Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Scientology and Its Aftermath, Episode 1: “Disconnection” (Arts & Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the first episode of Leah Remini’s show Scientology and the Aftermath, an Arts & Entertainment documentary mini-series about the Church of Scientology and the horrible things it does to people who leave it (or try to) or question its tenets or basically just cause trouble for it. The show touched on a bit of Scientology’s bizarre history — there’s a film clip of founder L. Ron Hubbard — but mostly it’s about Scientology today told from the point of view of people who left in the last few years, some of whom (including Amy Scobee, who once ran Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood — one of her job assignments was to hire Tom Cruise’s household staff and make sure they were all Scientologists so Cruise would never interact with someone who wasn’t part of the Church) had quite high positions in the Scientology administration. Remini was a successful actress (best known for the TV series The King of Queens) who had risen through both the Hollywood and Scientology ranks and was a high-profile spokesperson for the Church until she started noticing that the way it treated its members, especially the non-celebrity ones, was radically different from the way it presented itself to the world as “salvaging” Earth and bringing about a new order of peace and love through “clearing the planet.”

Some of the things said about Scientology in this program won’t make sense unless you have at least some understanding and knowledge of Scientology’s theology — and the particular focus of this episode was “Disconnection,” the church’s insistence that once someone is thrown out of the church or leaves of their own accord, no one still in Scientology is allowed to have contact with that person on pain of being thrown out and declared a “Suppressive Person” (which basically means anyone Scientology’s establishment doesn’t like) — and that especially means family members. Amy and her mom Bonny appear together and explain that once Amy left the church, Bonny was visited by a Scientology “ethics officer” who told her in no uncertain terms that she had to choose between her daughter and the church — and she chose the church, mainly because her husband Mark was still in and if she’d defied the church, he would have been ordered to divorce her. This business of breaking up families is hardly confined to the Church of Scientology — it’s standard operating procedure for religious cults in general — and when Amy said that at age 14 she was working for a 37-year-old Scientology staff member who insisted that she have sex with him even though she was underage and he was married, and when the Church found out about it they insisted that she not report it to the police because it would be handled “internally,” I immediately thought that this was hardly unique to the Church of Scientology: it’s the same sort of cover-up used by the Roman Catholic Church to protect their pedophile priests, and was done for the same reason — to avoid the P.R. hit the Church would have taken if it became known publicly that they harbored pedophiles in the ranks of their clergy. One of Remini’s key collaborators is Mike Rinder, who before he broke with Scientology was head of its enforcement arm; and throughout the program there are titles showing what the Church of Scientology had to say about the people who had once been trusted members of their hierarchy but now, according to the church, are perverts, liars, thieves and criminals — the sheer vileness of the accusations the Church routinely throws out against its adversaries, though not unknown in other sorts of current discourse (can you say “Donald Trump”?), says as much or more about the true character of Scientology than any number of heart-rending interviewees of families separated by Scientology’s diktats.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Under the Streetlamp (Star Productions LLC, CPTV, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the KPBS telecast of a PBS pledge-break special featuring a 1950’s rock revival group called Under the Streetlamp — when I saw the promos for this it took me a while to realize that “Under the Streetlamp” was the name of the group as well as the title of the program! Apparently these people have become stalwarts of PBS’s increasingly intense begging sessions (it’s interesting to study the pitches and realize how PBS’s copywriters are including just about every strategy they can think of, from flattery to shame) and they’ve done two PBS pledge-break specials before, but I’d seen neither one. If you take a look at Under the Streetlamp, with four male members all dressed in matching black suits and with their hair kept short, combed back and Brylcreemed (or whatever the modern equivalent is), you’d probably think of the Four Seasons, and that wouldn’t be coincidence. Apparently the members of Under the Streetlamp were originally one of the casts of Jersey Boys, the sensationally successful biomusical about the Four Seasons, and after their run in that show finished they decided to form their own group and go out on the road — though, fortunately, they did not become just a Four Seasons tribute group and instead learned a wide variety of late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll.

The members of Under the Streetlamp are Shonn Wiley (that’s how the chyron spelled it!), Brandon Wardell, Christopher Kale-Jones, and Michael Ingersoll, and a fifth person — their musical director, conductor and arranger, Patrick Williams, has a major role in making their act as good as it is. The show opened with Williams and the band playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” — not exactly the first song you expect to hear when you’re watching a TV show billed as a tribute to late 1950’s and early 1960’s rock ’n’ roll — but when the Streetlamps came in they were singing “Rock Around the Clock,” and Williams’ arrangement artfully combined the two songs for a lovely effect. The next song was Martha and the Vandellas’ soul classic “Dancing in the Street” — Motown was among the sub-genres the Streetlamps promised us in their promos but this was the only song from Berry Gordy’s empire they vouchsafed us, and they did it very well even without the shimmering intensity that made the original a classic. After that they did Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” pulling a trick they played several times in the concert — starting a song much more slowly than it was done originally, playing it that way for a chorus and then speeding it up — and though the killer organ lick (which for a while back in 1961 I thought was a flute!) wasn’t as loud or as prominent as it was in Shannon’s original, the whole thing was fun and a worthy version of one of the few really good rock songs from the early 1960’s. (There were Dale Shannon and Ricky Nelson among the solo artists, and the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys among the groups, but aside from them rock really was a pretty dead zone between the death of Buddy Holly and the advent of the Beatles!) The rest of their first set was taken up with a nice version of the rock ballad “Since I Don’t Have You” and a Four Seasons medley (they had to acknowledge their roots!) consisting of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” — which I can’t hear anymore without thinking of the Forbidden Broadway parody, “Walk like a man/Sing like a girl” — and “Bye, Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye),” a relatively obscure Seasons song to go with the familiar ones.

After the first of their interminable pledge breaks (more tolerable than usual since the Streetlamps were actual in-studio guests and they turned out to be nice, warm, funny guys) they did “Rockin’ Robin,” which was a hit for Bobby Day in the 1950’s and the pre-pubescent Michael Jackson in the 1970’s — and while none of the Streetlamps could match Jackson’s kid voice on this one (it was so high he really did sound like a robin!), they were clearly having fun with the song and they did it engagingly. Next was an odd medley that started with Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” segued into the Drifters’ “Up On the Roof” and “This Magic Moment,” and ended with “Stand by Me,” the beautiful song (rewritten from a gospel piece) that was one of Ben E. King’s first (and biggest) solo hits after he left the Drifters. Like most white singers, the Streetlamps couldn’t phrase as eloquently as Cooke or King, but they did well enough and the songs remain imperishably beautiful — especially “Up On the Roof,” with the haunting street poetry of Gerry Goffin’s lyric and the soaring melody supplied by his then-wife, Carole King. Then came an intriguing version of the song “For Once in My Life” that acknowledged that it was a middle-of-the-road easy-listening hit for Tony Bennett before Stevie Wonder got hold of it, rocked it up a bit (but kept it slow enough that it still worked as a love ballad) and had a hit on it all over again even though it always seemed to me an outlier to Wonder’s usual stuff. On Tony Bennett’s first Duets album he and Stevie Wonder did the song together, but they kept the whole version at the ballad tempo of Bennett’s original, though with some nice harmonica playing and soul “worrying” by Wonder at the end. The Streetlamps did their first chorus at Bennett’s tempo and then sped up to Wonder’s. Then they did Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive and Wail,” though I daresay this probably wouldn’t have found its way into the Streetlamps’ act if rockabilly and big-band revivalist Brian Setzer hadn’t covered it in 1998, 42 years after Prima, his wife Keely Smith and their sax player Sam Butera first recorded it. Shonn Wiley had mentioned in one of the pledge-break interviews that he was a great fan of tap dancing and had studied it, and he showed off his tap skills — he’s the blondest and by a pretty wide margin the cutest of the band members — on “Jump, Jive and Wail,” and he was damned good.

They closed their second set with a Beach Boys medley that oddly came off better than the one they did on the Four Seasons, their original inspiration — I’ve often described the world of early 1960’s rock fandom as, “If you lived, or wanted to live, on the East Coast you thought the Four Seasons were the future of rock ’n’ roll. If you lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast you thought the Beach Boys were the future of rock ’n’ roll. Little did you know that the future of rock ’n’ roll was in England — and not even in London, in Liverpool!” It began where you might have expected it to, with “Surfer Girl,” though the arrangement used “God Only Knows” as a counter-melody, and then segued into “California Girls” (in a nice chart that didn’t quite shimmer the way the original did — Brian Wilson said it was the first record he made on LSD and, though lyrically it’s a typical “girls” song from the days when virtually all the Beach Boys’ output was about surf, cars and girls, musically it’s a sophisticated composition showing the way to Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” and the unfinished (at least at the time) Smile. The Under the Streetlamp Beach Boys medley went from “California Girls” to “Don’t Worry, Baby” and then — surprisingly — to “Good Vibrations,” which they did surprisingly well except they cheated on the electronic instrument. “Good Vibrations” was ballyhooed when the Beach Boys’ single was released as the first rock record featuring a theremin — though one can see videos from the time and note that the instrument was not a theremin, but a variant thereof in which the sounds were produced by rubbing a strip instead of waving one’s hands in space over an electrically charged rod (which controls the volume) and loop (which controls the pitch) like a true theremin.[1] (Captain Beefheart’s 1966 album Safe as Milk, and particularly its songs “Electricity,” “Yellow Brick Road” and “Autumn Child,” was actually the first rock record to use theremin, and according to the liner notes for the CD reissue of Safe as Milk, the theremin player on it, Sam Hoffman, learned to play the instrument from its inventor, Professor Leon Theremin.) Alas, Under the Streetlamp musical director Patrick Williams, most of whose arrangements were quite clever and added to the songs, copped out on the theremin (or whatever it was) and had the part reproduced by the upper ranges of an organ, much the way he reproduced the high organ part Del Shannon had used in the original “Runaway.”

