Monday, March 31, 2014

New Johnny Cash album (and others not to miss)

Thirty years ago, when Johnny Cash had hit bottom at Columbia Records after a 26-year association, he recorded a series of songs the label decided not to release. Maybe the slick production by Billy Sherrill didn't suit the Nashville of the time. Maybe they didn't think Cash was marketable any more. So we've waited until now for the release of "Out Among the Stars." It's not Cash's best work, but it's well worth owning, and its high points -- including the title song by Adam Mitchell -- have the world-weary honesty that ranks with the best Cash could do. (His version of "Stars" outstrips even Waylon Jennings', and that's saying something.)

The Columbia Legacy album remains a grab bag of comedy ("If I Told You Who It Was," about a one-night stand), outlaw songs ("I Drove Her Out of My Mind," a double-entendre number about a despondent ex-boyfriend), gospel ("I Came to Believe") ) and duets with June Carter Cash ("Baby Ride Easy") and Jennings ("I'm Movin' On"). The self-deflating "She Used To Love Me a Lot" gets a traditional rendering and a newer, spooky version produced by Elvis Costello. The musicians included the cream of the country crop back then: Jerry Douglas on dobro, Pig Robbins on piano, Marty Stuart on mandolin, Pete Drake on steel guitar. Cash completists MUST have it, but every Cash fan should give it a hearing.

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" will probably tour someday, but why wait until then to enjoy it? In fact, the lyrics and music by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak -- which border at times on the sardonic wit of Gilbert and Sullivan -- will be easier to enjoy with the booklet that accompanies the Ghostlight Records release in your hands. Here's a sample:

Like the movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," the writers have adapted the Roy Horniman novel about a social climber who realizes he can become an earl if he murders eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Bryce Pinkham makes the homicidal hero amiable (and sings well), and protean Jefferson Mays somehow creates eight different characters. (He half-sings and half-talks his numbers, but that works in this case.) The female leads, naughty Lisa O'Hare and sweet Lauren Worsham, round out a satisfying main cast.

You couldn't quite call Alison Fraser's "Tennessee Williams: Words and Music" a one-woman show. Though it has linking dialogue from his plays, much of that from "A Streetcar Named Desire," creator David Kaplan and singer/speaker Fraser concentrate on songs quoted or mentioned in Williams' work, from the most famous scripts ("It's Only a Paper Moon" from "Streetcar") to the most obscure (Noel Coward's "The Party's Over Now," from "Clothes for a Summer Hotel").

The album from that show, also on Ghostlight, presents us with a woman on her last emotional legs. She has had too much to drink, perhaps, and certainly too little to cling to in life. Most of the songs deal with lost love, including the superb "Sophisticated Lady" shown in this video, but they're varied enough to take us though a series of moods. Fraser (who's currently touring America as Madame Morrible in "Wicked") can do everything but yodel, though she tries that on Bob Wills' "New San Antonio Rose." Pianist Allison Leyton-Brown and a small jazz ensemble provide warm, subtle accompaniment.

"Warm" and "subtle" are also apt adjectives for the new album of French songs by baritone Thomas Meglioranza and pianist Reiko Uchida. "The Good Song" takes its title from a cycle by Gabriel Faure that fills up about half of the album; I'm more partial to Francis Poulenc's "Chanson Gaillardes," with their rudely funny lyrics from anonymous 17th-century texts. Here's a sample of his voice from one of his previous albums, both of which were devoted to Schubert's songs:

Like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of his idols, Meglioranza has a light, beautiful voice that can be plaintive (as in Debussy's "Fetes Galantes" on "The Good Song") or funny or touching. Uchida accompanies him with a supple and winning style, never receding into the background or overshadowing the singer. If you like classical chansons and lieder, this is a team to remember.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

RiverRun: The real film festival (around here)

A real film festival runs longer than one day -- ideally, longer than one week. It has features and documentaries, movies short and long, pictures made by masters and pictures made by students. It offers informative panels and lectures, Q-and-As with filmmakers and usually celebrates somebody's career accomplishments.

