. This is romance, as only the Russians can do it. tschaikovsky

Unless you were at Merkin Hall this week to give yourself up to NYFOS doing Pyotr the Great: The Songs of Tchaikovsky and His Circle. It was romance and total immersion as only Steve Blier can conjure it, with two pianos (his and Michael Barrett’s), a couple of singers destined for great things, program notes worth keeping forever and Blier’s bleier-and-barrettintroductions to the songs, mashups of erudition and sly wit.

Like all of NYFOS’ programs, Pyotr the Great has been put together not just by erudition and wit, but by passionate love for the music itself and insatiable curiosity about the composer’s life, times and genius. There were insights into his training (he was a lawyer), his ability to express the Russian spirit and soul in music and, of course, a modern understanding of his very complex personal life. The songs are supercharged by the extent of Tchaikovsky’s feelings and his need to keep them in the shadows.

If you find yourself content to luxuriate in the composer’s familiar symphonies, ballets and operas, you would be missing the glories of his chamber music and especially his songs. Quite simply, they are ravishing, with a richness, subtlety and emotional contours entirely equal to Tchaikovsky’s agenda. The program was divided into sections: Tchaikovsky’s Family; Men; Colleagues; Women and Last Days. The texts were the work of several poets, with Tolstoy leading the pack and Pushkin included for Onegin’s Act I aria. But, for all of the pleasures in the chosen 17 (plus two encores), the standout (and my lifelong favorite) was and will always be the penetratingly bittersweet setting of Tolstoy’s At the Ball. Surely this tiny masterpiece captures everything that words and music can express. If you don’t know it, try YouTube and carry it with you the next time you need a Swan Lake or Eugene Onegin fix. It will work!

chehovska

As for the singers (soprano Antonina Chehovska and baritone Alexey Lavrov): though neither is, literally, Russian, they are from nearby territories and fluent in the language and traditions that enveloped the evening. Chehovska has a big range, a beautiful voice, power to spare and modesty in the bargain. Lavrov is equally gifted (and as someone who has already sung the title role in Eugene Onegin, perhaps a tad less modest). They sang their solos without holding back, and their duets were deeply satisfying. As multiple prize-winners, they have much to look forward to (or, as the man sitting next to me kept saying, “Those two are going to have huge careers!”) Apart from my neighbor, confirmation came from Blier himself; when Barrett was playing the accompaniments, Blier simply leaned back in his chair listening, eyes closed, wearing a very, very big smile.

Like so many of NYFOS’ recitals, there was a strong concept framed by the musical generosity that has defined their work for 29 years. And that generosity has just been extended to an intricate and captivating web site http://nyfos.org/# and blog (No Song is Safe From Us)http://blo g.nyfos.org/. There are Blier’s fabulous program notes. There’s a TV channel, too. https://www.youtube.com/user/nyfostv Go. Read. Listen (you will find excerpts from Pyotr the Great, along with local and nearby concerts coming up). You’ll be in very, very good hands http://blog.nyfos.org/, and right in the middle of the action.

Apollo’s Girl

December 25, 2016

TV/Film

apollo and lyre

A Little Night Music

I’m starting very small–still recovering from the election—so have two tweet-like recommendations: first, Rachel Maddow’s recent interview with Kellyanne Conway on MSNBC broke every glass ceiling ever. It’s not about whose ideas you preferred, but about two women, phenomenally well-matched for debate, creating a paradigm for (relatively) civil combat. On the biggest issues we will be grappling with 24/7 after January 20. Frankly, it was hypnotic!
MSNBC interview

There was a consistent effort to actually listen to each other before attempting decapitation with tightly focused ripostes, and a crackling intelligence that never descended into campaign speak. The last time we saw its like was the early days of the Vidal/Buckley mano a mano, and those two were definitely White Men in a very elegant duel that remained alive for a long time.

Second, La La Land. It was the life-enabling piton for climbing out of the post-election abyss, and while you are likely to be enchanted by it (the 8.9 IMDb readers’ score and 93 Metacritic’s are hard to contest), I can only add  that if babies can now be produced with the DNA of three parents. La La Land is definitely the love child of Russian Ark, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Shall We Dance. Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy and go see it. And then urge Damien Chazelle to run for president. landscape-1468420673-la-la-land-4

Apollo’s Girl

June 29, 2016

Music

apollo and lyre

 

 

When You’re Living on Mars
You Can Miss the Man in the Moon:

Benjamin Scheuer

One of the things about living on Mars is that you can keep the noise of civilization and its discontents at a distance. The down side of this luxury is that you can miss something unique and extraordinary―like Benjamin Scheuer, for instance.