After the next interminable pledge break, Under the Streetlamp’s repertoire turned decisively towards the middle of the road, with a song called “Brand New Fool” that they performed in a medley with, of all things, the Nat “King” Cole hit “L-O-V-E,” and for their next song they also tapped the Cole songbook, for “That’s All” — which, blessedly, they performed at the slow ballad tempo Cole used on his record and not the speeded-up version Bobby Darin did, which turned it into yet another superficial time-filler for a Vegas lounge act. Their finale was Mitch Ryder’s medley of “Devil with a Blue Dress” and Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” a surprise since little in their previous act had indicated they’d be able to do justice to such raunchy hard rock, and indeed they started “Devil” considerably slower and funkier than Ryder’s version, but they quickly sped up to Ryder’s tempo and they were clearly having fun singing something considerably hotter and less boy-bandish than everything else they’d sung that night. Next was another interminable pledge break, after which we were promised a major encore — but all we got was Under the Streetlamp performing, under the closing credits, a snatch of Bob Seger’s anti-disco “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” anthem from 1978 — considerably later than most of the Streetlamps’ material — though the line we anti-disco types cherished back then (“Don’t ever take me to a disco/You won’t even get me out on that floor”) wasn’t included. Under the Streetlamp is a quite good, professional group of clean-cut young men who are clearly having fun with their music and who undoubtedly give their audience a good time, too; and if they aren’t tapping some of the darker strains of 1950’s rock, that’s fine because that’s not what they’re about. Their latest PBS pledge-break special was actually quite entertaining and well worth watching.

[1] — It’s more like the ondes Martenot, a pioneering French electronic instrument devised in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, which sounded like a theremin but had a conventional keyboard that was played with one hand to control the pitch, a sliding metal element under the keyboard that could be pulled out and manipulated in place of the keyboard, and a box of controls on the left side of the keyboard that controls volume. The Wikipedia page on the ondes Martenot identifies the instrument used by the Beach Boys on “Good Vibrations” as an “electro-theremin,” which like the ondes Martenot “uses a slider to control an oscillator's pitch.”

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lang Lang: New York Rhapsody (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was another episode in the PBS “Fall Arts Festival,” a Great Performances show of pianist Lang Lang (whose name is posted in big letters at the back of the stage which I presume could be lit up at a climactic point in the performance, though that wasn’t done last night) in a concert from May 3, 2016 called New York Rhapsody. I was attracted to this program by the promos for it, which showed Lang Lang playing George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue.” On the 2015 “Capitol Fourth” concert on the Washington National Mall Lang Lang had been featured playing what I called at the time “a wretchedly truncated version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that seemed to have been chopped up in a meat grinder. It’s true, as Leonard Bernstein once said, that Rhapsody in Blue is so sloppily structured a composition that you can take out just about any piece of it and not affect it much except to make it shorter, but the edits were infuriating — especially since the performance was compelling enough (with [conductor Jack] Everly playing the original jazz-band orchestration instead of the later symphonic one, but at the same time playing it more slowly and lyrically than Paul Whiteman did) I’d have wanted to hear it complete.” So I had my hopes up that this concert would present Lang Lang with a top-flight orchestra doing a complete Rhapsody in Blue — only my hopes were dashed early on; though longer than the 2015 Capitol Fourth version (about nine minutes instead of four), it is still not the complete Gershwin score.

What made this program even more infuriating was that for the first time in the history of Great Performances it was presented in pledge-break style, with long intermissions that took almost as much time as the actual program in which local announcers declaimed about the incredible need of PBS for money, money, money, and made the insulting comment to the effect that what we were watching on the air was merely a loss leader for an incredibly expensive ($170) DVD that would contain the entire concert — essentially the same marketing strategy as Trump University, where if you showed up for their “free” seminar on real estate you’d get a pitch to sign up for a $100 seminar, where you would get a pitch for a $1,000 seminar, where you’d get a pitch for a $3,500 one. Now that Donald Trump is going to be President and the entire government in Washington, D.C. is being run by Republicans — and the GOP in general has not exactly made it a secret that they’d like to see the federal funding for public broadcasting ended — we’ll probably be subjected to even more of these insane pledge breaks as well as out-and-out commercials (which run on PBS between the programs now, though in PBS Newspeak they’re called “enhanced underwriting opportunities”). The New York Rhapsody, with a pick-up orchestra conducted by one Jason Michael Webb (who seems to have got the job because he’s young, cute and “urban” — i.e., Black), was organized from the get-go as a “crossover” event, the sort of thing that symphony orchestras are turning to more and more because they’ve noticed that their audience is aging and they figure they can stay in business by giving the younger public what they seem to want — which is celebrities they’ve actually heard of, whether what they’re doing has much to do with classical music at all. I’m not against all crossovers — I remember not long ago hearing a download from a BBC “Proms” concert at which the Pet Shop Boys presented Chrissie Hynde singing four of their songs and also offered an original cantata, A Man from the Future, about the Gay British computer inventor Alan Turing, which at least aspired to some of the same ambitions as genuine classical music — but this one was a bit too crossed over for me.

Of the nine selections we got to see on TV (as opposed to whatever the live audience got and we’d have to buy the $170 DVD to obtain), only four — the Rhapsody in Blue, a “New York Medley” performed by Lang against a backdrop of outdoor movie footage of the city, a version of “Tonight” from the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score for West Side Story, and Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man theme (with Lindsey Stirling delivering some absolutely scorching electric-violin playing — it didn’t have much to do with classical music but it was still fun) — were instrumentals. The others were a wide variety of songs, and the concert’s organizers at least deserve credit for picking an assemblage of pieces about New York City and including ones with a relatively negative view of the place (notably Don Henley’s “New York Minute” and especially Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard”) as well as the upbeat ones that generally crop up in a tribute like this. After the woefully truncated Gershwin Rhapsody — which Lang Lang played rather well, though he couldn’t resist adding a few octave doublings and other touches not in the score, or slowing down for one passage only to speed up for the next — the next song was Don Henley’s “New York Minute,” performed in a voice that was neither fish nor fowl — neither Broadway nor rock, but a bastard mix of the two from someone named Kurt Elling. By chance Charles and I had just been playing through a couple of compilations he made for Thanksgiving, including Scott Walker’s song “Thanks for Chicago, Mr. James” (Charles had looked around my iTunes files for songs with the word “Thanks” in their titles), so I had in the back of my head the sort of voice Elling would have needed to pull off what he was trying to do, and from which he fell far short. It made me want to bring out my copy of Henley’s original just to remind myself what a good song this really was!

After that came an interminable pledge break and then Rufus Wainwright doing an original of his called “Who Are You, New York?,” and doing it well enough except that he was too much the jumping-bean on stage (for someone who’s so often professed his admiration for Judy Garland it’s odd, to say the least, that he hasn’t adopted her stock-still stance on stage) and a richer voice like the 1970’s Scott Walker could have done more justice to Wainwright’s song than he did himself. Then came an intriguing medley of Lou Reed’s “Dirty Boulevard” with the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (whose own work as a composer should have been represented and wasn’t — Sondheim’s song “The Ladies Who Lunch” had been the high point of a previous PBS arts show, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs), with the Reed sung by Suzanne Vega (quite movingly even though she has too good a voice to be quite comfortable in a song by Reed, who wrote his stuff for his own monotone) and the Bernstein/Sondheim by heavy-set Black soul singer Lisa Fischer. I can see why the producers of this concert did these as a medley — after several stanzas describing urban degradation Reed ends “Dirty Boulevard” with a peroration from a boy named Pedro who wants to “fly, fly away from this dirty boulevard,” while “Somewhere” is the lament of a racially mixed couple torn apart by their families and gang members who wish that “there’s a place for us/Somewhere a place for us.” And though the concert took place on May 3, six months before the Presidential election, the verse in “Dirty Boulevard” about immigration — “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I'll piss on ’em/That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/Your poor huddled masses/Let's club ’em to death/And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard” — seemed all too appropriate in the age of TrumpAmerica. But the two songs didn’t really fit that well together musically, even though both were superbly sung and Vega’s “take” on Reed makes the song seem richer even if also less heartbreaking than the original.

After that came the Spider-Man theme, and then another interminable pledge break, and then Lang Lang sitting in front of a series of images of New York out of doors as he played his medley — which began and ended with the “Theme from New York, New York” by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and in between offered Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” (a great song but one that doesn’t sound especially “New Yorky”), Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and the Leonard Bernstein “New York, New York” from the musical On the Town he wrote in 1944 with Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (This show definitely deserves points for representing artists who were Gay or Bisexual, including Bernstein, Sondheim, Strayhorn, Reed, and Wainwright.) Then there was a quirky rendition of “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which squeezed in yet another Gay artist at least by reference (the film was based on a story by Truman Capote) and which was sung by Regina Spektor, who said in an interview that out of all the versions of this song that have been performed — including the original hits by Jerry Butler and Andy Williams, both of whom had real voices — her favorite was the one Audrey Hepburn sings in the movie. This probably explains why she “dumbed down” her voice to sound as much like Hepburn as she could — anyone who sees Breakfast at Tiffany’s will wonder why anyone in Hollywood had the idea that Audrey Hepburn could handle the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, yet when she signed for the role she assumed she’d do her own singing and was quite upset when they pre-recorded two songs with her (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “Show Me”) but then brought in Marni Nixon as her voice double. I’m not familiar with Spektor as a singer but I’m pretty sure she’s generally better than she was last night, when she all too faithfully imitated Hepburn’s nasal tones and flat intonations. The song also included a dobro part by Jerry Douglas, who I believe is actually a descendant of the Douglas Brothers who invented this lap-held slide guitar with a metal resonator and named it after the first syllables of “Douglas” and “Brothers.”

