Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Perfect Storm (Warner Bros., Baltimore Spring Creek Productions, Radiant Productions, 2000)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm, which I think we already saw — when he was living on Manzanita Drive in City Heights, his then-roommate rented a VHS tape and the three of us watched it together, I believe — directed by Wolfgang Petersen, a German-born filmmaker who made his international bones with the 1981 film Das Boot (“The Boat”), about a German U-boat submarine crew in World War II, and got a reputation for films that, as his page puts it, “can best be described as part action movies/part disaster movies.” He directed Clint Eastwood in a 1994 action thriller called In the Line of Fire — Eastwood played a Secret Service agent who saved the President of the United States from an assassination plot — and in 1995 made a film called Outbreak in which humanity’s continued existence is threatened by a new virus that causes a pandemic (sound familiar?). The Perfect Storm was based on a book by Sebastian Junger that was about a true-life incident: in 1991 the Andrea Gail, a sword-fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts was caught at sea in a confluence of three huge weather events, including Hurricane Grace, that meteorologists called a “perfect storm” and sank with [spoiler alert!] all hands down. Junger’s book was adapted into a screenplay by Bill Wittliff, and the lead role of Billy Tyne, the Andrea Gail’s captain, was played by George Clooney after Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones,  and William Hurt were all considered and either rejected or themselves turned down the role. The other crew members included Mark Wahlberg as Bobby Shatford, John C. Reilly (who’s so good he threatens to steal the movie from the stars) as Dale “Murph” Murphy, William Fichtner as David “Sully” Sullivan and John Hawkes as Mike “Bugsy” Moran. One can pretty much tell what sort of movie this is going to be from the characters’ nicknames.

The first 40 minutes or so are pretty slow going as Tyne and his crew sail back into Gloucester with a disappointingly small catch of fish (the fish are artificial models and look it —Charles joked, “These look phonier than the shark in Jaws!” — and there’s even a rather prissy credit that no real fish were used in making the film, just to keep the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ thought police off their backs; according to, since Wolfgang Petersen is an animal rights supporter, the caught fish were rubber and the moving fish, including a shark the crew catches and hauls on board their boat by mistake, were animatronic replicas; had this been made now it would have had to have another prissy credit apologizing for depicting the characters smoking). Tyne — looking way more grizzled than I think I’ve ever seen George Clooney — gets chewed out by the boat’s owner, and so he’s determined that on his next outing (the film takes place in October, not long after the start of storm season) he’s going to go past Sable Island (both Charles and I thought of the same joke, only I beat him to it: “This is after they’ve already successfully navigated past Mink Island and Chinchilla Island”) and the usual fishing grounds to the Flemish Caps (after they passed the Belgian Caps and the Dutch Caps?), which is dangerously far out at sea, especially in storm season, but also has large schools of swordfish the other captains have been afraid to go after. They actually catch quite a large haul of swordfish — I had assumed they would use nets and catch them en masse the way most commercial fishermen do, but perhaps because the long beak-like noses that give swordfish their name could rip through a net, they have to catch them one at a time with big poles, tackle and bait, then wrestle them onto the deck — but then the ice-making machine on board conks out.

We get a mildly anti-capitalist comment to the effect that the man responsible for maintaining it had wanted it replaced, but the boat owner had just had it “overhauled” instead, but the fact that they can’t make any more ice to preserve the fish (presumably the machine makes ice from the ocean’s salt water since we don’t see any evidence that the boat has any fresh water on board other than what’s needed for the crew’s own hydration; I’m guessing they flush their toilets with salt water as well) and therefore they have to race home before the ice they have melts and all those laboriously caught fish spoil and become useless. (Clooney as Tyne even gets to growl out a line — since he’s trying to be butch Clooney speaks almost all his lines as growls — about how he didn’t come all that way to feed the birds.) The struggle of the Andrea Gail to get home and the huge killer wave that ultimately does her and her crew in is counterpointed by several other watercraft which also get caught in the perfect storm, including a pleasure yacht called the Mistral whose captain is leading a tour for a woman and her daughter, and when they want to turn back and seek shelter from the storm he angrily snarls, “This is my boat,” and insists he’s a good enough sailor he can ride out the storm (he reminded me of the character Robert Shaw played in Jaws, and we all remember what happened to him!) until she overrules him, grabs the boat’s radio, calls “Mayday!” (a standard international distress call that I’ve read is a corruption of the French “M’aidez,” which means, “Help me”); a container freighter called the Aeolis that survives the storm but loses some of its containers, which slide off the deck into the sea; and a U.S. Coast Guard crew consisting of a cutter and a three-person rescue helicopter which saves the sailors from the Mistral but then runs out of fuel and, despite several failed attempts from an Air Force jet to air-to-air refuel it, ultimately has to be ditched, and the crew on the cutter are only able to rescue two of the three people on the chopper.

There’s a lot of stiff-upper-lip masculinity and a lot of pointless fighting — mostly between Murphy and Moran after Moran taunts Murphy by saying he’s had sex with Murphy’s ex-wife (hey, she’s his ex — even if it’s true, why should he care?) — as well as two key characters who act as voices of reason in this testosterone-fueled tale. Not surprisingly, they’re both women. One is Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who gets way too little screen time but manages to dominate every scene she’s in), captain of a rival swordfishing boat, the Hannah Boden. Before the Andrea Gail’s ill-fated last voyage she’s asked Captain Tyne to partner with her and co-captain the same boat — and it’s pretty obvious she’s looking for more out of him than just a business relationship — but he tells her in the best clenched-teeth manner Clooney probably learned from Clint Eastwood (one of whose films, Pale Rider, turns up here as the movie-within-the-movie the crew members watch on a portable TV in the boat before the catastrophe; I didn’t know the movie but I spotted Eastwood in it) that he really doesn’t need any partners, and the unspoken subtext is, “Professional or personal.” When the storms blow up she sends in a “Mayday” call for him based on the last position he reported to her, and she frantically tries to call him on the radio — which she can’t because the Andrea Gail’s radio has been wrecked by the storm.

The other female voice of reason is Irene “Big Red” Johnson (Rusty Schwimmer), a relatively short but heavy-set woman who apparently is the mother of Mark Wahlberg’s character (though I’m not sure about that) — at least she makes some positive and maternal-sounding comments about the woman Wahlberg’s character is partnering with — and who also owns the Crow’s Nest bar (what else would a waterfront bar whose clientele fish for a living be called?) where the characters do most of their drinking, pool-playing and carousing before they set out to sea. One of Tyne’s crew members actually seems to be cruising Irene — even though she’s not only huge but old enough to have given birth to one of his colleagues — and it’s rare and nice in a movie to see a “woman of size” actually treated as desirable and even alluring. Irene’s bar maintains a retinue of customers who give appropriately philosophical old-salt commentaries about the men at sea and the meaning (if any) of their possible fates — of whom the most interesting is a character described in the page as “Quentin (The Old-Timer).” He’s got long grey hair and a full beard but no moustache (there must be a particular awkwardness in how you have to shave if you want a look like that) and is so perfect visually as the stereotype of the Old Mariner that the one slip-up director Petersen and his makeup and costume designers made was not to give him a corncob pipe. The Perfect Storm has its silly qualities and the exposition is a bit  hard going, but once the storms kick into gear they take the movie with it and turn it into a gripping tale of surviving (or not surviving) against the odds, with Captain Tyne striking some of the same combination of dementia and dignity of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (still the eternal model for stories about men at sea pursuing an insane quest and threatened at any moment with imminent peril).

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Killer in the Guest House (Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2020)

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

Last night at 8 p.m. my husband Charles and I watched the latest Lifetime “premiere,” The Killer in the Guest House, and despite some assets — notably a drop-dead gorgeous hunk, Marcus Rosner, in the title role (and a lot of glimpses of him in as close to the altogether as you can get on basic cable — yum!) — this was a pretty slovenly movie. If Killer Prom was an example of the good way to use the premise of a demented lover who’s so obsessed with his/her beloved s/he will literally kill anyone who stands in his/her way — The Killer in the Guest House is an example of what not to do with it. The central character is aspiring photographer Rachel Vine (Corina Bizim, a pertly pretty young woman who shows signs of being a good actress if she can get a strong role, which this is not), who pursued a career in New York City until her mom back in Wherever, America (“played,” almost inevitably in a Lifetime movie, by Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the go-to location for the Lifetime movies that aren’t shot in Montréal!) got seriously ill. Rachel moved back in with mom (whom we never see, not even in a flashback) and nursed her until mom died, leaving her a big house in the country and a substantial mortgage payment. Rachel has been supporting herself by doing free-lance photo work, most of it for Levon Startet (Matthew Kevin Anderson), who was also her boyfriend until she broke up with him just before the movie starts. He’s low-balling her on her fees for her latest work for him and clearly trying to blackmail her into resuming their relationship. Needing more money to keep her mom’s old house, she decides to rent out the guest cottage and goes online to do so, lighting on the ad placed by Mark James (Marcus Rosner) which includes a glowing review (undoubtedly faked) from a previous landlord who rented to him that “we wished he could stay forever.” Like many Lifetime villains of both genders, Mark couldn’t be nicer when he shows up, cooking Rachel elaborate meals and coming on to her as the epitome of charm. He mentioned having served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and he carries a black cloth case that looks like it contains a sniper rifle — it doesn’t, but it does contain some portable listening devices as well as cash and multiple passports (which ever since the 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon have been a conventional movie device indicating that someone is not to be trusted).

