Thursday, February 20, 2014

What ever happened to Babyface?: These are among the tracks I've added to AFOS rotation this month

I'll never forget the time my white English teacher awkwardly referenced Toni Braxton's 'Breathe Again,' which dominated radio at the time, while he explained the romantic relationship in the novel we were assigned to read. Well, good thing it was that and not LL's 'Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag.'
Babyface featuring Toni Braxton, "Give U My Heart (Upscale R&B Remix)," and Toni Braxton, "Love Shoulda Brought You Home" (both from Boomerang; now playing during "The Whitest Block Ever")

Love, Marriage & Divorce, the new album "starring" Toni Braxton and Babyface, is the first time I've paid attention to new music by either one of them in like 13 years (when Babyface tried to update his sound and recruited the Neptunes to produce "There She Goes," to be exact). The project--a collection of tunes about rocky relationships (where the fighting often leads to sex), infidelity, divorce and post-divorce reconciliation that stem from Braxton and Babyface's experiences with divorce--plays to each of their strengths as artists: Braxton's terrific contralto, especially when she sings a blistering kiss-off to an ex like Love, Marriage & Divorce's "I Wish," and Babyface's skills as a craftsman of New Jack-era, pre-Jodeci/R. Kelly R&B of the baby-making kind.

There's a scene early in Boomerang where a heavy-handed--and enthusiastic, of course, because he's played by Geoffrey "No Caffeine: Never Had It, Never Will" Holder--TV ad director presents Eddie Murphy's skirt-chasing ad exec Marcus Graham with a rough cut of a hilariously unsubtle lipstick ad, which is full of shots of supermodels wagging their tongues between pairs of cherries and sucking on bananas. Marcus' response to the footage is "I like the orange, and I like the ice cream. You gotta get rid of the cherries and lose the banana... That's a little too overt, you know? We should go a little more subtle... At least there wasn't no sausages in this one." His preference for classing things up also best sums up why most of Babyface's hits still hold up today and you can sing along to them without snickering, while the much lewder slow jams that followed Babyface's string of hits--like, for example, Silk's "Freak Me"--come off as unintentionally funny when you re-encounter them these days, mostly because their lyrics have been parodied so often by the likes of Murphy's Boomerang co-star Chris Rock ("Suck Your Big Toe"), Dave Chappelle ("Piss on You") and The Lonely Island ("Dick in a Box").

It's nice to hear Braxton and Babyface singing together again because I remember very well when I first heard them together: the duet "Give U My Heart," which Babyface produced for the Boomerang soundtrack. That album, which represented the best in mainstream R&B at the time, dominated the R&B airwaves in 1992 (you couldn't hide from the mammoth radio hit that was Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," which is the very last song featured in the film's end credits). "Give U My Heart," a New Jack tune that still holds up today, made me think, "Who's this chick with the smoky voice? She's like a younger Anita Baker. I'd like to hear more from her." And five months later, we did get to hear more from her when the Boomerang soundtrack hit us with the single "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," which, in fact, was written for Baker, but she declined to record it because she was pregnant at the time, so she suggested to Babyface and L.A. Reid that they give the song to the girl who sang its demo version: Braxton.

The release of Love, Marriage & Divorce isn't just why "Love Shoulda Brought You Home," which Angela (Halle Berry) quotes from when she breaks up with Marcus in Boomerang, and the film version of "Give U My Heart," known as the "Upscale R&B Remix," have been added to "Whitest Block Ever" rotation. It's Black History Month, and I think Boomerang is just as important and vital a film for directors and moviegoers of color as, say, the box office hit Lee Daniels' The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. In 1992, there wasn't a film like director Reginald Hudlin's Boomerang. "Part of the appeal of Boomerang for the Hudlins was that the film's subject matter--a brazen look at the battle of the sexes--had never been explored in a black film with multimillion-dollar production values," said the Philadelphia Inquirer in its 1992 profile of Hudlin and his producer brother Warrington Hudlin, who were fresh off the success of House Party.