After “Moon River” the show brought on Black trumpeter Sean Jones for “Tonight,” done as an instrumental — Jones isn’t that great a trumpet player, and the arrangement kept him all too close to the melody so it was hard to tell from the concert whether he could actually improvise — and then came the finale, a committee-written song identified as “Empire State of Mind” but really its follow-up, “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down.” It began as a song by rapper Jay-Z, written by Angela Hunte and Jane’t Sewell-Ulepic. Hunte was supposed to sing a vocal part to counterpoint Jay-Z’s raps, but at the last minute they decided they needed a stronger singer, considered Mary J. Blige, but finally hired Alicia Keys. Because the song “sampled” another piece called “Love on a Two-Way Street” by Sylvia Robinson (the “Sylvia” in Mickey and Sylvia, a 1950’s R&B duo two of whose songs, “Love Is Strange” and “Dearest,” were covered by Buddy Holly, who also ripped off Mickey’s guitar lick from “Love Is Strange” for a number of his originals, and later the producer and label owner for the first true rap record, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) and Burt Keyes, their names ended up on the songwriting credits, as did Alicia Keys, her writing partner Alexander Shuckburgh, and Shawn Carter. (Songwriting credits are getting as convoluted as screenwriting credits!) After the song — released as a duet but with Jay-Z getting billing over Keys — Alicia Keys decided to record her own version “because she wanted to express her own personal feelings about New York” (according to the Wikipedia page on the Jay-Z original), and so she created “Empire State of Mind (Part II): Broken Down,” which has the same set of seven songwriting credits as Jay-Z’s and was pretty obviously what guest star Audra Day was singing (quite powerfully) on the Lang Lang New York Rhapsody concert. But Day’s great singing couldn’t conceal that the song appeared to be pasted together from bits of scrap paper (which, knowing how rap productions sometimes go, could well be the truth) and didn’t really seem to go anywhere.

The basic problem with New York Rhapsody was that the music, except for the Rhapsody in Blue and the Spider-Man theme, didn’t really challenge Lang Lang: through all too much of the running time he seemed to be an extra in his own show, handling the piano parts of the arrangements well enough but looking uninvolved and bored. Though he didn’t put a candelabrum on top of his piano (the only thing that was there was a tablet computer with copies of the scores he was playing from so he could access his music instantaneously and not have to fumble through pieces of paper), dressed in a normal suit instead of sequins or feathers, and didn’t talk to the audience between songs (one tradition of classical concerts it was nice to see preserved here), his whole schtick here seemed uncomfortably close to Liberace’s, as he tried to dumb down his musicianship and skill to lower himself to the material he was playing. New York Rhapsody actually had some good moments, but for the most part the show was one of those not too digestible cultural mixes that wasn’t especially good as a showcase for Lang Lang and didn’t really explore the wealth of music that has been written on, about or for New Yorkers, either in the classical or pop vein. The main piece of music I’d have liked to see included is Gershwin’s Rhapsody No. 2 for Orchestra and Piano — that’s how he billed them — of which he wrote the first version for the 1931 Fox musical Delicious to accompany a scene of Janet Gaynor, an undocumented immigrant from Scotland, rambling through the New York streets and avoiding the immigration agent who’s after her to deport her. In this initial form it was actually called New York Rhapsody, and having Lang Lang and the orchestra perform it “live” while the film footage was shown would have been an interesting addition to this concert!

Cilla (ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Soundbreaking episode KPBS showed an oddity: the first episode in a three-part 2014 mini-series on Britain’s Independent Television Service (ITS) — their commercial channel, which explains why this is a relatively brief show (45 minutes instead of the 57 minutes of a typical BBC “hour” show) — on the career of Cilla Black, Liverpool songstress who became the only act signed by manager Brian Epstein other than the Beatles to have truly long-term success. She rose from a precarious existence in working-class Liverpool to major stardom in England — though her attempt at a U.S. breakthrough flopped — and so far the first episode of this show is basically a revival of the proletarian dramas British film studios were churning out in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, with some interesting moments when members of the Beatles and the other big Liverpool pop groups — the Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Ringo Starr’s original band) and King Size Taylor and the Dominoes — are shown playing in realistic duplications of the Cavern Club and Liverpool’s other underground (literally — they were almost all located in basements) nightclubs in the early 1960’s. Cilla is played and sung by Sheridan Smith, with Aneurin Barnard as her cute, blond and incredibly creepy boyfriend (later husband) Bobby Willis, a typical boor who keeps threatening to blow her career while thinking he’s helping it. The show reaches a climax when Cilla, backed by the Beatles, wins an audition at the Cavern for Brian Epstein — and blows it by singing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” instead of one of her rock specialties. It’s O.K. entertainment but the main thrill is getting to see actors impersonating some of the great heroes of the Liverpool beat scene — and the show’s casting director, Gertie Pye, deserves great credit for finding actors to play the Beatles who not only look but sound credibly like the originals — especially Kevin Mains as Paul McCartney. (For some reason Paul has always been the most difficult Beatle for biopic makers to cast.) — 11/22/16


I’ve been waiting for a chance to comment on the last two episodes of a curious but interesting British ITV (Independent Television Service, Britain’s private TV network) mini-series from 2014, Cilla, a biopic of the early years of Liverpool singer Cilla Black (acted and sung quite capably by Sheridan Smith). She was born Priscilla White, daughter of a working-class family, and though at one point she seems to have studied to be a beautician — at least we see her experimenting first on her mother’s hair and then on her own — but eventually she’s declared “suitable for office work,” which her mom (Melanie Hill) and dad (John Henshaw) think is a major privilege and a rare chance for advancement out of their working-class origins. But Cilla (as she’s quickly nicknamed) also likes rock ’n’ roll and likes to hang out at the Liverpool “beat” clubs in the early 1960’s to see the top bands of the city’s music scene, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, King Size Taylor and the Dominoes, and the Big Three. (There were quite a few other bands on the scene, including one called the Beatles which were considered lesser talents then but whom you’ve undoubtedly heard of since.) Rory Storm’s drummer, Richard Starkey a.k.a. Ringo Starr (Tom Dunlea, a bit taller than the original but still credible in the role), thinks Cilla has a voice and encourages her to sit in when the bands call on women in the audience to come up on stage and try out a song or two. Cilla is at first painfully shy about doing so, but she starts to develop a stage presence. She also acquires a sort-of boyfriend, Bobby Willis (Aneurin Barnard), a tall, striking blond man, who agrees to be her manager — but only manages to cost her a few jobs when he insists on her getting two pounds a night when the bands she wants to sing with say they can only afford one.

At one point Cilla quits singing altogether but, in order to remain on the scene, becomes a hat-check girl at the Cavern Club, Liverpool’s best-known rock club. She watches the ascension of another girl singer, Beryl Marsden (Gemma Sutton), who looks like she’s headed for stardom after Brian Epstein signs the Beatles to a management contract, he places with with EMI’s Parlophone record label, they become sensationally successful with their second record “Please Please Me” and … well, you know the rest. Epstein signed a lot of the Liverpool acts and steered them to Parlophone and its producer, George Martin, where they so dominate the British pop charts that during the 52 weeks of 1963 Martin-produced records top the British charts for 37. (EMI’s response to all the money Martin’s records were making them was to send him a letter saying that his salary was now too high for him to qualify for a Christmas bonus. It was an insult that rankled him for the remaining 52 years of his life.) Epstein’s strategy for breaking other Liverpool acts was not only to get them on Parlophone and have Martin work their magic on them (though the Big Three escaped the Epstein-Martin net and signed instead with Decca, which famously turned down the Beatles after giving them a recorded audition) but to have John Lennon and/or Paul McCartney supply a song for their debut record. The first episode of Cilla ends with a disastrous audition at the Cavern in which Cilla — billed by mistake as “Cilla Black,” which she decides she likes as a stage name even though her dad gets kidded about it (he says the people at his job are telling a joke about whether he’s evolved “because we don’t know whether you’re Black or White”) — bombs because she chooses to sing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” instead of a rock number. (Six years later Janis Joplin would turn “Summertime” into a soul-rock number and do it quite well.) But when Brian Epstein’s plans for Beryl Marsden fall through (for reasons screenwriter Jeff Pope never bothers to explain) he takes another look at Cilla and signs her. The Beatles’ song he outfits her with is “Love of the Loved,” which she records with some obnoxiously loud trumpets providing the backup — she complains that all the studio musicians playing behind her are middle-aged, and Martin stops a take because she’s pronouncing the words “care” and “there” as “curr” and “thurr.” (In the final record they come out as “cahh” and “thahh.” Later she recorded “Ol’ Man River” and sang “scared” as “scaghed.”)