At first I was wondering if Mark’s secret was that once he left the military, he’d become a contract killer to use the skills he’d acquired in the military to make a living in the civilian economy — which could have made a more interesting movie if the director, Tony Dean Smith (who is also the writer and therefore, as I like to say when I don’t like a movie written and directed by the same person, has no one to blame but himself), had gone with that concept (even though something similar was done by Lifetime recently in a film called My Husband’s Secret Life — in that one the “secret” was that her husband was a Russian spy, though the people who created the credits rather gave it away by printing the “R” in “SECRET” backwards to make it look Cyrillic), he could have had a more interesting movie than the one he ended up with. The one he ended up with was an all too predictable tale in which Mark forms a romantic obsession with Rachel and actually seduces her (giving us a soft-core porn scene in Rachel’s shower that’s by far the most entertaining part of the movie!) after he’s already murdered Levon and before he goes after the next alternate man in her life. The next alternate man in her life is Robert Simms (Mark Humphrey), whom writer-director Smith goes out of his way to make look sexy (despite his grey hair and obvious vintage, about twice Rachel’s age — they went to the same high school but in different decades, though Smith also tells us that back then Rachel already had a crush on him from seeing his photo posted in the school halls as a particularly illustrious alumnus) and appears to be Prince Charming to Rachel’s Cinderella. He sees her portfolio and instantly offers her a high-paid, high-authority job in his operation — I’d have believed it a lot more if Smith had made him a Harvey Weinstein type, allegedly hiring Rachel for her talent but really wanting only her body — only Mark sees them kissing in the parking lot of Simms’ building and takes his revenge.

He’s already tried to kill Levon twice — first he tried to strangle him, and when he turned out still to be alive he next locked Levon into the big freezer in which Rachel keeps her film stock (yes, she’s sufficiently retro that one-fifth of the way through the 21st century she still shoots on film!) until he froze to death. Then he put Levon’s body into what looks like a golf bag and played hide-and-seek with it, ultimately burying it on the grounds of Simms’ home so he could frame Simms for murdering Levon, after which he strangles Simms, then hangs him by a noose and fakes a note so it will look like Simms committed suicide out of guilt for having murdered Levon for the love of (or at least lust for) Rachel. Only the police and the coroner are able to tell that Simms was strangled before he was hanged — for someone who served in the military Mark seems weirdly incompetent as a murderer — and there’s a big final confrontation in which Mark tries to kill Rachel the same way he first (unsuccessfully) tried to kill Levon (by strangling her through pushing the handle of a shovel across her neck), only she escapes (she’s a little slip of a woman and he’s a big man in apparently excellent shape) and somehow overpowers and kills him instead before the police arrive and tell Rachel that “Mark James” wasn’t his real name and he has a history in various U.S. cities of renting spaces from young single women, obsessing over them and killing anyone else they might be interested in. I really enjoyed looking at Marcus Rosner’s semi-clad body, but aside from that The Killer in the Guest House was a pretty weak movie, and even more frustrating than some other Lifetime movies in that there were fascinating potential alternatives for Tony Dean Smith to steer his movie to, and instead he regularly went for the dullest, most clichéd plot devices.

Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park, Warner Bros., 1990)

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

After The Killer in the Guest House Charles and I watched a 1991 Warner Bros. release called Graffiti Bridge, the third and last feature film made by Prince Rogers Nelson, who became a worldwide celebrity using his first name only. Prince made his first album in 1977, playing all the parts via overdubbing as Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend (on his solo albums) had done before him, and by the early 1980’s he was a huge music star, selling millions of copies of albums with titles like Dirty Mind, Controversy (the title song began, “Am I Black or white? Am I straight or Gay?” — though in real life Prince was definitively Black and straight) and 1999. Since Warner Bros. was a movie company as well as a record label, they decided to put Prince in a movie, written by Albert Magnoli and William Blinn and directed by Magnoli, called Purple Rain. Purple Rain cast Prince as “The Kid,” an aspiring music star in Prince’s real-life home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota (at least two other music legends, Judy Garland and Bob Dylan, are also native Minnesotans) who fears that he’s going to follow in the footsteps of his father (played by the excellent and woefully underused Black actor Clarence Williams III, who seemed to have fallen off the cultural radar screen completely after his 1960’s TV series The Mod Squad went off the air), an aspiring musician who never made it to stardom and took out his frustrations by beating his wife. The soundtrack album for Purple Rain was Prince’s most successful album, artistically and commercially, and produced great songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain.” I grabbed the album almost as soon as it came out and it’s still one of the most impressive music releases of the mid-1980’s (though it was Prince’s bad luck to produce it the same year Bruce Springsteen made Born in the U.S.A.: these two titanic and ground-breaking albums canceled each other out in the voting for the Album of the Year Grammy Award and so the Album of the Year award went to a piece of pop treacle, Lionel Richie’s All Night Long), but when I finally caught up with the movie via a VHS tape in 1997 I found it far inferior to the album:

Like the Beatles’ infamous Magical Mystery Tour, it’s a series of good music videos of Prince songs with a lot of nonsense in between them. Charles hadn’t remembered the relentless misogyny of the movie — Morris Day (acting, perversely, like a screaming queen who seemed to have intended his whole performance as an audition piece for The Little Richard Story) literally throws a rejected girlfriend into a dumpster, and even Our Hero makes his blindly adoring heroine (Apollonia Kotero) take off her clothes and jump in a lake, and later gives her a good, hard slap in the context of an argument. The frustrating thing about Purple Rain is it’s the sort of bad movie that has a good movie inside it struggling to get out; the conflict between Prince and his wife-beating father (played by Clarence Williams III — and why hasn’t this talented actor been used better? Every so often he surfaces for a part like this or his chilling portrayal of George Wallace’s Black prisoner/valet in the recent George Wallace TV-movie — and then he disappears again), and the extent to which his own life is mirroring his father (an aspiring musician whose career is crumbling about him and who takes out his frustrations on the woman he loves), could have been the focus of a very interesting movie if the scripting had been tighter and if the director, Albert Magnoli, had been able to get a good, or at least tolerable, acting job out of Prince. As it is, though, he’s a gooey screen presence which you find yourself wanting to scrape off the lens — like Cher in real life, Prince in this movie wears silly clothes that work as stage costumes but are totally unbelievable as off-stage wear — and the movie ultimately collapses under the weight of the star’s egomania. (He even produced and arranged all the music for the film, which means that even though the various bands in it are supposed to have different styles, they all end up sounding pretty much the same.) Purple Rain generated an excellent soundtrack album, and on the album Prince was smart enough to realize that the title song was unfollowable and therefore must be placed last — unfortunately, the filmmakers weren’t so smart and allowed the transcendent moment (or what would have been a transcendent moment if Magnoli were a better director and if Prince could have actually portrayed heartbreak at the suicide attempt of his father instead of having some proto-MTV montage cutting convey the impression that he was feeling that emotion) to lose its energy in a burst of funky follow-up songs that only indicated that, though musically Prince was genuinely original, visually he was just another prancing Black performer copying Michael Jackson copying James Brown copying Cab Calloway copying someone else no doubt lost in the mists of time …

Prince followed up Purple Rain cinematically with a film called Under the Cherry Moon, which once again spawned a great soundtrack album, Parade, but which was dismissed when it came out as a hopeless mishmash of a film. Since it was at least nominally set in the 1930’s, Prince decided to film it in black-and-white even though he wore his typically flamboyant costumes that cried out for color. He also decided he was an auteur, so midway through the shoot he fired director Michael Ballhaus and took over the direction himself. Though Under the Cherry Moon was a box-office bomb, Warner Bros. allowed Prince to make another movie, and this time Prince got to write, direct and star in Graffiti Bridge, an ostensible sequel to Purple Rain in which Prince returns as “The Kid” and Morris Day ditto as his nemesis, “Morris Day.” (Morris Day was the leader of a band called The Time that became part of Prince’s entourage — though like the other bands he signed to his own label, Paisley Park, Prince produced them and therefore they ended up sounding pretty much like Prince — and two members of The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became a highly successful songwriting and record-producing team.) The script Prince came up with for Graffiti Bridge was basically an updated version of a 1930’s gangster film (though since all the principals are Black it also takes on the character of a “race” movie — especially a cheap one acted with such breathtaking incompetence one wonders, “Where were all the Black people who could act?”), shot in full-out noir style and dealing with a competition for control of the night life in Black Minneapolis. Morris Day owns six of the seven nightclubs in town and has a half-share in the last one he doesn’t own, the Glam Slam, which is run and managed by its co-owner, The Kid (guess who). He’s determined either to buy out Prince’s (I might as well use his real name) share in the Glam Slam so he can have a total monopoly or, failing that, to burn it down. The contest between Prince and Day takes the form of some weird macho stunts — in one scene Day stands over an ailing plant in the Glam Slam’s lobby, starts saying the alphabet, and when he gets to “P” he unzips his pants and … you don’t want to know — as well as battles of the bands between Prince’s group, the New Power Generation (before this Prince’s band, to the extent he had one, was called The Revolution, but he wrote a song called “New Power Generation” for this film and later decided to make that the name of his band), against Day’s band, The Time (which promotes its appearance by spray-painting their slogan, “What TIME Is It?,” on every available surface), with guest appearances by George Clinton and Mavis Staples. 

