Friday, July 31, 2009

Angry Reader--that's my name, uh, uh, uh

I wouldn't make a great Quick Kick because I don't do the barefoot thing even though I'm Asian. I prefer to wear Lugzs all the time, even to the shower.
"Quick Kick is angry, too. Why does he have to be bare-chested all the time? Even on an episode of G.I. Joe when he's fighting the enemy outside and it's snowing?"

--one of my favorite quotes from angry asian man


I'm honored to be angry asian man's Angry Reader of the Week.

Here's a sneak peek of the Q&A:
I'm Filipino.
And this concludes the sneak peek. Juicy, huh?

Peep the Q&A now. Thanks, Phil.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

WHAT IF... Dick Tracy co-starred Bernadette Peters instead of Madonna?

In a far more interesting universe, Bernadette Peters killed as Breathless Mahoney in the big-budget movie version of Dick Tracy.
Steve Palopoli once said Return of the Jedi directed by David Lynch--who rejected George Lucas' offer to direct the threequel--was one of his picks for Best Cult Movies That Don't Exist. I told Steve I would have loved to have seen Ragtime directed by the filmmaker who almost directed it, Robert Altman, Sergio Leone's Leningrad, Resident Evil directed by George Romero, The Phantom directed by Joe Dante and Blazing Saddles starring Richard Pryor instead of his replacement Cleavon Little (although Little was great as Black Bart).

Other movies from alternate universes I would have dug are Out of Sight co-starring Carla Gugino (the small-screen Karen Sisco) instead of Jennifer Lopez and Dick Tracy co-starring Bernadette Peters instead of Madonna.

Bernadette Peters' voice as the Blank would have been amusing. Notice how the Blank sounds like Christian Bale as Batman.
After rewatching Warren Beatty's suddenly ubiquitous Dick Tracy (it aired during TCM's Dick Tracy movie marathon yesterday afternoon and again on Syfy this morning because when I think sci-fi, I think Dick Tracy), I checked out film historian Glenn Erickson's DVD Savant review of the 1990 adaptation of Chester Gould's comic strip. I agreed with Erickson's comment on Madonna's performance as femme fatale Breathless Mahoney: "you can't help but picture Bernadette Peters in the role, singing better and being sexier too."

Peters, a frequent Stephen Sondheim interpreter, would have been perfect as Breathless, who sings several original Sondheim-penned tunes during Dick Tracy. But Peters wasn't banging Beatty at the time, so we were stuck with Madonna.

Bernadette Peters in Silent Movie
A better actress than Madonna (whose best performance was in her big-studio follow-up to Dick Tracy, A League of Their Own), Peters would have been more at ease than Madonna with the humorous side of the mostly humorless Breathless role. Plus, even though Peters is older, she's far more attractive (she's so hot in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie). I'm entertained by Peters' vocal skills--and how her dress barely stays on--during this taste of what Dick Tracy would have been like with Peters as Breathless. It's her performance of Dick Tracy's "Sooner or Later" from a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

"In this movie, this song was sung by a blond bombshell... not me," Peters says in my favorite part of her intro to "Sooner or Later." "Although we both have religious names."

Dick Tracy: Big City Blues by John Moore and Kyle Baker
If you can find Disney Comics' Star Trek: Countdown-style two-part prequel to Beatty's Dick Tracy, it's worth checking out. I remember buying as a kid the Dick Tracy: Big City Blues and Dick Tracy vs. the Underworld graphic novels, which were my first exposure to the art of then-rising star Kyle Baker. What I would give to see Baker's original cut of the prequel, before the famously narcissistic Beatty insisted on forcing Baker to redo the comics so that Dick's likeness would look more like Beatty than the Chester Gould version.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

AFOS: "I'll Kill You and Recommend to God That He Put His Foot in Your Ass" playlist

Airing tomorrow at 10am and 3pm on the Fistful of Soundtracks channel is the Fistful of Soundtracks: The Series episode "I'll Kill You and Recommend to God That He Put His Foot in Your Ass" (WEB89) from June 18-24, 2007. In WEB89, I picked out my favorite score cues from obscure spaghetti westerns I've never watched like Keoma and Life Is Tough, Eh Providence? One of those tunes is the Viva Django cue "Nel Cimitero Di Tucson," which Gnarls Barkley sampled for their 2006 hit "Crazy."

