April 30, 2017

Lady Gaga’s jazz, musical theater and piano chops

Lady Gaga turns 31 this week.
Is there anything Lady Gaga can’t do?  She has burned up the pop charts with her contemporary songs, worn meat as a costume, recorded standards with Tony Bennett, credibly sung a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars, and played an intriguing role on FX TV’s America Horror Story.

For my purposes, I wanted to know more about her jazz and musical theater inclinations.

Gaga’s dad, Joe Germanotta said she won a jazz vocal competition in her mid-teens and cut her vocal teeth in that genre.  A few short years later, she was enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before dropping out to follow her own musical muses.  If you can believe it, she was dropped by Def Jam Recordings. She then worked as a songwriter for Sony/ATV Music Publishing before finding her groove as a performer and visual artist, with hair, makeup and clothing being her personal canvas.

She also plays the piano. And we mean pianos and keyboards of all types. Some look like space ships, one is filled with plastic bubbles, with still others covered in butterflies or veritable gardens. I particularly admire the keyboards that look like a motorcycle or a giant shoe, not to mention the piano that looks like a 20- foot spindly-legged creature or the one that is literally on fire!

Enter Tony Bennett. With their duet recording, Cheek To Cheek, Bennett and Lady Gaga both broke some impressive records. The project won a a Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. Bennett became the oldest person to reach number one on the charts, and Lady Gaga became the first female artist to achieve three number one hit albums in the 2010 decade. While on a music road trip, I carefully listened to every track and had to admit, this gal has vocal chops, knows how to put across a lyric and she swings.

Gaga makes the occasional appearance, both announced and not, to sing jazz and pop standards. Type Lady Gaga into a search engine with the song titles Someone To Watch Over Me, Orange-Colored Sky, Imagine and You’ve Got a Friend, and enjoy these and other clips on youtube.

Now word comes out that she is slated to be the lead in Bradley Cooper’s movie remake of A Star Is Born, the iconic story previously featuring Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. I wouldn’t be surprised if, down the road, she was announced as the lead in Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House. You go, Gaga!

La La Land: Oscar-worthy

I finally had the opportunity to see La La Land this past week. In short, I was delighted from start to finish. Imagine my surprise when the two men who accompanied me to the cinema proclaimed this to be “a terrible movie” and “boring,” respectively.
Another friend disliked the opening sequence with a traffic jam resulting in people getting out of their cars and singing and dancing.
As for me, I loved the opening for quickly putting the viewer into the world of Hollywood where every other person seems to be grasping for a toe hold into the world of entertainment. Although they may get to sing, dance, act, write, direct or design for TV and movies, all of these people have to keep on scrambling to pay bills and keep their cars running. The scene also has the principal characters “meeting cute” with an angry flipped finger at one another.

The use of bright colors throughout the movie whether it be with clothing, furniture, signage or scenery absolutely delighted my eyes. The score was tuneful and lyrics well-crafted. The song “City of Stars” is still going through my head. The orchestration found so many different ways of presenting the simple but potent melodies. The script dialogue is reminiscent of the rapid bantering of 1930’s screwball comedies.

Now a word about the stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. She can actually sing pretty expressively. Gosling’s singing is serviceable, but I was really impressed with his ability to simulate playing the piano really well. He reportedly sang and played piano, guitar, bass and cello in a group in 2009 so he came to the film with some musical skills. His dancing is pretty impressive, too, especially since he is six feet tall and gracefully manages his long legs. Stone and Gosling were cast for their box office names and their acting chops, but their musical and dancing skills are most entertaining.

One of the men who dissed the movie did sheepishly note the large number of Oscar nominations for this “terrible movie.” Let me compare this to the political climate. We definitely see the world through our own filters, be it for movie-watching or political opinions. Some of us just have better taste!

