Archive for March, 2011

A time of confidences

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

 

If you were alive and aware in 1969, you know it was anything but a time of confidences. I remember being 15 and getting tear-gassed at the Washington Monument in the middle of an angry war protest on the Fourth of July among 250,000 people … and I was just there to see Bob Hope and the Beach Boys. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated the year before. Cities burned down during the riots afterward. The daily news was a parade of body count numbers from Vietnam. The country was torn between Nixon supporters, anti-war protestors, hippies, radicals, John Birch conservatives, poverty, racism, and migrant and other abused workers struggling for decent working conditions through collective bargaining (oops, bye bye). But in total counterpoint to the chaos came a sound as pure and serene and … confident as humanly possible. Two friends who had been singing together since they were 11 year-old pups were just now hitting their peak with “Bridge Over Troubled Water;” an album that captured lyrical, vocal and engineering mastery beyond measure.

There is no fill on the album. Nothing mediocre. It launches you into the stratosphere on the opening title cut and never lets up. It’s one sustained mood of mixed emotions brilliantly recorded after another. No mere “Greatest Hits” album by the same duo could ever match the level of sustained inspiration woven here. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel knew it. They split up after this. How could it ever by topped? Well, there are still some surprises left for us in the seen-and-heard-it-all 2011, and this 40th anniversary edition comes not only with a remastered version of the album, but a Simon and Garfunkel CBS television special that originally aired in 1969, PLUS a new documentary interviewing the key players on the making the of the album. And every moment is revelation.

Simon and Garfunkel had four of the top five chart albums at the time and were so popular that a one-hour network special on CBS gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. So they did a wandering meditative tone poem of moving images on America featuring John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s funeral train while “Bridge Over Troubled Water” played over. That featured young couples in love contrasted with violent and fiery war images from Vietnam while “Scarborough Faire” played. That featured widow Coretta King talking about poverty over disturbing images of diseased and starving children. And they ended (big sigh of relief from the network), with a brief on stage concert. Naturally, millions of shocked viewers choked on their nightcap cocktails and tumbled out of their easy chairs to switch the channel over to the Peggy Fleming Ice Skating special on ABC. When director Charles Grodin (yes, THAT Charles Grodin), screened the Coretta King voiceover poverty section to the network brass, they asked him if he could adjust the audio on it. “How do you want it?” he asked. “Inaudible,” they replied.

The original sponsor dropped out, but Alberto VO5 stepped in (hey, there was a lot of hair on young viewers in 1969), and the show aired as produced. Try watching it in the context of 1969, or shit, even prime time network television TODAY, and you will gasp at what they got away with. And if you can watch Robert Kennedy’s funeral train pass through the countryside by waving mourners as “Bridge Over Troubled Water” reaches its crescendo, and without crying, you need to check the dose level of your anti-depressants. You just might be catatonic.

Take a deep breath after the television special, thinking you’ve struck unearthed gold never seen since 1969, but here comes a fantastic new documentary about the making of the album (and the special), and nirvana kicks in. If you care about music at all, or how it is created or inspired, or recorded, you will be entranced. Paul Simon reveals the gospel music he was listening to when the inspiration struck for “Bridge,” which he readily acknowledges is beyond any rational explanation. Art Garfunkel convinces him to add the third verse taking it even higher. Their genius engineer, Roy Halee, master of finding the perfect echo, records the “li li li” chorus of “The Boxer” in a stone church chapel to get the right haunting tones. He records the drum crescendos for “Bridge” outside the elevators at CBS to the shock and awe of departing passengers. Garfunkel and Simon playfully slap their hands on their denim-covered knees in a hotel room, roll the Sony recorder, create a one-minute loop, and inadvertently come up with the entire rhythm backing for “Cecilia.” And on and on. I don’t know about you, but I always get thrills from hearing artists describe their moments of inspiration. That’s my crack addiction. The joy of invention, of innovation, of seeking that perfect sound infuses everything they did or discuss here. And you share that joy of discovery with them. Unless of course, your lithium dosage won’t let you.

Troubled outer times call for a stillness of inner peace. Simon and Garfunkel somehow sensed that delicate balance in 1969 and distilled a sound for the ages with this masterpiece. Witness the creation of that same masterpiece 40 years later to understand how the silences within these sounds are needed more than ever.

— A. Wayne Carter

Round Up Reviews – Spring, 2011

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

“The Fighter” on Pay per View

This is the story of one brother ‘fighting’ to get out from under the shadow of his older brother. But the reason this film doesn’t work for me is because HE NEVER DOES. Oh, in the actual story the way it’s written he might, but not in the movie itself. Christian Bale, as the older brother Dicky takes control of the film and just never lets go. Mark Wahlberg, as Micky, is not a strong enough actor to ever grab it away from him – even at the end, when he’s had his big “Rocky” victory triumph (please don’t tell me that’s a spoiler), and his brother is verbally passing him the torch. Bale is still holding the torch, folks. So the ending never plays as what is supposed to really be happening. The payoff doesn’t pay off. When Dicky walks off and leaves us staring at Mickey, I’m still thinking, “Can’t we stick with Dicky?”

Credit whoever was smart enough to position Christian Bale as a supporting actor nominee for an Academy Award, because that’s what guaranteed him the win (which would have been in question against Colin Firth as lead actor in “The King’s Speech”). But make no mistake about it; Bale is the leading actor in this film. He has more scenes. He has the standout dramatic scenes. He steals every scene he’s in. It’s his film. Even the DVD box art more predominately features Bale than the supposed ‘fighter’ lead, Wahlberg. But credit Wahlberg for recognizing this imbalance and not letting his ego get in the way of Bale dominating the show. If Wahlberg were a stronger actor, he might’ve better conveyed to the audience what his own struggle was and found a way to make that internal struggle stand out more to dramatize the usurping of his brother’s glory. The glory visuals are all there, like a spotlight in your eyes with music swelling, but you just never get the sense that Wahlberg as a character will ever steal Bale’s thunder.