Blissfully unaware that he had co-opted the public arena for quite a while, toured widely in a one-man show, released CDs, music videos, books and articles, appeared on Charlie Rose and been praised enthusiastically in all the right places (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/an-artist-takes-on-cancer/), I had never heard his name. Yet my good scheuer5instincts kicked in when his new album (Songs From THE LION) was described in a press release. Something about its unusual warmth (could the writer actually believe what (s)he was writing?) and unusual content (Scheuer has had what the Chinese call an” interesting life” marked by serious illness and loss) caught my attention. So I checked out a link within.
He had me at frame one, measure one, and wouldn’t let go:

More, the press material included a rave by Mary Chapin Carpenter, describing his appearance as part of her UK tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That, dear readers, is huge—really huge. How could a lone singer and his guitars connect with listeners in its 8,000 places? Because he’s a world-class connector who can turn that space into your living room. Because his fearlessness can stop you in your tracks. So how could I not race to hear him up close, alive and well, in the Rubin Museum’s intimate auditorium?

The house was full; the crowd handsome, hip and sleekly dressed, in the know and waiting—like the six acoustic guitars already onstage—for their hero. The unlikely troubadour entered to a roar in his working clothes: intensely colored suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief. And―surprise―knee-high Paul Bunyan boots made for striding.

One can analyze Scheuer’s music and lyrics; his harmonies are comforting,  but deftly laced with flashes of progressions that surprise (like his boots). Just when you think you know where things scheuer3are going they remind you that he’s the pilot. They twine around his lyrics, rhyme or free verse, complex ideas that pack a very direct emotional wallop. They sneak up on you; not so much flashes of surprise, but cannily structured bits of theatre that build stealthily to a climax, invade your heart. Don’t even try to distance yourself. Just give in to discovery.

What Scheuer has, in spades, is a low-key charm, a magnet that captures, and keeps, your attention. He is affable, chatting and singing, even when describing the darkest days of his life, and hilarious when recounting his meeting, and pursuing, Ms. Right. He has a lot of stories. What makes them go, whatever their content, is his generosity of spirit; he’s always in the moment, and you’re there with him. This is a man in the moon who enjoys performing and knows how to share his glow.

He’s an alumnus of the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project, a music theatre crucible where creatives are driven to the next level. Also an alumnus of Eton and Harvard. Yes, his background has given him access to the basics of being Out There. But it’s his enormous talent 

Benjamin Scheuer in the hip musical hit "The Lion." Caption: Karen D'Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy Courtesy of ACT

Benjamin Scheuer in the musical hit “The Lion.”
Caption: Karen D’Souza Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Courtesy of ACT

and empathy that have moved him far beyond the benefits of favors to win the laurels he deserves. He’s his own man, and they are very, very real. He has also chosen collaborators, kindred spirits (like Peter Baynton,who directed his videos) who have found exactly the right key to make his songs resonate on stage and screen.

Now for the bottom line: those songs make you cry, except when they make you laugh. He has the gift of alchemy. His father’s death and his own illness have been transmuted into universal experiences that cut right through your defenses and any scar tissue you’ve accrued from living in the 21st century. The real miracle is how he’s made lemonade out of some really colossal lemons. He stands tall and radiates hope, and you catch it, like some redemptive antibiotic. Especially when he announces that he will celebrate his fifth anniversary of being cancer-free this July.

If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket, celebrate the occasion with him in person at Guild Hall in East Hampton on July 1st (https://www.guildhall.org/). You can watch his videos on YouTube (there are many) and relish the CD of Songs from THE LION (Paper Music/ADA). His Web site (http://benjaminscheuer.com/) will tell you 242BenjaminScheuerwhere to catch him live later on: this troubadour is taking his show on the road, big time! Shine on, Ben―shine on. It’s a lovely light.

Apollo’s Girl

June 18, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

 

Open Roads: Just Gone,
but Not Forgotten…
HRW: Right Here, Right Now

What’s not to love about Open Roads? Always overflowing with joie de vivre, poetry and violence; with the occasional historical film to open roadsrelish, and resonant with the humanity for which the Italians are famous. Of course it can come at a price—heightened decibels―but two of this year’s standouts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center were whispers, far more powerful than any shout.