Mavis Staples isn’t very well used in Graffiti Bridge — she plays a character called “Melody Cool” and fronts a club of that name, but it’s only a cog in Day’s empire and she only gets a few bits here and there in one of Prince’s numbers — but Clinton, whose bands Parliament and Funkadelic pioneered the fusion of rock, soul, disco and flamboyant theatrics that later made Prince a star, gets a quite impressive featured number. (At his peak Clinton had “exclusive” contracts with two record labels, signing Parliament to one company and Funkadelic to another, though they were exactly the same people except that Parliament had a horn section and Funkadelic didn’t.) Graffiti Bridge has some things going for it, notably the film’s marvelous visual look — through much of it cinematographer Bill Butler seems to have been worshiping at the shrine of Josef von Sternberg, making the whole thing look distant and foggy and highlighting (rather than trying to conceal) the frankly unrealistic character of production designer Vance Lorenzini’s sets — and a script that’s more passively sexist than the active sexism of Purple Rain. At least in this one nobody slaps a woman or throws her into a dumpster, but the two female leads, “Aura” (played by one Ingrid Chavez, who got an ‘Introducing” credit and was never heard from again, after Prince’s first choices, Madonna and Kim Basinger, both turned it down) and someone else whose name I can’t recall, both get seduced by Morris Day even though this is one of those movies where a man can get a woman to have sex with him just by glaring at her long enough. Aura is supposed to be Prince’s girlfriend — the two have long romantic dates in which she reads him her own poetry by the titular “graffiti bridge” (supposedly the location of the end of Purple Rain. though it looks totally different) while the orchestra plays Debussy’s “Sacred and Profane Dances” and Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp and strings (both written on commission from rival Paris instrument makers who had invented different systems for making a harp play chromatically), an intriguing choice that makes me wonder if it reflects Prince’s overall taste in classical music. But that doesn’t stop Aura from bouncing back and forth between Prince and Day — who’s supposed to be the more butch one of the two but still comes off like he’s auditioning to play Little Richard in a biopic. 

And unlike Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge doesn’t even have a great Prince score to make up for his deficiencies as a writer and director. The songs are professionally competent, and “Round ’n’ Round” stands out because it features the almost unearthly beauty (physical and vocal) of a young singer named Tevin Campbell, but there’s nothing here as memorable as the songs from Purple Rain. Graffiti Bridge was made at a critical juncture in Prince’s career, just before he severed ties with Warner Bros., launched a long, acrimonious legal battle with them to break his contract and also attempted to change his name to an unpronounceable hieroglyphic symbol (something you can’t legally do, by the way) and instructed the world that from then on he was supposed to be referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” (My response was to joke that if Charles Windsor were to give up his hobby of painting, he’d be The Prince Formerly Known as Artist.) The battles between Prince and Warners were the reverse of most contests between artists and record companies; a typical recording contract specifies that the artist must produce a certain number of albums in a specified period of time. But, partly because the increasing complexity of recording equipment and the insistence of artists that they write their own material made the record-making process take longer, and partly because record companies spent so much money on each album they wanted to squeeze as many sales as they could out of each album before allowing the artist to make a new one, artists frequently had the time of their contract expired before they fulfilled the product requirement. 

With Prince, Warners had the opposite problem: he poured out so much material so fast he gave them way more than they could practicably release or sell, and so he completed his contract in terms of amount of product well before it expired on the calendar. Prince’s relentless pace of recording also, I think, negatively impacted the quality of his music; once he was free from Warners and he created his own record company, he flooded the market with quickly produced jam songs and not only didn’t bother to separate the wheat from the chaff, he didn’t put in the time and effort it would have required to make his good songs truly great. Graffiti Bridge shows signs of Prince’s deterioration as an artist (and as a public figure; though the hieroglyphic hadn’t yet taken its final form, bits of it occur in the movie in wall paintings, ornaments on Prince’s costumes and in the shape of at least one of the instruments used by his band —and that whole “Artist Formerly Known as Prince” business undoubtedly put off a lot of fans and shrank his market base); the songs sound good but sloppy, and one aches for the additional concentration and effort it would have made to bring them to the artistic level of the songs from Purple Rain. Prince’s career reached fabulous heights but there’s still an air of artistic unfulfillment about it — a sense that he could have had a career as long as Louis Armstrong’s, Duke Ellington’s, B. B. King’s or James Brown’s if he’d just taken better care of himself and avoided all the weird shit he fell into — and the sloppiness and formlessness of Graffiti Bridge catch the artist as he was beginning his decline and show the parts of him and his character that would topple him from his mid-1980’s artistic and commercial peak.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Killer Prom (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

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

It’s 6:05 p.m. on Sunday, April 26 and I just got finished watching Lifetime’s rerun of last week’s Sunday “premiere” movie, Killer Prom — which was actually better than I expected. Directed by Alexander Carrière from a script by Andrea Canning, Killer Prom was not the sort of thing you might have expected (or got from Lifetime’s recent Homekilling Queen) — a psycho teenager so determined to become prom queen at her high school that she’s literally going to take out anyone standing in her way, even if that means murdering her. It actually begins with Hannah Wilson (Megan Vinson), wife of prominent Philadelphia-based heart surgeon Dr. Tony Wilson (Mark Lutz, a drop-dead gorgeous hunk who’s so much better-looking than the lanky, sandy-haired nobodies who usually play innocent husbands in Lifetime movies that for a while I thought he was going to turn out to be a bad guy after all), visiting southern California (we know it’s southern California because we see the “HOLLYWOOD” sign) and going for a boat ride with her cousin Sienna Lawton (Yvonne Zima, top-billed). Only as soon as Hannah gets on the boat Sienna makes clear her intentions: all her life she’s been jealous of Hannah because she landed the hot, rich, professionally successful Dr. Wilson and had two kids — Maya (Erica Anderson), who’s now a high-school senior with her own anxieties about what’s going to happen on her upcoming prom night (even though when the film starts that’s still five months away) and in particular who her date will be; and prepubescent son Luke (Manny Brenda). 

Indeed, Sienna has spent her whole adult life fixated on her cousin and her cousin’s husband’s prom night, at which they actually announced their engagement, and she’s determined to re-create it with herself in Hannah’s place. So she shoves Hannah off the boat and Hannah, who somehow got to be old enough to be the mother of two kids (and, we later learn, to live in a house with a swimming pool!) without ever learning how to swim. Sienna drives the boat away and leaves Hannah to thrash about in the water as best she can, and ultimately drown. From the moment it started with a murder and therefore let us know from the get-go who the villain would be instead of boring us with a lot of long, ponderous exposition the way many Lifetime scripts do, I liked that we were watching a movie whose makers worshiped at the shrine of St. Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made one whodunit early on in his career — a 1930 British film called Murder! (not a very good movie but worth watching for the performances of Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring and Esmé Percy; some quite creative uses of sound — as far as I know it was the first talkie that featured an actor’s voice on the soundtrack but without their lips moving to indicate that the character was thinking, not actually speaking, those words — and an overall layer of sexual and lifestyle kinkiness that’s quite appealing) — but thereafter he decided that he was going to let the audience in from the get-go on what was really going on and who the good guys (and the bad guys) were, and build suspense from when and how the characters would find out and what would happen to them when they did. 

Though they’re hardly at the level of Hitchcock or the various writers he used, Carrière and Canning followed the same rule of construction: we know from the beginning that Sienna is a psycho bitch who’s determined to replace her cousin in Tony’s affections and take over Hannah’s life, wealth and family, but we’re kept in suspense about whether the characters will find out and do something to stop Sienna in time before she knocks them off. She shows up at Dr. Wilson’s home in Philadephia and, dripping with phony “concern,” says she intends to stay there as long as it takes to put Dr. Wilson’s broken family together. Luke treats Sienna as a sort of female Santa Claus, indulgently spoiling him with toys, a basketball and a reprieve from homework so they can watch a dinosaur movie together, and dad is relieved that there’s someone else in the house to take up the slack now that his wife has died in what he naïvely thinks was an “accident.” The two people in the Wilson household who take a dislike to Sienna are daughter Maya and the Wilsons’ housekeeper, Janet Macturn (Heather Ted Mitchell), Maya because Sienna is already acting like her mom and Maya doesn’t like it, and Janet because Sienna is trying to take over from her in running the house and picking up the kids from school while dad is working. Sienna finds a way to get rid of Janet when she discovers she’s carrying a two-year sobriety chip — she spikes her drink cup with some sort of household cleaner that has the same effect as alcohol and gets her busted for drunk driving while Janet is in the car driving Jake home. 

Though the police department’s breathalyzer malfunctions that night and therefore the cops don’t have an immediate readout of whatever it was Janet had in her system, Dr. Wilson fires her for being irresponsible and having her relapse with his son in her car. Then fate throws Sienna a curveball in the alluring female form of Lauren King (Brianna Barnes), Dr. Wilson’s office assistant, who’s just been setting up a business trip to Dallas on which she’ll accompany him. It’s obvious both to Sienna and to us that Lauren, who’s just been through a breakup with another doctor in Tony’s medical building, is hoping that while they’re alone together on that trip proximity will work its magic and she’ll be on her way to becoming the second Mrs. Dr. Tony Wilson. A few days before the trip, however, Sienna overhears as Lauren decides to go for an early-morning workout at her gym — and Sienna corners Lauren at the top of a staircase and pushes her down, killing her and once again making it look like a simple accident. Meanwhile, Maya is having problems of her own: she wants to go to the upcoming prom with her sort-of boyfriend Jake Davis (Kyle Meagher, one of those pretty little twinks who make a lot of Gay men my age go apeshit but does little for me —frankly, Mark Lutz did way more for me as someone I’d like to dream about!), only Kat Merritt (Madelyn Keys), a bitchy rival of Maya’s at school, gets Jake to invite her to the prom by “spoofing” Maya’s phone and sending Jake a text that she’s not going to the prom and doesn’t mind if he takes someone else. 

