Wednesday, July 8, 2020

American Experience: “The Vote,” part 2 (PBS, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the second half of a PBS American Experience documentary on the women’s suffrage movement. I had missed the first half on Monday due to a late work shift, and I suspect that one would have been a lot more interesting since it would have focused on the decades-long history of the movement and how the women’s movement grew out of the abolitionist movement and the disgust women abolitionists felt about being treated like second-class members of of a movement proudly proclaiming that all men were created equal. This portion dealt almost exclusively with the last five years of the original suffrage movement, from 1915  to 1920, and the division within the suffrage movement of whether to continue to push for suffrage state-by-state or seek a national constitutional amendment. The most interesting part of the story was the beneficial conflict between Carrie Chapman Katt, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (the awkward name having resulted from the fact that there’d been a National Association and an American Association until the two merged) and practitioner of electoral organizing and lobbying; and Alice Paul, who essentially was to Katt what Malcolm X was to Martin Luther King. The legend is that the one time King and Malcolm actually met, Makclm told him, “It’s because of people like me that they listen to people like you” (though Malcolm was so aware of the antagonism both he and King were arousing in white people that when he was writing his autobiography he correctly predicted both he and King would be assassinated!), and it was Paul who was behind the extended suffragist pickets outside the White House in 1916-1917 to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to come out for suffrage. Paul and her direct-action pickets went through a lot of the vicious treatment that’s been meted out by the U.S. government to nonviolent protesters ever since: they were arrested, given relatively long prison sentences (as the government became increasingly determined to “break” the suffragists the sentences went up from a few dais to 30 days, then 60 days, then 120 days, then six or seven months), rough treatment and hunger strikes the authorities responded to by force-feeding Paul and the other women. There were also anti-suffrage women (essentially the Phyllis Schlaflys of their day), though the main opposition to suffrage came from Southern Democrats who were concerned about anything that might extend the franchise for fear that if white women were allowed to vote, Black women would be allowed to as well; Northern machine politicians who wanted a nice, safe, predictable electorate and didn’t relish the idea of having to rejigger their machines to handle twice the previous numbers of voters, and — a huge source of opposition to suffrage and the principal financial supporters of the anti-suffrage campaign — the alcoholic-beverage industry. 

One of the things people don’t understand about the suffragists is that many of them were ardent Prohibitionists — with an idealism that overcame common sense on this point, the suffragists looked at how many working-class men spent their paychecks at the local saloon, leaving their wives wondering how they were going to feed the family the next week with no money, and they thought Prohibition would end, or at least make a major dent in, urban poverty. They also thought Prohibition would end domestic violence, since they thought the only reason a man would beat the wife he presumably loved was because the booze was making him do it. One of the promos for this show contained a photo of an anti-suffrage demonstrator carrying a sign that bluntly read, “Suffrage = Prohibition.” I’ve pointed out at some of the annual suffrage picnics held to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment (featuring local activists dressed in late 19th century costumes impersonating the great suffragist leaders) that it was historically inauthentic for them to serve wine at these events, and instead they should be serving lemonade, the beverage both suffragists and Prohibitionists thought should take the place of alcohol as America’s ceremonial “toast” drink. Ironically, the Prohibition amendment, the 18th, zipped through Congress and got far more than the requisite two-thirds votes in both houses, while the suffrage amendment barely squeaked through by two votes in the House and one in the Senate. Then the necessary ratification in three-fourths of the states took over a year and came down to, of all places, Tennessee, where it looked like it was going to go down to defeat in the Tennessee state senate until one suffrage opponent received a letter from his mother that said, essentially, “Be a good little boy and vote to give women the franchise.” That led one other senator who’d avoided casting a recorded vote to put in his “aye” at the last minute — literally. This reminded me of the preposterous vote at the Diet of Worms (the name sounds silly but “Diet” means a legislative assembly and “Worms” was the name of the city in Germany where it took place) in which the 63 cardinals then in office in the Roman Catholic Church met in solemn conclave and debated whether women were people. By a vote of 32 to 31, the church voted that they were — so the fight over suffrage in the U.S. followed the pattern from the Diet of Worms of women winning human rights by razor-thin margins. 

The explanatory material mentions that not all women got the vote in 1920 — the states in the South that had long perfected constitutionally sneaky ways to deny Black men the vote did the same with Black women (remember the opening scene in the film Selma in which Oprah Winfrey, in a cameo role as a Black woman trying to register to vote in the early 1960’s, is shown a giant jar of jelly beans and told that she can only register if she can come up with the exact number of jelly beans in the jar) — and also that only about one-third of the newly enfranchised women who were allowed to vote in the 1920 Presidential election actually did so. What it doesn’t mention is that women’s participation in the electorate lagged behind men’s for another 40 years or so — and in the 1940’s a number of political scientists argued that women simply weren’t that interested in politics and their rightful “sphere” was in the home, keeping house and raising the children (much the same sexist nonsense that had been used all along by suffrage opponents) — until the 1960’s, when voter turnout among U.S. women finally caught up with turnout among men and the political scientists finally realized what had happened: the women who had grown up before the 19th Amendment was passed and who weren’t accustomed to being able to vote had died off and been replaced by younger age cohorts who had grown up in a country where women had always (at least in their lifetimes) been able to vote. I have long believed that one of the most stupid things we as a species have ever done to ourselves has been to slight, ignore or repress the insights, talents and skills of over one-half the human population simply because of some slight differences in reproductive plumbing.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Driven to the Edge (MarVista Entertainment, Cut 4 Productions, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on the TV for last night’s Lifetime “premiere” — once again, Lifetime isn’t providing advance notice of who’s in this film (aside from the two leading actors) or who the behind-the-scenes personnel were, though I was able to scrawl some all too often illegible names on a slip of paper and also reference for a previous production by the same writer-director, Chris Sivertson. The film was called Driven to the Edge — the title was a pun because the principal character was a psychopathic woman, Jaye (I think Amanda Grace Benitez played her, but so little information exists online on this film I can’t be sure), who drives for a fictitious ride-share company called “Roller.” (Charles joked that if “Roller” was a real-life company this film would have been bankrolled by the real-life Uber company to scare people away from “Roller” and thereby drive them out of business.) Jaye gets her kicks by locking the doors of people unlucky enough to get into her car — she has so-called “child locks” that prevent people from opening her car doors from inside unless she pushes a control button to unlock them — and jamming their cell phones so they can’t call the police or anyone else for help.

Then she takes them to deserted locations, tortures them psychologically and physically, and kills them, while her omnipresent security cameras (which record audio as well as video — Charles said no real security cameras record audio, but I daresay there are probably a few high-end ones that come with microphones to capture sounds as well as sights), including the one concealed inside her shades as well as the ones she’s got wired in her two homes (a mansion she grabbed from her estranged husband Myles and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — a deserted mountain cabin), so she can play back recordings of her murders and therefore get her rocks off all over again. (A surprising number of these sickos — including pedophiles — record their actions, and often the police recover the recordings and they become the primary evidence against them.) The opening scene shows a young (straight, though the guy looked so effeminate at first I thought they were Lesbians) couple making the mistake of necking in Jaye’s car, leading her to take them to her mansion and clobber both of them with a baseball bat (Jaye’s favorite — but not exclusive — means of murder, for reasons we don’t learn until the last few minutes, along with the rest of What Makes Jaye Run). At first I thought she was going to turn out to be a highly “moralistic” psycho driven to kill people who dare do sexually raunchy things in her car — which would quite frankly have made for a much better movie than the one we actually got.

