Celebrations are in order! This is a landmark week for all Americans, especially those who might want to choose their own home or their own life partners without discrimination or for those who might ever get sick and need health care. Like, all of us.
To celebrate, you might want to go to the theater. And I have some recommendations.
Moby Dick at Lookingglass Theatre
I have seen the legend of the great white whale in many forms on stage and screen and read the book twice (once in college). The new production of Moby Dick at Lookingglass is one of the best, perhaps the best, I’ve seen. The staging is very creative and the acting is excellent. Most important, director David Catlin’s script, which he adapted from Herman Melville’s novel, is strong and cohesive and manages to tell the whole story economically. The source of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal hatred of Moby Dick, the habits and practices of the crew of a whaling ship, and even what life is like at sea. The friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg is sensitively told and the characters of Ahab and Starbuck take on reality.
My Gapers Block review also noted some of the other recent Moby Dick portrayals. I gave the play four stars, a “highly recommended” review. It runs two-and-three-quarter hours with two intermissions. It’s been extended and you can see it through August 28.
The Who and the What at Victory Gardens
This is a smart, funny play about a conservative Pakistani-American family and their attempts to come to grips with modern realities. Father Afzal is a widower, still grieving the loss of his wife and trying to do what’s best for his two daughters. Zarina, the older sister, past 30 and unmarried, is writing a novel about “gender politics.” If she gets over her writer’s block, the story she tells will be explosive in their conservative community. Ron O J Parsons, the director, has crafted a thought-provoking and moving play. Here’s my review. (Link added 6/29/15.)
The Who and the What, by Ayad Akhtar, runs just under two hours with one intermission. It continues at Victory Gardens through July 12.
All Our Tragic at The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites have remounted their compilation of all 32 extant Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, deftly adapted by Sean Graney. It’s funny, poignant, slapstick, bloody … and really, it’s a theatrical experience not to be missed. You can binge on the 12-hour experience—but think of it as nine hours of theater and many food and relaxation breaks. I reviewed it last year.
All Our Tragic runs Saturdays and Sundays through August 9.
And also …. Chicago Dramatists Scene Shop Showcase
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Scene Shop Showcase that Chicago Dramatists holds twice a year to give a glimpse at new plays in progress. Scenes (about 10 minutes each) were shown from 10 plays by 10 playwrights. Chicago Dramatists is “the playwrights’ theatre” and they offer playwrighting classes and present new plays in their Saturday Series of readings.
My friend Debbie Dodge invited me to attend the showcase. Her scene, “Ashes to Ashes,” was about siblings deciding how to handle a parent’s ashes. “Cut: A Restoration Drama,” by Brenda Kilianski, raised the circumcision question and controversially compared it to female genital mutilation. It’s amazing how much drama can be packed into 10 minutes.
The scenes are staged readings with some props and blocking. Many of the playwrights, actors and directors are Equity members. The scenes were performed on the Chicago Dramatists’ main stage, which was set for the show then in production.
The next Scene Shop Showcase will be in December. It’s open to the public and the cost is a suggested $5 donation.
Because I’m a city girl at heart and habit, my visit to Bozeman, Montana, was probably more citified than yours might have been. Yes, there’s lot of great hiking over prairie and peak and we did some moderate walking, but most of our peripatetic adventures were city walking tours and museum treks. It was a great weekend in a university town that’s probably going to be like Boulder or Madison in another five years. The number of quirky coffee shops is a sign of things to come. (They have cold-brewed iced coffee in Bozeman!)
I lived in Colorado many years ago and have often visited Denver and Colorado Springs to visit friends and relatives and see Bruce Springsteen in concert. So I’m familiar with this part of the west. But the place I lived (Cortez, near the Four Corners) was a relatively young town whereas Bozeman has a lot of history.
We took many gorgeous mountain walks and drives, but I’ll report on the cultural highlights of a few days in southern Montana.