Maya denies sending that text and Sienna takes her phone to a young Black friend of hers named Ed (the actor playing him is unlisted on but he, too, is way sexier than Kyle Meagher!) who for some reason has the hots for Sienna even though he looks more like Maya’s age. Ed proves that Kat sent Jake the spoof text and gives Maya a screen shot, which leads Jake to dump Kat and offer Maya her dream prom date instead. It’s a dream prom date night for Sienna as well; she’s outfitted both herself and Maya with replicas of the blue dress Hannah wore the night of her big prom date with Tony, and she drugs Tony’s champagne so he’ll fall asleep for a bit and when he wakes up, Sienna will be in his late wife’s prom dress and she’ll be the spitting image of her, which will make him fall in love with her instantly and allow Sienna to take Hannah’s place in Tony’s life. Only Tony has utterly no interest in her “that way,” and when Sienna realizes that she hog-ties him with duct tape and shoves him into the swimming pool in a scene I suspect was at least a partial knock-off of the ending of Sunset Boulevard — especially when, thanks to quick action by Maya and Jake, he’s rescued and the cops arrest Sienna and handcuff her while she’s still babbling about how she and Tony were soulmates. The reason Maya and Jake were able to catch on to Sienna in time is they were able to place a phone call to Sienna’s mother Dorothy (a quite good performance by Lorilee Holloway), who revealed that Sienna had always had a crush on Tony and had been fiercely jealous of Hannah and probably killed her (a possibility the kids hadn’t thought of before). 

As soon as the rented limo Jake got them to drive up to the prom in style pulls up at the venue, Maya realizes that her dad is in danger and tells the driver to take them back to her place, where her dad is bobbing up and down in the pool to get as much air as he can so he doesn’t immediately drown, and Sienna has stabbed Jake in the chest (but, fortunately, nothing fatal or even life-threatening) before he was able to grab her wrist and get the knife away from her. So Sienna ends up … well, probably in a mental institution rather than a prison because (like Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard) it’s hard to imagine she’ll be found sane enough to stand trial for Lauren’s murder (the one she committed in Pennsylvania — there’d be a jurisdictional snarl over trying her for killing Hannah because she did that one in California). Despite some of the usual Lifetime sillinesses — Sienna has an almost supernatural power of being able to overhear whenever anyone is saying anything derogatory about her and, in one lapse that rankled me, Jake addresses Tony as “Mr. Wilson” when he comes to pick Maya up for the prom — surely, especially on a formal occasion like this, he would have called him “Dr. Wilson” — Killer Prom is actually a pretty good Lifetime movie (even though the title is something of a cheat because we never actually get to see the prom). It’s highlighted by an unusually suspenseful story construction and a great performance by Yvonne Zima as Sienna. Yes, I know Lifetime has made a specialty of depicting these sorts of superficially charming psychos, but they’re rarely as well written or acted as this one. Helped by Canning’s unusually (for Lifetime) complex and relatively subtle script (at least as far as the writing of her part is concerned), Zima does an excellent job of making this character believable.

Dying for Motherhood, a.k.a. Expectant (Sunshine Films, Aventura, Daro Film Distribution, c. 2019, released 2020)

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

Last night at 8 p.m. I watched the “premiere” of another Lifetime movie, Dying for Motherhood — originally shot under the title Expectant (maybe the people running Lifetime thought that sounded too much like Expectorant and would lead people to expect a movie about spit) — directed by Damián Romay and co-written by him with Kelly Peters and Amy Katherine Taylor. Basically this movie could have been called, silent-film-serial style, The Troubles of Tracy, since its leading character, Tracy McCann (Hannah Bamberg, properly winsome in the role and with nice, long, straight red hair), is beset by more woes than anyone should have to deal with, especially in only 90 minutes of running time. She’s barely holding down a job at a seaside restaurant (ya remember restaurants?) and, though she’s apparently only in her late teens herself, has a live-in boyfriend, ex-cop turned security guard Bobby (Daniel Contois, not drop-dead gorgeous but easy enough on the eyes), who regularly abuses her and has made it clear that about the last thing he wants to be is a father. Nonetheless, he has got her pregnant and she’s tried to conceal this not only from Bobby but also from the people at the restaurant, including Ed (Owen Miller), the avuncular African-American who owns the place. (Yes, this is one more Lifetime movie in which a Black person is the voice of reason who tries, without success, to talk the white characters out of all the stupid things they have to do for a Lifetime movie to have a plot at all.) Tracy decides that she can’t raise the child herself (especially since its daddy — her daddy, I can say, because after first turning it down Tracy changes her mind about seeing the sonogram and learns her kid-to-be is a girl) — threatening her with bodily harm if she so much as mentions the possibility of making him a father.

So she goes to an adoption agency but finds that in order to do an above-board adoption she has to tell them who the father is so they can make sure he’s on board with the adoption and isn’t going to complicate things by asserting his parental rights. Instead she runs into another prospective baby donor and learns of a couple named Patrick (Josh Ventura) and Genevieve (Emmanuelle Vaugier, top-billed) Parker. He’s an investment consultant and she’s a former nurse, and they’re either in the 1 percent or close enough to it that their home is a spectacular mansion that looks like a slightly updated but still recognizable version of the one in The Magnificent Ambersons, complete with big bay windows. (No self-respecting 1-percenters in a Lifetime movie would dare to live in a house without bay windows.) Since Tracy has no job — she’s living on what’s either a gift, a loan or an advance from Ed (ya remember Ed?) — and no place to stay since Bobby will beat the shit out of her (or worse) if she goes back where she’s been staying — she accepts the offer of the Parkers to stay with them until she gives birth. Only, as usual in a Lifetime movie, she realizes that the Parkers aren’t as goody-good as they seem — and the fact that Patrick is drop-dead gorgeous (we see him wearing nothing but a pair of blue trunks dive into his swimming pool flashing a pair of pecs to die for — yum!) just adds to our conviction that he’s going to turn out to be a black-hearted villain. In this run of the Lifetime formula, however, it turns out that the Parkers’ family dynamics are closer to the Macbeths: like Lady Macbeth, Genevieve is the real villain and Patrick a weak-willed man who goes along with her schemes. We learn through bits and pieces of exposition we’re thrown (sort of like zoo animals being fed) that the reason Genevieve can’t have kids of her own is she was involved in a car accident when her son was 1 year old; the boy was killed and she was so badly injured she needed a hysterectomy. She also pulled the same scam on another young, pregnant woman, Julie Meyer (dead at the outset of this story but seen in flashbacks and played by Tommi Rose), who agreed to move in with the Parkers and give them her baby when it was born but got so upset about how controlling they were she fell out of a window in their home, an apparent suicide.

While Tracy is on a rubber mattress in the Parkers’ pool and Patrick is showing off that ultra-hot chest, she happens to turn her attention to a television (where was it?) that’s broadcasting a report of a fire at the restaurant where she used to work. The fire is reported as “probable arson” and both Tracy and we leap to the conclusion that Bobby set it, whereupon Tracy turns into the water and it looks like she’s trying to kill herself before Patrick rescues her. Midway through the movie Genevieve, who for the most part has been so relentless about keeping Tracy at home and never letting her go out that you’d think this movie was made after SARS-CoV-2 hit instead of before, finally takes her to a high-end baby-clothes store — only Bobby (ya remember Bobby?) kidnaps her and takes her in a security company vehicle. Genevieve gets in front of Bobby’s car and dares him to run her over, and when Bobby refuses Genevieve gets him out of the car with a gun she’s holding and she runs him over. She has Tracy help lift Bobby into the car’s trunk, ties Bobby up to the bed in the birthing room she’s prepared for Tracy (since Genevieve is an ex-nurse she’s decided to keep Tracy from giving birth in a hospital and has taken charge of Tracy’s care in her home) and hands Tracy the gun, telling her to shoot Bobby and get rid of her scapegrace boyfriend once and for all. Patrick enters and frees Bobby from the handcuffs — only Genevieve calmly shoots him and he dies. Patrick buries the body on the house’s grounds as if it’s the most normal thing in the world, and Tracy apparently lives in mortal fear of the two people who control her own and her baby’s lives.