Charlotte has many endearing events dubbed "festivals" with varying degrees of accuracy. But for a festival of the kind I'm describing, you'll have to drive to Winston-Salem.

RiverRun International Film Festival opens April 4 with "Le Chef," a comedy by French director Daniel Cohen about a veteran chef (Jean Reno) whose boss brings in a gastronomic whiz with odd ideas. Here's the trailer:

The fest ends April 13 with the 2013 comedy "Bicycling With Moliere," in which a retired actor (Fabrice Luchini) gets pressured by his lover, his agent and a producer to take on a revival of the play "The Misanthrope." And THAT looks like this:

The festival will sponsor a panel about media restoration and preservation, a debate about the state's film rebates, a Master of Cinema Award presentation for Kartemquin Films (which makes documentaries, among them "The Interrupters" and the Oscar-nominated "Hoop Dreams"), a conversation with Oscar-nominated writer Debra Granik ("Winter's Bone") and another with actress Melanie Lynskey ("Heavenly Creatures," "Two and a Half Men").

Tickets for most screenings cost $12 -- matinees are $6 -- and you can buy various packages, if you're going up for any length of time. (Another incentive: Reynolda House Museum of American Art now has an exhibition titled "American Moderns, 1910-60: From O'Keeffe to Rockwell.")

But you don't need an incentive, do you? The region's coolest film festival 75 minutes away...a slate of movies running on and off all day at half a dozen venues...gas up that car!

Friday, March 21, 2014

'Rocky Horror' never dies

Should you attend the Mad Monster Party this weekend, you may see a band of Charlotteans enacting the timeless ritual of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." I first ran into the local cast, which bills itself as That Type, at CrownPoint Cinemas three summers ago, interpreting the characters who were onscreen behind them at a midnight showing.

They have since moved to Cinebarre at the Arboretum, but their crowning glory will come Saturday, when they perform for Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn and Little Nell -- all members of the cast of the 1975 movie -- live at midnight at Mad Monster. Randal Chou, co-founder and director of That Type's interpretation, told me "We're even breaking even as an all-volunteer cast, which is almost unheard of in the 'Rocky' world."

If you're comfortable watching a whole movie on your computer, you'll find "Rocky" here. (I think you'd enjoy it more on a screen at least the size of a decent TV.) What makes re-enactments special are the facts that 1) Everyone in the audience knows all the lines and shouts many of them out, often with scabrous amendments and additions and 2) Props are involved. If someone in the film proposes a toast, slices of bread come a-flying. (My favorite That Type innovation: The criminologist, embodied onscreen by Shakespearean actor Charles Gray, was represented in the re-enactment by an "Avenue Q"-like puppet.)

This concept has been passed from generation to generation. The Queens University theater department is re-enacting the film this weekend in Hadley Theater. That event is billed, aptly, as a "campy, sloppy salute to horror movies and sexual liberation."

When the cult classic film has its 40th U.S. anniversary next year -- on September 26, the day it began an unsuccessful run in Los Angeles -- we might even see a traditional big-screen re-release. I've enjoyed it with re-enactors and without, and I think everybody should sample it both ways.

Monday, March 17, 2014

When Liz got Dick

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the most notorious Hollywood marriage of all time: The wedlock of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who had fallen in love on the set of "Cleopatra." Here's the evidence, from the trailer of that 1963 film:

They were already married when they met while making the most expensive movie of all time (up to that point), she to singer Eddie Fisher and he to former actress Sybil Williams. Their romance burned up the pages of Photoplay and Modern Screen, magazines my mom used to read with a skeptical eye but great interest. The Vatican, which had less to worry about in those days, publicly condemned their affair.

This was true passion, at least for as long as these two people could sustain it. Their union would be the longest of her eight marriages and the longest of his five; they were so connected that, when they divorced in 1974, they immediately regretted the decision and married again in 1975. (That lasted just nine months, however.)