Bozeman’s Bon Ton district
This district of about 260 elite homes has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1897. (You can take a guided walking tour or do it yourself by installing a tour app on your smart phone.) The Bon Ton District totals about 27 blocks, with examples of Italianate, Queen Anne, Craftsman, Colonial Revival and Bungalow architecture including buildings with Eastlake features and some examples of vernacular architecture, such as pattern-book homes from the turn of the century. Most of the homes are beautifully preserved and represent elements of Bozeman’s history, including its failed effort to become the state capital. The tour takes about 90 minutes, unless your tour guide talks too much, in which case it’s two hours.
Bluegrass on Main Street
I first saw Special Consensus, a Chicago-based bluegrass band, in 1983 at my first Kentucky Fried chicken Bluegrass Music Festival in Louisville. The band members are a bit older but the music is still lively and fast as bluegrass string music should be. Banjoist and frontman Greg Cahill is the only original band member (and the only Chicagoan) still with the band. The concert was at the historic Ellen Theatre on Bozeman’s Main Street. It was a pretty traditional bluegrass concert with a nice combination of ballads, old-time bluegrass and some tracks from their new album, Scratch Gravel Road. The band’s two a cappella numbers were outstanding. You can listen to some song demos in the lower right here.
Robots and punch cards
Bozeman is the home of the fascinating American Computer & Robotics Museum, which apparently came about because its founder saved everything. The museum smashes together exhibits from a human brain and a Gutenberg printing press to typewriters, adding machines, original Alan Turing papers, punch cards (and their antecedent, the 1801 Jacquard punch cards for textile manufacturing) and the first neural computer. There’s also the latest in smartphone, robots and artificial intelligence devices. And a 1984 Macintosh like my very first.
The exhibits create a timeline of developments in computing and communications over the centuries. The museum, founded in 1990, was developed by and apparently based on the collections of Barbara and George Keremedjiev. They originally intended to locate the museum in Princeton, New Jersey, but changed their minds when they moved to Bozeman. The museum’s Wikipedia page is much more informative about the museum than its own website.
One day we visited Daphne Gillam, an artist who creates beautiful illustrative maps, at her home in the Shields River Valley. I was eager to see how she creates these maps and expected to see her sitting in front of a giant LCD screen. Instead, she is working on a piece of linen-finish paper taped to her desk top, painting with a well-used set of water colors and brushes, both medium and fine. You can see a gallery of her maps on her website, where she also describes the process she goes through when creating a map for a client, which is often a publisher.
Livingston, home of the Depot Center Museum
Livingston is a small town in the mountains near the Yellowstone River. It’s best known as the location of a museum created from a Northern Pacific Railroad depot built in 1902 as the original access to Yellowstone National Park. Passenger service ended in 1979 and in 1987 the city opened it as a museum to preserve Livingston’s railroad past.
Architects Reed and Stem, who were part of the design team for Grand Central Station in New York, designed the building. The exterior is notable for its terra cotta ornament and the interior for its beautiful wood and terrazzo. The exhibits illustrate how the railroad was built and maintained, how steam engines were serviced in the roundhouse, and how the railroad was run from the yard office, complete with tools and papers of the time. One exhibit demonstrates how the telegraph office worked and you can pretend to send your own dots and dashes.
An exhibit of paintings—Train in Art—was on display at the museum. The works were by two artists and I was particularly taken by the paintings by Sheila Hrasky (in the slideshow above).
After visiting the museum, we had dinner at a café in the historic Murray Hotel and then went to a play at the Blue Slipper Theatre in the historic district. The venue was pleasant and included an upstairs parlor where refreshments were served during intermission. The play, unfortunately, was forgettable.
Be bear aware
Brand identity is a modern concept, or so it’s said. Companies, profit and nonprofit, and political campaigns devote extravagant amounts of time, money and energy to position themselves consistently—verbally and visually—with their priority audiences.
But almost a century ago, a small but creative company on the south side of Chicago developed its own distinctive brand and visual identity for an array of products designed to help its customers find beauty and romance.