Then [big-time spoiler alert!] it turns out that Tracy met Julie Meyer (remember Julie Meyer?), the Parkers’ previous victim, at the adoption agency through which she first tried to get an above-board adoption. The two struck up a friendship and Julie told Tracy about this cool rich couple called the Parkers who were going to adopt her baby and let her stay with them until it was born, and when Tracy eventually learned that Julie was dead she hatched a scheme to get the Parkers interested in her baby and entrap them into providing evidence that would allow the police to bust them — which duly happens in the last reel, as Tracy records an incriminating conversation between herself and Genevieve on her cell phone and before Genevieve can grab the phone the police, called by Tracy, have finally arrived. At the end Tracy is walking her newborn in a carriage through the cemetery where Julie was buried and telling the kid she has named her Julie, after the one person in the story who was nice to her (which seems to leave out Ed, who did give her money to get away from Bobby and pledged to hold Tracy’s job open for her if and when she needed it). I was more than a bit disappointed that the writers and director Romay decided to kill off Bobby — I was hoping the shock of losing Tracy would cause him to clean up his act, use his ex-cop skills and contacts to find out the truth about the Parkers, rescue her and end the film taking responsibility for baby Julie so she could be raised by both her parents — but even with those flaws it’s a spectacularly successful Lifetime movie. Romay has real suspense chops as a director, and Emmanuelle Vaugier delivers a marvelous etched-in-acid performance as the principal villainess. There are also typically veiled but unmistakable social comments in Genevieve’s bland assertion that because she’s rich, “I can get away with anything — including murder,” even though I’ve seen more socially conscious Lifetime movies than this one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Let”s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, CBS-TV, aired April 21, 2020)

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

I turned on the TV last night for one of CBS’s Grammy specials, this one called Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince. The National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the organization that puts on the Grammy Awards, has done a number of these retrospective specials before — notably on The Beatles and Stevie Wonder — and they timed this one to air on April 21 because that was the fourth anniversary of Prince’s death. I went through a Prince phase in the mid-1980’s — I was as impressed by the Purple Rain soundtrack as anyone else and I bought some of the Prince albums on either side of it chronologically. When I finally caught up with the movie it was ostensibly a soundtrack for, via a VHS tape in the 1990’s, I was considerably less impressed; aside from the moving scenes between Prince and his father, played by the tragically under-used Black actor Clarence Williams III, it seemed little more than nine great Prince music videos with little to connect them — and I was also put off by the heavy-duty sexism of the film; as I wrote in my journal, “Morris Day (acting, perversely, like a screaming queen who seemed to have intended his whole performance as an audition piece for The Little Richard Story) literally throws a rejected girlfriend into a dumpster, and even Our Hero makes his blindly adoring heroine (Apollonia Kotero) take off her clothes and jump in a lake, and later gives her a good, hard slap in the context of an argument.”

Still, Prince’s music remains febrile, a unique fusion of familiar elements from rock, soul, gospel and disco (though George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic had pioneered many of the same elements in his concept albums, and when Prince started his own label he hired Clinton to make a comeback album). The problem is that most of his songs were tailored so specifically to his talents they don’t generate the kinds of cover versions that become major works in their own right the way the Beatles’ and Wonder’s songs did. Just about everyone who performed them on the big special last night — which was obviously filmed before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic hit since it was a traditional music show with a lot of people on stage and a live audience of people sitting considerably closer than six feet apart from each other (it was especially jarring to watch this after last Saturday’s One World Together at Home, an all-star music special done in the modern post-pandemic manner of the various artists performing at home, many of them in their own home-based studios) — did them in much the same manner Prince had, in jerky dance rhythms and staccato band playing. The main difference between last night’s covers and Prince’s originals was that virtually none of the singers last night duplicated Prince’s excellent diction. Like Nat “King” Cole, Prince sang his songs in a staccato voice that made their words surprisingly comprehensible; all too many of the singers who performed them in last night’s special turned them into legato soul moans that sometimes achieved an emotional weight of their own but also obscured words that had been clear and understandable on Prince’s own recordings. It also didn’t help that the programming pretty much ignored Prince’s softer side and avoided most of his ballads (and he did write ballads, some of them — notably “4 the Tears in Your Eyes,” the beautiful song he contributed to the USA for Africa We Are the World — quite good) in favor of one funky bounce tune after another.

The show opened with H.E.R. and Gary Clark, Jr. doing “Let’s Go Crazy” — a song that’s gained an ironic twist from the line, “Don’t let the elevator bring you down,” given that Prince died inside an elevator between the two stories of his home — both are among my favorite performers in contemporary music but Prince’s funk jams didn’t give H.E.R. a chance to show off the weight and power of her voice the way her own material does. Next up was a singer identified only as “Miguel” doing “I Would Die 4 U” (Prince’s penchant for using numerals and single letters in his song titles to represent words with similar sounds has led my husband Charles to call him “the first texter”), and then John Legend did “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the song Prince gave to Sinéad O’Connor that became the biggest hit she ever had. I’ve frequently faulted Legend for singing pleasantly but unemotionally, but not here; he gave the song an intense, emotional soul reading that contrasted effectively with O’Connor’s good but more detached reading. After that St. Vincent — who’s just one person, and a woman — did “Controversy,” Prince’s ode to gender and racial ambiguity (“Am I Black or white? Am I straight or Gay?”), and did it effectively but without the sheer audacity of Prince’s original. Then another Latino performer, Juanés, did an O.K. version of “1999,” and H.E.R. returned to accompany dancer Misty Copeland in an estimable version of the quite good ballad “The Beautiful Ones” — a rare bow in this show’s mostly relentless funk assault to the softer side of Prince. Usher then came out for a medley of “Little Red Corvette” (one of Prince’s most audacious songs), “When Doves Cry” (which would actually have been a better vehicle for H.E.R. than the two songs she did get!) and “Kiss” from one of Prince’s most underrated projects, Parade. (This was a quite good soundtrack album to a film, Under the Cherry Moon, that was a deserved box-office failure; since it was supposedly set in the 1930’s — though Prince dressed in all his usual 1980’s finery — Prince ordered it shot in black-and-white, and midway through the shoot he fired the director and took over the direction himself.)

After Usher’s disappointing medley came one of the best songs of the night, “Manic Monday,” the song Prince wrote and contributed to the Bangles’ second album (and first success; indeed, until I just checked it on Wikipedia I’d thought it was their first release!), Different Light, signing it under the name “Christopher.” The performers last night were Chris Martin of Coldplay and Susanna Hoffs, The Bangles’ original lead singer, and it started slower than the original record — one of the few times anyone on last night’s special tried to put a different “spin” on a song than the famous recording that introduced it. (According to the Wikipedia page on Different Light, the song was originally written for Prince’s then-girlfriend and co-star of the Purple Rain movie, Apollonia Kotero, for her Apollonia 6 album.) Then Morris Day and the Time, a subsidiary band in Prince’s bizarre menagerie of different singers and groups, did an O.K. medley of “Jungle Love,” “Cool” and “The Bird” (the last was not the Charlie Parker tribute I would have hoped for but a song about a new dance much like the ones that glutted the airwaves in the early 1960’s in the wake of the success of “The Twist,” song and dance). Morris Day came off, as usual, as a sort of more butch version of Prince. Then the Foo Fighters came on and did their own version of “Darling Nikki” — the song that Al Gore’s wife Tipper made Exhibit A in her short-lived crusade against sexually explicit pop-song lyrics (“I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I saw her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine” — a line I’ve always loved for its ambiguity, since it can be read either as Nikki pleasuring herself and using the magazine’s photos to turn herself on or Nikki actually rolling up the magazine and directly having sex with it) — which was one of the best pieces on the program since Dave Grohl and his band were able to fit it into their usual metal-meets-punk sound instead of just copying Prince’s rhythmic, staccato singing style.

Then what’s left of Earth, Wind and Fire — a beautiful group but one that should have packed it in when their founder, leader and principal composer, Maurice White, died — did one of the few slower songs on the program, “Adore,” and Prince’s collaborator and on-again, off-again girlfriend Sheila E. came on for a series of guest appearances. First was a collaboration with Common, the unusually eloquent rapper who was featured with John Legend on the theme song from the 2014 film Selma. Then Sheila E. joined Beck, of all people, for a credible version of “Raspberry Beret” from Prince’s self-consciously “psychedelic” album Around the World in a Day (the immediate follow-up to Purple Rain and one which threw a lot of people for the density of its textures and its obvious bows to middle-period Beatles in general and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in particular), and then she and Gary Clark, Jr. teamed up for “The Cross,” a little-known Prince song that qualifies as out-and-out gospel both musically and lyrically (“Black day, stormy night/No love, no hope in sight/Don't cry, He is coming/Don't die without knowing the cross”) and was one of the high points of the evening. After that Sheila E., who had played drums in Prince’s band The Revolution (which featured a surprising number of women members) took to timbales (the high-mounted drums used prominently in Latin American music) and vocal for a medley of “America,” “Free” and a quite good song called “The Glamorous Life.” Then came a band billed as “Princess and the Revolution” featuring an excellent female lead guitarist dressed in a salmon-colored pantsuit; I was quite taken by her singing and playing and wish I knew who she was so I could hear more of her. Then what’s left of the Revolution band joined gospel great Mavis Staples for “Purple Rain” — Mavis Staples’ voice isn’t what it was in the glory years of the Staples Singers (of whom she seems to be the last survivors; unlike the Carter Family, they don’t seem to have kept the group going with the descendants of the originals) but it was powerful enough to get the point across.

That is where the show should have ended — I remember loving the Purple Rain album because, among other things, it ended, powerfully and brilliantly, with that un-followable song, then being disappointed in the movie because after the final bars of “Purple Rain” they played a tacky electronic medley of the film’s other songs over the closing credits — but instead the makers of Let’s Go Crazy brought back the entire ensemble for “Baby, I’m a Star.” Prince’s music remains one of the most eclectic, bizarre and frustrating catalogs of any major artist, at least partly because, unlike most modern artists, he relentlessly over-recorded. Most record companies have the problem of getting their artists to produce the amount of music they’ve contracted for in the time the contract allots; with Prince, his label, Warner Bros., had the opposite problem — he gave them way more material in a much shorter time period than his contract provided. When he finally broke free of his Warners contract (a break-up so acrimonious that during the legal action he appeared on the David Letterman show with the word “Slave” written in black make-up across one cheek) and started his own label (with the band he formed after the original Revolution broke up, the New Power Generation), he zipped out two three-CD sets called Emancipation and Crystal Ball and made it clear he was no longer going to let himself be limited by the “suits” at a record company telling him not to release so much material that he’d glut the market for new Prince music, with the result that a lot of his later records sounded sloppy, like he was releasing them too fast and not showing too much concern either about separating the good songs from the chaff or honing the songs until the good ones became great.