The Hudlins' 1992 hit paved the way for the current hot streak of black, or as USA Today likes to say, "race-themed," rom-coms: Think Like a Man (soon to be followed this summer by Think Like a Man Too), The Best Man Holiday and Kevin Hart's About Last Night. That's why Boomerang, which I just saw for the very first time, is worth another look. It's also a damn good comedy (peep its ensemble cast--there are so many funny performances throughout Boomerang) and one of Murphy's best, even though, like Odie Henderson says in his post about the film, it sort of falls apart at the end. (That's due to the Hudlins rewriting the film at the last minute so that Marcus wins back Angela instead of winding up without either Angela or Jacqueline, the marketing department boss--and freak in the bed--played by Robin Givens. It was supposed to originally end with that shot of the Empire State Building lighting up behind Murphy, his future Life co-star Martin Lawrence and David Alan Grier hugging each other--again, that cast!--on the rooftop.)

Eddie Murphy's love of Star Trek is one of several reasons why we still dig Murphy despite stupid shit like his non-comedic soul albums and Pluto Nash.
(Photo source: Brian Orndorf)
Comedy movies like Boomerang get slept on simply because they're comedies, and we know how well the Oscar crowd treats comedy movies. The Butler and 12 Years a Slave garner lots of accolades (particularly for dramatizing tumultuous moments of African American history not from a white audience surrogate's point of view or the oppressor's point of view but from a black point of view) but are dismissed by some black moviegoers for being "misery porn." Armond White is a crazy old troll who hasn't written anything coherent or worth taking seriously in 13 years (the last White article I remember enjoying reading was his angry takedown of SNL's first post-9/11 episode because all the cops, firefighters and city workers Lorne Michaels brought out on-stage for Paul Simon's opening musical number were middle-aged white men), and White's heckling of 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner was just plain rude and stupid, but I understand where he's coming from when he disses 12 Years a Slave for being "torture porn."

There's an interesting Tumblr exchange about this very subject between David Brothers from Image Comics, who's similarly said that he's had it up to here with misery porn, and another African American comics blogger, cartoonist Darryl Ayo. "I do feel like the [black-driven movies] that come across my desk tend to be what you describe--something about how much it sucks or sucked to be black, instead of just movies about people," wrote Brothers to Ayo. "The Butler, the Help, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Precious, The Blind Side, all these movies traffick [sic] in black misery. I feel like Hollywood's black people, outside of what feels like exceptions, have just a couple ideas as to what black folks are all about, and keep going to the misery well because it has a built-in triumphant narrative if you look at it right... I'm over feeling sad about being black."

On the next Head of the Class, Darlene goes out with Eddie Murphy and gets her finger stuck in the zipper of his leather jumpsuit!
Boomerang--which I watched on Netflix Instant because I was in the mood for a film with black stars that was neither somber Oscar bait nor a corny Tyler Perry film--may be a throwback to His Girl Friday, one of Hudlin's favorite movies and an influence on the Murphy film, or any one of those '50s and '60s ad exec rom-coms with Rock Hudson or Tony Randall, but one thing that keeps Boomerang remaining vital all these years is the humor based in political consciousness that Hudlin said he and his brother wanted to inject into House Party and Boomerang in that Philly Inquirer piece. Several of my favorite scenes in House Party involve awkward interactions between black folks and white authority figures, from the school principal who thinks the head bully called Kid's dead mom a garden tool to the inept cops who toss the not-exactly-thuggish Kid in jail and get their comeuppance at the end.

The Hudlins did the same thing in Boomerang, throwing in a little scene where Marcus and his friends, despite their Manhattan ad agency cachet, are racially profiled while browsing around a menswear store (Marcus' comedic handling of the racist clerk brings back a little bit of the fire Murphy brought to the scene that Roger Ebert memorably said was the moment that made Murphy a movie star, the 48 Hrs. redneck bar scene), as well as another bit where Berry says good night to Grier in fake Korean and jokes that it means "I'm sorry I shot you, but I thought you were robbing my store." It's the Hudlins' way of saying, "Sure, this is the same opulent and insular ad agency world from those Rock Hudson and Tony Randall rom-coms, but because our characters are black, these things that are unfortunately everyday to us--like racial profiling--are as much a part of this world as the tuxes, gowns and lavish product premiere parties." And in House Party and Boomerang, the Hudlins preferred to ridicule the racist assholes who keep these problems alive instead of building Oscar-bait dramas around these problems or speechifying about them, an approach I'd like to see more often from filmmakers of color. It's laughing to keep from crying (hey, that's the title of a Tyler Perry play).