Valmor Products’ advertising and packaging is the subject of a funny, provocative and eye-opening exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products runs until August 2 in the 4th floor north exhibit hall, just across from the not-to-be-missed exhibit of the paintings of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. See my Motley review for details. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
Valmor operated on the near south side (as the location image shows, near the intersection of Cermak Road and Indiana Avenue) from the 1920s through the 1980s. Their products were perfumes, hair pomades and straighteners, incense and a great variety of other products designed to help the individual (male or female) attract and please the opposite sex. Some of the products claimed to have mystical or magical powers.
The Cultural Center’s comprehensive exhibit is the first to show Valmor’s remarkable works of graphic design—product labels, packaging and advertising. Some of the labels were no bigger than a postage stamp, as you can see from the photo of the spilling bin of packages. (Other vintage bottles and containers are also on display.) Those tiny labels were enlarged to poster-size using modern imaging technology. The result is an exuberant display of social and cultural history as well as graphic design.
Charles Dawson, Valmor’s first designer, was a distinguished artist. His life and career are described here by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the professional organization for design. Dawson’s unpublished autobiography is in the DuSable Museum of African American history.
The Chicago Cultural Center, as I’ve noted before, is a Chicago treasure that many people aren’t aware of. It was opened as the city’s central library in 1897, designed by the Boston architectural firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. They created a number of monumental civic structures in the Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson (best known here as architect of the John Glessner House). In 1977, the building was re-created as a city cultural center. It offers many exhibits of artistic and architectural interest, concerts, films and other performing arts events–and admission is always free.
The Washington Street side has a grand Carrara marble staircase leading to Preston Bradley Hall with its beautifully restored 38-foot Tiffany glass dome. The hall was the library’s main circulation room, which is why the mosaics that line the walls display the names of authors and philosophers. (View the restoration story in the video above.) If you enter on the Randolph Street side, you’ll find a large area with tables and seating, where you can meet with a friend or client, read or do a little work. But be sure to walk up (or take the elevator) to the fourth floor, where you’ll find both the Motley and Valmor exhibits.
Is it my imagination or is the arts world slowing down a little, in preparation for the summer? Maybe it’s my own lethargy but I’ve seen fewer plays recently. However, I have some excellent recommendations for you, in case you’re looking for something to do this weekend.
ATC: The Project(s)
American Theater Company’s The Project(s) is a sad and celebratory docudrama about public housing in Chicago. Writer/director P.J. Paparelli interviewed more than 100 past and present residents of Chicago public housing as well as scholars and public officials. The cast and the performance are outstanding and although the story does not end happily, it illustrates how residents in the CHA projects built communities for themselves. The 2.5 hour play (two intermissions) has been extended to June 21. Read my review.
It’s important to note that Paparelli, 40-year-old artistic director and inspiration behind many of ATC’s great productions, was killed in a car accident in Scotland last week. It’s a huge loss for Chicago theater.
Timeline Theatre creates a little bit of London and adds a backstory in Mosul, Iraq, in its new play Inana by Michele Lowe. The story, set in February 2003, is about a museum curator who wants to protect the art and culture of his institution from the looming U.S. invasion. Inana is a 3000-year-old statue of the goddess of love and war; the statue was damaged in an earlier attack. As I said in my review, Inana reminds us that sometimes Americans are the barbarians at the gates. The 90-minute play runs through July 26.
AstonRep: Les Liaisons Dangereuses
This play was adapted from an 18th century French novel that displayed the decadence and arrogance of the aristocracy just before the 1789 Revolution. AstonRep made a gutsy move in taking it on and for the most part, it’s a decent production in the smaller space at Raven Theater. However, the director for some reason decided to set it in 1917 Russia, before that revolution. On the surface, that could add an interesting political twist to the production, except the execution wasn’t carried out very well. It’s still 18th century France in costuming and setting with a few Russian touches. Here’s my review, which notes the memorable 1988 film, Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich, from the same literary source. The AstonRep show runs until June 21.