Prince also started alienating his audience through sheer weirdness — that whole business about changing his name to a hieroglyphic symbol of his own design and insisting on being referred to as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” (which led me to joke that if Charles Windsor were to give up his hobby of painting, he’d be “The Prince Formerly Known as Artist”) — and through a series of illnesses and cancellations he dropped off the radar in his later years and a lot of people were surprised by the announcement of his death simply because they’d wondered, “Was he still alive?” Prince was undoubtedly a major artist — though it was sheer bad luck that Purple Rain and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. split the vote for quality music in the 1984 Grammy Awards and thus allowed Lionel Richie to take the Album of the Year prize for a piece of MOR treacle like All Night Long — but also a frustrating one; he got pigeonholed into that neo-funk mold early on and most of his efforts to break out and do other sorts of music were commercially ignored. Prince died too soon but was not the sort of Byronic flameout of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain et al., and his best work is brilliant but he was also given to sloppiness and he didn’t always have the instinct true geniuses have of being able to discern which of their creations are wheat and which are just chaff. Still, much of his catalog survives as brilliant music even in these less-than-brilliant performances which, with a few exceptions (like the Gary Clark-Sheila E. “The Cross”) added little to Prince’s own renderings of these songs.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Walt Disney Studios, Lucasfilm, Bad Robot, 2019)

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

Last night’s movie “feature” was what’s being billed as the final film in the basic nine-movie Star Wars cycle, which began in 1977 with the release of what was then just called Star Wars but is now officially Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Auteur George Lucas made the first film at 20th Century-Fox (whose then-studio head, Alan Ladd, Jr., green-lighted it after just about everyone else in the movie business had turned it down) and as all the world knows, it was a smash hit and once and for all established science-fiction as a viable movie genre that could make tons of money and therefore it behooved the studios to greenlight sci-fi projects and throw “A”-list talents at them. My friend Chris Schneider once told me he lamented the success of Star Wars because, just nine years after the success of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey had shown that a science-fiction movie could have the same depth, complexity and dramatic and philosophical richness of the best published science-fiction writing, George Lucas and Star Wars had brought it all back to the simplest sort of space opera. I saw the first Star Wars three times but lost track of the immediate sequelae, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, mainly because when they came out I was living with a woman who’d hated the first Star Wars (at least partly because she was a militant atheist and strongly disliked the quasi-religious connotations of “The Force”) and I don’t think liked science-fiction much in general. (She’d hated 2001, too, and I thought — and still think — that’s one of the greatest movies ever made.) Charles made it through the first cycle but lost interest in Star Wars after that, and neither of us had any great desire to go to the prequelae that started coming out in the 1990’s. But I retained enough interest in Star Wars the cultural phenomenon — by now it’s built and sustained a fan base who conduct elaborate online arguments over points in and out of the canon that remind me of the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-end-of-a-pin debates of medieval theologians — that when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2017 I picked up the disc on a sort of “What the hell, why not?” attitude. It helped that Rogue One was a side project in the Star Wars universe and not part of the official nine-film cycle.

Later on I grabbed the chance to see Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi at the San Diego Public Library (remember library film screenings? Remember libraries?) and quite liked it. It wasn’t that difficult to follow even for someone whose only previous experience with Star Wars was the original way back when and the Rogue One one-off (though I ducked the next Star Wars side project, a prequel called Solo, largely because the New Yorker reviewer ridiculed the casting of the title role, saying the actor playing the young Han Solo seemed to have got the part because he looked, sounded and acted nothing like Harrison Ford), and it had a seemingly moving ending in which Luke Skywalker — still played by Mark Hamill, over four decades older than he’d been in the original and looking every bit like it — said on balance it was a bad thing for the Jedi Knights to have existed because they just called into existence their mortal enemies, the evil Sith (The New Yorker ridiculed the Star Wars movies for the sheer ugliness and unmemorability of the character names, noting that when you create an entire universe you have to name everyone and everything in it, and as a linguistics professor in his day job J. R. R. Tolkien was a lot better at that than George Lucas). So he was going to burn all the Jedi scrolls that accumulated the sect’s knowledge base and then die himself on a remote planet. Well, in a story like this just because we’re told that a character has died doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t see them again — indeed, we can even see a character die and still have them resurrected later (as with the increasing preposterousness with which the writers of the various Alien movies brought back Sigourney Weaver after she had — at least in my reading of the ending of the first one — nobly sacrificed her own life to make sure the nasty aliens didn’t get to Earth aboard her spaceship; eventually they were reduced to having her play her own clone!) — and The Rise of Skywalker marked some kind of ultimate in resurrecting both the characters and at least one of the actors playing them.

The problem was that Carrie Fisher, who’d played Princess Leia Organa throughout the cycle, died right after shooting The Last Jedi (indeed, there was some confusion as to just how much footage she had shot for that episode before she passed, and I was a bit surprised to see the movie and learn she had at least lived long enough to finish that film), and the people behind the current Star Wars cycle, producer-director J. J. Abrams (who for some reason has had entrusted to him both the Star Wars and Star Trek cycles, which explains why the most recent Star Trek feature films have been awfully Star Warry, complete with starships not only landing on planets — verboten in Gene Roddenberry’s original prospectus — but doing Fast and Furious-style antics on them) and Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow and Chris Terrio, the other credited writers, had planned Princess Leia to play a major role in the final installment. They tried writing her out of the script altogether (it never seems to have occurred to them to replace the deceased Carrie Fisher with another actress the way the makers of the Harry Potter films got other actors to play Dumbledore once Richard Harris died after the second film) and then decided that wouldn’t work. So they pieced together a sort of bionic performance from her outtakes from the two immediately previous movies in the cycle, filtering out her original backgrounds and placing her digitally wherever the character was supposed to appear, and when they absolutely had to using her real-life daughter, Billie Lourd (who also appears in the film in the minor role of Lt. Connix), to double her.

This isn’t that different from what the makers of the 2006 film Superman Returns did in using leftover footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father Jor-El nagging him from beyond the grave — an actor who had been dead for two years got to play a character who was also supposed to be dead — but Abrams and his crew went the makers of Superman Returns one better by giving Carrie Fisher top billing. So after an early scene in which Leia tells her protégée Rey (Daisy Ridley, who’s the real lead in this film even though she’s only billed fourth) that “Nothing is impossible,” I couldn’t help but joke, “I’m starring in this movie even though I’ve been dead for two years! Nothing is impossible!” The plot of Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker consists of a lot of action scenes in which the good guys — Rey, Finn (John Boyega — one welcome aspect of the film is the sheer number of African-descended actors in the dramatis personae: unlike the science-fiction movies of the 1950’s, this one does not make it look like the science-fiction future is going to be all-white, though Charles couldn’t help but joke about how weird it was that so many white people were descended from James Earl Jones, who provided the voice of Darth Vader even though it was someone else inside the suit), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and our old friends from the original, Chewbacca the Wookie (Joonas Suotamo) and “droids” C-3PO (Anthony Daniels, who apparently is the only actor who appeared — albeit encased in a tin can — in all nine films in the cycle) and R2-D2 (Hassan Tai) — have to take on the bad guys against seemingly impossible odds.

I was amused when I saw Chewbacca’s face and realized how phony it looked — sort of like going back to the original Planet of the Apes films after seeing Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performances in the rebooted cycle — it convinced us in 1977 but today it looks like something you’d see from the human performers at Disneyland. (Ya remember Disneyland?) If I can remember it all, it has something to do with locating a whole fleet of new Star Destroyers the Sith (the bad guys, remember) have built on their secret home planet, Exegol — which, we’re told, doesn’t appear on any star charts (a throwback to the convention of 19th century fiction that posited the existence of islands in mid-ocean that weren’t on any sea charts), and the good guys have to destroy the Star Destroyers so they can be used to annihilate any inconveniently resisting planets. To do this they have to find the Sith Wayfinder, a pyramid-shaped device of which only two were ever made; and to do that they have to translate the inscription on a captured Sith dagger, only no one in our motley crew of goodies can read Sith except C-3PO, and he’s been programmed so that’s a forbidden language so he can translate it but can’t read the translation back to anyone else. Still, it’s stored within his memory, but the only way the good guys can get it out is to deprogram him completely and wipe out all the contradictory programming, including all his memories of anyone or anything else, from his hard drive. (In the real world, people upload the contents of hard drives to external drives so computers can be repaired, and restore them after they’re done — so why couldn’t the people in the Star Wars universe do that?)