It only gets to #37 in the British charts, but Epstein has another trick up his sleeve: he wants Cilla to record the Burt Bacharach-Hal David ballad “Anyone Who Has a Heart.” It’s already been a hit in the U.S. for Dionne Warwick, but her record company, Scepter, doesn’t have a British distributor and Epstein sees a chance to get Cilla to cover it. When he takes the song to George Martin, Martin thinks he’s offering it to Shirley Bassey, the Black contralto he’s also producing and who’s best known today for singing the theme to the James Bond movie Goldfinger. Epstein astounds Martin by saying he wants him to record it with Cilla, and when Martin questions whether she can handle a sophisticated song like that, Epstein gives that doe-eyed look he was so good at and says, “I know my Cilla. I know she can do it.” The sessions are a nightmare because Burt Bacharach is there to conduct the record personally, and he calls for take after take even after both Cilla and Martin, the record’s nominal producer, think they’ve got a good version in the can. In the film Cilla turns it into an endurance test and ultimately nails the song to Bacharach’s satisfaction. It goes to #1 on the British charts and makes her career. She starts touring the U.K. with Bobby Willis as her road manager, though she’s too “good” a girl to let him into her room until they’re actually married and she’s also hamstring by Epstein’s insistence that she present herself to the world as “carefree and single” so young straight boys will fantasize about her. Epstein’s own sexuality becomes an issue in the plot when we see him at a private Gay club — the anti-sodomy laws under which Oscar Wilde had been convicted were still very much in effect in the mid-1960’s but the organizers of this establishment must have had some sort of underground “protection” deal with the authorities, since they allow people to meet there and embrace and kiss, though they don’t allow actual sex on the premises. Epstein sneaks out to this club and is warned off “Terry,” the meanest and most hostile man on the premises, but of course he’s instantly attracted to him and takes him to his room — where Terry beats him up after they’ve finished having sex. The depictions of Epstein’s sex life in episodes two and three of Cilla make it seem like he never had sex with a man who was actually Gay — just with young straight boys doing “Gay for pay” and showing their disgust with the whole thing by beating up their clients afterwards. After both the encounters depicted in the film — the second one of which ends with him telling his butler, whose job seems to be mostly to pick up the pieces after his boyfriend de jour has roughed him up, “I disgust myself” — he shows up for his next appointment with Cilla and Bobby with a black eye, which he explains with the sort of preposterous explanation (“I banged my head on the kitchen door”) one’s used to hearing from wives whose husbands are beating them.

One thing the real Cilla Black said about the real Brian Epstein that doesn’t make it into this movie was how fashion-conscious he was — remember that at one point he had studied dress designing and had wanted to pursue that as his career, only his parents shot it down — she said a major part of her success was due to Epstein’s impeccable taste in what she should wear and how she should be groomed. Cilla herself comes off as something of a bitch — when Epstein and Martin want to offer Bobby Willis, a talented songwriter and singer, a contract of his own, Cilla insists that he not take it because “I need you to look after me” — and in 1965, when Epstein decides that Cilla is ready to conquer the U.S., he books her on the Ed Sullivan Show (ITV’s casting director, Gertie Pye, scored with actors who look like reasonable simulacra of the Beatles but couldn’t find anyone as tall, thin or imperious as George Martin and totally blew it with Ed Sullivan; he’s played here by an actor named Jay Benedict who looks more like an American football player than the fabled TV host — but then we could hardly expect her to be as lucky as Robert Zemeckis, who in I Want to Hold Your Hand, his dramatization of the Beatles’ first Sullivan Show appearance, got Will Jordan, already established as a quite good Sullivan impersonator, to play him) and gets her a gig at the prestigious Persian Room nightclub. Alas, Cilla meets the fate of a lot of nightclub performers — an audience more interested in dining and (especially) drinking than in anything that’s going on from the stage — and in the middle of her run she rings up Bobby and angrily demands that the two go home. Back in Britain her record sales are slipping — Brian Epstein explains to her that the run of a recording act at the top of the charts is usually about three years — and he says she should think about doing something else, like hosting a TV show. She’s reluctant, but Epstein negotiates a contract for her to do a show for the BBC just before he dies in August 1967, and she signs the contract that’s his last legacy to her and her show, Cilla, is a huge success.

The credits do a quick wrap-up at the end of the program: Cilla and Bobby Willis finally got married in 1969 and they stayed together, with him managing her as well as being her husband, until his death in 1999. (Their son Robert took over as her manager.) Cilla was still alive when this series debuted in 2014, though it was rerun when she died the following year. When I watched the first episode of Cilla I was struck at how much it seemed like one of the proletarian “kitchen-sink dramas” the British film studios were making when the events it depicts were taking place — writer Pope and director Paul Whittington drench the screen in working-class atmosphere, and Pope’s script also makes a big dramatic issue over the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Liverpool — remember that a lot of Liverpudlians were emigrants from Ireland (including John Lennon’s family; on the liner to the 1974 album Walls and Bridges he published a genealogical note on his Irish lineage), and they seem to bring their religious hatreds with them. Bobby Willis’s father disowns Bobby’s older brother for marrying a Catholic girl, and that’s one more reason Bobby holds off on marrying Cilla as long as he does because she, too, is from a Catholic family. Cilla is an interesting side take on the Liverpool music scene of the early 1960’s — it was a local “scene” as powerful and talent-packed as San Francisco in the late 1960’s and Seattle in the early 1990’s — and it’s fascinating to see the Beatles as bit players in someone else’s music story even though posters have pointed out all the inaccuracies in how the Beatles were depicted (in particular the rather off-base portrayal of how Ringo became the Beatles’ drummer). Cilla Black was the only one of Brian Epstein’s clients, other than the Beatles, to achieve enduring success, and though she never cracked the U.S. market she was an enormous star at home and fully deserving of this intriguing and fascinating tribute. — 11/26/16

Friday, November 25, 2016

Jack and the Beanstalk (Exclusive Productions, Warner Bros., 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I brought over a recent videotape and ran two movies from it: Jack and the Beanstalk, a 1951 adaptation made by Warner Brothers, starring Abbott and Costello with Buddy Baer as the giant, and directed by Jean Yarbrough — the first credit I can remember seeing for the Boy Named Jean on a major-studio production. It’s an O.K. movie, a musical fantasy which begins and ends in sepia while the main portion takes place in color, like The Wizard of Oz — but that’s about the only similarity: the songs are undistinguished (true I was inevitably comparing them to Frank Loesser’s marvelous “Jack and the Beanstalk” song for Fred Astaire in Let’s Dance, but even by lesser — pardon the pun — standards they’re undistinguished sub-Disney material), neither the plot nor the budget offered much room for special effects (the beanstalk grows in animation — though when it’s completed it’s a three-dimensional rubber concoction — and animation is also used to simulate Abbott and Costello climbing up it). It’s a decent children’s movie but little more than that, though Buddy Baer is fully convincing as the giant (with his height boosted the way the Frankenstein Monster’s was, through the use of boots with false soles) and the Super Cinecolor process used, though nowhere near as dazzling as the three-strip Technicolor of Oz, is at least harmonious and nice to look at (though biased towards greens and browns, as most of the non-Technicolor color processes of the period were — at least the blue skies were convincing, Cinecolor having worked out a technique of photographing blue before Technicolor did so!). — 12/2/98


When Charles and I finally sat down to watch a movie it was a public-domain download of the next Abbott and Costello movie in chronological sequence: Jack and the Beanstalk, originally copyrighted in 1951 though’s page on it gives 1952 as the year. This is significant because RKO General, what was left of RKO Studios after it gave up filmmaking in 1958 and leased its old catalog all over the place, claimed copyright status for it based on a renewal application filed in 1980 — a year late. Jack and the Beanstalk was actually made by Abbott and Costello for producer Alex Gottlieb — who a decade earlier had supervised their star-making films at Universal — through a company called “Exclusive Productions” and Warner Bros. at the releasing studio (though according to the film was actually shot, not at Warners, but at Hal Roach Studios). Apparently Gottlieb cut a two-film deal with Abbott and Costello, and part of the deal was that each partner would own the negative of one film: this was supposed to be Costello’s film and the next A&C Warners release, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (with Charles Laughton spoofing the part of Kidd he’d previously played seriously in 1945) would be Abbott’s. This may explain why Costello’s brother Pat had more of a role in this film than usual — generally he was Lou’s stunt double (though Lou, who’d been a stunt person himself in the late 1920’s, did a lot of his own stunt work) but this time he’s credited as executive producer and story writer. The film “tweaks” the famous fairy tale about a guileless young boy named Jack who sells his widowed mother’s cow for a handful of magic beans that grow a giant beanstalk overnight and give him access to the castle of the fearsome giant Boulevas. After a few adventures in Boulevas’s castle in the sky, which consist mainly of avoiding being eaten by the giant, Jack grabs the giant’s big treasures — a goose that lays golden eggs and a talking harp — and races down the beanstalk with the giant in hot pursuit.

Fortunately, Jack grabs an ax and chops down the beanstalk, which falls over while the giant is climbing down it, killing him. Writers Pat Costello and Nat Curtis — apparently inspired by a night when Pat Costello had been reading fairy tales to his four-year-old daughter to put her to sleep — cooked up a variation on the tale that would allow them to copy much of the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. In the beginning, shot in sepia-toned black-and-white (albeit far more washed-out sepia than in The Wizard of Oz), Mr. Dinkel (Bud Abbott) and Jack Strong (Lou Costello) are sent out to baby-sit at the home of Eloise Larkin (Shaye Cogan), who’s raising her younger brother Donald (David Stollery) and an even younger baby sister. She’s also acting in a Broadway play, and she wants her boyfriend Arthur (James Alexander) to drive her there but they can’t leave until the babysitters arrive. When they get there, Arthur and Eloise leave for their play and Jack is left alone with Donald, a thoroughly obnoxious and bratty kid. Jack offers to read the kid Jack and the Beanstalk — “It’s one of my favorite novels,” he says in the trademark Lou Costello whine, establishing that this is one movie in which Costello will be playing at or close to Stan Laurel’s level of naïve idiocy — only when Jack stumbles over big words like “terrorized” and “ferocious,” Donald takes over and reads the book to him. Jack falls asleep and dreams himself into the Jack and the Beanstalk story, which is shown in color (SuperCinecolor) which is badly faded in the public-domain print but is beautifully restored in a Warners reissue print which Charles and I watched for the last 10 minutes or so when our public-domain download ended early. One gimmick Pat Costello and Nat Curtis copied from The Wizard of Oz (the 1939 movie) is having everyone in the fairy-tale dream sequence be someone Jack had met in his waking life: the obnoxious policeman who ticketed him and Dinkel in the opening scene becomes the giant (though he’s shown only as a larger-than normal human being and is played by Buddy Baer, younger brother of former heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer); the receptionist at the employment agency (6’ 2” Dorothy Ford) is the giant’s maid; Arthur and Eloise become a prince and princess from adjoining kingdoms whose families have arranged a dynastic marriage for them, but they meet each other not knowing who the other is and fall genuinely in love; and Dinkel becomes Mr. Dinkelpuss (Bud Abbott), the local butcher who buys Jack’s cow for a handful of magic beans which generate the titular beanstalk.