One lovely film: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014, 124 minutes)
Clouds is an interesting, complex and beautifully filmed story about art, aging and celebrity. Olivier Assayas directs this film, which stars Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Here’s my mini-review on Letterboxd. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography of the Swiss Alps is incredibly beautiful. I gave it four stars out of five. It’s in theaters now.
Kafkaesque comedy by Martin Scorcese: After Hours (1985, 97 minutes)
After Hours is 12 nightmare hours in the life of Paul, a word-processor in 1980s New York. Paul’s interest in getting acquainted with a pretty girl in Soho turns into a nightlong quest to just get home. His $20 bill blows out a taxi window, then he can’t take the subway because the fare increased an hour ago. He’s seduced by women, taken for a burglar, chased through the streets by a mob, and encased in a paper-mache sculpture. Is it Kafkaesque? Yes and it’s hilariously funny. It has a film noir quality too. It’s available on DVD.
The hardest working musician….
As I write this, I’m listening to and half watching a June 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert, London Calling: Live in Hyde Park in London. It’s relevant here (but when isn’t Springsteen relevant?) because his music celebrates and mourns for the working class (and he’s the hardest working musician I know). When Bruce comes out on stage in the afternoon in bright sunlight, he’s wearing a light gray-green shirt with jeans and motorcycle boots. By the time he’s singing “Night” (“you work 9 to 5 and somehow you survive until the night”), the third song on the setlist, his shirt is dark with sweat all around his arms and shoulders.
Three songs later, he’s singing “Johnny 99” (a guy who loses his job and gets in bad trouble), and now his shirt is half dark and half light and his hair is soaked with sweat. (If you’ve never seen a Springsteen concert, I have to tell you that he doesn’t just stand in front of a microphone and sing. He’s all over the stage, down on the platform in front of the crowd in the pit. Sometimes he does a backbend off the microphone and at least once he jumps up on the piano to dance. And by the ninth song, “Youngstown,” a labor anthem, the shirt is fully soaked and dark with sweat and it’s dusk at Hyde Park.
But he’s only one-third through the concert, which goes on for hours more. The DVD is almost three hours but he performed for much longer. You can get a feeling for the flow of the concert and the madness of a Springsteen crowd from this trailer. (The guy who joins him near the end for “No Surrender” is Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem.)
Last week I saw two masterpieces of 20th century theater by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright and leftwing political activist. (I‘m a fan on both counts.) The two shows were extremely different in production values but demonstrated the power of performance.
I attended Goodman Theatre’s The Little Foxes on opening night and reviewed it for Gapers Block. (My review also appears on culturevulture.net and berkshirefinearts.com, by the way.) It was an excellent production with a sumptuous set and gorgeous, richly detailed costuming, especially the women’s gowns. As I said in my review, the production “stars a galaxy of Chicago’s finest actors and surely resonates with some of the current discussions about racism, sexism, domestic abuse and income inequality.”
The venal Hubbard siblings (Regina, Oscar and Ben) who fight over the family legacy and the spoils of a new cotton mill are played by Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering and Larry Yando. John Judd plays Horace, Regina’s husband, and Mary Beth Fisher plays Oscar’s sweet and abused wife Birdie. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The nearly three-hour play (with two intermissions) is not only a visual treat; it’s gripping from beginning to end.
On Saturday afternoon, the Goodman presented an amazing one-time only event; a free performance of a reading of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, which is set in 1900 and was first produced in 1939. Another Part of the Forest is set in 1880 and was written in 1946. Both are set in a town in rural Alabama and are based on Hellman’s own family story.
The reading was held in a rehearsal room on the second floor of the theater and held probably 60 or 70 seats at the most. (Needless to say, it was a capacity crowd.)
It was a plain vanilla reading, not a staged reading where there is some blocking and action. The actors all had their scripts on paper and usually stood at music stands at the front of the stage area. When they weren’t reading, they sat on folding chairs at the rear.