.Arianna, a narrative feature debut by Carlo Lavagna, was a real jewel, as unexpected as it was tender and perplexing, lofted by an extraordinary actress—Ondina Quadri—whose candor and Ariannasubtlety matched the script. The story of young intersex woman unfolds with considerable full-frontal nudity and sexual exploration. Could it have been exploitative? Certainly. But not in Arianna. What might have been distasteful with another director seems here compassionate and always respectful of the people (and especially the person) whose lives have been constrained by a secret: parents who deeply loved their son and wanted to save him from the cruelty he would suffer if they didn’t act on his behalf. And the son himself, turned surgically into a daughter as a young child before he could understand what he might expect. And most of all, the remarkable Ms. Quadri who remains luminous, mysterious, and entirely appealing throughout the film. Her journey is both heartbreaking and reassuring as she finds the strength to accept herself and whatever future that may lead her to. So far, Lavagna has been nominated twice: for Best New Director, and Best Feature Film; there will be more. Quadri has won two awards at Venice for Best Actress in a Debut Film, and is currently in the forthcoming Il Nido

Banat (Dir.: Adriano Valerio) This, too, is a feature debut–by Valerio, whose handful of shorts include several nominations,banat and a Special Mention win at Cannes. His work as writer and cinematographer before Banat has sharpened his talent for shaping a narrative with images from long shot to closeup, like windows into the characters he has carved into his narrative. It is an unlikely love story, catching fire quickly and sustaining it as the lovers move from southern Italy to a run-down farm in Romania and cope with the displacement. Their relationship is sexual, affectionate and playful in equal measure. Valerio’s talent extends to watching over his cast; they are fully dimensional in the brief scenes that develop their story almost like a storyboard, allowing you to fill in the spaces between the frames. You will, and you will want Ivo (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Clara (Elena Radonicich) to keep the heat alive long after the credits roll.

Human Rights Watch (https://ff.hrw.org/)


hrwThere were women everywhere throughout HRW, behind the cameras and captured by them; perhaps the most unlikely a Chinese heroine (Ye Haiyan) nicknamed Hooligan Sparrow. Her journey (more properly called an ordeal) traces her evolution from country girl to prostitute to ardent activist in a country where activism is sure to be treated more harshly than sex-for-money—illegal, but pervasive. It began with the news of an elementary school principal who had taken six of his students to a hotel. As we learn, the sentence for child prostitution in China is less than that for rape. Ye Haiyan’s response was to stand with a sign reading “Hey, principal—sleep with me; leave the kids alone.” As the storm swirling around her and first-time filmmaker Nanfu Wang gathered, the government’s Goliath geared up to demolish them. Wang was physically assaulted more than once, and Ye Haiyan was hounded from one town to another. During one attack, she and her belongings were dumped out all over a highwayand left there. Perhaps Hooligan Sparrow is technically rough, but Wang (literally shooting from the hip) was strong enough to capture the fierce emotion and courage that will be sending this Sparrow around the world.

 Sonita (Dir.: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami) Although technically a documentary, Sonita is a hair’s breadth

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

(Photo: Stephanie Sidoti)

away from a narrative with a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction plot that keeps you on the edge of your seat for most of its 90 minutes. Sonita Alizadeh, with dreams of becoming a rapper, is promised in marriage in her mid-teens. Through sheer determination and the help of the filmmaker, a support organization, and assorted samaritans at home and abroad, Sonita finds her way out of Afghanistan and into a university music program in Utah then, in short order, to the Internet as a viral sensation and recording artist in the fast lane. Turns out she’s as talented as she’s ingenious, and there’s no turning back: the film won both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary.

Jackson is likely to make you very, very mad and look for a way to get even on jacksonbehalf of April, the heroine of Maisie Crow’s both even-handed and inflammatory portrait of Jackson, Mississippi, where Barbara Beavers (Executive Director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices) and Shannon Brewer (Director of the Jackson Women’s Health Organization) try very hard to help April navigate a hardscrabble life. April has good instincts and a loving heart, and four children, born one year apart. As events unfold, Brewer and Beavers seem to have a common goal—to limit unplanned pregnancies. But Beavers’ solutions are abstinence or adoption; Brewer’s, birth control or (if desired by the client and early enough) abortion. Yes, Crow is an observant and disciplined filmmaker who has done her homework on the issues, but I won’t bet on audiences watching Jackson being able to remain calm for long, especially after seeing how the story plays out. The racial and economic divide may be implicit, but remains alive and well in Jackson.