Then we meet her principal victim, a young woman named Tess (Taylor Spreitler) whom Jaye attaches herself to and, though Sivertson’s script makes clear she’s not interested in making Tess her lover (even though they end up spending one night together in bed, non-sexually, in the mansion) but wants her as a sort of protégé. Tess is supposed to own her own fashion business (though the clothes costume designer Morgan DeGroff put her in are either impractical or downright ugly), though all we see of her at work is her crouching on the floor of her studio with large, curved pieces of paper that are supposed to represent a pattern) and Jaye tells people she sells real estate (which she doesn’t). The cast of characters is oddly claustrophobic: besides Tess and Jaye, the only other important people in the movie are Tess’s friends Isaac and Olive (the sort of O.K.-looking but nerdy people you expect to see as second leads in a Lifetime movie), who met when he picked her up in a ride-share car and started dating (at one point Isaac talks about inventing a combination ride-share and dating app); Tess’s out-of-town boyfriend Danny (not a bad-looking guy but not that drop-dead gorgeous, either); and Myles, who comes on the scene in mid-movie after Tess is leaving Jaye’s mansion following her weird sleepover and confronts her, and who later gets offed by Jaye when he threatens to give away her secret that she’s really a ride-share driver and not a real-estate broker. (Why Jaye seems so worried that people will find that out about her and not that she’s a serial killer is one of the many stupid plot holes in Sivertson’s script.)

As the movie progresses (like a disease), Jaye offs Isaac and Myles with her omnipresent baseball bat and stabs Danny repeatedly (in an unusually gory and explicit scene for a Lifetime movie) with a shiv she’s made from a toothbrush handle. She also kidnaps Olive and holds her hostage — though through much of the movie we’re led to believe that she’s killed her, too — and at the end Jaye tricks Tess into coming out to that deserted mountain cabin and tells her that Olive has pleaded with Jaye to kill Tess instead of her (sort of like Winston Smith betraying his girlfriend Julia in Room 101 at the end of George Orwell’s 1984) and Tess should therefore kill Olive instead while Jaye has her conveniently tied up and available to strangle (since Jaye is smart enough not to trust Tess with the baseball bat). In the end Tess and Olive subdue Jaye and flee, but not before we get [spoiler alert!] as much of Jaye’s origin story as Sivertson is going to give us. It seems that when Jaye was still a girl, her mother got her to kill her abusive father by, you guessed it, clubbing him to death with a baseball bat as he slept, on the idea that the cops (who literally never exist in this movie — we don’t see any law enforcement personnel or any hint that the successive disappearances of members of a small circle of friends attract any attention from the authorities at all; this reminded me of the preposterous Bela Lugosi Monogram vehicle The Invisible Ghost from 1941, in which for some reason Lugosi’s character is never suspected of a string of murders even though all the victims are his servants), and as if that weren’t preposterous enough, Jaye also tells Tess that she’s Jaye’s younger sister, separated from her and reared elsewhere (the only “plant” for that was an earlier passing reference to Tess having been adopted), though I’m still trying to figure out whether Sivertson meant that to be story reality or just one more of Jaye’s lies.

Sivertson does attempt to give Jaye’s character some points of interest, including hearing an incoherent babble of voices in her head (at least he didn’t do the Son of Sam number and have her hallucinate that her dog was telling her to kill people!) and having done an impressive amount of research on previous female serial killers. But in the end this is one more Lifetime movie that’s done in by its sheer improbability, and it’s yet another movie in which the director is also the writer and therefore has no one but himself to blame. Indeed, I wish Sivertson had had another director on the project — a second voice to tell him, “Don’t you think you’re really overdoing this?” Charles put it into the bad-movie-that-could-have been good, and it does have its points — among them some quite effective neo-Gothic cinematography by Chris Heinrich and an O.K. performance by Benitez or whoever is playing the psycho (she’s particularly effective at making the character convincingly butch in some scenes and feminine in others). But overall it’s yet another confirmation of Hitchcock’s Law: Alfred Hitchcock never made another whodunit after his early talkie Murder! (1930) and for the rest of his career he preferred stories in which he would let the audience know up front who was who and what was really going on, while the suspense would come from how and when the characters would find out, and what would happen to them when they did. Sivertson played part of the Hitchcock game in Driven to the Edge — at least he let us know Jaye was a psycho from the moment we saw her — but when Hitchcock did this sort of story in Psycho he took his time to let us know Norman Bates was a murderer but gave away his motive (like Jaye, Norman had been induced by his mom to kill his dad and that had permanently warped his brain) considerably earlier, to much better effect.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

40th Anniversary “A Capitol Fourth” Concert (PBS-TV, WETA, aired July 4, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the evening on the Fourth of July 2020 watching some interesting programming on KPBS: an early (1985) Ken Burns documentary called The Statue of Liberty (back when Burns still made films of reasonable length — this was just under an hour); a rerun of a local concert special from August 30, 2019 with the San Diego Symphony conducted by Christopher Dragon, focusing on the music of Tchaikovsky; and the centerpiece of the night, the 40th anniversary presentation of A Capitol Fourth. Needless to say, this show was absolutely nothing like any of the 39 previous entries in the series, thanks primarily to the dictatorship of SARS-CoV-2 under which we presently live, in which a sub-microscopic assembly of nucleic acid, proteins and a lipid coat whose only purpose in life is to make more copies of itself has put an end to large public gatherings of virtually all sorts (unless you are Donald Trump, continually calling the faithful to mass rallies and belittling the virus as “Kung Flu” — I don’t know what’s more obnoxious about that name, its racism or its sheer stupidity). The concerts are usually held on the west lawn of the Capitol Mall — and this one was, too, or at least most of it was (there were remote segments from New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and, of all places, Nashville), but the performers were all filmed at different times, and there was no audience present. 

In the two songs on which we saw the usual orchestra (the National Symphony of Washington, D.C.) and conductor (Jack Everly, who’s led these concerts since the death of their founder, Erich Kunzel, in 2009) backing singers in the here and now — Mandy Gonzalez on the opening “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Renée Fleming on the (sort-of) closing “God Bless America” — there were only about 10 to 15 musicians, sitting probably more than six feet apart from each other on a huge stage to maintain the now-obligatory “social distancing” (a phrase I especially hate and hope — but don’t expect — to see pass from the language once the SARS-CoV-2 emergency passes and we no longer need it) — though the show was padded out with orchestral performances from the good old days as reminders of what this event used to look like: Richard Rodgers’ “The Carousel Waltz” (well done, though no one —not even Rodgers himself — has ever conducted this music with the mad energy Alfred Newman gave it in the soundtrack to the 1956 Carousel film) from 2015; the last four minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture from 2017; and accompanying Ray Charles on “America, the Beautiful” from 2000. The concert opened with gospel singer Yolanda Adams singing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” (she did it nicely but giving a singer this good a song this banal practically defines the term “overqualified”), and after Mandy Gonzalez sang the national anthem Andy Grammer, an O.K. country singer, beamed in from Los Angeles with a decent song called “I Will Fight for You.” Then there came the first of three elaborate montages dealing with singers in various musical genres that have appeared on previous shows, this one with soul singers like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Kool & The Gang (that’s like presenting Beethoven, Mozart and some guy who writes commercial jingles, in that order), Gladys Knight, The Four Tops and Aretha Franklin — and Aretha still soars over the other talents in her field so much she can still stop a show even though she’s been dead for two years. 

Then a living soul diva, Patti Labelle, beamed in from Philadelphia in a setting in which either the real Liberty Bell or a mockup of it (and if it’s the real one I had no idea it was so small!) was part of her backdrop to sing her 1980’s hit version of “Over the Rainbow.” Back then I thought she way over-ornamented it (Ray Charles’ 1963 recording from his album Ingredients in a Recipe for Soul remains my favorite non-Judy version), but over the years I’ve warmed to the superb musicianship of her treatment of this song — and the fact that she’s no longer wearing those preposterous wigs that made her look like an upturned lawnmower helps. Then we hears a group calling themselves The Temptations — five Black guys who look like they’re getting on in years but not old enough to have been in the original group (I believe all the originals are dead by now — Otis Williams was the last one to survive and he used to tour with a group of rump Temptations in which the other guys looked one-third to one-half of his age) — did a medley of “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and the inevitable “My Girl,” and they were still appealing even though whoever sang lead on “My Girl” didn’t have the melting sweetness of David Ruffin on the original record. The next performer was Brantley Gilbert, one of my favorite current country singers — I remember buying a CD of his after seeing him on a country-music awards show and noticing he was the only perfomer there using pedal steel guitar, this once-paradigmatic country instrument — and he sang a song called “If You Never Had Heartbreak” that I liked but would have liked better if I could have made out more of the words. One of the problems with making music in the Zoom age is that the sound balances are sometimes way off; Gilbert was done in by the sheer volume of his band, which kept drowning him out. Then came one of the most wrenching and powerful moments of the show: Brian Stokes Mitchell singing “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha, backed only by a piano player, and turning it from a song whose sheer pretentiousness usually turns me off into a timeless ode to perseverance and pride. In the current pandemic I thought the line, “To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause,” seemed especially relevant.