The most significant thing about the reading is that the 12-member cast was fully equivalent to that in the fully staged production. The acting was superb with attention to accents, vocal intonations, gestures and expressions. Some of Chicago’s finest actors were here too (none of them from the cast of The Little Foxes). Deanna Dunagan (you saw her as the mother in August: Osage County) plays Lavinia Hubbard, the siblings’ mother, whose fading memory comes through in the end. The always superb Larry Neumann Jr. read the part of Marcus Hubbard, the father who made a lot of money during the recent war, trading with the enemy (the Union forces). That’s the real source of the siblings’ later wealth. Neumann is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times. He played the doctor in the legendary Famous Door production of the two-part Cider House Rules, Richard Nickel in Lookingglass’ production of They All Fell Down: The Richard Nickel Story; and Samuel Finkelbaum in Writers Theatre’s The Puppetmaster of Lodz.
John Hoogenakker gave an excellent reading as Ben, the younger version of the character played by Larry Yando. (You may have seen Hoogenakker on TV in Chicago Fire or Empire or in Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh or Other Desert Cities. Steppenwolf’s Tim Hopper (Marie Antoinette, The Night Alive, Russian Transport) played John Bagtry, Birdie’s brother and the young Regina’s sweetheart.
I thought perhaps Goodman would abbreviate Another Part of the Forest, but no, the full script was performed: almost three hours with two intermissions. The story was gripping from beginning to end and proved that great actors make you forget what they’re wearing or what the scenery behind them looks like.
The Little Foxes continues at the Goodman Theatre until June 7. Sorry you missed the prequel. Also you can find 1940s film versions of both plays.
Lillian Hellman’s South—It’s really about the economy
Hellman based these two plays on the stories of her southern family, so there are some economic parallels. My published review of The Little Foxes emphasizes the economic aspects of the story, which make the play richer than just a family melodrama, as it’s usually characterized. I wrote:
Hellman’s play is set in 1900 “when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn’t happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.”
Now I’m not an economist, but I do have one on call. However, as a resource here I’m going to call on a poet instead. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body, the stirring book-length verse narrative of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as the Hubbards would call it). Benet’s poem, published in 1927, characterizes the war as preparing the South for its future as part of industrial America, but his prediction is about 75 years off. After 372 pages of the romantic saga of the war, its soldiers, victims, fictional characters, and Abraham Lincoln’s death, Benet wrote this in his optimistic conclusion:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
Bury the whip, bury the branding bars,
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The last foray of aristocracy
Based not on dollars or initiative
Or any blood for what the blood was worth
But on a certain code, a manner of birth.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel,
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Out of John Brown’s strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grow,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
Rivet and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light….
Benet’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. It’s not really great literature, because it’s rather uneven and not a little melodramatic. But it’s a great way to read the Civil War story. The book is out of print, but you can buy copies online.
Going to the theater is a treat that never grows old for me. Here are some of the plays I’ve seen recently, most of which were excellent.
The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre
This is a captivating production and a perfect example of the rich quality of Chicago storefront theater. Great direction, great acting, great staging. It’s a 70-minute play and you will enjoy every minute. Here’s how my review begins:
“The stage is set. Three claw-footed bathtubs. The kind your grandmother had. Props: Three scrub buckets, newspapers and a tea set. Costumes: Bridal gowns and veils, usually sopping wet.
“If this doesn’t sound like a promising start for a night at the theater, The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre will quickly change your mind. The play is a beautifully performed, balletic story of an English serial killer in the 19th century, who swindled from and then drowned his three wives. Actually, it’s the entrancing story of the three wives, who perform all the parts in the play from the brides submerged in their tubs to the husband(s), parents, lawyers, judge, reporters and scrubwomen.”
You can see The Drowning Girls through June 6. Signal is at 1802 W. Berenice, near the intersection of Irving Park and Ravenswood. See my review for details.
