Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Land of 1,000 Dances (and videos)

Wilson Pickett died seven years ago this month. He was known as The Wicked Mr. Pickett, a nickname that applied as much to his volcanic personality offstage as well as on. Guns, alcohol and problems with women haunted him through his too-short life. (He died at 64.)

His musical legacy included some of the greatest soul records of the century: "Mustang Sally," "In the Midnight Hour," "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Just Won't Do)." But his best work -- the most irresistible dance record I have ever heard -- remains the 1966 single "Land of 1,000 Dances."

Chris Kenner's 1962 original didn't crack the charts. Then Cannibal and the Headhunters, a Mexican-American band from East L.A., cut a slurry, hypnotic version in 1965 and added the famous "Na na na na na" refrain that every artist since has used. Pickett went to the top of the R&B ratings and a No. 6. position on the pop charts the following year, and nearly 50 artists or bands have covered it over the last half-century.

YouTube versions abound, of course, and I've watched -- well, more than I care to to admit. Here are five that got me out of my seat:

1) Pickett himself in 1966, blowing the roof off a concert venue with a brass-heavy band. The audience gyrates as much as he does:

2) Freddie "Cannibal" Garcia, almost certainly lip-synching, with the Headhunters on a TV dance show. (He sings flat in the same places he did on the record.)

3) Worldwide Wrestling Federation loonies of the early '80s do a version that degenerates into madness (with many added lyrics). Rowdy Roddy Piper, the Iron Sheik, Junkyard Dog and the rest rock out! Look for Meat Loaf playing drums, and extra points for knowing that Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart had been lead vocalist for The Gentrys, who had the top-10 hit "Keep on Dancin' " in 1965.

4) The Korean rock band Cho Seung-Woo and the Devils do an excellent (and serious) version punctuated by blasting sax and guitar solos. They sing mostly in fine English but toss in a little Korean, too. And they do a verse in falsetto.

5) Tina Turner. Need I say more? From Camden Palace London in 1987, when she could really bring it.

OK, one more. If your grandmother made you watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" growing up, you'll know why this mind-blowing video is the least appropriate "Land of 1,000 Dances" ever made. And why fringed jackets never caught on.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why do the Oscars hate Ben Affleck?

That was the plaintive question posed by a reader over the weekend. I'm not sure you can say that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences voters HATE him, because he already has an Oscar: He shared the best original screenplay award 15 years ago with Matt Damon, for "Good Will Hunting." And he's one of three producers on "Argo," so he's nominated again -- but he's inexplicably missing from the best director category.

You do have to wonder why. His direction of "Gone Baby Gone" was nomination-worthy in 2007 but regarded as a fluke, because he'd never directed before. And the damningly ambiguous phrase, "He must have had help" followed its success, as it did with "Good Will Hunting." His solid work on "The Town" proved he belonged in the director's chair, and "Argo" tops both.

Other groups seem to like his work on "Argo:" He won the Golden Globe for best direction and collected prizes from the Southeastern Film Critics Association (in which I vote), Broadcast Film Critics Association and various smaller groups. He's nominated for the Director's Guild of America Award, which gets handed out Saturday.

Yet he's not on the Oscar list, which includes likely choices -- Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, even David O. Russell -- and mavericks Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin, both first-timers. So why not Affleck?

For one thing, the voting pool is small. Except for best picture, Academy members nominate only in their own job category: composers nominate composers, writers do writers, directors select directors. Fewer than 400 Oscar voters are directors, so even a tiny difference of opinion can keep someone off the list. Affleck might have missed by one vote.

Second, the Oscars are a popularity contest more than an exaltation of art. Countless reasons can be found to leave somebody out: He's done something politically incorrect, he's disliked, he's too young, he's too inexperienced, blah blah blah.

I remember asking a cinematographer years ago why the great Gordon Willis never won an Oscar (except an honorary one later in life) and wasn't even nominated for the first two "Godfather" films, "All the President's Men" or "Manhattan." "I've heard he's a -----," was the answer. (It rhymed with "click.")

I'm not saying anyone thinks that of Affleck. (Or that Willis was one. I never met him.) But such personal reactions can lead to inclusion or exclusion at the Academy Awards, however unfair that may be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When a ballerina falls

I'm coming down off a dance high this week, after seeing Martha Graham Dance Company Thursday and going to New York to see back-to-back performances by New York City Ballet of all-Tchaikovsky programs Saturday and Sunday. (I actually went to see just one, but it was so amazing my wife and I blew off our Sunday plans to attend the matinee.)