 After “The Impossible Dream” came another montage segment of clips from previous shows, this time of country stars: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Dierks Bentley, Luke Combs, Reba McIntire and Johnny Cash (who, like Aretha in the soul segment, couldn’t help dominating even from beyond the grave). After that came the most intense, powerful and soulful performance of the night: a nice-looking young blonde country singer named Lauren Alaina came out and tore into Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” and sang a song that on previous Capitol Fourths had turned into a joke (one year it was even done by the Muppets!) and threw herself into it with such scorching intensity I found myself regretting even more than usual that she hadn’t done Woody’s more radical verses. (Dear Lauren Alaina: please record “This Land Is Your Land” and please perform all of it!) After that came a tribute to Afghanistan and Iraq war veteran José Ramos and then Broadway star Kelli O’Hara doing “If I Loved You” from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Carousel — she sang it beautifully but it was hard for me to get into it with Alaina’s powerful “This Land Is Your Land” still ringing in my ears. Then they showed Jack Everly and the National Symphony Orchestra’s 2015 rendition of the show’s overture, “The Carousel Waltz,” and after that they went into a tribute to the front-line medical and hospital workers during the pandemic (including people who literally flew hundreds of miles to care for COVID-19 patients in New York City at the height of their pandemic) and then singer Chrissy Metz, star of NBC’s This Is Us and a large woman who’d actually be good casting, physically and vocally, for a biopic of Mama Cass Elliott: she did “I’m Standing Beside You,” yet another ode to the emotional connections between people even in the midst of this crisis that’s forcing us to stay physically apart. Once again, her song was good and well performed, but the sheer righteous soul (words I only rarely use to describe white singers!) of Lauren Alaina was still ringing in my ears. 

Then there was a tribute to historically important African-Americans, and after that Vanessa Williams, in addition to her duties co-hosting the show with John Stamos, sang a medley of two songs written or co-written by Stephen Sondheim: “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd and “Somewhere” from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein but lyrics by Sondheim). Though the lyrics of “Not While I’m Around” fit in with the overall theme of unity in the midst of adversity many of last night’s performers were going for in their song choices, I couldn’t help but wonder who thought a song from a musical about serial murder and cannibalism was appropriately inspirational for this occasion. Then came the third montage sequence, this time dealing with (real or alleged) rock performers: Neil Diamond (no!), Little Richard (wop-bop-a-loo-bop yeah!), The Beach Boys (definitely yes — indeed I remember their last A Capitol Fourth appearance, in which they got to sing six songs, a very long set for this concert, and they were in superb late form), Jimmy Buffett (I like him as a novelty act but he ain’t rock ’n’ roll!), Huey Lewis and the News (pop-rock), Gloria Estefan (great, but not rock!) and Kenny Loggins (borderline). Afterwards came a performance by a genuine rock legend, John Fogerty, lead singer and principal songwriter of Creedence Clearwater Revival, playing in a band with three of his kids — his daughter has long straight blonde hair and looks like she beamed in from a whole other family, but his two sons look amazingly like he did at their age and one of them was playing the iconic Hofner violin bass Paul McCartney played with the Beatles. They did “Centerfield” (with John Fogerty playing an odd-shaped guitar that looks like it was made from a baseball bat) and “Proud Mary” (I’ve loved this song ever since I first heard the Creedence version, from their landmark second album Bayou Country, but I guess I’ve got spoiled from hearing Tina Turner’s version so often that even though he wrote it, Fogerty’s just doesn’t pack the same punch). 

The show started to peter out after Fogerty’s songs, with the snippet of the 1812 Overture taken from the 2017 concert (though the chyrons assured us that the fireworks display we were getting was live … at least on the East Coast, since just over the words “Live Fireworks” we saw “Pre-Recorded” in a different font, yet one more reminder that to the Atlantic-centric media mavens on the East Coast, we on the West Coast still suck hind tit and always will) and the U.S. Army Band and Herald Trumpets shown doing a patriotic medley — George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” — an ironic song choice since it was written for a 1927 musical that was basically the Wag the Dog of its day, a sharp satire on militarism and war fever —and Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” — from 2017. The only new footage was Renée Fleming singing “God Bless America” with a few members of the National Symphony sitting properly socially distant from each other. Then after the patriotic medley we did get two new songs, country star Trace Adkins doing “God Save the Queen” — oops, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” — and Yolanda Adams, backed by four disappointed high-school students who had been picked to sing at their graduation ceremony before our viral dictator stopped them from having one, did another nice but banal song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” (Then again, she’s not the first great gospel singer who’s had to plow her way through this one: Mahalia Jackson recorded it on her very last album in 1971.) After that came a clip that was totally unfollowable, then or now: Ray Charles belting out his soulful, unsurpassable version of “America, the Beautiful” from 2000, before John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (probably also a clip from the past) served as the outro music for the closing credits. This edition of A Capitol Fourth was probably as good as it could have been given the circumstances our viral dictator have forced upon us, with incredible performances by Patti Labelle, Brian Stokes Mitchell and especially Lauren Alaima (where has her voice been all my life?) standing out.

1812 Tchaikovsky Spectacular (San Diego Symphony, KPBS, August 30, 2019, rebroadcast July 4, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
While most PBS stations (including ours in previous years) followed up the Capitol Fourth telecast with a repeat showing of the same program, this year KPBS chose instead to rerun a local show originally taped August 30, 2019 — and, let’s face it, rebroadcasts of concerts during the SARS-CoV-2 crisis actually make more sense than rerunning sporting events, since with a concert at least you know how it’s going to turn out and there’s no big suspense about the outcome. The show actually began with the San Diego Symphony’s current conductor, Rafael Payare, leading members of its brass section in a piece that was instantly familiar: the old traditional Shaker hymn “The Gift to Be Simple.” (Unfortunately for the Shakers, their idea of “simplicity” included a total ban on their members having sex — and, not surprisingly, their numbers dwindled over time.) The Symphony brass played this in an arrangement by J. Villanueva, but most American classical-music fans identify this with Aaron Copland because he used the song twice: as one of the 10 “Old American Songs” he arranged for voice and piano and a principal theme of his ballet Appalachian Spring. (The ballet is supposed to depict a Shaker wedding ceremony, but if your sect doesn’t allow you to have sex, what do you do on the wedding night?) The August 30, 2019 concert was devoted entirely to the music of Tchaikovsky, both familiar and not so familiar. It was conducted by Australian-born Christopher Dragon (I wondered if he was related to 1940’s arranger-conductor Carmen Dragon and his considerably better-known son, Daryl Dragon —who was “the Captain”in The Captain and Tenille, but he isn’t), who’s now the principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and came off during this concert as a screaming queen. (Well, that’s not entirely inappropriate since Tchaikovsky was Gay.) The first piece they played was the rather aggressive and sometimes ugly “Marche Slave” — Tchaikovsky was not a Russian nationalist, politically or musically, and when he tried to pose as one the results were generally not good. His main quarrel with the other leading Russian composers of his day, the so-called “Mighty Five,” was they wanted to root their music in Russian folk songs, traditions and legends and Tchaikovsky thought Russian musicians ought to look to the West for their models. 