Three Sisters at The Hypocrites
Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets an excellent production from the always-interesting Hypocrites. It’s a fairly traditional staging except the color palette is used in a very inventive way. Director Geoff Button adapted the script to use more contemporary language without trivializing it. My review describes the story this way:
“The eponymous Prosorov sisters lead the excellent 14-person cast in a story that progresses over several years in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. The sisters, all in their 20s, yearn to move back to Moscow, which they left 11 years ago when their father assumed the command of a brigade in the rural area. Now their father is dead and the town (and their social life) is dominated by the presence of the military base and its officers.”
The play is 2 hours, 20 minutes, and runs through June 6 in the Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
Side Man at American Blues Theater
This is a fine production of Warren Leight’s Tony-award winning play, Side Man. It was first produced at Steppenwolf in the 1999-2000 season and I tried to keep that excellent production out of my thoughts and not let it affect my review of this production. This is a memory play about the jazz musicians—trumpet players—who were riding high in the 1940s and ‘50s before the rise of rock and roll. The story focuses on the career and family of one particular side man. His son takes us back and forth in time from the moment his parents met through their present difficult period.
Side Man runs two hours and continues through May 24 at American Blues Theater, staged at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue. There’s live jazz played on stage before the performance begins.
Between You, Me and the Lampshade at Teatro Vista
This new play about immigration and family issues by Raul Castillo runs through this Sunday at Victory Gardens/Biograph Richard Christiansen Theater (the upstairs space at VG). The 100-minute play (with one intermission) is well written with lively dialogue. My Gapers Block review says:
“Between You, Me and the Lampshade is an entertaining and poignant story told by an excellent cast under the capable direction of artistic director Ricardo Gutierrez. Original music and sound design by Victoria Deiorio create an authentic sound landscape for the story. Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scene design is very much an aging trailer interior, including the turquoise kitchen.”
I recommend it. Take Mom on Sunday. Or take yourself.
Ghost Gardens at Chicago Dramatists
Ghost Gardens, a new play by Steven Simoncic, explores “how people in a dying community fight to overcome grief, illness, hopelessness, and air poisoned by a giant local corporation.” The play, set in Detroit, has certain charms and a couple of good performances, but it can’t overcome the fact that the script is rambling and disjointed. I wish I could recommend it. My Gapers Block review is here.
Ghost Gardens continues through May 31 at Chicago Dramatists on Chicago Avenue near Milwaukee.
The Herd at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The Herd by Rory Kinnear is a story about several generations of an English suburban family who have a severely disabled child. The play looks at how different generations deal with the issues of parenthood and disability. Frank Galati directs an excellent cast of mostly Steppenwolf ensemble members, including John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Molly Regan and Francis Guinan. The writing is witty and tender and gets to the heart of these family matters. I didn’t review this, but you can check out other reviews here.
Running time for The Herd is 100 minutes. You can see it—and you should—until June 7.
First of all, two music documentaries, The Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals, both about the stories behind the music you see on stage or hear on a recording. And both great movies. (But then, you know I love rock docs.)
The Wrecking Crew, 2015, 100 minutes
The Wrecking Crew, directed by Denny Tedesco, is the glorious story of the session musicians who backed up many of the hits you love from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (even though you might have come to love that music only recently). The group of 20 or so musicians played in varying combinations behind the hits recorded by the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Mamas and the Papas, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Monkees and many more. They made Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound sound like a wall of sound.
The group dubbed The Wrecking Crew played on all these hits: “Be My Baby,” “California Girls,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Mrs. Robinson;” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’“ “Up, Up and Away;” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Six years in a row in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Grammy for Record of the Year went to Wrecking Crew member recordings.
Some of the musicians, like Glen Campbell, went on to perform in their own names and become famous. But most were talented musicians you never heard of, such as drummer Hall Blaine, tenor player Plas Johnson (you hear his saxophone on the theme song from The Pink Panther); guitarist Barney Kessel; pianist Don Randi; and electric bass player Carol Kaye.