Growing Up Coy (Dir.: Eric Juhola) will make you think for a long time after it’s over. Initially about a young transgender child who identifies as a girl, it develops into a complex legal battle over her right to use the bathroom of her choice at school, and into thecoy portrait of remarkably open-minded parents who want their child to thrive and are determined to remain supportive of her wishes. But things change: the issues become a magnet for school officials, politicians, lawyers andinevitablythe media. Lines are drawn and the public weighs in. The pressures to remain strong or to back off become an emotional roller coaster for parents and children, changing the balance of their relationships. They know that life in the spotlight, however painful, may lead to the victory that will empower their daughter. In the end, by standing fast and with the aid of their dedicated lawyer, they win. We are left to wonder what their future will bring once the spotlight is turned off, and there are definitely no easy answers to the question.

P.S. Jerusalem (Dir.:Danae Elon) As the daughter of renowned journalist and author Amos Elon, known for jerusalemhis disillusionment over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, Danae Elon has created a search for identity that is as clear-eyed as it is sensitive. Its sequences mirror her move (with her husband and children) from New York to the Israel of her youth, where she hopes to recapture a sense of “home.”

But, using her camera as both recorder and shield, her honesty and her sensibilities draw her into reflections that make her “home” increasingly problematic. While often beautiful to behold, her film captures the overt and the subtle realities of her home as it is now. p.s. jerusalemThis view from inside is ultimately painful, but required viewing for anyone who understands the importance of resolving the conflicts that persist in the powder keg that has replaced the Promised Land.

P.S. Human Rights Watch This was a very, very good year..

 


Cooper’s London

May 1, 2016

TV/Music/Opera

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Fearless Prediction:
The Night Manager

 

 

This TV series based on the John Le Carre novel hasnight manager been a huge success in the UK and is something not to be missed now that it’s hit small screens in the US. Apart from the contemporary resonances given to the story by an update to the original novel, this is simply one of the best-photographed, best-acted and most stunningly engaging series to come out of the BBC, ever. It is bound to be as legendary as the old Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy series with Alec Guiness. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie give immensely nuanced performances in their roles as a double agent and illegal arms dealer; night manager 2Olivia Colman is superb as the heavily pregnant, obsessively moral spy mistress after the Hugh Laurie character and running Tom Hiddleston; Tom Hollander is suitably camp and sinister as Corcoran; and Elizabeth Debicki is in the same class as Tilda Swinton playing the romantic, troubled Jed. The writing by John le Carre and David Farr is classy, witty and dark.ster. The directing by Susanne Bier deserves unstinting praise. Shot as if it were a high-quality film, The Night Manager doesn’t dawdle; and all of its six hours are needed to work out the complex and exciting tale. At no point does the tension disperse; at no point is any aspect of the writing, direction, acting or photography anything but superbly realized. Quite simply, it grabs you from the opening moments of the first episode and speeds forward, always provocative, worrying, and morally challenging. I dare you not to be completely engrossed. I certainly advise you not to miss it. This is one class act!

Joyce & Tony: Live at Wigmore Hall
Erato 0825646 107896

Verdi, Aida, Anja Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Ludovic Tezier, Erwin Schrott/ Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano Warners 3 CDs 0825646 106639

________________________________________________________________________________________


wigmore hallAntonio Pappano
has recently conducted two recordings that are highly recommended additions to any library. 
The concert he did at the Wigmore Hall in September 2014 with Joyce di Donato has actually won a Grammy award, and take my word for it, it’s deserved! The program consists of mezzo material from Haydn and Rossini that di Donato has made her own over the years; she sings the first half of the concert with impeccable taste and understanding.

Though I have indelible memories of Janet Baker’s performance of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos that even Joyce di Donato cannot drive into second place, I would put assumption of this cantata up there with Baker’s. And I certainly was just as won over by her Rossini songs. She’s a dazzling interpreter of this kind of material with her richly lyrical, controlled and warm voice, as well as a real relationship to the words she’s singing. Listen to her performance of “La Danza” by Rossini. It won’t replace the interpretation by Mario Lanza; but it’s certainly good enough to be mentioned in the same breath and returned to regularly.

joyce and tonyPappano is an impeccable partner for di Donato throughout this live recital. In the second half of the concert, they reflect their American backgrounds with some wonderful material from what is now called The American Songbook. Some people have claimed that di Donato sounds too fruity in this repertoire, but I find her approach utterly pleasing. Hearing this music sung in her unique way—especially the songs by Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen– is definitive as far as I’m concerned. Thank goodness this recital was recorded so we can hear and enjoy it forever and remember what all the fuss was about.

Another Pappano recording that caught my attention even more forcefully is the new and much-anticipated Aida. Right from the start you know this is going to be a major collectable: first, from the way Pappano conducts the contemplative, sad, soft overture, and then from the way he supports the declamation of the High Priest; and finally from Jonas Kaufmann’s inward, intense singing of “Celeste, Aida”. Under Pappano’s direction the orchestra and the soloists consistnetly follow all the dynamics in the score; Kaufmann actually takes the final note of his first aria piano with a lovely diminuendo as suggested by Verdi.