The next work on the program was one I was unfamiliar with, though I’d heard its main theme before: “Souvenir d’un lieu cher,” Opus 42 (and his use of a French title was itself a spit-in-the-face to the Russian musical nationalists!). According to the Web site, “This charming violin work owes its generation to the unique relationship between Tchaikovsky and his wealthy patroness, Nadezha von Meck. Effectively freeing the composer from any financial burden in life, this patronage carried with it the unusual ‘rider’ that the two parties were never to meet.” (One of the financial burdens Ms. von Meck freed Tchaikovsky from was all the hustlers who were blackmailing him.) Tchaikovsky wrote this work, whose French title means “Memory of a Dear Place” (the said place being von Meck’s villa in Brailovo, Ukraine, where Tchaikovsky was allowed to stay when von Meck wasn’t living there herself), around the time he was also working on his violin concerto, and apparently its first movement, “Méditation,” was originally intended as the slow movement of the violin concerto but was later replaced with the “Canzonetta” that’s there now. Also, Tchaikovsky only completed a version for violin and piano, and it was Alexander Glazunov who orchestrated it — but it’s still nice to know that, even though the movement structure is slow-fast-slow instead of the fast-slow-fast, we have what amounts to a second Tchaikovsky violin concerto and I wish more soloists and orchestras would pair the two together on CD instead of coupling the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with violin-and-orchestra works by other composers. The violin soloist was a young woman from the Utah Symphony named Ashlee Oliverson, and she was utterly glorious, fitting the mostly soft, elegiac mood of the music but being able to turn on the virtuosic juice when the score required it. 

Then conductor Dragon and the orchestra played the last movement from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 — apparently as a promotion for the complete Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6 the orchestra was supposed to play in their 2019-2020 season before SARS-CoV-2 pulled the plug on most concerts as well as big live events in general. Dragon’s interpretation was energetic and quite enjoyable, but I still think the best recording of this symphony is Leonard Bernstein’s 1970’s recording wth the New York Philharmonic, which I just re-acquired in a boxed set of Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky recordings with that orchestra (which includes all of Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies — and if you want a great recording of the Tchaikovsky symphonies at a reasonable price, look no further). The second half of the concert featured eight numbers from the Swan Lake ballet — I’m not sure what the provenance of the version Dragon programmed is but Tchaikovsky arranged a suite of six numbers from the score just before he died and gave it a separate opus number, 20a (the full ballet is 20). Neither Tchaikovsky’s own suite nor whatever it was Dragon programmed seem to make any attempt to follow the order of numbers in the complete ballet, much less tell a potted version of the ballet’s story, though of course Dragon opened with the so-called “Scène” that begins Act II (when the plot leaves the superficial high-life of the court of Prince Siegfried and enters the supernatural world of the titular swan lake, the evil sorcerer Rothbart who turns human women into swans, and Odette, his principal victim and the ballet’s star; though the principal ballerina in Swan Lake is obliged to dance a dual role, the good swan-woman Odette and the bad swan-woman Odile, who tries to seduce Siegfried from Odette) which was used over the opening credits of the early-1930’s classic horror films from Universal, Dracula and The Mummy

The concert’s finale, of course, was the 1812 Overture — actually heard complete, not just the flashy last four minutes we get at the Capitol Fourth concerts. The 1812 Overture was composed by Tchaikovsky in 1880 for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s invading armies in 1812 — so one of the pieces trotted out at Fourth of July celebrations is about the successful defense by an autocracy against a foreign invader who brought at least some elements of democracy and enlightenment in its wake. (One historian commented that many of the countries Napoleon occupied kept some of his reforms in place even after his fall — whereas the countries the Nazis had occupied in World War II couldn’t wait to get rid of every vestige of Nazi rule. I think the case he was making was that Napoleon was a twisted idealist who actually did the countries he invaded some good, while Hitler was just a thug who plundered them and killed the people he considered “racially inferior.”) Christopher Dragon introduced the 1812 Overture by quoting Tchaikovsky as saying the piece was “loud and noisy,” which it is (though there is a hauntingly lyrical theme in the middle of it), though I suspect what Tchaikovsky was really saying was something like, “Yeah, it’s loud and noisy. I wrote it for a big outdoor celebration where they expected loud and noisy, so I gave it to them — but I really don’t like the piece and I’d just as soon never hear it played again.” (Actually, Tchaikovsky conducted it himself at least twice after the premiere — including at his famous concert opening Carnegie Hall in 1886 — so either he liked it after all or he grudgingly yielded to the work’s popularity the way Arthur Conan Doyle yielded to the popularity of Sherlock Holmes and brought him back to life after killing him off in “The Final Problem.”) 

The original outdoor performance of the 1812 Overture featured not only a symphony orchestra but an onstage brass band, a carillon and a battery of cannons — and after 1956, when Antál Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra recorded the 1812 Overture in a highly “produced” recording that added the U.S. Field Artillery and the bells of the Harkness Carillon Tower for the climax, the 1812 Overture has become a “sonic spectacular” both on records and live. And if the cannon and bells weren’t loud and noisy enough, Leopold Stokowski started the process of bringing in a chorus to sing the words of the national anthem of Tsarist Russia when Tchaikovsky quotes it in the score. Christopher Dragon’s performance was relatively low-keyed in the extra-noise department — a few cannon and a tubular-bells player — but it did accompany a fireworks display (so my husband Charles got to see televised fireworks after all after having got home from work too late to see the ones on A Capitol Fourth) and made a nice conclusion to a SARS-CoV-2-conditioned low-keyed Fourth of July!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Windjammer: The Voyage of the “Christian Radich” (National General/Cinemiracle, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the 1958 semi-documentary Windjammer, or as its full title reads, Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich. (The last word in the subtitle is pronounced “Radik,” by the way.) She was designed in the mid-1930’s by Yngvar Kjelstrup, who also served as her first captain from her maiden voyage in 1937 to her final cruise along the western coast of Europe, to the West Indies, then up the east coast of the United States before re-crossing the Atlantic to come home. That last cruise is the one depicted in this film. When I first ordered this film I did some research, assuming that a “windjammer” was a particular kind of sailing ship; it turns out the name was used for any sail-powered vessel in the 19th century, and it was often an insult hurled by sailors on steamships at their more technologically retro brethren who were still “sailors” in the most literal sense. Windjammer was the first — and, as it turned out, the only — film ever made in Cinemiracle, and I first heard of both the film and the format in an unlikely source: John Culshaw’s Putting the Record Straight, his posthumously published autobiography about his years as a classical record producer for British Decca. He called the process “a rather poor attempt to duplicate the effect of Cinerama without violating Cinerama’s technical patents,” and dismissed Windjammer as “a hack documentary.”

The main difference between Cinerama and Cinemiracle was that, while both used three cameras simultaneously filming the same image, the right and left cameras bounced their images off mirrors before they were recorded on film. The reason for that was to smooth out the often obvious “join lines” where one camera’s image ended and the next one’s began, which had bedeviled Cinerama’s inventor, Fred Waller, and his technical people since they originally developed the format. Like Cinerama, Cinemiracle projected its films onto a curved screen — though I have been unable to find out online if they used the vertical Venetian-blind style panels on the Cinemiracle screen that were used in Cinerama. (The Cinerama screen was made of 150 silver-painted strips — you could actually walk through their screen — which was designed partly so that you could see the image equally well no matter where you were in the theatre, and partly in an attempt to smooth out those join lines between the images from the three cameras.) Flicker Alley, the company through which this film was reissued on Blu-Ray and DVD (which was something of a surprise since they usually only do reissues of silent films, hence their name), issued it not in letterboxed format but in something called “Smilebox,” which attempted to reproduce the effect of the original Cinemiracle showings on a big curved screen. Fortunately we have a large enough TV that, even though it could hardly reproduce the theatrical effect, at least could come within hailing distance (a nautical metaphor!) of doing it justice. Windjammer premiered at the fabled Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and was such a success it ran there for 36 weeks, but ultimately Cinerama filed a patent lawsuit against Cinemiracle and National General Theatres, which had backed and bought the process, and won. As a result of the verdict, Cinerama took over the rights to Windjammer and reissued it as a Cinerama production in 1962.