It's hard for us to realize, 50 years later, what a furor this love affair caused. Movie stars had been protected by studio publicists in Hollywood right up through the late 1950s. But as the contract system began to crumble, and stars were no longer studio "property," they were left to face gossip columnists and detractors without a studio shield.

Taylor and Burton went on to make 11 more movies together, if you count her cameos in "Doctor Faustus" and "Anne of the Thousand Days." Their screen pairings were seldom memorable, except for the love-hate relationship in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Hmmmm....) Their last pairing came in the 1973 TV movie "Divorce His...Divorce Hers," a year before the two did indeed sever the knot. (Double hmmmmm....)

But whatever you think of "Cleopatra" as a movie, you can see that the two people in it really love each other. Old movie trailers used to proclaim that a cast "Burns up with the screen with passion!" For once, that was true.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Great films of 1939, part 1

Take away "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and 1939 is still the greatest year in movie history. We complain today about having 10 Oscar nominees for best picture, but all 10 of the titles nominated that year remain classics 75 years later. (The other six are "Dark Victory," "Love Affair," "Ninotchka," "Of Mice and Men," "Stagecoach" and "Wuthering Heights.")

I presume you don't need an introduction to "Wind," "Oz," "Mr. Chips" and "Mr. Smith." If you do, immediately put all four in your Netflix queue. But I'm going to spend the rest of the year, once each month, blogging about titles that make 1939 the apex of American movie production. (I'll throw in a couple of foreign titles, too.) If there's a Greatest Generation for Hollywood, this is the heart of it.

You have just finished watching a bit of Charles Laughton in the title role of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Incredibly, he wasn't nominated for best actor; his presumed spot went to Mickey Rooney for playing the lead in "Babes in Arms." (Or simply for playing Mickey Rooney, as he did into the late 1940s.)

For once, a grand Hollywood adaptation of a sprawling novel captured not only the details of it -- Paris in all its riotous, mad and exhilarating life -- but the themes of corruption, sacrifice and redemption. If the ending veers off from Victor Hugo's book, the picture justifies it. Though it was shot (as virtually all films were then) on studio sets, it feels authentically French, partly because the designers studied the great cathedral carefully before recreating it.

The film made a star of 19-year-old Maureen O'Hara, who played the gypsy girl Esmeralda. (She also appeared opposite Laughton that year in "Jamaica Inn," Alfred Hitchcock's thriller about smugglers on the Cornish coast.) It was a high point for character actor Thomas Mitchell, who played Clopin, roguish King of the Beggars. In fact, he had the greatest one-year streak of any actor in world cinema history, appearing in three movies nominated for best picture ("Wind," "Stagecoach" and "Mr. Smith") and two others that could have been, "Hunchback" and "Only Angels Have Wings."

To top things off, "Hunchback" has one of the greatest closing lines of all time. And here it is:


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The genius and the killer died together

Exactly 61 years ago today, the composer of "Peter and the Wolf" and the human wolf who slew millions of his countrymen passed away.

Sergei Prokofiev, one of the three greatest Russian-born composers of the century, was two months short of his 62nd birthday. (Stravinsky and Shostakovich were the others.) Josef Stalin, one of the three most notorious mass murderers of the century, had turned 74 two months earlier. (Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler were the others.)

One man lifted people up with his music; one ground them down with his might. One had a sense of humor, as you'll see if you attend N.C. Dance Theatre's "Cinderella" this month; the other reportedly seldom smiled, except perhaps at his own cruelty. Here's a taste of Prokofiev's music, turned into a suite.

The two men were linked in more than death. Prokofiev moved back to the Soviet Union in 1936 after living abroad for almost two decades. He swiftly came under scrutiny for "formalist tendencies," an all-purpose term used to stifle anything the Union of Soviet Composers felt didn't serve the ends of a happy Stalinist nation. (Shostakovich faced the same criticism. Though he outlived Stalin, he also died in his 60s.)