This recording puts you in the presence of artists who take their commitment to the work very seriously. Several critics have claimed that this interpretation does not quite match the great recordings made by Solti and Karajan in the early stereo era, or supercede the famous Toscanini broadcast of the opera. How silly! This recording is its own thing.

I found it consistently considered, spacious, and remarkably true to Verdi’s intentions musically; it’s also always convincingly sung and acted. The comparisons seem to me beside the point. You can hear them all and make up your own mind; they’re not mutually exclusive, but each illuminates aspects of the score in different ways. You need them all!Aida-Rome

Also there’s something compelling about being able to hear the best contemporary artists and their interpretations of this work. Listen to the classic assumptions by all means; but don’t dismiss the performance that is brought before you now.

Anna Harteros has the right kind of dramatic heft in her voice for the role of Aida. Her singing of “Ritorna, Vincitor”, for example, has a clean vocal approach that I found captivating. She’s sublime in “O patria mia”. Jonas Kaufman sounds both heroic and sensitive as Radames; and Ekaterina Semchuk steals every scene she’s in as Amneris; while the superb French baritone Ludovic Tézier as aida2Amonosro is wonderful not only in his singing but also in characterizing a cold, tyrannical father–a sort of Stalin of ancient Ethiopia. Bonus: Semchuck is particularly fine at the shadings of her role, but knows just when to chew the scenery. When she curses the priests for condemning Radames, you know they will remain cursed for a good long time. Erwin Schrott is luxury casting for the smallish role of Ramfis.

For me, after listening to it repeatedly, the recording pretty much lives up to the hype that preceded it and is certainly one of the best all-round performances of this opera in years. But I do have one quibble with this set that may just be personal; I found that the recording’s dynamic range is so wide that at times the quiet passages nearly disappeared and the big moments were liable to make me jump in my seat. But you can hang onto your volume controls, and maybe it’s just a matter of my now somewhat ageing stereo equipment not being up to contemporary sound engineering.

The presentation and booklet for this set are top-class. This is an essential performance where Pappano and the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome have brought out so many nuances, so much refreshing and well-considered detail, that it reminds one why Aida was, once upon a time, one of the most beloved and performed operas in the repertoire, always placed somewhere in the top five.aida3

Aida has slipped from grace rather in the past couple of decades, possibly because that much spectacle is very expensive to mount these days of Draconian budget cuts; but this recording seems to me to go a good deal of the way towards restoring it to a peak position on the Best Operas list. It’s a great drama about the conflict between private desire and public duty; a nearly perfect score; and a performance entirely worthy of such a masterpiece, for its casting, and particularly for its conductor Antonio Pappano, whose baton controls the soloists, chorus and orchestra with a mastery of Verdian style. And perhaps because it is so good, it also provokes a strong desire to go back and listen, once again, to Maria Callas, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi in their legendary performances as Aida; to Jussi Björling as Radames; sophia lorenor even to see once again the old 1950s Italian movie where the angelic voice of Renata Tebaldi emerges from the mouth of a very young and sumptuously gorgeous Sophia Loren.

So if you have no Aida at all, this is as good a place to start as any; it is a fine reading of the work, and if it stimulates you to listen to Karajan with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, or Solti with the astonishingly perfect Leontyne Price and Jon Vickers, that would be a good thing too. But pappanoremember that Pappano can absolutely hold his own, and don’t dismiss this version just because a few old fogeys are nostalgic for some of the great performances of the past. Be grateful, rather, that they’re all available for our delight and that these contemporary performers have created another very fine interpretation of the work to add to the list of un-missable Aida recordings.

Apollo’s Girl

April 24, 2016

Film

apollo and lyre

What’s New and Different:
FSLC and MoMA

There was plenty to chew on and savor this year, downloadplenty to think about, and a sense that filmdespite the trail of tears of financing and distributionis alive and well in a number of places. In Iran, for instance, Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari) is a curious and affecting combination of war story, ghost story, and the plight of women in a crumbling society. More effective, and far under the shadowmore unsettling, than a conventional anti-war narrative,
Anvari manages to combine several themes into a cohesive and original political statement for his narrative feature debut. http://www.filmcomment.com/blog/ndnf-interview-babak-anvari/

bodyguardTwo shorts were exceptional, compressing volumes into the cinematic equivalent of a highly distilled brandy: Concerning the Bodygyard (Kasra Farahani, from a story by Donald Barthelme) for which Salman Rushdie provides the film’s narration, and Farahani’s elegant, reductive sensibilities provide the sting.