And the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, father of the director and the inspiration for the film. Tedesco senior was a fabulous musician and the film shows him in many stages of his life, playing many different kinds of music. Seeing how he earned his living (a very good living) as an almost-anonymous but essential musician, inspired his son to record the story of the Wrecking Crew, the name they gave themselves after people said they were wrecking the music business.
It was great to see Carol Kaye, known as one of the greatest bass players in the world at the time, in interviews and performance, both then and now. She said a lot of women were playing in jazz and music clubs in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Sometimes she would play many gigs in one day. And she proves she still rocks in the solos she plays in the film.
The Wrecking Crew was a Los Angeles-based group. Up until then, the music business was considered to be based in New York in the iconic Brill Building. But the Wrecking Crew pulled the business west.
The film is made up of music clips from the time and interviews with musicians then and now, plus interviews with figures such as the late Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Cher, Nancy Sinatra and Leon Russell.
The Wrecking Crew was actually finished in 2008 and shown on festival circuits. But it couldn’t be shown commercially until Tedesco raised a pile of money to pay for licensing 100 hit songs used in the film. He finally succeeded with a Kickstarter campaign in which 4,245 backers pledged $313,157.
The film is running at least through next week at Landmark Century Centre. If you’re a music lover get to the theater now because it may not run much longer. There were a lot of musicians in the theater the day I saw it. I could tell by the jokes they laughed at.
Muscle Shoals, 2013, 110 minutes
What is Muscle Shoals? It’s just a little village on the Alabama border. But so much great music came out of it. No one can exactly explain why. Jimmy Cliff said, “At certain points in time on this planet, the are places where there’s a field of energy. At this time, there was Muscle Shoals.” Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary about FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
There was a certain Muscle Shoals sound. It was its own kind of R&B, different than Detroit, different than Memphis. U2’s Bono gives the river the credit. There’s the Mersey sound in Liverpool, then there’s the Mississippi and the Delta blues. Here it’s the Tennessee River. Bono thinks it must be that the sound comes out of the mud. But there was also something about the sound of the room that made it magical. (Dave Grohl says the same thing about the room they recorded in at Sound City, in his documentary of the same name.)
Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier describes the sound as a “funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove.” Some of the musicians who recorded there were Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys and Steve Winwood.
Rick Hall was the founder of FAME Studios who overcame the poverty of the area in the 1970s to establish the recording studio with a house band known as the Swampers. It was the Muscle Shoals rhythm section—guitar, bass guitar, keyboard and drums. In the heart of Alabama during the Jim Crow era, Hall established Muscle Shoals as an integrated musical operation with no color distinctions between black and white musicians.
It’s an inspiring musical story and like The Wrecking Crew, features interviews with musicians as well as a chance to hear the music they made.
The film Muscle Shoals is available on DVD and it’s streaming on Netflix.
And two other films of interest
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (99 minutes) is a film that has gotten some buzz as “an Iranian vampire western.” Well, okay, it is about a vampire but she only attacks men who mistreat women. It’s really a very fine film, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, and set in a fictional Iranian ghost town known as Bad City. (It’s shot in Bakersfield, Calif.) The cast is Iranian-American actors speaking Farsi. There’s a sweet love story about two lonely people, one of whom happens to be the hijab-wearing vampire, beautifully played by Sheila Vand. Her boyfriend is played by Arash Marandi, on whom I developed a crush by the end of the film. The cinematography is high-contrast black-and-white, mostly shot at night in industrial-type settings. The story is engrossing and I will probably watch it again. If I was giving stars, I’d give it 4 out of 5.
Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (70 minutes) is a 3D film that should be seen in 3D. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I strongly recommend you don’t watch it that way. I missed it when it was showing in 3D at the Gene Siskel Center and I’m sorry I did. I watched it last night on my lovely big TV screen. Don’t repeat my mistake. The film is experimental and kind of nonlinear and just looks strange in 2D. But at least it’s short.