The directing by David O’ Russell, though, is fantastic. It bobs, it weaves; it never stops feinting, moving, counterpunching and knocking you out. It takes big gloves to ever take on a true story boxer biography knowing “Raging Bull” is the reigning champ, but Russell proves himself a contender.

 

“Inside Job” on Blu-ray

The rich have no shame. There’s no other conclusion. It’s staring you in the face for the full two hours of this Academy Award-winning documentary. We all know the basic story of how 30 years of deregulation let the wolves run away with the hen house in the Wall Street banking industry. The bankers got greedy and became investors, gambling on artificially-created derivatives, and when they lost their shirts, we all paid the bill. It’s even more shocking to see how the rating agencies such as Moody’s or Standard & Poors essentially pimped out their triple AAA ratings on these crap CDOs for a buck to help legitimize these gambles. Or how leading academics at the financial colleges are also helping perpetuate future generations of “greed is good” graduates because they’re on the take as well, accepting huge consulting fees from the same few banks that essentially control the world’s economy and give our presidents their marching orders. “You WILL bail us out for our greed-infested gambling with taxpayer money, or we’ll take the whole ballgame down with us,” they threatened. And so it was.

But the one thing I keep coming away with is, “Who ARE these human beings?” Are they EVENhuman beings? Did they ever possess any trace of conscience or shame? And the answer obviously appears, “Never.” Maybe it’s some genetic disposition, or brain anomaly that allows the scheming rich to make the decisions they make that take no other human consequence into consideration. There’s just no other explanation. I look back at times in my own life where I made decisions that affected my potential financial situation. I can remember a situation living in L.A. where a gem dealer Ecuadorian friend and neighbor in my apartment building gave me the opportunity to double whatever cash amount I wanted from $10,000 on up by merely depositing  it along with the same amount he wanted to launder through a regular bank account. As a freelance screenwriter receiving large fees for writing, the anomalies posed few noticeable risks. But I could never do it imagining where, and for what activities the dirty money came from. Just couldn’t do it.

The rich don’t make those kinds of conscious or ethical calculations. They just make the cash calculations. And if ever you needed proof, this documentary not only puts those moral-free actions on display, but even features some of the shameless demons being interviewed on camera for all to witness. Because the other thing they lack besides any shame, is any governor (or regulator) on their gall or ego. “60 Minutes” made its bread and butter for 30 years on the fact the rich and powerful often think they can get celebrity camera time  and come off like the brilliant people they think they are, without ever understanding that the only thing they ultimately reveal … is their complete lack of empathy or shame. Or guilt. It’s not in their DNA. Oh, some of them are married to actual human beings – women that talk them into donating to universities or hospital medical wings (featuring their names and portraits), but that’s just to stop the nagging. It wasn’t because they were exercising any recognizable form of conscience.

Let’s be clear; we’re not talking about those who became rich as a by-product of their creative, scientific or innovative achievements in pursuit of what they would have been doing even if money weren’t involved. We’re not talking about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Oprah or even Charlie Sheen. We’re talking about those who pursued money for the sake of money, and whose only creativity is to scheme for more. Those who worship at the house of money.

Oh, sure, I’m generalizing, and being judgmental and pig-headed. But watch this movie and see if you don’t feel the same way afterwards. If every working class American saw this film, there would be a revolution, complete with guillotines and beheadings. But the head of some of these pigs separated from their bodies and staring back at themselves still wouldn’t get what they did wrong. Isn’t getting rich the American Dream? Doesn’t the end justify the means? Maybe it’s time we found a more worthwhile dream.

“Billy Joel Live at Shea Stadium” on Blu-ray

Billy Joel performed on my college student union patio back in 1974 and got so pissed off at the spotlight operator not following his antics around stage that he jumped on the top of his piano and stood there until the spotlight finally settled on him and tossed two large, glowing birds into the air and screamed, “Fuck You!”

Billy Joel begins this fantastic closing performance at Shea Stadium in 2008 before it was torn down by ripping through his early anthem, “Angry Young Man.” It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. Oh, sure, he’s now bald, grey, paunchy, and sweating buckets of water onto his keyboard on a hot summer night before a standing room only crowd of about 110,000. But the voice is still amazingly strong and supple, and the songs he goes through in this two and a half hour tour de force are the deep album cuts most long-term Billy Joel fans want to hear; from “Miami 2017,” to “Captain Jack,” to “Goodnight, Saigon,” to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

Guest stars like Garth Brooks, (“Shameless”), Tony Bennett (“New York State of Mind”), John Mayer (“This is the Time”), and Paul McCartney (“Let It Be”) show up to augment the festivities. But trust me on this one … Billy Joel snarling and playing his piano and reminding you to “Not take shit from anyone” is plenty enough to stir your blood (provided “Inside Job” hasn’t already boiled it). It’s fun to play ‘spot the celebrity’ on the infield below the stage. Isn’t that billionaire New York City mayor Boomberg beaming widely right in the middle of the huddled, sweating masses? So, maybe the ultra rich have no shame, and can sing along when Garth Brooks glorifies “Shameless,” but at least they know what events are worth showing up for. I wish I had been there. Check this out and you’ll wish you had been, also.

— A. Wayne Carter