Windjammer was a production of Louis de Rochemont, an interesting figure in movie history who emerged with a vengeance in 1935 as the producer of a weekly newsreel called The March of Time, backed by Henry R. Luce, publisher of Time magazine. It was supposed to be a sort of Time magazine on film, and each episode was introduced with a stentorian narrator (Westbook van Voorhis) intoning, “The MARCH … of TIME!” Intellectuals liked to disparage it for its slovenly editing and heavily editorial commentary that told you exactly what de Rochemont and his crew wanted you to think about what they were covering — they preferred the more abstract and more artistically filmed documentaries from Britain — but The March of Time became enormously popular. It was satirized in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as “News on the March,” the fictional newsreel that gives us the basics of Charles Foster Kane’s life and serves as a sort of table of contents that both sets the mood and helps us keep straight the sequence of events, told in flashback by people who knew Kane, that forms the bulk of the film. In 1944 de Rochemont cut a deal with 20th Century-Fox to start making feature-length dramatic films. Most of them were either espionage or suspense thrillers, and they made at least the pretense of being based more or less (usually less) on actual stories — first about Axis agents trying to steal American military secrets, and then when the war’s end pretty much killed the market for those sorts of stories and de Rochemont moved his production schedule to a more conventional sort of thriller like Call Northside 777 (a quite good1948 film noir starring James Stewart as a reporter who’s contacted by the mother of a death row inmate who’s convinced (rightly) her son is innocent and wants Stewart to solve the crime. In the 1950’s he worked with the Cinerama company on one of their early showcase films, Cinerama Holiday, and produced The Miracle of Todd A-O for Mike Todd’s company to promote its own rival wide-screen process, before signing with Cinemiracle and National General to produce Windjammer. He fired the original director of Windjammer, Bill Colleran, midway through the shoot and hired his son, Louis de Rochemont III, to take over. Windjammer depicts the 1957-58 voyage of the Christian Radich as a so-called “school ship,” training Norwegian teenage boys (we’re told in the commentary, delivered by Erik Bye in understandable but noticeably Norwegian-accented English, for careers in the country’s merchant marine.

While they’re out and about in the ocean they meet similar sail-powered training ships run by Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries (“Every place but Bolivia seems to haveone!” my husband Charles joked — in case you didn’t get it, part of the joke is that Bolivia is landlocked), and on their way they stop at various islands, including Madeira, Curaçao, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico, before stopping at New York and Philadelphia and doing a training run with a squadron of U.S. Navy ships, mostly destroyers but including at least one submarine. The guys from the Christian Radich get to board the Navy sub (in a rickety metal chair sliding on a plumb line of cable stretched from one ship to the other, something like the rickety metal seat with which Jean Peters was rescued from Niagara Falls in the 1953 film Niagara), and when one of the U.S. Navy’s harmless practice torpedoes (we know it’s harmless because the front of it is painted yellow to distinguish it from ones which actually contain explosives) falls to the ocean floor, a deep-sea diver from the Christian Radich wearing a SCUBA tank (still a novelty item in 1958) is sent to retrieve it. Windjammer is a film alternately exhilarating and annoying, at its best when the narration and Morton Gould’s music shut up and let us enjoy the stunning visuals. It begins with a 12-minute credits and prologue sequence in which we see on a normal non-wide screen the process by which the Christian Radich’s sailors are recruited (we’re told that hundreds of young men apply but they’re winnowed down to 50, and that most of them are 17 but two of the crew members are as young as 14), the crew is organized and the Radich sails down the coast of Norway (we get some predictable shots of Norway’s fabled fjords) — and then when the ship hits the open sea the curtains (animated effects added for this reissue) open up and we see the full width of the Cinemiracle image (with the join lines less noticeable than in Cinerama but still all too visible in some scenes). Charles noted that this is what I like to call a portmanteau movie, containing something likely to appeal to everyone in the audience; every port of call the Christian Radich visits is an excuse for some FitzPatrick-esque travelogues of some exciting vistas, and there are also oddball guest celebrities.

One of the quirkier aspects of the ship is that one crew member, Sven Lübeck, is alsn an aspiring classical pianist, and his mom gave him permission to sail with the Radich only on condition that a piano be loaded and carried on board so he could continue to practice. At one point Lübeck is shown writing a letter to Arthur Fiedler, founding conductor of the Boston “Pops” Orchestra, hoping to be featured as soloist with them — and, lo and behold, eventually we see Fiedler himself, along with his orchestra set up on a pier, with Lübeck as soloist running through (what else?) the opening movement of the piano concerto by Norway’s most famous composer, Edvard Grieg. There are also other celebrities involved: when the ship reaches Puerto Rico we see famed cellist Pablo Casals (who had fled Spain after Franco’s side won the nation’s civil war in the late 1930’s and settled in Puerto Rico because there he could live under U.S. jurisdiction, be in a Spanish-speaking environment and, since Puerto Rico is a U.S. “commonwealth” instead of a state, not have to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide concert earnings) giving an al fresco open-air concert in which he plays the “Song of the Birds,” a piece he composed based on an old folk lullaby from his native Catalonia. (It was also recorded by Joan Baez on her late-1960’s Christmas-themed album Noël as “Carol of the Bells.”) And when we get to New York, just after we see three of the young Norwegian sailors get off the vessel and we think it’s going to turn into On the Town, Windjammer takes a sudden turn into abstraction; we see alternating streetscapes (with a surprising number of Nash cars as part of New York’s traffic) and kaleidoscope patterns, and instead of forming one continuous image the de Rochemonts show discernibly different views on each panel and make it obvious that we’re actually watching three separate movies at once. During the New York scenes we also get a Dixieland band led by trumpeter Wilbur De Paris playing a medley of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — the trombonist in the opening looked like Kid Ory (though later a younger trombone player seems to take over) and the clarinetist was almost certainly Barney Bigard.

We also get quite a few songs in the movie, ostensibly traditional fare sung by the Norwegian crew boys but really by a vocal group called The Easy Riders (Americans who affected slight Norwegian accents for the project) led by Terry Gilkyson, American songwriter who composed them (Gilkyson’s most famous credit is for writing Dean Martin’s hit “Memories Are Made of This,” and his daughter Eliza is a modern-day contry-folk singer-songwriter), and of course when we’re in Trinidad we also get two different singers singing calypso songs, one in the street and one on board the Radich when they’re invited there for a party with the boys. Windjammer is also a good movie for beefcake fans: first we get a scene of the boys in their bunkroom slipped down to their undershorts as we’re shown how they get into the hammocks in which they sleep (a quite different view of hammocks than the one we got in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, probably the most famous film containing them); then we get a scene of them in a pool on one of their Caribbean stops in swimsuits and nothing else, and then we get another scene of them going about in shorts. One of the boys reminded me of the young Elvis Presley — his facial features were similar enough (remember that Elvis was of Norwegian immigrant ancestry — the name “Elvis” is a corruption of the Norwegian “Al wyss,” meaning “all wise”) that I had the feeling he looked like Elvis would have if he’d kept his natural blond hair instead of dyeing it black all those years — and though Gilkyson’s songs kept telling us that the big thing the sailors wanted to do when they got off the ship and had shore leave was to hook up with women, that’s not what the images tell us. I suspect the de Rochemonts were so afraid of running afoul of the Production Code people that the few scenes we see of the sailors going out with women are so decorous the film comes off as considerably more homoerotic than its makers intended!