Another thing that's made Boomerang age well is the ensemble, and unlike some other Murphy films in that pre-family-movie period of his career (particularly 1994's Beverly Hills Cop III, where, according to Bronson Pinchot, Murphy was so disengaged with the lame material that John Landis told him, "Just rest, Eddie, and I'll do the scene with Bronson," and he shot Pinchot's scenes with Murphy without Murphy), you can tell Murphy enjoyed being there because of the cast he was surrounded with. During one of the business meeting scenes, he looks like he's about to break character and corpse when the ponytail on Grace Jones' hat hits him in the face, and he looks like he's about to do the same thing too when John Witherspoon explains why "you got to coordinate" in a quotable scene Ludacris once referenced. In a later scene where Angela tries to cheer up a depressed Marcus by bringing him along to a kids' art class she teaches, the interplay between Murphy and the kids appears to be ad-libbed, and his amusement over interacting with those child actors brings to mind how much fun he clearly had watching Pinchot hilariously ad-lib in the first Beverly Hills Cop.

Everyone in that Boomerang cast gets a chance to shine, even bit players like the actor who plays the butler for Eartha Kitt's Lady Eloise character, plus there are three cast members who appeared in Bond movies (Holder was in Live and Let Die, Jones showed up in A View to a Kill and Berry later starred in Die Another Day) and the two black Catwomen (Kitt and Berry). Berry would have been an okay Catwoman had the idiots behind Berry's Catwoman fiasco adapted Ed Brubaker's Catwoman comics instead of inserting all that Patience Phillips/Egyptian superpowers shit. On the other hand, her romantic rival Givens would have been a great Catwoman. Peep how Givens dominates her sex scenes with Murphy. It's very Selina Kyle.

That willingness to take a brief break from the heroism of Reggie Hammond and Axel Foley to play such an emasculated character (who, at one point in one of his sex scenes with Givens, starts sucking his thumb) and win back women who hated the misogyny of Raw and wanted more of Murphy's Coming to America rom-com side--plus hitching his wagons to Black New Wave filmmakers--were good career moves for Murphy. Early '90s "Hammer Time in her shoe" line aside, Boomerang stands the test of time, thanks to the Hudlins, the cast they assembled ("I remember talking to one of the producers at the time and saying, 'Ten years from now, people won't believe we had all these people in the same cast,'" recalled Hudlin to Blackfilm) and a soundtrack that still slaps.

Marcus turns into putty and then turns into the kid from the 2005 movie Thumbsucker.
(Photo source: Big Media Vandalism)

Bear McCreary, "Theme from Black Sails" and "The Parson's Farewell" (both from Black Sails; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue")

I haven't checked out the new Starz pirate drama Black Sails yet, even though the Michael Bay-produced show is the latest project from co-creator Jonathan E. Steinberg, who was in charge of the first and best season of Human Target, a season so enjoyable it made me want to keep an eye on any subsequent post-Human Target shows from Steinberg. But I've listened to the Black Sails first-season score album from series composer Bear McCreary, who worked on Human Target with Steinberg.

Hey, it's Skip Showers Like a Pirate Day.
Once again, McCreary proves why he's one of the best composers working in TV, crafting sounds that perfectly match the tones of the shows he scores, whether it's a suitably restrained and gritty sound for the dark reimagining of Battlestar Galactica or a historically accurate sound for Black Sails that McCreary says has the feel of being "improvised by an exhausted crew aboard a ship navigating choppy waters." That improvised feel permeates "The Parson's Farewell," a lively, hard-rocking track based on a source tune from the show's seventh episode of the season.

For Black Sails, McCreary chose to frequently work with an instrument he's used before on Abed Nadir's favorite show outside of Inspector Spacetime, The Cape, and The Walking Dead: the hurdy gurdy, a string instrument with a droning sound that's played by turning a crank (it also doesn't stand up well to heat, which makes it difficult to keep around in L.A. weather). McCreary once said, "It sounds like an evil bagpipe," and during Black Sails' main title theme, the hurdy gurdy, along with the accordion and antique-sounding piano, helps set the sinister tone of the show's pirate world quite well.