The film has a certain charm but, despite the efforts of people who’d worked with Abbott and Costello before at Universal (producer Gottlieb, director A Boy Named Jean Yarborough, and cinematographer George Robinson — who shoots a couple of nicely malevolent and Gothic close-ups of Buddy Baer but otherwise contributes little but competence here), it’s simply not very good. At least it gives us a chance to see Lou Costello in at least a semi-heroic role (that’s what comes of having your brother write the script!), but it makes Bud Abbott even nastier and more malevolent than usual (not a good sign), and in an attempt to make it at least a semi-musical it’s saddled with five ludicrously banal songs by Lester Lee and Bob Russell. The ballad duet Arthur and Eloise (though she calls herself “Darlene”) while they’re prisoners in adjoining cells in the giant’s dungeon is nice enough, but the rest of the songs are superficially happy pieces sung en masse by the characters as a chorus — and it’s interesting that in the big finale Bud Abbott has a singing double while Lou Costello is singing for himself. (Remember that when he died Costello was set for the part of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the musical about him, Fiorello! Tom Bosley ultimately played the role.) It’s an O.K. movie, and it probably charmed children in the audience in 1951 even as it was boring their parents, but as a comic fairy tale on film it hardly holds a candle either to The Wizard of Oz or the 1934 Babes in Toyland, which also plopped a modern-dress comedy team (Laurel and Hardy) into a classic fairy tale but, though in black-and-white, was better in every respect: a great score by Victor Herbert, a lavish production, a coherent story, moments of genuine terror and fright, and — let’s face it — a considerably subtler and funnier comedy team at the center. — 11/25/16

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Bourne Identity (Universal, Kennedy-Marshall, Hypnotic, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I went into the DVD backlog and broke open my boxed set of the first three movies in the Jason Bourne cycle starring Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity, based very loosely on the book by Robert Ludlum. According to Ludlum’s Wikipedia page, “Ludlum’s novels typically feature one heroic man, or a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries whose intentions and motivations are evil and who are capable of using political and economic mechanisms in frightening ways. The world in his writings is one where global corporations, shadowy military forces and government organizations all conspire to preserve (if it is good) or undermine (if it is evil) the status quo.” Virtually all his titles are three words, the first being “The,” the second a proper noun and the third an abstract noun: The Ostermann Weekend, The Parsifal Mosaic, The Rhinemann Exchange, The Chancellor Manuscript, The Prometheus Deception — and Ludlum’s three Bourne books were The Bourne Identity (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (1986) and The Bourne Ultimatum (1990). Since Ludlum’s death in 2001 additional books featuring his characters have come out as what Wikipedia politely describes as “written under the Ludlum brand,” and his publishers, executors or whoever have picked an author named Eric Van Lustbader (whose name sounds like one Ludlum would have made up for one of his characters) to continue writing additional Jason Bourne books. The Ludlum bibliography on Wikipedia also lists three “co-authored” books, The Hades Factor (2000) and The Paris Option (2002) with Gayle Linde and The Cassandra Compact (2001) with Philip Shelby, all in his “Covert-One” series.

The Bourne Identity was first filmed in 1988 as a two-part TV miniseries featuring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne, a show Charles and I got on DVD and watched some time ago — my notes on it describe a plot line considerably closer to Ludlum’s novel (which I haven’t read but various contributors on described in terms of the differences between the 1988 and 2002 films) than the version we watched last night, first of a series of Ludlum movies starring Matt Damon as Bourne. The box contains the three films at least ostensibly based on the novels actually written by Ludlum (as opposed to the 11 listed on Wikipedia as written by Van Lustbader after Ludlum’s death): The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Since then there have been at least two more Bourne movies, one continuing the casting of Matt Damon in the lead and one replacing him with Jeremy Renner. The 2002 version of The Bourne Identity was the brainchild of director Doug Liman, who sought out Ludlum to get the rights (curiously Ludlum is given an executive producer credit and also an “In Memoriam” acknowledgment!) and then went for backing to Universal, who according to the “trivia” section on the fought Liman through much of the film, asking for repeated rewrites and at one point threatening to delete one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, towards the end of the story, in which the fleeing Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and his companion Marie (Franka Potente, a brilliant actress who turns in an indelible performance and makes her character far more interesting and complex than the usual dumb damsel-in-distress — indeed, she totally out-acts Damon!) seek out her former boyfriend Eamon (Tim Dutton) at a farmhouse in southern France. Eamon lives there with two kids, whom he’s apparently raising as a single parent, and he’s living a totally normal life when his old friend suddenly shows up with a strange man whose mere presence puts everyone in mortal danger, and Liman effectively builds up the suspense as to whether Eamon can get his children into his basement in time to avoid them and him becoming collateral damage from whatever Bourne was doing and the enemies he’d made doing it. For future films in the series, Universal and its co-production companies, Kennedy-Marshall and Hypnotic, went to a more compliant director, Paul Greengrass, instead of Liman.

The basic premise of The Bourne Identity, according to the “Trivia” page on the 2002 film, was that a man would lose consciousness and then suddenly regain it, but with no clue as to who he was, what he did or how he had got to where he was when he came to. It came from a real-life case Ludlum discovered from 1887, when a minister named Ansel Bourne from Rhode Island forgot who he was, moved to Pennsylvania, lived there under the name Brown, and opened a store. Three months later, he snapped back to awareness of his Bourne identity and forgot the entire time he’d lived as Brown — and of course had no idea how he’d ended up in Pennsylvania. From that Ludlum constructed a story of a hired killer for an intelligence agency who comes to when he’s rescued at sea and is carrying a microfilm which contains the number to a secret Swiss bank account. Once he’s well enough to travel to Zurich (the script by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron for the 2002 version omits the character of the drunken ex-surgeon who slowly nurses him back to health, included in the 1988 TV-movie and played therein by Denholm Elliott) he is able to open the safe-deposit box and finds a U.S. passport therein in the name of Jason Bourne — and several passports from other countries, all showing his photo but different names. One of them is Jon Michael Kane (“as in Orson Welles, not the Bible,” I was tempted to joke, though apparently the name was “Cain” in Ludlum’s book), along with quite a few bundles of currency from various countries and an automatic pistol, which for some reason he leaves behind though he takes the passports and the cash. Bourne goes to the U.S. Embassy in Zurich but is ambushed there by people he doesn’t recognize; he flees (his flight involves a 30-foot drop off the side of a building and, according to, even though he had two stunt doubles on the project Matt Damon did this stunt himself) and offers a young woman named Marie (Franka Potente), a so-called “gypsy” who’s lived in various European cities and come and gone without any discernible pattern, $20,000 in U.S. dollars to drive him to Paris. She hesitates a bit at first but eventually accepts, and since her car is a British Mini-Cooper subcompact, when they finally get to Paris they’re able to escape police cars much faster than theirs because they have such a tight turning circle. (There’s also a nice scene that reminded me of the 1965 comedy The Great Race, in which they drive down an outside staircase.)

From then on the film is basically a series of action scenes intercut with the people who are trying to find and kill Bourne, who are members of a rogue CIA operation called Treadstone (inspired, according to, by the real-life operation “The Enterprise” that organized the Iran-Contra affair) who sent Bourne to assassinate a former African dictator named Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who was threatening to write a tell-all book about how the CIA kept him in power, which would have “outed” some of the agency’s undercover agents. Bourne, we find out towards the end of the movie, worked his way onto the crew of Wombosi’s yacht and stalked him but drew back from killing him because his kids were with him at the time, so Wombosi plugged him twice in the back and he fell into the water, where he was rescued by a fishing boat and brought to safety. The 2002 Bourne Identity is actually a pretty good movie — not a world-beater, and somewhat handicapped by Ludlum’s and the screenwriters’ attempt to make neither a James Bond secret-agent superhero story or a tougher, grittier John Le Carré-style tale, but something in between, but blessed with finely honed acting (especially by Potente and Clive Owen as the mysterious “Professor,” who takes Wombosi out and is about to do the same to Bourne when Bourne tricks him into blowing his sniper’s cover, overpowers and kills him) and excellent suspense direction by Liman. Much of the film is wordless, and the music is kept to a minimum, indicative of a director who has enough confidence in his images to tell his story in strictly visual terms. One humorous way in which a movie just 14 years of old manages to seem out of date is the high technology it depicts; the computers in Treadstone’s office all have cathode-ray monitors and the cell phones are all of the clamshell design. I could have wished for an edgier actor as Bourne (like Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage) but Damon looks fine and handles the action scenes quite well. I was amused at the sex scene between Bourne and Marie that seems to come out of the blue, and which she is the sexual aggressor; I joked that she’d be saying, “Why shouldn’t I have sex with you? You’re James Bond … well, at least you have the same initials.”