All six pieces were set by George Balanchine, who would have turned 109 today. (He's a subject for another blog entry sometime: NYCB promotes him as the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century, and my limited historical understanding of dance supports that.)

His pieces feature dazzlingly fast footwork -- even for the corps, which never gets a rest -- with which he updated classical ballet, giving it a lightness for the modern era. (He set his first works during the Jazz Age,  when cars and airplanes transformed the pace of life.) And in the middle of "Swan Lake," which he condensed to one intensely emotional act, the Swan Queen landed on her butt.

Sara Mearns had been giving (and went on giving) a terrific performance: She's a strong dancer, larger than many principals, and her womanly Odette had extra warmth. When Mearns hit the stage, the somnolent matinee audience gave a collective grunt and sat up at once. So did she. When she finished her solo, the applause was louder than at any other time during the piece. (New York crowds seem oddly unresponsive in general, also a topic for another post.)

That night, Mearns tweeted, "Had such an amazing day, swan lake felt like a dream, even tho I fell, it was the best fall ever! I felt like myself again on stage." (These are her first leading roles after a back injury.) She was gratified to dance without pain, even after tumbling. 

But I was most impressed by her ability to return immediately to the high level of her performance. She was like a baseball pitcher who was throwing a no-hitter, gave up a 500-foot home run, then went right back to striking batters out. So few of us can immediately snap back to full concentration and top achievement after a public setback, but the great ones do. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The dead men speak

Exactly 50 years ago last week, the most moving requiem of the 20th century was being recorded for the first time in England.

Not the most beautiful modern requiem, which could be the one by Maurice Durufle, or the most exciting, which might be the one by Andrew Lloyd Webber. But a mass for the dead like no one had written before or since: Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," about the mad futility of World War I.

This is Britten's centenary year, and orchestras everywhere will celebrate him. (Not to steal any thunder from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's upcoming season announcement, but Big Ben will get his due.) His music could be extraordinarily accessible -- think of his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, based on a theme by Henry Purcell -- or extraordinarily challenging, like his late opera "Death in Venice." The War Requiem falls somewhere in between.

Composers have written requiem masses for many reasons. Some present a frightening look at the Day of Judgement (Mozart), some inspire a feeling of oneness with God (Verdi), some induce a state of beatific bliss (Faure), some provide a calm reassurance that death is a natural process and peace follows it (Brahms, composer of the greatest non-Catholic requiem).

Britten, who was not yet a schoolboy when World War I ended, remained a pacifist all his life. He was commissioned to mark the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962 -- the old one had been bombed by the Nazis in 1940 -- and he responded with an 80-minute piece that intertwines sections of the traditional Latin mass for the dead with nine poems by Wilfred Owen, the greatest British war poet. (For my money, the greatest war poet, period.)

Lieutenant Owen, who won the Military Cross posthumously, died one week before the end of the war while storming a German stronghold. His poems excoriate the stupidity of European heads of state, who plunged the continent needlessly into turmoil. In "Strange Meeting," which provides the requiem's gentle climax, a German soldier meets a British one after death:

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark, for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried, but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now."

Britten wanted conductors to use soloists who represented nations from the war he had recently endured: a Russian soprano, a British tenor and a German baritone. The 1963 recording, which he conducted with Galina Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, remains a landmark, despite many fine additions to the catalogue. If you don't know this piece, try to listen to it -- and prepare to weep when the dead men speak.

Monday, January 14, 2013

I miss Clint Eastwood

That wasn't a snarky remark: I really do miss Clint Eastwood: For the first time in 11 years, he doesn't seem to have a single project on the radar as producer, director, actor or composer. He'll be  83 in May, so a year without work for him could be more of a setback than for someone who's 30.

He had a rotten 2012. "J. Edgar," which premiered at the end of the previous year, drooped at the box office and wasn't nominated for anything at the last Oscars. During the summer, his strange one-man speech to the empty chair at the Republican National Convention left people in both parties shaking their heads. "Trouble With the Curve," in which he played an ailing baseball scout, premiered in September to critical disdain and audience indifference.

Whatever you think of his personal life or politics, you have to admire his skill as a filmmaker. He's the last significant throwback to the old studio days of the 1950s: He shoots efficiently, expressing a personal vision within the confines of short shooting schedules and relatively modest budgets.

He has wrestled with racism, war, the mythologizing of the West and other big themes. "Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River" and especially "Unforgiven" are highlights from his last 20 years of storytelling. Though he's known as a limited but effective actor in the John Wayne mold, he has drawn fine performances from people as diverse as Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman.