Is she the Ros of the show or the Shae?
That final rattle of the hurdy gurdy at the end of the main title theme brings to mind the sustained violin chord that was such an unsettling and memorable part of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's Dark Knight score and was used by Zimmer to represent Heath Ledger's Joker. The agent of chaos would have fit right in with a crew of pirates because of his smeared war paint and homicidal ways, despite neither talking like a pirate nor worshiping money like one.

Jon Brion, "Hands & Feet" (from Punch-Drunk Love; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue")

At first it was difficult to find for "AFOS Prime" rotation an original score cue to remember the late Philip Seymour Hoffman by. Then I recalled that Punch-Drunk Love, my favorite Paul Thomas Anderson movie, features a standout atonal cue where the Los Angeles Orchestra drummers go to town on the percussion as Hoffman's Mattress Man character, forced to talk on the phone to Adam Sandler's irate Barry Egan, a victim of his sex hotline scam, amusingly tries to be the calm and cool one--and fails (between that exchange, the Magnolia scene where his caretaker character makes an impassioned call to Tom Cruise's character and the empathetic Almost Famous phone conversation with Patrick Fugit's character about being uncool, Hoffman owned phone scenes).

And J.J. Abrams saw this one day, stood up and said, 'When I switch to feature films, I will fill each and every one of them with lens flares!'
"Hands & Feet" is a perfect choice and not just because it represents the fruitful working relationship Hoffman had with Anderson. It also reminds me of how Hoffman always made the most of his screen time, whether it was minimal like in Punch-Drunk Love and Almost Famous or much more extensive like in State and Main, a rare film where Hoffman, who frequently played unsavory characters or villains on screen, got to play the romantic lead. I was looking forward to seeing Happyish, the Showtime original series that completed filming on only one episode and is in limbo now because of the heroin-related death of its star Hoffman.

"10 episodes a season of watching Hoffman play a hilariously bitter ad man with a boss half his age? I SO wanted to have that on my DVR," tweeted Hollywood Reporter TV reviewer Tim Goodman, one of the lucky ones who got to see footage of the Happyish pilot. I wouldn't be surprised if Hoffman murdered that ad man role in the pilot like he murdered his scenes in Punch-Drunk Love and so many other movies.

Ludwig Göransson, "End Titles" (from Fruitvale Station; now playing during "AFOS Prime," "The Whitest Block Ever" and "New Cue Revue")

Ludwig Göransson, who produces beats for rapper Childish Gambino (a.k.a. former Community star Donald Glover), also writes scores for New Girl and Community and is always game for whatever genre Community's parodying that week, whether it's spaghetti westerns, Ken Burns war documentaries or more recently, David Fincher movies. The Swedish-born composer was also game for the serious subject matter of the quietly powerful Fruitvale Station, up-and-coming director Ryan Coogler's fact-based drama starring future Fantastic Four reboot star Michael B. Jordan in a terrific performance as Oscar Grant, whose death from being shot in the back by Oakland transit police at a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train station on New Year's Day made international headlines in 2008 because the shooting was captured by phone cameras.

I'm not sure if that Apollo Creed prequel Michael B. Jordan was attached to last year is a good idea. Enough with the origin stories about this and that! Wait, what? Jordan's now attached to the Fantastic Four reboot? Sigh.
Fruitvale Station by Owen Freeman for the New Yorker (Photo source: Freeman)
The killing of 22-year-old Grant, who was unarmed and was trying to return home from a New Year's celebration, has been the subject of many tracks by rappers who speak out against police brutality and racial profiling. For example, Blue Scholars' 2011 track "Oskar Barnack ∞ Oscar Grant" is a call-to-arms for regular citizens to use as their weapons their cameras, in order to further expose the wrongdoings of racist cops, just like the bystanders at the BART station did when Officer Johannes Mehserle shot Grant ("Shoot the cops/Shoot the cops/Shoot the cops/Take your cameras out your pocket, people").