Soundbreaking, Episodes 7 and 8: “Sound and Vision” and “I Am My Music” (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the last two nights I’ve watched some of PBS’s “Fall Arts Festival” programming on pop music, particularly the last two episodes of the Soundbreaking series, “Sound and Vision” (about the rise and, as far as music is concerned, the fall of MTV) and “I Am My Music” (about the various formats recorded music has been packaged in, from 10-inch 78’s to 45 rpm singles to LP’s to CD’s to downloads and now streaming services). The “Sound and Vision” show introduced Tom Freston, the executive who was picked to run MTV (the initials stood for “Music Television” but today there’s almost no music on MTV, thanks to the curse of tacky “reality” shows that were put on originally to supplement its programming and later replaced videos) because he previously knew nothing about TV — a management philosophy that seems to have produced our next President. When the corporate overlords of MTV decided to launch a music channel they had virtually nothing to put on it — just a few videos from Europe, where music videos were already an established format, including endless ones of Rod Stewart, sitting in front of a fireplace strumming an acoustic guitar as his hits played in the background. (In 1981 Yoko Ono did a memorial video for John Lennon, based on his song “Woman,” and when Barbara Walters aired it on ABC she had to explain to the audience what a music video was!) The show offered a brief history of music on film, including a clip from the spectacular “Shadow Waltz” number from Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1933, but it ignored the so-called “band shorts” that had actually been the first talking films ever made in the early 1920’s (among Lee DeForest’s experimental films to test his sound-on-film system in 1923 were three-minute performances by Eddie Cantor and other “name” entertainers and bands of the day) and by the mid-1930’s had developed into an art form of their own. Duke Ellington’s A Bundle of Blues (1933) and Symphony in Black (1935) are artfully staged performances that anticipated the music videos of the 1980’s in their attempts, not merely to depict a band performing, but to show images that communicated with the music was about. In the early 1940’s a company called Sonoco invented a self-contained projector called a “panoram” and used it to show “Soundies,” three-minute clips of popular big bands and entertainers (including Liberace, who made his film debut on one) which you could watch by dropping a coin in a slot and selecting the film to project — a sort of video jukebox.

The MTV show leaped forward to the way rock music was presented on TV in the 1950’s, with American Bandstand and its imitators; though Bandstand was presented as if the musicians were performing live, they weren’t. Instead they were simply lip-synching to their recordings, and often you could tell because their electric instruments weren’t plugged in to anything. The real start of rock music videos came, as with so much else in modern rock, with the Beatles, who once they stopped performing life in 1966 decided to make short films accompanying their songs which could be shown on TV as promotion for their records — and I can vividly remember what a sense of occasion surrounded every time a new Beatles video was unveiled, like the night they picked the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour as the venue by which they would introduce the U.S. to “Hey Jude.” The Beatles’ movies not only pioneered the use of video as a way to promote music, they also established the filmmaking style that would come to dominate rock videos: elaborate productions, quick cutting and an abstract presentation instead of any attempt to simulate a live performance. Once MTV launched — with a defiant gesture, a song by Thomas Dolby called “Video Killed the Radio Star” — they scrambled for material, especially since Freston and the other people running it had decided that their core audience was young white rock fans who wanted to see young white rock musicians … and no one else. Not until CBS/Sony Records threatened to pull all their videos from MTV if the channel didn’t start playing Michael Jackson did MTV start playing Michael Jackson — whose videos became so incredibly popular they helped launch his album Thriller and push it from just another successful record to a phenomenon. (Actually I suspect Thriller was launched as much from Jackson’s famous “moonwalk” performance on “Billie Jean” from the Motown 25th Anniversary Special than from his videos getting on MTV — though one Black musician and producer recalled stopping whatever they were doing in the studio every hour because MTV had the full 14-minute clip of “Thriller” on at the same time every hour, and he and his band loved it so much they insisted on breaking off their own work to watch it whenever it was on.)

The basic thesis of “Sound and Vision” was that the existence of music videos and MTV as a showcase for them not only changed the audience’s understanding of music — one anti-video holdout, Tom Petty, said he resisted making videos for a while because he didn’t want his listeners to be locked into an association of a song with one and only set of visual images — but altered who got signed to record contracts. A singer like Madonna, with a serviceable voice but a great sense of theatricality and a willingness to reinvent herself constantly, became a huge star in the 1980’s largely on the strength of her videos as well as the songs they portrayed. (She did a video to “Material Girl” that was a flat-out copy of the scene of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and the Los Angeles Times’ editorial cartoonist, after one of President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union addresses, pictured Reagan as Madonna as Monroe singing, “We’re living in the material world/And I am a material boy.”) The show really didn’t go into much detail as to why MTV so totally abandoned videos in its programming — today it’s almost all tacky so-called “reality” shows plus an occasional Video Music Awards or some such show that hearkens back to its glory days — though it noted that music videos have migrated, like so much else, to the Internet, where people seek them out on YouTube. (Barf.)

Episode eight, “I Am My Music,” briefly toured through not only 78 rpm records but also the original gramophones, graphophones and Victrolas that played them (though actually much equipment in the 78 rpm era, particularly towards the end of it, was considerably more sophisticated than shown here) and briefly touched on the so-called “Battle of the Speeds” between CBS/Columbia, which developed a long-playing 33 1/3 rpm record that could last up to 25 minutes per side; and RCA Victor, which developed a short-playing 7-inch 45 rpm record with a large spindle hole (to accommodate the high-speed changer that would allow several records to be stacked and played in succession). Both formats survived, since the small size of the 45 rpm player allowed teens to carry both a supply of records and the equipment to play them on and set them up virtually everywhere, while the 33 1/3 rpm LP became the bastion for more serious music, not only classical but also artistically adventurous pop forms. Two LP’s from the 1950’s got special mention on the show: Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours (in which he responded to the breakup of his marriage to Ava Gardner by making a whole album of heartbreak songs and carefully sequencing them so the mood built up over the entire span of the LP) and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (five extended performances by an all-star jazz band with Miles, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb — actually Miles had innovated the long-form jazz LP eight years earlier with his Prestige Records release Dig, but Kind of Blue was on a major label, Columbia, and it was also artistically innovative in that it was based on modal songs, which use scales instead of chords as their basic underlying organizing principle).

The show also included clips of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton performing “Hound Dog” and an interview with the song’s co-author, Mike Stoller (he wrote it with his usual writing partner, Jerry Lieber, and drummer/bandleader/producer Johnny Otis), followed up by a clip of Elvis Presley singing his heavily remodeled version (which, according to biographer Albert Goldman, he got from another Black act, Freddy Bell and the Bellhops, who rewrote the Thornton original so it could be sung by a man) in which Otis’s name magically disappeared from the songwriting credits (and Otis, done out of his rightful share of royalties from a record that sold 10 million copies, was naturally pissed). It then mentioned the rise of Top 40 radio and its crucial importance in “breaking” rock records in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and the tyranny of short running times it imposed — whereas a 10-inch pop 78 could accommodate 3 minutes 20 seconds, and a 45 could be longer than that, if you wanted it to get played on the radio you had to keep it between a flat two minutes and 2:30 — which was broken when Bob Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” with a full band. Columbia, Dylan’s label, made two 45 rpm versions available — one split down the middle like a typical two-part record and one with the full six minutes on one side of a 45 — and enough stations played the full-length version it cracked the charts, vastly expanded Dylan’s audience and also made the horizons of rock that much broader. All of a sudden, as one interviewee put it, rock was serious — and instead of just one good single and trashy filler, rock LP’s like Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were works of art in their own right, presenting songs of uniformly high quality and depth. The “concept album” invented by Sinatra on In the Wee Small Hours came to the rock world with Sgt. Pepper and to the soul world with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, in which he not only wrote and presented a series of songs dealing with political themes — war, the environment, the counterculture — he faded them into each other so each side of the record was a continuous piece of music without audible breaks between songs. The show mentions that Motown owner Berry Gordy didn’t want Gaye to make What’s Going On — he wanted to keep the image of his company safe, pop-oriented and decidedly noncontroversial — and it does not mention how Gaye got to make the album. Just before he started work on it, Gaye had had the biggest hit of his career, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (which had begun as an impromptu studio jam on a song that had already been a hit the year before for Gladys Knight and the Pips), just as his record contract with Motown was expiring. With the bargaining power that comes from having had your all-time biggest hit just when your contract comes up for renewal, Gaye laid down the law to Gordy and told him that if Gordy wanted him to stay with Motown, he’d let Gaye make What’s Going On.