Windjammer has its flaws, and most of them can be traced to Louis de Rochemont — in 1938 he had produced a March of Time segment called Inside Nazi Germany, only instead of filming inside the real Nazi Germany he staged most of it in the U.S. with refugee German actors playing Nazis, and while we can readily understand why he wouldn’t send cast and crew into Nazi Germany and risk having them arrested (or worse), The March of Time was notorious for such pseudo-documentary fakery. There’s plenty of it in Windjammer, too, including actual scripted dialogue for the sailors — James L. Shute is credited with writing the film — which they appear to be delivering themselves, since one of the locales on board is the boys’ clubhouse, in which they’re supposed to speak only English and anyone who slips up and speaks Norwegian has to put some coins in a coffee jar as a fine. (Charles told me that the Norwegian denomination in which the fines were paid was so small that by the time he went to Norway in the late 1970’s it was no longer in circulation, sort of like what happened to the British farthing or what’s happening to the U.S. penny.) Part of the problem is Morton Gould’s musical score, which features way too much “Mickey-Mousing” (a movie term meaning the very close synchronization of picture and sound — the term comes from Walt Disney’s decision when he was making his first sound cartoons that audiences would “buy” the idea of a sound cartoon only if picture and sound were very tightly locked together) and, like the narration, insists on telling us what we’re seeing instead of letting us just ease back and see it. I could have wished for a more atmospheric, less literal musical background for this film — something more like Debussy’s La Mer — and I’m sure Gould could have provided one, but that wasn’t what the de Rochemonts wanted.

Windjammer is a fun movie overall, with scenes of spectacular beauty alternating with the sort of cheesy Hollywood silliness one suspects the de Rochemonts knew the folks at National General wanted to show off their process and attract crowds; according to an “Trivia” item, director David Lean said that the scene of the U.S. sub going underwater next to the Radich was the most beautiful shot he’d ever seen in any film. (It’s an interesting comment given that Lean’s first film as director, In Which We Serve from 1942, featured the crew of a British vessel reliving their past lives as they try to stay alive following the sinking of their ship in the English Channel.) I loved the effect we got just after that, in which we got to see a sub’s-eye view of its descent in which we first saw a waterline, then watched it disappear as we went under water — and just how they got underwater shots with the ridiculously complicated Cinemiracle camera (since they did the three-screen effect by lashing together three standard Mitchell 35mm film cameras instead of building their own camera the way Cinerama did, their equipment was a lot larger, bulkier and more cumbersome) is beyond me. I’m not sure what to make of Windjammer as a whole — I enjoyed it but I could see a lot of areas in which it could have been even better — and this post is as long as it is at least partly because I’m still trying to come to grips with this spectacle that shows us great chunks of the world but tries to make it look as much like the U.S. as possible: throughout the film you get the impression that its creators are constantly tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Hey! They’re not that different from us, after all!” — 7/4/20


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I spent most of yesterday afternoon writing a long blog post about the movie Windjammer (in which I failed to mention two of the most curious credits of people involved in it: Arthur “Weegee” Fellig was listed as the photographer of the almost abstract New York cityscapes in the film — during those scenes I joked, “Windjammerqatsi” — and while the page on the film lists only two cinematographers, Joseph C. Brun and Gayne Rescher, the actual credits list a third: Gordon Willis, who would become a major “name” in the 1970’s, shooting such instant classics as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (for which he pioneered the dank brown-and-green look that worked in The Godfather as a sort of continuous visual metaphor for the criminal underworld in which the characters lived, but has since been done to death and become the default look for virtually everything) and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. There’s also a story only tangentially touched on in the film Windjammer about a German sailing ship called Pamir, whom the sailors of the Christian Radich encounter while on their cruise — we don’t see the Pamir or any of its crew members, but they radio fraternal greetings to each other as they pass each other in the West Indies. At the end of Windjammer, just as the hot blond Norwegian 17-year-olds are leaving the vessel and carrying on with the rest of their lives (whatever those are going to be), the Radich crew members get news that the Pamir has sunk in a storm (Hurricane Carrie) off the coast of the Azores Islands and only six of its 86 crew members have been rescued. The Wikipedia page on Pamir begins with this paragraph indicating how and why it sank:

Pamir, a four-masted barque, was one of the famous Flying P-Liner sailing ships of the German shipping company F. Laeisz. She was the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn, in 1949. By 1957, she had been outmoded by modern bulk carriers and could not operate at a profit. Her shipping consortium’s inability to finance much-needed repairs or to recruit sufficient sail-trained officers caused severe technical difficulties. On 21 September 1957, she was caught in Hurricane Carrie and sank off the Azores, with only six survivors rescued after an extensive search.

The rest of the page about the Pamir is even more curious: the ship was built in 1905 at a shipyard in Hamburg, the fifth of 10 in her production line, and when World War I started she was stranded in the Canary Islands and did not return to Germany until 1920. Then she was seized by the Italian government as war reparations (remember that Italy and Germany were on opposite sides in World War I even though they were on the same side in World War II), but her original German owners, the F. Lasker company, bought her back in 1924 to move nitrate fertilizer — the same thing she’d been doing before the war. In 1931 they sold her to a Finnish company which used her to import wheat from Australia to Europe, and in 1941 it was seized while in port at Wellington, New Zealand. The New Zealanders used her mostly as a cargo vessel but also made 10 passenger trips with her, five to San Francisco, three to Vancouver, and two between Wellington and Sydney (which makes more sense than sending her across the Pacific Ocean during World War II). She was going to be scrapped when a German who’d formerly been a Pamir crew member in the 1920’s bought her, remodeled her, added an auxiliary diesel engine (which leaked oil and lost its propeller on the Pamir’s maiden voyage with it, apparently much to the delight of the sail-favoring crew); alas, she could no longer compete economically with the big diesel-fired steam freighters, her decks deteriorated and she sailed on what turned out to be her last voyage with an inexperienced captain and a crew of sailors more accurately described as interns than trainees who didn’t know how to keep a ship upright in a severe storm. The sinking was considered a national tragedy in Germany and made headlines around the world — though in the rather antiseptic view of sea life we get in Windjammer (as one reviewer wrote, “What made this film a hit was the fact you could not take it seriously. No military discipline was portrayed in this film. Every cadet, man and boy, was having a good time even when they were doing their chores”) the Pamir disaster comes off as just a blip of pathos leavening a light-hearted portrayal of sea life that totally ignores the myriad dangers faced by a ship — especially one powered by the chancy medium of wind — on an nine-month cruise on the high seas. — 7/5/20

Monday, June 29, 2020

2020 Black Entertainment Television Awards (Black Entertainment Television, CBS-TV, aired June 28, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night CBS-TV presented the 2020 Black Entertainment Television (BET) awards show — the first one I’ve seen since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic upended the world and suddenly banned large gatherings of people under the same roof (unless you’re President Trump, who can hold all the large gatherings he wants and subject people to viral exposure while having them sign a release that they won’t sue him if they get it) — and given that it took place in the middle of not only the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic but also the turmoil over the George Floyd killing and the sheer number of police murders of unarmed Black people and other people of color, the show buzzed with righteous anger that came forth mostly from the rappers on the program. Once again I’m forced to rely on my hastily scribbled notes to determine who performed what and what the songs’ titles were — unlike the producers of the Global Citizen telecast, the people in charge of this one didn’t bother with chyrons telling you who the perfomers were or what their songs were called — but the show actually had a host, a raucous Black woman stand-up artist named Amanda Seales who threw out a lot of anti-racist zingers, some of which were well targeted and some of which weren’t. The opening number was by a rapper named (I think) Kreton Bryant, who did something I presume was called “I Just Want to Live (God Protect Me),”  which segued into a cover of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” (a lot less appealing with the full panoply of noises that back rap songs than it had been on the ABC-TV special from 2017 rebroadcast last June 24 when it was just read and I could appreciate it as racially charged poetry without having to strain to hear the words through the din of various “scratching” sound effects and “sampling” that back most rap records and all too often drown out the words) by original Public Enemy Chuck D. and, of all people, Ice-T. I had an “Is that … ?” moment when I first recognized his voice and then his face, completing his bizarre career trajectory from being a rapper whose most famous song was “Cop Killer” to playing a cop in his long-running role on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and now once again playing the voice from the ’hood denouncing law enforcement for how it targets Black people.