Maybe he's physically tired of the labor needed to run a set from day to day. Maybe, after almost six decades as an actor and more than four as a director, he feels he's said what he has to say as an artist. (Yes, he's an artist.) If so, Hollywood will be just a little duller for his absence.

Friday, January 11, 2013

You win -- I'm reading blog comments now!

I wrote a blog entry last year to explain that I didn't generally read comments, because so many of them were mean-spirited (toward me or other posters) or off-topic. Folks inside and outside the office took me to task for not managing my blog properly. That was partly because -- here's an admission of cluelessness -- I didn't realize comments could be deleted individually; I thought you had to whack them all or leave them all.

So one of my New Year's resolutions is to treat this blog better. I'll read it over periodically and answer questions I'm asked, though I'm likelier to do that promptly if you send an email to

And I won't step on the discourse much. I'm going to delete only three types of comments:

1) Simple name-calling: "This guy is the worst movie critic in the world." (Unless, of course, the topic that day is an attempt to identify the worst movie critic in the world.) Or "the guy who posted at 4:45 knows nothing about movies." I have the skin of a rhino, or I would have been taking these out long ago, but there's no reason for ugliness.

2) Bitching of the "I can't believe I bothered to read this stupid post" variety. If the column has no point, quit reading. You're welcome to argue with me, not to whine at me.

3) Rants. If I mention something about Barack Obama attending the Kennedy Center awards, and someone delivers a screed about how the president is really a Muslim socialist, out it goes.

The way I see it, there are two possible negative outcomes to this new attitude: 1) Readers, knowing I'm not going to monitor them every 10 minutes, will redouble attempts to say stupid or cruel things once I delete them. If that happens, the terrorists win. 2) People may decide I'm too much of a nanny and stop commenting at all. That's OK with me.

A civil discussion will always be welcome, and I guess I'll find out if I can inspire a few. But now that I've figured out what that little garbage-can icon is for, I'm going to use it from time to time.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oscars nominations: Smart and crazy

The best thing about these nominations is that they're always unpredictable. Yes, "Lincoln" got 12 nods. (And yes, it's going to win for picture, director Steven Spielberg, writer Tony Kushner and probably actor Daniel Day-Lewis. We're going to have two presidential inaugurations this year.)

But weird things happened in virtually every major category, some good and some bad. Here, in no particular order, are the five things that struck me most:

1) What a difference an "h" makes. Ben Affleck gets stiffed after providing one of the best directed-films of the year in "Argo." Benh Zeitlin makes his feature debut with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and gets a directing nomination. And Kathryn Bigelow got the boot in this category -- even though her direction was the best thing about "Zero Dark Thirty" -- which means the picture isn't going to win.

2) We're guaranteed a two-time Oscar-winner this year: All five guys in the supporting actor category already have one. You can decide who stole the spots that should have gone to Javier Bardem ("Skyfall") and John Goodman ("Flight" or "Argo"). I would jettison Tommy Lee Jones and Alan Arkin, both of whom were fine but not extraordinary.

3) It's not a great year (again) to be a woman in Hollywood. Not one of the nominated directors is female, none of the 12 writers are except for Lucy Alibar (whose play was adapted for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"), and there were only 7 women among the 24 credited producers whose films are up for best picture. There may be one more when the credits for "Amour" are worked out, but there will also be three or four more men. And it's a VERY bad year to be Helen Mirren, who gave the lone memorable performance in "Hitchcock" and got skunked.

4) James Bond gets no love. Through 50 years of Bond films, capped by the estimable "Skyfall" in 2012, not a single Bond actor or actress has been nominated. (Bardem and Judi Dench would have been reasonable this time.) The film got the usual song and score nominations, plus sound mixing and editing. And Roger Deakins, the greatest active cinematographer who has never won an Oscar, was also nominated. Alas, he'll be 0-for-10 after the ceremony; "Life of Pi" will take this one.

5) Bigger is always better. Costume nods go to period pieces or elaborate fantasies, not movies where brilliant and subtle choices illustrate character.  Makeup nominations go to overblown productions such as "The Hobbit" -- where the dwarves look as phony as a glass eye -- instead of "The Impossible," where the horrifying bruises and cuts make you feel the characters' pain.

6) There are nine best picture nominees this year, because of the weighted voting system. Is this stupid, or what? If you're going to have more than 5, have 10! There should have been room for "Flight," another foreign film besides "Amour" (I'd pick "A Royal Affair"), "The Impossible" (which was also inexplicably missing from the visual effects category) or even "Skyfall."

Yes, I realize I said at the top that I'd write about five things. I'm unpredictable, too.