After that the show segues into the development of the cassette and its rise as a music medium, both in pre-recorded form (I vividly remember buying the cassette instead of the LP of the Police’s final album, Synchronicity, because the cassette had an extra song, “Murder by Numbers”) and because it could be used for home-recording. This led to the rise of the “mix tape,” in which people put together songs from several albums to create a personal mix of their own, often shared with friends or actual or potential romantic partners. It also led to the phenomenon in the punk world (oddly, of all eight Soundbreaking shows this is the only one that so much as mentions punk!), in which bands recorded their own music, put it out on cassette because it was far easier and cheaper to do so than master a vinyl disc, and advertised it in punk ’zines. Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana and later leader and guitarist of the Foo Fighters, recalls buying tapes from ’zine ads but doesn’t mention that Nirvana’s first recording was distributed that way: it was called Fecal Matter and came out well in advance of their first commercial recording, Bleach, on the Sub Pop label. The show also does a digression to the Grateful Dead and the fan base they attracted of people who recorded their shows and traded them with each other, and realizing that they couldn’t stop it, the Dead not only allowed people to record their shows but even set up a special section for tapers so their microphones wouldn’t get in the way of everybody else’s line of sight. After cassettes came CD’s, which were originally marketed as a high-end audio product — few people (including me) expected them to displace both LP’s and cassettes, but they did — and one spectacularly wrong prediction I made about CD’s was that, by eliminating the side break in between the two halves of a record, they’d encourage more artists to do album-length works and concept albums. Instead the opposite happened; the feature CD listeners glommed onto was the ability to pick just one song out of a CD and play it, ignoring the rest — and music fans found themselves forced to buy a whole $15 to $20 CD containing 17 songs they didn’t like to buy the one they did. The solution came in the form of .mp3, a computer format for compressing music so a song could be transmitted over a telephone line in the early days of the dial-up Internet connection; .mp3 was invented by German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburger, who did various tests as to how much he could compress digital music files without creating distortion (the “3” in .mp3 denotes that the third attempt was the best in terms of the compromise between quality and file size); Napster and other free (and illegal) “peer-to-peer” file-sharing services allowed fans to download music for free and only get the songs they wanted, though the dangers included low quality, songs that stopped in the middle and the possible infiltration of malware on your computer. That changed when Apple introduced iTunes and offered high-quality downloads for just 99 cents a song (though the price for most current material has gone up to $1.29), and iTunes and its competitors put the illegal file-sharers out of business by offering consistent quality at a reasonable price.

Only now the trend is away from downloading and towards “streaming,” so instead of buying individual songs in either physical or electronic format, you pay a monthly fee to rent access to music so you can hear any song from the company’s playlist you want at any time. The show presents this as a trendy new way for young people to listen to music, but it has two other factors driving it, both highly problematical. One is the modern-day media industry’s interest in shifting all content purchases from buying to renting — a trend that started with the sale of computer software (where the traditional “first-sale doctrine” of copyright law — that you can’t make copies of a copyrighted work you purchased legally but you can do anything you like with that one copy, including resell it, give it away or cut it up into pieces and reassemble them as a new work — specifically doesn’t apply) and is now being applied to everything. Computer software is now being sold as a “service,” meaning that instead of owning a copy of the program you rent it month-to-month (so if you stop paying every document you created with that software becomes unreadable and useless), and electronic files of books, songs and movies are sold under a so-called “End User Licensing Agreement” that severely limits what you can do with them. The idea is to end the entire idea of collecting media forever — instead of distributing physical copies whose buyers own them outright, both media and tech companies want us simply to rent them under increasingly stringent user conditions that govern what we can and can’t do with them. The other factor that is putting an end to the whole idea of a record collection is the increasing redistribution of wealth and income upward, and the rising level of economic inequality. More and more young people are either forced to keep living at home with their parents or to accept multiple-roommate situations or live in very small spaces; one interviewee in this program mentions being particularly impressed by a friend who had a massive collection of CD’s, cassettes and over 4,000 LP’s. Few young people today can afford to do that; not only do they not have the money to buy that many physical products, they don’t have the money to rent enough living space to accommodate them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Episodes 3 and 4 (Ark Media, Inkwell Films, McGee Media, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got home in time to watch the final two episodes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s compelling if somewhat tendentious documentary Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, whose rather unsurprising thesis is that the lives of African-Americans are continually improving and more Blacks are turning up in important positions in politics, business and culture … but the class divide between middle-class and lower-class Blacks is expanding and the ghettoes are still suffering from economic neglect and aggressive policing policies that, according to this show, have made Black men 50 percent of the U.S. prison population even though they’re only 6 percent of the overall American population. Episode three details the rise not only of Black entertainers and sports figures (there was even a name for this — “the Willie Mays-Louis Armstrong syndrome” — to indicate that at one point the only avenues for success for African-Americans were in sports or entertainment) but also Black entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey (who was able to expand from hosting a local TV talk show in Chicago to a national figure who is probably, unless one of those ancient African kingdoms had a female monarch at some time, the richest woman of African descent in history) and Black Entertainment TV (BET) founder Robert L. Johnson. The show noted that BET got its start largely by playing music videos by Black artists at a time when Blacks were not welcome on MTV — as the Soundbreaking episode shown immediately after And Still I Rise made clear, that was because the people running MTV at the time saw their audience as young white male rock fans and didn’t think they would be interested in any other sort of music (that changed when Michael Jackson released Thriller and CBS/Sony Records threatened to pull all the music videos from white artists on their labels off MTV if they didn’t start playing Jackson’s; later Jackson used a similar strategy and, after his videos became incredibly popular on MTV, he threatened to pull them unless MTV started playing videos by other Black artists, which was how Eddy Grant’s infectious “Electric Avenue,” one of the best records of the early 1980’s, became a hit) — and a clip of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” was shown.

The show went on to discuss the crack cocaine epidemic, and the most interesting interviewee of both the third and fourth episodes (he carried over) was Robert Day, who in his late teens and early 20’s became a successful drug dealer in New York’s South Bronx. Today he’s balding and wears a suit and tie — the comparison between the photos of him in his drug-dealing days and what he looks like now is one of the most jarring I’ve ever seen; they look so different at times you feel like you’re just taking it on faith that they’re the same person — but his turnabout came when he was arrested at age 24 and ended up serving 15 years in prison. Today he’s got a master’s degree and is working on a Ph.D. (though Gates annoyingly refuses to tell us in what discipline) and he also co-heads (with another Black ex-con) a group called the Fortune Society, which helps Black parolees find legitimate employment and get their lives back on track once they get out of prison. In what’s probably the most powerful and dramatic part of either show in this back half of his series, Gates details what the crack epidemic said about the African-American inner-city communities and how they were pathologized in the media — instead of making investments and creating jobs and legitimate opportunities for young Black men, the way white America responded to crack was with a massive show of police power (there’s footage of a 1980’s raid in someone’s home in which the police not only “search” the place by opening all the cupboards and throwing all their contents to the floor, they apply a sledgehammer to the toilet, causing the place to flood) and media reports that young Black men had become “superpredators” and needed to be “written off.”

It also didn’t help that the Black response to this was largely cultural and took the form of so-called “gangsta rap,” which may at first have had elements of social comment but quickly degenerated into a glorification of crime, including rape (one frequent criticism of “gangsta rap” from both whites and Blacks was that it treated Black women as sex objects and openly called for Black men to rape them). Given how sacrosanct “hip-hop” (to use the euphemism for rap by people who like it) has become in the universe of liberal social commentary — it’s become de rigueur for liberal and progressive social commentators to hail hip-hop as an authentic voice of Black rage and revolution, and ignore the horribly reactionary attitudes much of it takes, including sexism, homophobia and racism against non-Black people of color — it’s nice that Gates reports from both sides of the divide over rap, including giving screen time to C. DeLores Tucker, the much-criticized anti-rap Black woman activist from the 1990’s. The third episode, “Keep Your Head Up,” also covers the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and claims he won confirmation by proclaiming himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching” over her alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill — Gates notes that Hill had not only worked for Thomas but shared much of his conservative politics — at the time the Hill accusations struck me as a hail-Mary pass by U.S. Senate Democrats to stop the Thomas confirmation since they hadn’t been able to do so on ideological grounds, and the accusations she leveled against him just seemed weird. I don’t think that anymore simply because I know a lot more about sexual harassment in the workplace now than I did then, particularly that it can be a lot more subtle and insidious than “Meet me at the motel tonight, or don’t come to work tomorrow.”

Gates’ third episode pretty much ends with the election of Bill Clinton and his status as the so-called “first Black President” (a colloquialism often used about him until the next Democrat in the White House turned out to be the first genuinely Black President, Barack Obama), including a still from his sax-playing appearance on the late-night talk show hosted by African-American Arsenio Hall (remember him?) and some of the initiatives he launched to help the Black community, including appointing an unprecedented number of Blacks to his administration. Surprisingly, Gates faults Clinton for signing the “tough-on-crime” bills that drastically increased the number of African-American men in prison and also made the penalties for crack considerably tougher than those for powder cocaine, the well-to-do white people’s version of the drug — though he doesn’t mention that the crack bill was actually the brainchild of African-American Congressmember Charles Rangel (D-New York), who thought it up hoping it would stop the crack epidemic in the Black community once and for all — but he does not mention that in 1996 Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored bill to “end welfare as we know it,” put a total time limit on welfare benefits and force recipients to work. Because the initial Internet bubble created an economic boom in the later years of Clinton’s Presidency, the harm this bill did was muted until George W. Bush replaced Clinton, the tech bubble collapsed, the economy went into recession and the jobs the welfare recipients were supposed to find no longer existed. Episode four of Black America Since MLK bore the subtitle of the whole series, “And Still I Rise,” and started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including the federal government’s slow response to it (and Bush’s moment of Marie Antoinette cluelessness, going to New Orleans but merely flying over the damage, looking down at it from the air but without landing the plane and meeting with anybody) and the response of whites in the surrounding suburbs, which was to barricade the entrances to their communities and threaten Black refugees from New Orleans with guns if they tried to enter. It told the now-familiar story of President Obama’s election, and the equally familiar story of the Black Lives Matter movement and its sparking incident, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the police response to the protests against it, which was to wheel out in armored vehicles and look more like an occupying army than an agency of law enforcement. What Gates didn’t mention was that the police have this equipment largely because a federal program encouraged the military to sell them surplus gear designed for overseas combat, and offered the opportunity to equip themselves for urban combat, all too many law enforcement agencies took advantage of it.