But Fruitvale Station chooses not to dramatize the activism that's emerged in response to the killing of Grant or the part of the story that (white) Hollywood would have only been interested in building a film around, the trial of Mehserle, whom Coogler renamed in his film. Coogler's indie film focuses instead on Grant's final 24 hours, as a way to humanize a figure who's been known only for his martyrdom (or his criminal past, which Mehserle's defenders keep using to justify Mehserle's use of his gun, just like how George Zimmerman's defenders distort Trayvon Martin into being a thug who was asking for it), as well as a way to underscore the stupidity of racially profiling someone.

Okay, though I'm not sure if the next Fantastic Four movie will be better than the Jessica Alba version, Michael B. Jordan will definitely kill it as the Human Torch.
Göransson's score is as low-key as the film itself, and it brings out a contemplative side Göransson occasionally displays in non-comedic moments on New Girl and Community. Coogler wanted Göransson to make the score feel organic and be based on sounds from the environment surrounding Grant.

"It was an incredible creative slight [sic] of hand on his part, as the music would blend in with the environment, and subtly put the audience in Oscar's head," said Coogler in the soundtrack's press release, which mentions that Göransson sampled an actual sound recording of a BART train and reshaped the sample for dramatic effect in the cue during the sequence that recreates the shooting on the platform.

Oscar Grant memorial
In the film, Göransson's end title theme, now in rotation on "AFOS Prime," slowly pots up during archival footage of Grant's daughter Tatiana and Bay Area activists at a 2013 rally outside the Fruitvale station. The cue's chiming guitars are reminiscent of W.G. Snuffy Walden's Explosions in the Sky-inspired score music for Jordan's old show Friday Night Lights. Like much of the rest of Fruitvale Station, the theme both mourns for the deaths of people of color everywhere who were mistreated by the police or the criminal justice system and reflects on the good parts of the complicated lives these victims led.

Riz Ortolani, "Beat Fuga Shake" (from Tiffany Memorandum; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue")
Riz Ortolani, "I travestiti" (from Confessions of a Police Captain; now playing during "AFOS Prime" and "Beat Box")

Riz Ortolani, who died on January 23, was best known for composing "Ti guarderò nel cuore," the 1962 Mondo Cane theme that became the easy listening standard "More," and the Cannibal Holocaust score. But for those of us who want nothing to do with cannibals or holocausts, Ortolani's name was attached to countless enjoyable scores from Italian crime flicks I've never seen, like 1969's Perversion Story, the 1967 espionage flick Tiffany Memorandum and 1971's Franco Nero/Martin Balsam thriller Confessions of a Police Captain.

Nobody beats the Riz.
Riz Ortolani (1926-2014)
I first encountered Tiffany Memorandum's "Beat Fuga Shake" on the Beat at Cinecittà Volume 1 compilation and fell in love with its over-the-top horns and fast pace. You can easily picture Goldie Hawn (or Judy Carne or Teresa "Get Christie Love" Graves) in a bikini and body paint frugging--or doing whatever the hell they call those '60s Laugh-In dances--to "Beat Fuga Shake." Let's picture that now.

I have no idea what "I travestiti" was doing in a crime film that appears to be dead-serious in clips and trailers on YouTube--maybe it was a source cue at a nightclub or bar--but it's one of a few highlights of the Easy Tempo Vol. 1: A Cinematic Easy Listening Experience collection that are far from disposable and toothless Muzak and were made for the dance floor. In 1971 in Rome, that is. I don't know if you can dance to something like "I travestiti" nowadays without getting laughed at for looking like you're trying to get rid of a ferret that crawled into your shirt, but that Ortolani piece and many other Italian crime flick instrumentals are born to be sampled by beatmakers or needle-dropped in an action sequence on Archer.

'I was pooping in the shower when I heard you knocking. What do you want, dude?'
"Beat Fuga Shake" and "I travestiti" are two examples of a certain golden period in Italian film music that Ortolani (and other composers like Armando Trovajoli and the more famous Ennio Morricone) excelled at. The five Ortolani scores I just mentioned are only like two percent of a long and prolific musicography even I have yet to discover.

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