Then came a performer whose name I wrote down as Ronnie Riggs doing something called “All I Really Want to Know” and John Legend finding a reserve of raw power I never suspected he had in him on a song called “We Will Never Break.” Most awards shows are retrospectives of the past year, but this one was immediate; the up side of the way the artists were obliged to create music videos of their appearances instead of being able to perform “live” is they were able to create new songs for the show, and not surprisingly a lot of the material touched on SARS-CoV-2, police murders of Black people, or both. Indeed, so much of the material was socially conscious it was surprising whenever an artist came on and did a song that wasn’t! Next up was a number by Masego called “Queen Tings” which I recall as a surprisingly lyrical fusion of singing and rapping (a lot of rappers these days are incorporating actual musical pitches, doing a form of Black Sprechsgesang that, at least to me, makes them more tolerable than out-and-out rappers, especially since the people who do that tend to use actual live instruments as their backing instead of the insane burbles, scratches and other noises that traditionally accompany rap.) After that a brother act named Dr. Snake and Sir — one sings, one raps — did “We Need to Let Go” with a quite nice vocal contribution by a woman who turned out to be Jolene Brosche (once again I’m only guessing at a lot of these names since they weren’t shown as chyrons on the screen), Dr. Snake’s wife.

Then came one of the most surprisingly appealing numbers all night, a video shot by Megan Thee Stallion (well, if you’re going to deliberately misspell “The,” “Thee” is considerably nicer than “Tha”!) on a desert location; Megan Thee Stallion is a heavy-set big-breasted Black woman and her video, to a song called “Hot Girl,” looked like legendary 1960’s nudie director Russ Meyer decided to remake Mad Max with an all-Black cast — but she’s a highly charismatic performer and I really liked her clip. Then someone or something named Roddy Ricch, who may or may not have been the same person I had earlier identified as “Ronnie Riggs,” performing a social-comment song called “Rock Star” and did a video in which he’s carrying a gun and defying the police; later he won Album of the Year for a release called Please Excuse Me for Being Antisocial, beating out more highly regarded artists like Beyoncé and Lizzo. The next number was a real surprise: Jennifer Hudson doing a cover of Aretha Franklin’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black” (itself inspired by Lorraine Hansberry, who coined the phrase in the first place!); apparently she’s just starred in a biopic of Aretha, Respect, though it’s one of those movies that’s making its debut on a streaming channel now that movie theatres are things of the past. The trailer for Respect didn’t seem promising — Aretha and another Black woman are discussing that she’s had four albums released and hasn’t yet had a hit, suggesting that the filmmakers are taking a print-the-legend “take” on her early years at Columbia Records (yes, she did put out a lot of dreck on Columbia before switching to Atlantic in 1967 and finally breaking through to stardom, but she made some great records there, too, especially the ones on which John Hammond, who signed her to the label in the first place, actually produced her personally: her 1961 record “Maybe I’m a Fool” sounds just like — and every bit as good as — the ones that finally “broke” her at Atlantic six years later) — but Hudson seems perfectly cast as the Queen of Soul (the second Queen of Soul, anyway — Dinah Washington was the first Queen of Soul and when is someone going to do a biopic of her?).

The next song was a rap number by Anderson Pack (whom I’d never heard of) featuring J. Rock (whom I had) called “Lockdown,” though it was actually surprisingly quiet, lyrical and subtle, not the angry rant I might have expected from the title. After that was one of the evening’s few non-political songs, from someone who calls himself Lonr. (the period, as well as the misspelling, seems to be part of the name) and who apparently has collaborated with the great modern-day R&B star H.E.R. — and his song, a plaintive love ballad called “Make the Most” about a young couple who are hoping their relationship will last, inevitably made me think, “He might as well call himself H.I.M.!” The next artist was Wayne Brady doing a tribute to the late Little Richard — a medley of “Lucille,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally” and “Tutti Fruitti” — which wasn’t bad but suffered from the fact that, as capable as he is as a singer, Brady can’t play piano. After a rap by unidentified artists that introduced a tribute to Kobe Bryant, Alicia Keys came on for one of the best songs I’ve ever heard her do, a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tribute to the Black victims of police violence called “The Perfect Way to Die.” Then came the Atlanta-born R&B duo Chloe x Halle (they’re sisters, those are their real first names, and their last name is Bailey) doing an odd medley of two songs, “Forgive Me” and “Do It.” For “Forgive Me” they were dressed in skimpy black leather outfits that made them look like street hookers; for “Do It” (actually a gentler song than “Forgive Me,” despite what you’d think from the titles) they wore almost as skimpy bits of white cloth that made them look like call girls. But I really liked the scene towards the end in which, taking advantage of the fact that they weren’t performing live, they set up a split screen so the black leather-clad Chloe x Halle and the white-cloth clad Chloe x Halle appeared simultaneously: Chlor x Halle x Chloe x Halle!

Then came a performance by DJ Diesel backing a rapper who remained both unidentified and unseen on a quite good (for the genre) song called “Pop, Lock and Drop It.” The next number was by Summer Walker (a woman, whom I hadn’t heard of before) and Usher, a duet on a song that appeared to be called “You Don’t Know What Love Is” even though it had nothing to do with the oldie of that title; Usher seemed more comfortable here than he had covering James Brown at the Kennedy Center four years ago but lacked the wrenching power he’d brought to his own song, “I Cry,” on the Global Citizen telecast last Saturday. The next song was a medley of Jonathan McReynolds’ “Deliver Us from People” and Kane Brown’s (a woman) “You’re Missing Every Color” — or was it called “Undeniably Beautiful”? After that came the finale, a gospel number featuring Karen Chark Sheard of the legendary Clark Sisters and her daughter, Kierra Sheard, doing a powerful and towering song called “Something Had to Break” and showing where all African-American music ultimately comes from: the righteous power and soul of Black spirituals and gospel. There was also a segment featuring Michelle Obama giving a humanitarian award to Beyoncé — sometimes it feels like the Obamas are leading a government in exile while the fascist Trump occupation of America continues. Overall the BET Entertainment Awards show was the usual lumbering beast most awards shows turn into, and it suffered from the virtual presentation enforced on it by the pandemic (since both the presenters and the awardees had to film their segments in advance, the producers had to let them know who’d won in advance and there were no envelopes and no suspense), but they managed to work out a viable way to do an awards show in the SARS-CoV-2 era and some of the performances were wonderful.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Global Citizen 2020: Unite for Our Future (Global Citizen Foundation, NBC-TV, aired June 27, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The TV show I particularly wanted to watch yesterday was the 2020 edition of the Global Citizen telecast — which has been an annual event for several years now, sponsored by a foundation underwritten by several large corporations (including Microsoft, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble) and designed to encourage young people to become “global citizen” activists to, among other things, expand the rights of women, access to education and health care in Third World countries and combat racism and sexism in the developed world. The way the concert usually works is that young people working on these various causes submit reports on what they’re doing and a group of judges goes over their applications and awards the most deserving entrants tickets to an all-star mega-concert featuring the major pop-music artists of today. Obviously the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic changed that; the projects that were being honored and supported by Global Citizen were almost all focused on controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and expanding health-care opportunities for people at risk of getting it (I’m using the U.S. Centers for Disease Control nomenclature here: SARS-CoV-2 is the official scientific name for the virus and COVID-19 is the disease associated with it), and of course there wasn’t one big mega-concert in one locale with a huge audience either. Instead, not only did the performers sing without an audience, most of them performed outdoors (where there’s presumably less chance of catching the viruses from those pesky “aerosols” and “droplets” that come out of people’s mouths). 