Gates no doubt finished his program before the outcome of this year’s Presidential election was known, but the victory of Donald Trump largely on the votes of racist white working-class people who for half a century have been carefully wooed by the Republicans and won over from their traditional Democratic loyalties through appeals to race and culture (“culture” in this context originally meant a reaction to the hippie movement and the student Left of the 1960’s but now it’s code for opposition to women’s right to reproductive choice and Queers’ rights to anything at all) certainly bodes ill for African-Americans. Trump’s choice of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Arkansas) as his attorney general — a man who belittled civil rights attorneys and the NAACP and openly called for scrapping the 1965 Voting Rights Act — says loud and clear that, though he may be backtracking on some of the extravagant promises he made during his campaign, the political disenfranchisement of African-Americans remains a “live” item on his agenda. Indeed, politically disenfranchising the people likely to vote against them — particularly people of color, young people and poor people — has become the bulwark of Republican political strategy and their answer to the demographic challenge that the groups least likely to vote Republican are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. Instead of moderating their positions and working out ways to “sell” conservative ideas to these people, the Republican response has been to prevent them from voting at all — and the longer they are in power, not only at the national level but also at the state level where virtually all voting laws are written, the more creative ways the Republicans will cook up to disenfranchise people and the more their power will become entrenched. (This is why, if I were a member of the Democratic National Committee these days, I would forget about retaking Congress in 2018 or 2020 and focus the party’s efforts on winning back state governments — if Republicans remain so overwhelmingly in control of state legislatures and governorships as they are now, after the 2020 census, which will be conducted under the Trump administration and will probably be rigged deliberately to undercount people of color, the Republicans will be able to “freeze” in place Congressional and state legislative districts and restrictions on voting that will keep them in power indefinitely and gradually eliminate the Democratic Party as an effective opposition force.)

Gates includes an optimistic peroration at the end of his show, but it rings rather hollow given that the new President took so strong a “law and order” stance against Black Lives Matter during his campaign and there’s overwhelming evidence that, while Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan may not have had any particular animus against Blacks and may have opportunistically tapped into racist appeals to win votes, Donald Trump is a committed and convinced racist. He openly discriminated against African-Americans in his rental properties (as his father had done before him) and got sued for it twice by the federal government. He called Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel “a Mexican,” he called New York-born alleged Orlando shooter Omar Mateen “an Afghan” (and blamed the shootings on the immigration officials who let Mateen’s parents into the U.S. before Mateen was born), and of course for years he claimed Barack Obama wasn’t an American (the one clip of Trump on Gates’ program shows him doing just that). What’s more, in his last debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said, “There are millions of people who are registered to vote who shouldn’t be” — and it’s hard to read that as meaning anything but a statement that people of color aren’t, and never can be, “real Americans” and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to register and vote. Many of Trump’s supporters voted for him precisely because they want to see Black America put back in its “place” — and I suspect that’s one campaign promise Trump intends to deliver on big-time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episode 6: “The World Is Yours” (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the latest episode of Soundbreaking even though I was fundamentally out of sympathy with it because it was all about rap music — or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism favored by people who actually like it — and in particular the use of “sampling,” or cutting up bits of existing records and using them as the underlying basis for a “new” song. The origins of “sampling” and of rap in general were considerably better told in a 2009 full-length documentary called Copyright Criminals (which I commented on at, of which this Soundbreaking episode, “The World Is Yours” (which, given the “gangsta” content of so much rap, appropriately evokes the endings of such classic gangster movies as 1932’s Scarface and 1949’s White Heat), is sort of a “potted” version except that it touches only briefly on the conflict between the “samplers” and the owners of the copyrights of the original recordings being “sampled.” The defense of “sampling” is basically that artists have always drawn on previously existing artworks for inspiration, whether they were Renaissance sculptors using ancient Greek models, classical composers writing “variations” on other composers’ themes, or modern-day “samplers” appropriating sounds from previously existing records. “Sampling” in the modern sense actually began in 1948, when French composers Pierre Schaefer and Pierre Henry acquired tape recorders and used them to invent a new form of music called musique concrète. Their argument was that all previous music had been “abstract” in the sense that it relied on sounds produced by specially constructed instruments, whereas musique concrète would use as its raw material the sounds of ordinary life, recorded on tape and then cut up, manipulated and edited. (Actually I can think of one modern-style “sample” even earlier than 1948: the third movement of Respighi’s 1924 tone poem Pines of Rome, in which Respighi incorporated a recording of a nightingale’s song to be played during the piece’s performance and accompanied by a soft string backing.) If you want to know what musique concrète sounded like, by far the most readily available example is the Beatles’ “Revolution #9” (actually created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with minimal, if any, involvement from the other Beatles or nominal producer George Martin). Musique concrète became a sub-genre of electronic music in the 1950’s even though it couldn’t be performed live — at times its practitioners created absurd “concerts” in which they came out on stage, turned on a tape recorder, and then bowed to acknowledge the audience’s applause when the tape played.

“Sampling” entered the world of modern pop (aside from occasional psychedelic experiments in adding natural sounds — like the brief sound clip of President Lyndon Johnson that opens the Electric Flag’s cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” — and “Revolution #9,” a full-out piece of musique concrète that still seems out of place on a Beatles album) in the early 1970’s, when African-Americans in ghetto areas like the South Bronx wanted to make music but couldn’t afford standard instruments, so they took ordinary turntables, connected them to boom boxes and (later) large D.J.-style sound systems, and started playing selected parts of records to create a musical underpinning for spoken-word performances by “M.C.’s” who talked over them. One source of rap and “sampling” that usually goes unacknowledged was the influence from the Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular; Jamaicans who moved to New York City in the 1970’s brought “sound system” music with them. Many reggae singles had been released with the same song on both sides — the full-out vocal version on one side and on the back, a version with the vocal choruses retained but the verses deleted so what remained was the song’s original instrumental track, over which live sound-system performers could sing or rap their own words. The show names the D.J. and gang member Afrika Bambaataa as one of the originators of rap and claims that in the early days it was the D.J.’s, not the rappers, who were considered the “stars.” Rap originally circulated as live performances and cassette tapes, often duplicated so many times the sounds on them, especially the words, faded to virtual inaudibility. A lot of people in the rap world thought the entire idea of a rap record — a freezing in time and space of a particular performance and its issuance as the definitive version of a song — was a contradiction in terms.

The first rap record was issued by record-company owner Sylvia Robinson, who’d been active in the music world since the 1950’s — she was the “Sylvia” on Mickey and Sylvia’s classic 1956 R&B hit “Love Is Strange,” a song that was a major influence on Buddy Holly and, through him, the Beatles — and in 1979, unable to find an existing rap group who would sign with her, she formed her own, the “Sugarhill Gang,” and had them record “Rapper’s Delight,” a competitive record with three rappers taking turns riffing over a backing track derived from the Chic song “Good Times.” It was an enormous hit and launched rap as a genre with multi-million selling albums like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. It also led the established parts of the music industry to fight back, suing — and winning — copyright infringement cases based on the idea that the heavy use of “sampling” on these records was simply stealing, and the original artists who created the “sampled” music deserved at least to be compensated and at most to have veto power over whether their work could be “sampled” and re-sold at all. As I wrote in my review of Copyright Criminals, “The result is that now the only people who get to sample are highly successful artists who can afford the often stratospheric licensing fees and people still doing it underground, keeping under the radar of the music industry and — this being the 21st century — distributing the work not on homemade mix tapes but on Web sites.” The Soundbreaking episode mentioned Kanye West as one of the few rap artists who can still afford to sample, and credited Beck on his Odelay album with coming up with one solution: having live musicians record tracks that can thereafter be sampled and turned into the kind of loops previous D.J.’s had abstracted from already existing recordings. It also cited Led Zeppelin’s recycling of American blues records as a precedent to establish the artistic legitimacy of sampling — ignoring the fact that Led Zeppelin lost a big copyright-infringement case to blues songwriter Willie Dixon, who proved in court that he had actually written the Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love” and got not only back royalties but a change in credits so that Dixon, not the band members, was listed as composer in later editions of the record.

The show also mentions the seminal importance of James Brown as one of the most “sampled” artists of all time, and briefly mentions his drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, without acknowledging that Stubblefield was screwed over twice — first by James Brown, who worked out his songs with the help of his band members but refused to give them songwriting credits or royalties therefrom; and then by the thousands of rap D.J.’s who “sampled” Stubblefield’s drum licks from Brown’s records. As I wrote in my Copyright Criminals review, I’d probably be more sympathetic to the “samplers” if I didn’t so totally loathe rap as a genre; though it has roots in the declamatory style of African-American preachers its direct antecedent was a Black street game called “the dozens,” in which young Black men would gather on street corners and boast about how great they were and insult the others in the game about how terrible they were. There was a blues song by Speckled Red in the 1920’s called “The Dirty Dozens,” but the first artists to put “the dozens,” or a reasonable facsimile thereof, on record were Bo Diddley and his musical partner, Jerome Green, with “Say Man” in 1959. “Say Man” deserves space on any list of proto-rap records, and its braggadocio has remained central to rap to this day — as I’ve noted in these pages before, it took rock ’n’ roll just 13 years to progress from “Rock Around the Clock” to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while rap is nearly four decades old by now and still remains mired in the cesspool of its original obsessions: how great the singer is, how many men he’s killed, how many women he’s raped, how many kids he’s fathered, how many Queers he’s bashed and how much money and tasteless jewelry (“bling”) he’s acquired. The social conscience of a few early rap records, including Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” seems obsolete and quaint by now!