Here's how quickly things could turn in Soviet Russia: In 1939, Prokofiev was composing his opera "Semyon Kotko," in which a wealthy man plots to undermine the Russian Revolution in 1918 and restore the old order with the help of Germans and reactionary forces; the happy ending comes when he's executed, and the Red Army chorus sings a merry number. It was put on hold in June when director Vsevolod Meyerhold, once a favorite of the state, was arrested by Stalin's secret police. He was executed the following winter.

Stalin apparently did like three kinds of music: stuff that praised him directly, uplifted the Soviet people and/or contained no negative thematic elements (and few, if any, dissonances). He publicly praised both great artists (pianist Maria Yudina, who courted danger by saying she would pray for his soul) and mediocrities (countless composers of whom we know little today).

Masterpieces came out during his reign, including some from Prokofiev: the fairy tale "Peter and the Wolf," a rousing film score for "Alexander Nevsky," the ballets "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet." (The latter had a happy ending at first. Don't want Soviet citizens to cry over dead teenagers!) Here's the immortal Boris Karloff narrating "Peter."

Some composers stayed at home and camouflaged their feelings with musical codes, as Prokofiev and Shostakovich did. Some stayed overseas, beyond Stalin's influence, as Rachmaninov and Stravinsky did.

But I can't help but wonder what kinds of masterpieces we missed because of Stalin's crushing demand for conformity and sycophancy. Prokofiev and Shostakovich produced extraordinary and memorable pieces under bad conditions; what could they have done if given a free hand?

By the way, not one significant Russian composer has emerged in the 14 years Vladimir Putin has been running that country with ever-increasing Stalinist tendencies. Maybe he doesn't like music at all.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Five things to love about the 2014 Oscars

First, diversity. I don't mean just racial or ethnic diversity, though we saw that, too: "12 Years a Slave" became the first Best Picture winner directed by a black man (Steve McQueen), Mexican-born director Alfonso CuarĂ³n won for "Gravity" and gave part of his acceptance speech in Spanish, Texas native Matthew McConaughey took home best actor for "Dallas Buyers Club." (C'mon, you know Texas thinks of itself as a land apart.) Actually, I'm talking about diversity among winners: Five different films shared the top eight awards (picture, director, acting, writing).

Second, speeches with meaning. McConaughey told us to look up to someone, look forward to something and chase our heroes -- which, in his case, is the person he hopes to grow to be down the road. Cate Blanchett (who won for "Blue Jasmine") reminded the industry that pictures with women at their centers could appeal to wide audiences and make money, something Hollywood frequently forgets.

Third, choices that rewarded the most deserving pictures in virtually every case. I haven't seen enough of the shorts, documentaries or foreign films to know, but almost every other prize went to the movie that merited it most. I didn't have a single "Oh, how COULD they?" response.

Fourth, collective skunkings for "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," which went 0-for-15 together. Whatever enjoyment can be had from them in the short term, they're not movies many people will want to watch 10 years from now -- and those are the ones that should win. (Of course, I already don't want to watch "Gravity" on my TV set. But in a theater, if it were re-released? You bet.)

Fifth, classy people. Daniel Day-Lewis, who presented the best actress award, declined the usual introductory blather about how performances ennoble our lives: He read the nominees, declared a winner and got out of Blanchett's way. (Robert De Niro, looking pained, did try to get through gibberish about writers' angst while giving the screenplay awards. He didn't make it.)

Former Charlottean Kristen Anderson-Lopez and husband Bobby Lopez gave a thank-you speech (after winning for the song "Let It Go") that was funny, came in under the requisite 45-second time limit and was in rhyme! And Sidney Poitier, frail and dignified 10 days after his 87th birthday, simply encouraged all filmmakers to keep producing pictures that challenge and stimulate us.

I hope they were paying attention.