There also seemed to be a higher talk-to-music ratio than on previous Global Citizen concerts, with the result that the musical acts seemed to be more of an afterthought to a documentary on what the world — or at least some particularly dedicated, committed and courageous people in it — is doing to answer the challenge of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Among the speakers giving video statements or doing interviews were Bill Gates of Microsoft — who, since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the World Health Organization in the middle of the world’s worst pandemic in over 100 years, actually became its biggest funder, giving it more than any of the world’s governments! — and no fewer than eight heads of state: Erna Solberg of Norway, Emmanuel Macron of France, Lee Halen Loong of Singapore, Justin Trudeau of Canada, Angela Merkel of Germany, Boris Johnson of Great Britain, Giuseppe Conte of Italy and Pedro Sánchez of Spain. (Notice anyone missing?) The musical portions of the concert began with Jennifer Hudson singing a song called “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” and while I still find it hard to reconcile the post-Weight Watchers version of Hudson with the Big Soul Mama who took the world by storm in her tour de force in the film Dreamgirls, the voice is still largely intact and the song was the first of quite a few numbers in the program to emphasize strength, determination, perseverance and the hope that someday relatively soon we can put behind us all the things we’ve been forced to do (and not do) during the pandemic. 

The next song was called “Freedom” by the For Love Choir, and then Miley Cyrus appeared in an otherwise empty stadium singing, of all things, the Beatles’ song “Help!” I was taken aback by her excellent phrasing of the opening, which she sang slowly and movingly. Alas, then she sped up the tempo to that of the Beatles’ original — and the arrangement was even similar, except she added a pedal steel guitar — and she sang from a circular platform that served as the bottom dot of the exclamation point in the title. The title was spelled out on the stadium floor in giant letters, evoking both the logo of the Beatles’ film for which the song was originally written and a literal cry for help similar to the ones that appeared on the rooftops of flooded New Orleans homes during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Though Cyrus’s performance would have been even more powerful had she stuck to the slow tempo of her opening, it was still a wrenching performance of a song that’s been almost criminally underrated and misunderstood: in one of his last interviews John Lennon explained that he had meant the song as a literal cry for help, and people hadn’t believed that an internationally famous 25-year-old could need help about anything. I’m not sure if this was deliberate on the part of Global Citizen’s producers — though I suspect it was —but they followed “Help!” with a song called “Helpless” performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the musical Hamilton (whose film version was supposed to have a major theatrical release July 4 but will be streaming on the “Disney+” channel instead. The next musical selection was an excellent song called “I Cry” by Usher, whom I’d just seen channeling James Brown on the ABC special Taking the Stage (a rerun of an all-star show originally broadcast January12, 2017 celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture) but who was far better doing a song of his own and showing a raw, naked emotionalism appropriate to the occasion and a far cry from the swaggering, boastful soul boasts James Brown specialized in. 

The next artist was Shakira, who blessedly sang in Spanish (a lot of foreign divas who try to sing in English simply can’t bring the same level of passion and commitment they can when they sing in their native tongues) and did a quite good song called “Sale el Sol.” It was the title song of a 2010 album and the Wikipedia page on it says, “Its lyrics encourage one to be optimistic during difficult times” — not surprisingly since a lot of the artists on this Global Citizen telecast picked songs about being optimistic during difficult times! The next song was totally unidentified — it consisted of four different singers in what have become the all too familiar boxes of a Zoom screen coming together for a song that seemed to be called either “We Will Fall Together” or “We Will Rise Together,” yet another anthem about holding people together in difficult times and resolving the bizarre irony of having to create and build unity between people during a crisis in which the kind of physical bonding people usually do to confront crises is one of the things we are most specifically and solemnly told we must not do. (The many variations on the phrase “we’re together though we’re apart” have become among the most annoying clichés of the SARS-CoV-2 era.) After that Justin Bieber and a Black singer-rapper named Queyo teamed up for a quite good song called “Intentions” — and once again, as with Miley Cyrus, I was quite impressed by the power and sincerity of a performer I’d largely written off as a manufactured pop entertainer. Then Coldplay came on with an ironically titled song called “Paradise,” complete with a stunning animated video that evoked 1960’s psychedelica (hey, that’s when I was a teenager, so I have a special affection for anything that draws on that era). 

Then the show presented a song I’d previously seen and heard performed on Stephen Colbert’s show by its creator, Christine and the Queens — one of those identities, like Bon Iver, St.Vincent and The Weeknd, that’s made to sound like a group even though it denotes just one person. Her (or should I say “their”?) real name is Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier, she identifies as “pansexual” and “genderqueer,” and she wrote “La Vita Nova.” the song she performed in the Global Citizen telecast, in 2015 as a response to the death of her mother — and, since she’s said she “does not want to choose between French music and English pop music,” its lyrics alternate between English and French. Then there was a number that was billed as a celebration of Nigerian pop culture and the so-called “high life” music that emerged there in the early 1970’s but never seemed to catch on in the West even though it’s just as infectious and danceable as the South African “township jive” that reached the rest of the world through Paul Simon’s 1986 Grammy Award-winning album Graceland. (Maybe if Paul Simon had recorded an album in Nigeria … ). The basis for the song came from an interesting source: an African ensemble of singers and dancers called the Dreamcatchers Academy whose members are recruited from schoolchildren and whose purpose is to get kids to stay in school by offering them the chance to sing and dance as an inducement. Alas, what we actually heard was Latino rapper J. Balvin and members of the Dreamcatchers Academy doing an O.K. song called “Quel Color es Mi Gente?” (the title, in case you couldn’t guess, means “What Color Are My People?”). The sentiments were impeccable but the song itself was the lamest piece on the program. 

After a hot duet called “Rest of Your Life” by Chloe x Halle (an African-American R&B duo comprised of sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey, who performed in skin-tight outfits and brought a lot of energy to an O.K. but not especially memorable song) we fortunately got a taste of real Nigerian high-life music in the song “Shakere” by a singer I’d noted as “Yoma Alade” but who I think is a well-known Nigerian talent named Aramide, a tall, heavy-set woman physically reminiscent of modern-day African-American singers Fantasia and Lizzo (and before them of the 1950’s R&B queens Big Maybelle and Annie Laurie, as well as Bessie Smith and many of her contemporaries even earlier!) whose shattering, high-energy performance was one of the best things on the program. It’s true she’s “contemporized” the high-life sound by adding electric guitars, synthesizers and drum machines, but she’s so sincere and her voice is so overwhelming, who cares? The show’s finale was an unusual combination — singer J’Nai Bridges with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, or at least a handful of musicians therefrom so that, even on the broad expanse of the stage of the (empty) Hollywood Bowl, they could be properly “socially distanced” at least six feet apart from each other, singing a medley of a song called “Heaven” (not the “Heav’n, Heav’n” Marian Anderson recorded so beautifully for Musicraft’s classical label, Masterpiece, in the 1940’s but what sounded like modern-day gospel-pop) and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” which is an authentic spiritual. Bridges alternated pronouns between “He’s got the whole world in his hands” and “She’s got the whole world in her hands,” which I liked even though my all-time favorite version of the song is Mahalia Jackson’s from the 1950’s (mainly because not only did she do the song as rockin’ gospel but she added a release: “If religion were a thing that money could buy/Then the rich would live and the poor would die:”). 

I’ve read in The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times that some European orchestras and opera houses have gingerly dipped their toes back into live performances, masking off some of the seats so the audience can be properly “socially distant” (I hate the phrase “social distancing” and hope it will fade out of use once the current emergency is over, but I fear it won’t) and doing what Dudamel was doing at the Bowl: using only a handful of musicians so he can space them out across the stage. It’s a compliment to their professionalism that, despite their being so fewer of them, the musicians still stayed together and didn’t seem fazed by those yawning expanses of space between them. After the show MS-NBC went to their usual news coverage, announcing that the European Union is banning travelers from the United States (take that, Mr. Wall-Builder Trump!) and that day four U.S. states — Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Nevada — reported their all-time highest one-day totals of COVID-19 cases. As much as I miss public life, it does seem like the U.S. reopened way too soon, and as much as we (especially President “Kung Flu” Trump) wants to blame it on outsiders in general and the Chinese in particular, the United States has become the world’s epicenter of the pandemic. There are a lot of people in this country doing their best to fight the pandemic and keep people alive and healthy, but they’re not getting support from this ass-backwards government we’ve stuck ourselves with thanks to, among other things, our creaky way of running a republic!