In The Digger (Ali Cherri), Sultan Khan, the lone caretaker of crumbling grave sites makes his rounds, dedicated to protecting what remains of the desert’s ancient civilizations. The The-Digger-2camera records a vast, quiet emptiness in which Khan’s tiny figure is almost lost, plodding through endless sand dunes under a merciless sun; the brick structures are disintegrating and their graves have been emptied. The film’s silence makes space for the viewer to imagine the story of what once was; what is is imposed by a slow reveal of Sharjah’s enormous oil refineries shimmering in the distance. In the right hands (and Cheri’s are), the truth is shattering.

happy hourAt the other end of the clock, there’s Happy Hour (Ryusûke Hamaguchi). The movie begins with a train carrying four friends to an outing, moving through a tunnel into the light; you know you are going on a ride. But if you expect to be restless at the leisurely pace and length (317 minutes) of Happy Hour, think again. You are much more likely to be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in at first, then hypnotized by the way Hamaguchi weaves his tale of 30-somethings living and maturing in Kobe. Many of the scenes are shot in real time, with the four women, their relatives and significant others reacting to one another, sharing their adventures and coping with the social pressures of modern Japan. It’s storytelling by accretion, as layers of acutely observed behavior accumulate to pay off over time. You learn as you go, and the more you learn in each scene, the more you understand in the next, or one half-an-hour down the line. Infidelity? Jealousy? Sisterhood? Risky behavior? The weight of the past in the present? They’re all here, and more, to keep you entranced as Hamaguchi’s complicated structure rises on the screen. If the devil is in the details, it is Hamaguchi’s ability to see them, and to use them to reveal the humanity of his flawed but ultimately fascinating women. (The four shared the award for Best Actress at the Locarno Festival.)

Thithi (Raam Reddy) Nothing like the polite Anglo exercises of Merchant/Ivory, or the streamlined homecomings of Mira Nair, and definitely not like the Bollywood of many Indian thithi2
filmmakers now making deep inroads into Western cinema, Thithi is totally immersive, yanking you into the village culture of South India with its unfamiliar sights and sounds. For two hours you are inside a saga that begins with the death of a centenarian (who simply collapses on the street where he spends most of his days), continues through the generational family agendas that emergealways at oddsimmediately after, continues to unfold through an exotic shaggy dog story, and ends with a funeral to end all funerals. There are some choice quotes: “I’ll pass his life through a strainer,” and “This is a place where dogs lay eggs”, and some joyously discordant music. The cast stays in constant motion, traveling barefoot, by moped and by tractor. All in all, it’s quite a trip.

the fits2The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) After NDNF’s Grand Tour The Fits comes home to Cincinnati for the coming-of-age story of a young Black girl struggling to find out where, and how, she fits in with her friends and family. She helps her older brother out with chores at the gym where he works, sees lots, says little, and misses nothing. She boxes occasionally, and joins a dance drill team preparing for a competition. An epidemic of “fits” runs through the dancers and teachers, unexplained. So the script is occasionally puzzling, sometimes extended with a rich score, or slow-motion for emphasis. But what carries the entire story is the haunting presence of its young star, Royalty Hightower, whose melancholy eyes and quiet presence capture both your imagination and your attention. Watch for her…

evolutionEvolution is an example of what feels like a brand-new sub-genre of science-fiction: an indirect story. An elegant, truly original idea (in this case, a reversal of the reproductive process) Evolution incorporates eerie cinematography and lighting, the mysterious power of the seashore and the sea, a series of clone-like young mothers, and their clone-like young sons. There is a hint of Frankenstein and some curious medical procedures. A mythic sensibility pervades the strange plot which, because it’s so beautifully told and so tantalizingly revealed, draws you into a guessing game that no one fully wins. But the journey is fascinating.

A little bit a documentary of the Italian countryside, a lot a lost and beautifulreference to the eternal traditions of commedia, dell’arte, Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello) mixes things up in cunning ways. It beings with the story of a “real” caretaker who dedicates himself to preserving the ruins of a noble palace. He is loved and respected for his selflessness, but as he lies dying, he convinces the filmmaker to find a Pulcinella to rescue a buffalo calf. Thus begins a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress as Pulcinella and calf make their way to their destiny. The tone is set with the calf’s voiceover statement: “I would have liked to have been born on the moon; nothing could be worse than where I live now…this is my story.” Or: “I’m proud to be a buffalo; in a world without a heart, being a buffalo is an art.” Magical realism prevails; the calf finds a new home and, finally, the castle is beautifully restored for all to see. Dedicated to its real-life caretaker, the film is (like many others in this year’s festival)a quirky and original entry.