Meanwhile, the principal bad guy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is confronted by the spirit, the reincarnation, the clone or whatever of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), whom we learn is actually the grandfather of Rey (ya remember Rey?), who’s been tasked by Leia to lead the mission that will kill the Star Destroyers and ultimately put the Sith out of business forever (or at least until the mavens at Disney decide the grosses on the Star Wars movies are too big to let die and they greenlight an Episode X). Palpatine wants Kylo and/or Rey to take over the throne of the Empire and he plans to do this by getting Rey to kill him so his spirit can discorporate and enter her body, taking her over and getting a new lease on life — though the entire concept of “life” and “death” is so confused in this cycle it’s hard to keep track of who’s alive, who’s dead and what states there may be in between. Apparently this was because at earlier stages in the Star Wars mythos either George Lucas or the subsequent writers decided that you could live forever if you died at peace with the Force, because then the Force would simply incorporate you and allow you to return to normal life either in a replica of what you looked like when you died or in a new incarnation altogether. It’s occurred to me that in developing and using plot devices like that the Star Wars cycle moved away from science-fiction and towards fantasy (the opposite of H. P. Lovecraft’s evolution; in the 1930’s he moved away from fantasy and more towards science-fiction, and many writers since have copied his central conceit that super-powerful aliens could have come to earth and been taken for, and worshiped as, gods: as Lovecraft biographer L. Sprague de Camp put it, this sort of “mechanistic supernatural” approach is the sort of thing an atheist writing fantasy would come up with).

For some reason the writers barely even attempt to explain, we learn not only that Rey is the granddaughter of Palpatine but Kylo Ren, the villain who killed Han Solo two episodes previously (Adam Driver said that after Episode VII came out people would actually recognize him on the street, approach him and say, “You killed Han Solo! How dare you!”), was actually Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and under the tutelage of his dead father — who emerges from the Force (or wherever) and comes back to life just for this purpose, reclaims him from the side of good just before his body disintegrates and he dies. “How Production Code!” I said, noting that in this respect The Rise of Skywalker is like a 1930’s movie in which the villain abandoned his villainy but still had to die to atone for the bad things he’d done before. The Rise of Skywalker is a big (142 minutes) lumbering beast of a movie, and apparently it disappointed a lot of long-time Star Wars fans who regarded it as somewhat less than a fitting end to the cycle, but for someone who’s never obsessed about Star Wars I found it quite enjoyable even though the pretensions did get more than a bit thick sometimes. Let’s face it: you don’t go see a movie like this (or watch it at home, the only way we can watch movies now — Disney actually pushed up the home-video release of this film by two months so they could catch the people in stay-at-home isolation and make a lot of money selling this entertainment option to them before the SARS-CoV-2 crisis ends) for deep philosophical or spiritual insights into the human condition. You go to see a lot of nice-looking people blowing things up — and that promise The Rise of Skywalker delivers on in spades.

The Rise of Skywalker also seems to have at least a veiled bit of anti-Trump political commentary; I remember the fooforaw in Right-wing media circles when Rogue One was about to be released that it had been intended as an anti-Trump film — indeed, there were rumors that after it was shot it was pulled from release and the director and writers created additional scenes to make it even more anti-Trump. That was ridiculous even before I saw Rogue One — which if anything was a pro-Trump movie in that one of the two women characters was a vicious caricature of Hillary Clinton — but there’s certainly an element of anti-Trump resistance in The Rise of Skywalker, not only in the attempt of an aging authoritarian leader to keep his power going forever by reincarnating himself into younger members of his family but also in the bits of dialogue about how the whole purpose of the Sith’s terror campaign is to intimidate people into not resisting and how everyone else in the universe has to come together to defeat them — a point eloquently made in the big conflict at the end between the Sith’s ships, all perfectly designed and identical, and the motley crew of spacecraft from various planets who respond to Our Heroes’ distress calls and annihilate the baddies (presumably) once and for all.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Addressing the Pandemic, Honoring the Past

Two-Hour Multi-Network Global Citizen telethon repurposes classic songs for insights into today’s health emergency.


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Yesterday, April 18, 2020, a number of major networks collaborated on a two-hour semi-telethon called “One World Together at Home” co-hosted by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert that, interestingly, was not designed to raise money for SARS-CoV-2 and its victims but to build awareness and hopefully shake loose some donations for groups that are helping mobilize the response. (According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the virus causing the current pandemic is called “SARS-CoV-2,” indicating it’s not an entirely new organism but a relative of the original SARS-CoV that caused a medical scare in 2003, and COVID-19 is the name of the disease it causes.)
It was sponsored by a number of organizations, including one called Global Citizen that has been hosting TV events since 2015 and also organizing young people to do their own support actions for charities around the world, many of them raising money for food or medical supplies for African countries and others in the Third World (or whatever it’s called these days). The centerpiece of Global Citizen’s activism is a big concert held somewhere in the developed world to which the young people who sign up for these causes have a chance to win tickets.
Well, with big concerts a thing of the past (at least for now and however long SARS-CoV-2 remains a worldwide threat), Global Citizen, inspired by the activist organizing efforts of Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin (who did a 30-minute at-home concert on his smartphone as a sort of preliminary event and posted it online at; a clip of this was shown during the telethon but Ellen De Generes talked over a good deal of it) and Lady Gaga, got the idea of doing a telethon with each musician beaming in from their own home or other private location, thus bringing the performers together while keeping them appropriately “socially distant.”
Lady Gaga kicked off the proceedings with a beautiful and heartfelt version of the song “Smile.” This is a song with a socially conscious history because it was based on the main theme of the score for Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece Modern Times — the last time he played the “Little Tramp,” the last silent film made in the U.S. by a major star for theatrical release, and an audacious movie whose critiques of capitalism and automation still ring all too vividly true. Though the song’s lyrics aren’t by Chaplin — they were added in 1954 by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons — they strongly reflect his philosophy of dogged and ultimately rewarded persistence in the face of adversity: “Smile, though your heart is aching; smile, even though it’s breaking; When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by if you smile.”
Lady Gaga sang it beautifully, at home alone and accompanied only by herself on piano; unlike some of the other performers (including Billie Eilish and Kacey Musgraves), she projected powerfully and didn’t let the accompaniment drown her out. The show was full of old songs of either explicitly or vaguely expressed social content being repurposed to honor the front-line workers against SARS-CoV-2 — especially the doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, who in addition to their accustomed tasks now also have the burden of literally hugging and comforting COVID-19 victims in their last moments since their family members are forbidden to be in the same room as them lest they spread the contagion.
The second performer was someone with an even more exalted reputation than Lady Gaga: Stevie Wonder, who talked about his friendship with the late Bill Withers and played (on piano, not organ or synthesizer) a medley of Withers’ hit “Lean on Me” and Wonder’s own “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” The third performer was, if anything, an even bigger legend than Stevie Wonder: Paul McCartney, who began by talking about his own loss of his mother to cancer when he was still a teenager. (Paul lost his mother to cancer around the same time John Lennon’s mom was killed in a traffic accident, and the shared grief bonded them together a lot more tightly than was usual for two teenage boys playing in an amateur band.)
Paul mentioned that his mom had worked as a nurse before her own bout with fatal illness, and that made me think he was going to play “Let It Be” — he’s said in interviews that the line “When I find myself in trouble/Mother Mary comes to me” was a reference to his own mother, whose name actually was Mary McCartney, not the Virgin Mary as a lot of people have assumed.) Instead he played a slowed-down version of “Lady Madonna” and put a whole different meaning to the song than it had had as a Fats Domino-esque rocker when the Beatles recorded it in 1968.
While, somewhat to my surprise, no one sang the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg classic “Over the Rainbow,” made famous by Judy Garland (herself a political liberal who would certainly have approved of this event and its significance) and brilliantly repurposed by Ariana Grande when she returned to Manchester, England on June 4, 2017, two weeks after a terrorist had shot up her previous concert and killed 22 of her fans; Grande headlined an all-star memorial concert to raise money for the survivors and the families of the victims, and vividly closed with “Over the Rainbow” — Kacey Musgraves trotted out her own similar song, “Rainbow,” and played it over some images of kids painting rainbows as symbols of hope in the midst of the pandemic.
Most of the songs were presented in slow, dirge-like tempi — that’s the way people tend to use music to eulogize people who’ve gone before their time and/or in horrifically tragic ways — but the performer who followed Musgraves, Elton John, did an uptempo version of his song “I’m Still Standing.” Though years of throat surgery have made it impossible for him to sing high notes and thus he’s had to rewrite the songs to duck them, he threw himself into the song with appropriate fervor and showed that a tribute concert in the face of a medical disaster can still have moments of energy and fun.
The next song was called “Safety Dance” by a group called The Roots, whom I’ve never heard of before, though their Wikipedia page lists them as “an American hip-hop band” and state that they’ve existed since 1987 and are currently the band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show on NBC. I was wondering if they’d written the song especially for this performance, but it was yet another repurposing of someone else’s song — a 1980’s hit for the band Men Without Hats — and apparently on the Fallon show the Roots also turned Sting’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (originally written as the lament of a male teacher whose hot, sexy female student is literally standing so close to him he’s having a hard time resisting her charms) into an anthem promoting social distancing.
The Roots did “Safety Dance” safely by having each of their 10 members in a separate room putting in their contribution and getting displayed in separate boxes across the screen: I have a lot of admiration for the program’s technical staff for being able to get them to blend seamlessly and mixing the sound into a coherent performance. (Attempts to combine musicians from various locations in real time have been happening at least since 1945 — the Esquire All-American jazz concert of that year attempted to combine Duke Ellington from New York, Benny Goodman from Los Angeles and Louis Armstrong from New Orleans into one simultaneous performance of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” — but in last night’s telecast the tech people did it several times and were surprisingly good at it.)

