Stage and screen reviews + a little rock ‘n’ roll

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)

GB-TheProject(s)_4womenAmerican 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: Inana

GB-Inana-YasinwithstatueTimeline 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.)


Movie reviews: Two great rock docs (+ two more films)

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.

wreckingcrewlogoMany of the musicians came out of jazz and learned to play rock and roll on the job. Rock and roll was a dirty word then, but there was little money to be made playing jazz.

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.


The Power of Music: John Hammond, Robert Johnson and Bruce Springsteen

You may never have heard of John Hammond. But if you’re a music fan or a civil rights supporter, you know he’s a major figure of the 20th century. Radiolab, the WNYC program, did a show this week titled “The Power of Music” and almost half of it was devoted to the work of Hammond, the civil rights activist and A&R executive (artists and repertoire or talent scout) for Columbia Records. During the course of his long career, Hammond, who came from a wealthy family (he had a Vanderbilt in his past), discovered and launched the careers of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And dozens more.

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Hammond was instrumental in bringing the music of African-American performers out of the “race music” ghetto they languished in for decades. Early in his career, he organized the first Carnegie Hall concert to feature black musicians—in December 1938. One of the musicians he wanted to feature was Robert Johnson, the legendary backwoods Mississippi blues master. When he learned that Johnson had died recently, he played some of his music by hooking up a turntable to the Carnegie Hall sound system. The Radiolab segment titled “Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar” explores the legend about Hammond and Robert Johnson and the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist. Radiolab comes to the spooky conclusion that there might have been more than one Robert Johnson. It’s a compelling piece of radio.

Robert Johnson died at 27 in about 1938 (or 1939 or 1941). His music inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influencer at its first induction in 1986. He’s often credited as the songwriter of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

440px-Bruce_Springsteen_-_Roskilde_Festival_2012This weekend I watched an old documentary about that New Jersey musician who Hammond signed to Columbia in 1972. Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was made in 1995 when the band got together in a studio in New York to record a Greatest Hits album. Seeing the band 20 years younger was a visual shock. Their current personas are indelibly imprinted on my brain because I saw them so many times during recent tours. Today, yes, they’re older, grayer, balder, but they seem to be more fit and energized. Many of the band members in ’95 look a little pudgy and scruffy. Even Bruce, who today looks trim, even skinny, in tight black jeans, was a bit fleshy. And the beards make a huge difference. At first I didn’t recognize some of the band members under their hirsuteness. Garry Tallent, the bass player, and Roy Bittan, the pianist, looked very different. And so did Bruce.

The reunion was the first time the band had played together in 11 years and you could see how happy and excited they were to be together again. The power of music took them to great heights in recording the 18 songs for the album. The film shows the effort and creativity involved in getting the album made. Producer Chuck Plotkin and manager Jon Landau work closely together. Bruce is rewriting lyrics on a yellow pad and taking votes for the photo on the CD cover. Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg are writing lyrics or notations or arrangements, as they’re getting ready to record.

The songs “Blood Brothers,” “Secret Garden,” “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” are some of the new tracks on that album. The film shows each of them being worked out with instrumentation changing until Bruce, the perfectionist, is satisfied. The final section shows the music video of “Murder” (directed by Jonathan Demme) being filmed in front of an audience of fans at Tramps in New York.

If you’re interested in learning more about John Hammond, there are several biographies. This book by Dunstan Prial looks like a good choice and I’m going to read it soon. For more info on Robert Johnson, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.


February reviews: Everything has a music theme


Celebrating a Springsteen Birthday: How Can This Man Be 65?

Yes, my favorite rocker has turned 65 and his Chicago-area fans celebrated with words and music last weekend at Fitzgerald’s, the blues/jazz/rock club in Berwyn. A soldout crowd of 100 filled the comfy Sidecar music room. Musicians led by guitarist Bucky Halker played solos, duets and other configurations of Springsteen music, including some rarities. But they weren’t playing covers; they were reinterpreting Springsteen’s music in interesting ways. June Sawyers and I contributed “literary” readings about Springsteen.