Kaili Blues (Gan Bi). Another original marvel, and something kaili bluesof a Chinese shaggy dog story, resonant with texture and imagination. In other words, a non-linear narrative that often drops its clues and references entire sequences away from their payoff. Although set in contemporary China, its characters are shaped by the country’s ancient and recent history, which surfaces in intriguing and often unexpected ways. A doctor sees his brother (a bit of a no-goodnick) who is interested in selling his son, Wei Wei. The doctor wants to adopt Wei Wei, but appears too late. He sets out on an odyssey to find him in the country, full of beautiful mountains and rivers, and odd shabby little towns, and encounters villagers, mysterious women, and finally, a band of archaic people marching to a funeral, playing their instruments, whom he’s been seeking for many years. When he finds Wei Wei at last, he finds a grown man who doesn’t recognize him. But creating a synopsis of Kaili Blues is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Its fractured timeline, the density of its references to Chinese culture, the wow factor of its spectacular 40-minute tracking shot and the depth, richness and sharp-eyed skill of its director require multiple viewings.

mountainTwo films from Israel (one co-produced with Denmark) focus on the difficulties of living under the restrictions of Orthodox Judaism, and particularly on the effects of its rigid attitudes toward sex and emotional expression. The first, Mountain (Yaelle Kayam), is a story (based on the Talmud) like no other I’ve seen. Living next to a cemetary on the Mount of Olives with her children and her indifferent husband, Zvia (Shani Klein)is deeply lonely and isolated; her only acquaintance an Arab man who looks after the cemetary, with whom she occasionally chats. At night, she gradually forges a relationship with the prostitutes and pimps who work the area, bringing them food and drink as she looks on. She feels the stirrings of curiosity and more, yet is frozen into the role she must play as Orthodox wife and mother.

tikkunIn Tikkun (Avishai Sivan), the volatile moods and desperation of a Rabbinical student (Aharon Traitel) are evident when he faints at the sight of his own blood after sharpening a pencil. The film’s black-and-white cinematography underscores the growing intensity of its story. There is little dialogue, but what there is leaves no room for ambivalence: the father (given to heavy-handed determinism) tells his anguished son, “God gave us our bodies; you have to worship God through your body.” The son replies, “I hate my body!” For the son in Tikkun and the wife in Mountain, God has no pity, and offers the pain of stifled lives with no respite. Although Tikkun has a streak of mysticism that provides great beauty, it is no match for its sorrow.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg) Described as “ a hybrid of classic documentary techniques and reality-based dramatic storytelling,” Weiner is, more accurately, a Very Big Deal and a Very Big Story recent enough to be conjured up by many outrageous moments throughout the film, and by an opening quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he almost never recovers.” For the reference to McLuhan, I leave readers to Google the name in question. But for the film? It’s fast and furious, and often full of double takes, emotions whisked under the rug in front of the camera’s harsh eye, and details increasingly painful to behold. Well-made and clever, of course, weinerbut the unavoidable question looming at the end of the film’s 100 minutes is: why on earth did ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin (one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides and her former Deputy Chief of Staff at the State Department) agree to have their overflowing hamper of linen washed in public? Perhaps it seemed to them that it would be useful for their future in politics; perhaps the savvy producers simply talked them into it. But given the couple’s considerable experience and sophistication in the political arena, that seems unlikely. While we are often given more information than we might want, it does not include an answer to the question, nor a happy ending. It is, however, very entertaining, and lures us in with a surfeit of the very techniques that keep us wringing our hands over the tenor of our festering political climate.



Cooper’s London

March 24, 2016

Books

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Not Entirely Frank
Sinatra: Behind the Legend
(J. Randy Taraborelli)

sinatra behind the legendThough it often feels as if he’s still with us, Frank Sinatra will be 100 on December 16. To celebrate, J. Randy Taraborelli has revised and updated his original biography of the 1990s with considerable skill. Old Blue Eyes was still alive when taraborelliit was first written and, with age, was getting ever more cantankerous and litigious. Since then, of course, archives have been opened; more people have come forth to be interviewed, and so, even if you have the original book, this is a worthwhile replacement.