Giving Trump the Finger over Defunding WHO

In between the performances there were the usual speeches by various people on the front lines of the battle against SARS-CoV-2 — as well as people who aren’t, like L. L. Cool J. (who pronounced the “t” in the word “often”) and Oprah Winfrey (who didn’t). One of the principal objectives of the program was to raise money and awareness for the World Health Organization (WHO), and while I suspect this was totally unintended when the producers organized this show originally, President Trump recently cut off the $500 million the U.S. gives to WHO annually on the ground that the WHO had been taken in by propaganda from the Chinese government that understated the extent of SARS-CoV-2 cases in China in general and Wuhan province, where the virus was first noticed, in particular.
So every time anybody on the show had a nice thing to say about WHO —including its secretary-general, whom Trump has attacked personally — it was a sort of raised middle finger to Trump. After The Roots, the next performance was also bi-locational: a Brazilian singer named Maluma hung out in that country’s beautiful mountain country while the guitarist who accompanied him stayed indoors and played in a home studio. Their song was called “Carnaval” and from what I could gather it was one of those stay-happy-in-the-face-of-adversity-because-after-all-life-is-a-carnival pieces that tend to get trotted out on occasions like this.
Then there was a brief clip from Chris Martin’s concert-at-home that apparently started the whole trend of performers sharing themselves with their fans virtually via the Internet when they can’t actually perform live — though I wished a) that the producers of “One World Together at Home” had presented at least one complete song from Martin’s performance, and b) that Ellen De Generes had shut up and quit talking over the song so we could have actually heard a full song from this compelling performer. Next up was yet another old song powerfully repurposed for the occasion: “What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong’s last hit (he recorded it twice, in 1967 and 1970) and a testimony to love, hope and humanity from a man who over his long life had dealt with more than his share of adversity.
As a boy Louis Armstrong had hung out by the train tracks hurling insults at the workers manning the coal that heated the water to produce the steam the trains ran on, so they’d throw rocks of coal at him — and he could pick them up off the ground and take them home to keep himself and his family warm. In 1932 Armstrong was invited to make a triumphant return to his home town, New Orleans (non-coincidentally a place hard-hit by SARS-CoV-2 as well), only he had to play at a whites-only outdoor nightclub called the Suburban Gardens and his own people had to crowd around the fence barring them from the grounds and hear the music as best they could. In 1957 Armstrong told reporters that then-President Dwight Eisenhower could “go to hell” for not doing enough to oppose Southern racism and discrimination.
In 1970, for his final album Louis Armstrong and His Friends, he not only remade “What a Wonderful World” (giving the song a beautiful spoken introduction explaining why he still thought it was a wonderful world despite war and pollution) but recorded “We Shall Overcome” and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” So he would have felt right at home at a benefit like this! On “One World Together at Home,” “What a Wonderful World” was performed eloquently and beautifully by Camila Cabelo and Shawn Mendes.
It was followed by an equally powerful, though totally different stylistically, song called “River Cross” performed by Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, singing and playing what looked to be an old church tracker organ in his home. (Vedder remains one of my favorite current singers because, unlike most vocalists who front hard-rock bands, he has a surprisingly flexible voice that’s basically a baritone but can “push up” into a falsetto tenor. Most hard-rock and heavy-metal singers do too little but growl or screech.)

Reaching Back to the Black Church Tradition

Then yet another old song was repurposed for this show and its message; Sam Cooke’s final hit, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” with its roots in Black gospel (Cooke started out as a gospel singer) even though its attitude towards life after death (if any) is quite the opposite of gospel’s: “It’s been too hard living/But I’m afraid to die/’Cause I don’t know what’s up there/Beyond the sky.” (In his days as a gospel singer with the group the Soul Stirrers Cooke wasn’t afraid to die and was sure of exactly what was up there beyond the sky!) The singer was Lizzo, whom I admire a great deal even though I found her album hard going — all that rapping and all that swearing put me off and made me wish that next time out she’ll sing on records the way she sang last night, with a powerful gospel-soul voice (if anyone wants to do a biopic of the 1950’s and 1960’s gospel great Mahalia Jackson, Lizzo would be perfect, physically and vocally, to play her!) and without the rap interjections or the potty mouth.
Afterwards the four “official” remaining members of the Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger not only singing but playing acoustic guitar, Ron Wood also on acoustic guitar, Keith Richards on electric bass and Charlie Watts on drums — plus what may have been bits recycled from their original recording (notably the piano and parts of the chorus) doing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It was an ironic song choice because it’s one of President Trump’s favorites to play at his rallies (apparently Trump personally chooses every song played over the sound system at his big Nuremberg-style rallies!), while at the same time it was being played at an event exalting the World Health Organization, which Trump in his infinite stupidity and vanity has just chosen not to fund. The Rolling Stones were presented the same way The Roots were — the band members in separate locations, optically combined in little boxes across the screen — though it was easier since there were only four of them.
After the Stones, country singer Keith Urban was brought in to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Love” — frankly, I’d have rather heard him sing “Lean on Me” and have reserved this song for Wonder himself, but that’s O.K. — and then there was one of the most fascinating acts on the program, a Nigerian singer named Burna Boy, accompanied by a guitarist who (once again) was at another location, doing a song called “African Child” (I think he intended it as a medley with another song, but I didn’t catch the name of the second song) that proved quite powerful and indicated how once again Africa is particularly suffering from an epidemic exacerbated by their overall lack of much of a health-care infrastructure.
Then there was another old song repurposed for its overall message that all of us in the human race are in this together: Jennifer Lopez singing “People,” the mega-hit from Barbra Streisand’s performance on both stage and screen as Fanny Brice in the bio-musical Funny Girl. Backed by a huge orchestra that was obviously pre-recorded, Lopez poured her heart and soul into this number — a far cry from the lame Motown tributes she performed on two Grammy Awards telecasts and suggesting that Latina Lopez has more of an affinity for white Jewish song and culture than for the music of African-Americans.
Then John Legend and Sam Smith got together for a duet on yet another repurposed oldie, “Stand By Me,” officially written by Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller for King’s beautiful soul record from 1961 but actually derived from two previous African-American gospel songs, one written by someone named “Tindley” (a Web search for “Tindley” revealed not a person but a place, a prominent African-American Methodist church in Philadelphia) and recorded powerfully by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1938 (, and another recorded by the Soul Stirrers for Sam Cooke’s SAR label in the 1960’s ( which is listed on the Wikipedia page for the secular “Stand By Me” as the source for it even though it sounds less like the King version ( than Tharpe’s does. (And if you listen closely to the lyrics of King’s version you’ll notice that there’s nothing in them — except maybe the word “darling” — that suggests it’s addressed to a lover instead of the Lord.)

The Real Hero Armstrong — and the Pretender

After that Stephen Colbert irked me big-time by introducing Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day as “the most legendary Armstrong who never walked on the moon” — sorry, Stephen, but that was Louis Armstrong, who’d already been paid tribute to earlier in the evening with Camila Cabelo’s and Shawn Mendes’ cover of “What a Wonderful World.” The “other” Armstrong did a surprisingly appropriate song from his 2005 album American Idiot (the title was a reference to then-President George W. Bush, whom we made fun of then but looks like Lincoln compared to who we’ve got now!) called “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which Armstrong apparently wrote about the death of his father but which became a symbol of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s piss-poor response to it. It worked last night, too, even though the rate of deaths in the U.S. related to COVID-19 has zoomed up so much this month I felt the song should have been called “Wake Me Up When April Ends.”
Next came Billie Eilish, in her usual baggy outfits (she deliberately dresses in loose-fitting clothes so she won’t be seen as a sex object the way so many women singers have been) and that bizarre green patch on top of her head that makes it looks like she got “slimed” by the ghosts from the original Ghostbusters movie, but she and her brother/accompanist/producer Finneas (“Eilish” is actually her middle name, and their family name is “O’Connell”) did one of the weirdest repurposings of an old song all night: Bobby Hebb’s 1960’s hit “Sunny,” mainly because they wanted to do something optimistic to cut through all the doom ’n’ gloom.
The last two songs were something of a letdown — Taylor Swift’s “Soon You’ll Get Better” and what was supposed to be a grand finale featuring Andrea Bocelli, Céline Dion, John Legend, Lady Gaga and classical pianist Lang Lang uniting on Bocelli’s big hit “Our Prayer,” but the kind of chemistry these big all-right-everybody-on-stage numbers are supposed to generate was hard to do when they were all in separate places. Up until then the producers had done a good job blending people in different locations into artificial but still moving ensembles, but they didn’t quite pull it off with “Our Prayer.”
One can’t fault the intentions behind a show like this — indeed, I was a bit disappointed that it was only two hours long and it wasn’t an all-day extravaganza like previous Global Citizen concerts have been when you could have more than two people in the same venue at the same time — and for the most part the intentions were realized, and as an in-home caregiver married to a grocery clerk (which means that we’re both defined as “essential” and therefore we’re still allowed to have jobs while so many people have been let go from theirs) I felt personally thanked as well as proud of the front-line doctors and especially the nurses who not only have had this horrible epidemic dumped on their caseloads but have to reach out and comfort people in ways they generally haven’t had to do — and they’ve had to do this with woefully inadequate supplies, including the personal protective equipment (“PPE,” in the current argot) they need to keep from catching SARS-CoV-2 themselves and giving it to their other patients or their loved ones. One doctor profiled on this show is literally living in his garage because he dares not go into his own home for fear of infecting his family!