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Other musicians were Don Stiernberg on mandolin, Al Rose on guitar, Andrea Bunch on keyboards and guitar, John Mead on guitar, and John Abbey on upright bass. Rose did a fiery version of “Spirit in the Night” and Halker’s “Racing in the Street” and “State Trooper” were other highlights.

June read historical and profile pieces about the birthday honoree. I read* an excerpt from his SXSW keynote speech and suggested to Bruce “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Retire.” The group played “John Henry” as the closer.

Photos by Kaitlynn Stanger.

 * If you’re interested in receiving my readings, please leave a comment on this site with your email. Let me know which reading you want, and I’ll be happy to send it along.

Birthday tribute setlist:

State Trooper
Ghost of Tom Joad
None But the Brave
This Hard Land
Stolen Car
Growin’ Up
For You
Fire
Racing in the Street
Factory
Born to Run
Youngstown
Hard Times
Spirit in the Night
She’s the One
Thunder Road
Nebraska
Atlantic City
John Henry


Jersey Boys: It could have been a rock and roll joy ride

At this moment, I’m sitting in the Providence airport, waiting for my delayed flight home after spending two weeks on the shore in Connecticut. That’s why I haven’t posted anything recently at Nancy’s Journal. While I was there, I saw and reviewed Clint Eastwood’s film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical.  The film is showing on some Chicago screens, and here’s my review.

Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical about kids who found a way out of their deadend lives through music: a rock and roll escape route. The 1950s and ‘60s pop music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—with songs like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—makes this otherwise mediocre film a pleasurable musical experience.

Jersey_Boys_Poster

“Jersey Boys” poster courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jersey Boys tells the story in semi-documentary style of the kids who grew up on the streets of New Jersey in towns like Newark and Belleville. There was no way out of the deadend lives their parents lived as barbers, laborers or tradesmen—unless you hooked up with the mob or became a superstar. Becoming the next Frank Sinatra was every Jersey boy’s dream in the 1950s.

Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) forms a trio (between prison stints) but the band is going nowhere, playing small clubs and banquet halls. They need a strong lead singer. Tommy finds Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), who has a powerful falsetto voice, and asks him to join the band. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the bass player, rounds out the quartet.

The group plays under different names, including The Four Lovers and The Romans, but their career still flounders—until they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter and keyboard player they need. The boys rename themselves The Four Seasons.

Desperate for a record contract, they meet Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a producer at the iconic Brill Building, where so many recording careers start. Tommy, who considers himself the band’s business manager, uses some sketchy connections to borrow the money they need for a recording session. They get help from their consigliore, Gyp DeCarlo (the marvelously eccentric Christopher Walken) and their first records are produced.

Brill-Building_(NY)

The Brill Building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Sherry” is their first #1 single, followed by several more million-selling hits. Frankie Valli (who has now changed his name) and the Four Seasons play big-time clubs and venues and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The boys think they are rich, but all is not well on the business front. They’ve made the mistake of letting Tommy manage the band with no advisers paying attention to the contracts they sign. (Or don’t sign. The “New Jersey contract” is a handshake.)

The Four Seasons took the same path followed by many young musicians in the days before they learned they needed lawyers and business managers who worked for them. The Chess brothers in Chicago lured Mississippi bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to sign contracts that gave them fancy cars and minimal royalties. (Hence, the nickname for Chess Records was Cadillac Records.) Young musicians like the Beatles in the 1960s and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s were taken advantage of by their managers, earned modest record incomes, and lost the publishing rights to their own music for decades.

Despite their recording success, the Four Seasons split up when Gaudio and Valli decide they can make more progress and better creative decisions on their own. (They formed the Four Seasons Partnership, which still controls the assets of the band.)

Family traumas and tragedies fill out the story of the band and its music. In one final scene, we see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (aged, in badly done makeup), reunited in 1990 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the film credits roll, the band members and entire cast engage in a street dancing scene, including faux curtain calls.