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds in Bright Lights Doc on HBO

If you love Hollywood lore, the documentary Bright Lights featuring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds will touch you deeply.
Originally scheduled to be released in March 2017 on HBO, the project directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom was sped up and released on Jan. 7, 2017 to coincide with the day-apart deaths of the famous mother and daughter.
In the footage, Reynolds appears to be a celebrity mother who was aware of the effect of her career on that of her children. Her relationship with daughter Carrie is warm and caring as you see them living next to one another in the same compound. Fisher demonstrates her incisive wit, her eclectic decorating taste and surprisingly good vocal skills. Her brother Todd also comes off as a good guy and proud of his mother. You just may laugh, cry and smile while watching this gentle slice of life program about two ladies who are part of cinema history.

A Man Called Ove Book

Every so often a book strikes a universal chord and becomes a world-wide hit. Such is the case with Fredrik Backman’s charming novel, A Man Called Ove. The prose is anything but dense with child-like chapter headings but the themes running throughout the book run the gamut from marriage, suicide and aging with characters whom are disabled, gay, obese, depressed, pregnant and senile. One alternates between chuckling and feeling a lump in one’s throat.

Come to think of it, everyone must know a cranky older man who has a secret heart of gold which is perhaps why this short Swedish novel has been so popular.

The Swedish movie version was released this fall starring Rolf Lasgard who has been seen in the TV show Sebastian Bergman. The movie reviews have been generally positive and the film is still available in movie theaters this December 2016. Reading the book first may be my recommendation. Skal!

Apple TV Generation 4

I finally bought a flat screen Samsung Smart television after quelling family resistance to installing something new.  Yet, nostalgia has kept us from wheeling the old tube tv to the dumpster.

I must admit that television is now a much more vivid and engaging experience which is a bit of good thing, but with its dark side, too. Binge-watching is a little too easy. Especially with Siri.

Did I mention that I also bought the Generation 4 version of Apple TV?  The system is now voice-activated with Siri being all too happy to find your selected program, especially if it means buying it from itunes. She is quite the sales clerk.

The only real set-up needed is to download free and paid apps for anything you may want to watch. For example, PBS and CNN apps were free; the MHZ Choice, Netflix and HBO Now apps simply connected to my existing paid-monthly accounts.

The remote-control allows you to swipe to make selections, hold down a button to summon Siri or punch Menu which takes you back to your previous page view.

A nice feature is your iCloud photo gallery can be run as a slideshow on your tv screen. I’m still discovering ways to use Apple TV, but Siri alone has revolutionized how I watch television.  Imagine being able to talk to all of your appliances?

Apple, please come up with an equivalent to Amazon’s Echo so I can tell Siri to turn my lights on, lower my heat, switch off my oven or set my alarm clock. And then put Siri into a robot that can do my laundry while I watch my Apple TV.

Room – a faithful and emotionally satisfying movie adaptation of the popular book

I’m usually disappointed by movie versions of successful books, but Room is definitely an exception. The author, Emma Donoghue was tapped to adapt her novel into a screenplay and does an admirable job capturing the delicate spirit of book.

Irish film-maker, Lenny Abrahamson uses cinematic alchemy to depict themes of abduction, the mother-child bond and 5-year-old Jack’s journey from a tiny life to one encompassing the whole beautiful world. While the beginning of the film is purposely stifling, by the end of the movie, we feel our own hearts expand.

The film adaptation benefits greatly from the Oscar-winning performance of actress Brie Larsen and that of Jacob Tremblay, the remarkable child actor who plays her fellow prisoner in the Room. Chicago actors, Joan Allen and William H. Macy add lustre with supporting roles.

Room is currently available for free for Amazon Prime members.

For more about the movie:
http://roomthemovie.com/#/

Prisoner of Her Past, Howard Reich’s film and book

Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich initially set out to uncover his mother’s past in hopes of understanding her erratic behavior in the present. Prisoner of Her Past is Howard Reich’s book and film about his mother’s World War II experiences creeping back into her life sixty years later.

The film is extremely moving, but the book benefits even more from Reich’s meticulous writing. Readers of his incisive musical criticism will delight in his own musical journey as he discovers Gershwin, Mendelssohn and other classical composers as well as his exposure to jazz, both live and recorded.

The book deserves a place on the shelves of readers interested in the Holocaust and World War II, of those curious about post-traumatic syndrome or of those wanting to read a son’s poignant memoir about his troubled mother.

To mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), the film, Prisoner of Her Past, will be broadcast on WTTW HD, the Chicago PBS affiliate on Thursday, May 5 at 10 pm and on WTTW Prime on Friday, May 6 at 4 pm.

What Happened Miss Simone? doc on Netflix

I must admit that I put the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? on my Netflix watch list and then never seemed to find the right time to view it.

I rectified that situation last week and marveled at the performance clips of this iconic singer-pianist-songwriter. Yes, it is painful to see the downward trajectory of Nina Simone’s life and career, but filmmaker Liz Garbus allows us to see the joy and passion in Simone’s performances as well.

Music clips are interwoven with interviews of her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly and her ex-husband, Andrew Stroud, footage of Hugh Hefner introducing her before she entertains a Playboy televised party and stunning video of her civil rights involvement. The film depicts her life in Liberia, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland after the divorce from her ex-New York cop spouse who had also been her manager. Especially moving are the comments by her long-time guitarist Al Schackman.

The title of the documentary is a quote from literary giant Maya Angelou who uttered this famous phrase to the world famous musician. Simone most likely suffered from manic depression or bi-polarity which was not effectively treated most of her life.

Mental illness was not the only challenge for Simone. Her budding career as a young classical pianist may have been thwarted by her lack of funds, her gender and the color of her skin. The civil rights movement consumed her and she admitted to Martin Luther King that she did not espouse non-violence in the black struggle. Her husband served her well in business but according to Simone, was abusive both emotionally and physically in their marriage.

As counterweight to the heavy topics, there is the glorious music that still attracts both young and old alike: I Loves You Porgy, My Baby Just Cares For Me, Mississippi Goddam, Strange Fruit, the Janis Ian-penned Stars and the Lorraine Hansberry-inspired Simone composition To Be Young, Gifted and Black are among the many songs heard in the film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? has been nominated for a 2016 Documentary Feature Oscar.

Spotlight: a surefire Oscar contender

Although the award-winning movie Doubt delved into the topic of one priest’s pedophilia, director and co-screenwriter Tom McCarthy looks at the bigger picture with Spotlight, a film based on a true story set in the very Catholic city of Boston.

The movie-goer is introduced to an investigative team at the Boston Globe called Spotlight which is digging into the story about decades-long priest abuse of minors and more shocking, the cover-up by the Catholic diocese. The news story coverage went on to win a Pulitzer prize in 2003 for the paper.

Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo portray Spotlight team members; John Slattery and Liev Schreiber are part of the newspaper management and Stanley Tucci plays a dogged lawyer representing victims. Broadway legend Len Cariou is cast as Cardinal Law.

The acting is remarkable, the dialogue crisp and the film creates a tension that keeps building until the final scenes. I was reminded of Alan J. Pakula’s equally fine film,  All the President’s Men.

Spotlight is sure to garner some Oscar nominations, so put it on your list of must-sees.

Inside Out, a Pixar animated movie

I can give an unqualified thumbs up to Pixar’s animated movie, Inside Out. This is a perfect example of two-track writing that allows kids to enjoy the general story line while providing enough emotional and brain heft for adults.

Riley Anderson is uprooted from her comfortable life in Minnesota to a chaotic new home in San Francisco. Five of her emotions take shape as characters, Joy (marvelously voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). My favorite character is Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, a pink elephant named Bing Bong played by the wonderful Richard Kind.

Psychology students will find humor in the characters encounters with abstract thought, long-term memories, personality islands and Imagination Land.   There is literally a “train of thought” that Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong catch to take them back to Riley’s “Headquarters.” This story is saying something quite profound about core memories and our ability to integrate our emotions when buffeted with setbacks and change.

The kids can think they are seeing something merely entertaining with bright colors, fun characters and lots of animated action. Just don’t be surprised if the adults find themselves tearing up over the themes of loss, family, friendship and literally, growing up.

I regret having missed the 3D version in the theaters, but you can now rent the movie for streaming from Amazon Video or iTunes.