Still, I approached Sinatra with the ghost of kitty kelleyKitty Kelley’s effort still hovering in my consciousness, and I want to say up front that in most ways Taraborelli’s is preferableincluding the fact that it moves more swiftly through the material. All the shocking revelations that Kelley presented in a totally negative way appear in this book, too: for example, the abortions performed by Dolly Sinatra; the philandering, gambling, and drinking; the psychological abuse of his wives; and the way Sinatra found the Mob and Las Vegas to be the ultimate in glamour.

But instead of being a hatchet job, this biography tries to understand where Sinatra came from, to be sympathetic or to some degree understanding about the weaknesses and foibles of the man, sinatra familyhis mother, his friends. Taraborrelli tries to interpret them from the Sinatra point of view over and over again, and his analyses of how Frank or Dolly would have seen them are convincing. His view is more balanced in its assessments and conclusions; this makes for a far more interesting read. Neither an unthinking fan nor a declared hater of Frank Sinatra; he simply chronicles the life in a straightforward fashion, leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind. I wavered for a while, but in the end chose not to befriend Sinatra, nor risk his befriending me. (I would not wish to have dinner with him at the Brown Derby.) But how I wish I’d attended some of the concerts over the years…

Taraborrelli is also very good at referencing the entire Sinatra discography (from way back with Harry James and the Dorseys right up to the last concept albums) and in explaining how his work evolved over time. We learn about his interpretations of specific songs and the way he put his stamp on them; his interest in and contributions to the orchestrations; and also the input of gardner sinatramusicians with whom he liked working. The author deals sympathetically with the dip in Sinatra’s career from 1949 to 1953 and with his unquenchable passion for Ava Gardner and how she helped him get back on track. Sinatra also reveals his inability to control the mood swings and paranoia that made him quick to ditch people if he felt they had betrayed him in any way; and made him perpetually deaf to the other side of the tale.

Taraborelli shows us a talented, iconic and hugely successful entertainer who was also a very flawed, egocentric human being, most likely bipolar. But he also happened to possess two enormous talents; or maybe one should say he was possessed by singing and acting abilities at the highest level.

from here to eternityHis role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity helped consolidate his return to the top in the 1950s after a few years in the wilderness as a singer as well; the Capitol and Reprise years are documented in fascinating detail; so are turns in Suddenly; The Man with the Golden Arm; Some Came Running; and The Manchurian Candidate, or even lighter fare: High Society; The Tender Trap; or Ocean’s 11. Sinatra was quite impressive as a producer (but drew mixed reviews when he directed Only the Brave).

The man was a superb, professional and committed show business performer, whatever he chose to turn his hand or his vocal chords to; and that he was very proud of being known as a totally honest singer. Despite his philandering and gambling and psychologically abusive behaviour, he was honest about his personal life, too, and always very open about his thoughts and beliefs; he always seemed to say what he was thinking, even when it was unfair or hurtful. But somehow, when he sang or acted, recordinghe managed to suspend his raging ego so that primarily, as a performer, he always served his art.

The weakness of this book, for me, is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the mind-set, thinking, or approach of Sinatra the artist. We don’t always get a sense of how he prepared his songs or his roles, or what went into his creativity. There are some hints here and there, but essentially we see his daily life; his love life; his links to the Mob; and his complex personality. One does get a sense of how important Nancy Sinatra Sr and Jr, Tina Sinatra, Frank Junior, all four wives and several of the girlfriends were to him, as well as his closest and longest-serving friends, his lawyers and his agents.

The book is well-written in an easy, journalistic style. marilyn-monroeSome of the detailslike a brief plan to marry Marilyn Monroe and save her from herselfwere a surprise. But there are no compelling new insights into what made Sinatra so attractive to his women and his friends; what made him such fun to be with; what his charm was. We are told it existed and we get a lot of tales about its impact. But how this man turned himself into one of the great interpreters of American song of the 20th century as well as, at times, a top- class actor giving Oscar-worthy performances, remains a mystery. And I would also love to have learned what, after a certain point in his life, made him shy away from the kind of intense and harrowing roles he had undertaken in the 1950s. For a while he was clearly striving to challenge himself and stretch his talents; and then His Way turned into the easy way. What was it in his personality rather than just in his fame and talent that attracted the long-term loyalties of such a disparate group of people? That’s a mystery, too, and an impossible question to answer because Frank Sinatra was complicated, but not much given to introspection; neither is Taraborelli.

Still, this is definitely one of the best and most informative Sinatra biographies you can get, and certainly a whole lot less nasty than some of the others. To tell you the truth, and more to the point, it sinatra5made me want to listen to his recordings again and run the DVDs of several of his films, including those old MGM musicalseven The Kissing Bandit(!). I’m convinced about the talent. I want to experience it anew, and Sinatra will get me going.


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