Director Clint Eastwood has chosen to give the film a look of faded glitter and glamour and the acting doesn’t add to the luster of the film. John Lloyd Young as Valli is wooden and generally expressionless. Piazza is livelier as Tommy and makes you believe that he might be able to talk himself out of trouble. Bergen’s Gaudio character is at first quiet and serious as a musician and he was probably the most intelligent of the four—and proved it by engineering the split and partnership with Valli.

Valli and Gaudio are among the executive producers of Jersey Boys and are reported to have had total control over the film. But they’re musicians. How could they forget to do a sound check? The sound quality of the film is below average and that spoils its best feature.

Still, the 2.25 hour film is worth seeing if you want to listen to the jukebox of the 1960s. As a rock and roll escape route, Jersey Boys can’t find its way down the New Jersey turnpike.

 

 

 

 


Road trip: Bruce, BBQ and E Street Radio

It’s 470 miles from Chicago to Nashville, down I-65, the spine of Indiana, around Louisville and then on to Nashville. That was our road trip last week to see Bruce Springsteen at the Bridgestone Arena. It was a sold-out show with 18,000 ecstatic fans welcoming Bruce home after his years in the European and Asia Pacific wilderness.

The concert was fabulous—a 3.25 hour E Street Band performance with classics like “I’m on Fire” and “Downbound Train” and beautifully sorrowful songs like “The Wall” from the new High Hopes album. The whole horn section was up front for “Johnny 99.” I thought he was through after rousing encore versions of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and “Shout” and final band thanks. I was hoping for a live version of “Dream Baby Dream,” but he waved away the pump organ and played a solo acoustic “Thunder Road,” letting the crowd lead him in a singalong. A great ending.

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You can read a report on the concert and see the full setlist on my favorite Springsteen site, backstreets.com. Scroll down to the Nashville report.

Update: I have to add this comment by Mosley Turner, who reviewed the April 26 Atlanta concert for Backstreets. “Bruce has received — and earned — virtually every honor and accolade there is, in addition to the unswerving loyalty of the E Street fans. This is a man with not a thing left to prove, yet he delivered a performance tonight as though everything was at stake, fully invested in every lyric and every note. While there will always be those who will say ‘you shoulda been there’ for a particular tour or some special moment, no one who sees Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band right now could come away feeling that they did not see them at a peak in their long and storied career.”

In our 18 hours on the road, food and music were the main topics. We had live downloads of concerts from Cape Town, South Africa, and Hunter Valley, Australia, to listen to, plus E Street Radio on Sirius all the way.

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

Townhouse Cafe, Seymour, Indiana

On the way south, we picked Seymour, Indiana, as our lunch stopping point as a hat-tip to John Mellencamp, who was born there. I remembered breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches from a college year in Iowa; I had recently learned they’re an Indiana favorite too. So we found the Townhouse Cafe in Seymour, a homey place said to serve the best tenderloin sandwich in Indiana. Well, it was delicious and huge and since I don’t engage in food porn, I didn’t take a photo. Our server had worked there for 20 years and I quizzed her about Mellencamp, whose framed album cover of Scarecrow was hanging over the counter. Yes, she remembered one time when he came in alone and she didn’t recognize him at first; he was a gentleman to serve and talk to.

The morning after the concert with both of us sleep-deprived, we headed north and picked up I-65. Wanting to get around Louisville before lunch, I picked New Albany, Indiana, as a lunch stop. (I lived in Louisville in the ‘80s working for KFC so the territory was familiar.)

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

Feast BBQ, New Albany, Indiana

This time we were yearning for barbecue and found Feast BBQ in New Albany not too far off the highway. We skipped the bourbon and beer, their other specialties, and had amazing brisket sandwiches. Truly, it was the best smoked brisket I’ve ever had and I would go back tonight if it wasn’t a five hour drive. We talked to the owner and he divulged some secrets about how they smoke their meat. Since I’m not planning on smoking meat in my highrise apartment, I didn’t take notes.

Yes, a road trip in a fast car with great music and food stops is a good thing now and then. When I had small children, I dreaded road trips. But they’re an occasional pleasure now. I’m not ready to get back in the car yet, but I’m sure I will be, further on up the road….

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