The ep's title is a play on the title of the 1968 spaghetti western I'll Kill You and Recommend You to God, a.k.a. Dead for a Dollar.

Django main titles
1. Ennio Morricone, "Main Titles" (from Face to Face), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume Three, DRG
2. Roberto Fia, "Django" (from Django), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume Two, DRG
3. Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, "Keoma (instrumental)," Keoma, Cinedelic
4. Dandylion, "Wolf," Mannaja, Cometa
5. Stelvio Cipriani, "Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola," The Bounty Killer/Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola/Nevada, CAM
6. Stelvio Cipriani, "Faccia a Terra" (from Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola), The Bounty Killer/Un Uomo, Un Cavallo, Una Pistola/Nevada, CAM
7. Franco Bixio, "Just a Coward (instrumental)" (from And Now Recommend Your Soul to God), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume One, DRG
8. Gianfranco and Gian Piero Reverberi, "Nel Cimitero Di Tucson," Preparati La Bara!, RCA
9. Ennio Morricone, "The Hellbenders" (from The Hellbenders), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume Two, DRG
10. Ennio Morricone, "Main Titles" (from Life Is Tough, Eh Providence?), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume Three, DRG
11. Bruno Nicolai, "The Man Called Apocalypse Joe--Sequence 1" (from The Man Called Apocalypse Joe), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume Four, DRG
12. Augusto Martelli, "M 9 and M 15 V" (from La Collera Del Vento), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume One, DRG
13. Angelo Francisco Lavagnino, "A Gambling Man (Versione Strumentale)," 5000 Dollari sull'Asso, CAM
14. Piero Umiliani, "Suite" (from Roy Colt & Winchester Jack), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume One, DRG
15. Gianni Ferrio, "Controluce" (from Ben and Charlie), Spaghetti Westerns, Volume One, DRG

Repeats of A Fistful of Soundtracks: The Series air Wednesdays at 10am and 3pm.

Monday, July 13, 2009

AFOS: "Super Groover Mama Dalai Lama" playlist

Starting tomorrow, the 2003 Fistful of Soundtracks: The Series episode "Super Groover Mama Dalai Lama" (WEB09) airs Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4am, 10am, 3pm, 7pm and 11pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 7am, 9am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm for the rest of July on the Fistful of Soundtracks channel. WEB09 first aired during the week of April 21-27, 2003. I haven't aired "Super Groover Mama" on the channel since '03 and was recently surprised to find it's a pretty good early episode from my archives.

I took the ep's title from a lyric in the album version of "Ask DNA," which Yoko Kanno and lyricist Tim Jensen wrote for the opening titles of Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (an animated feature that had a better title in Japan, Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, which resumed the Bebop TV series' tradition of naming eps after classic rock tunes). "Ask DNA" is one of 10 original opening theme songs on the WEB09 playlist that are either quirky, out-of-place or incomprehensible (during the "Thunderball" recording session, Tom Jones asked John Barry "What's a thunderball?"--something I wondered too when I first heard the song but hadn't seen the movie yet--and Barry responded to Jones with "Just sing it, Tom").

There's a mistake during this ep. I said Jon Brion's terrific "Here We Go" is from the Punch-Drunk Love score. Actually, "Here We Go," the vocal version of Brion's main Punch-Drunk Love theme, isn't used at all during the movie (however, Columbia Pictures used "Here We Go" during its Punch-Drunk Love TV spots). I didn't know "Here We Go" wasn't in the movie because I hadn't watched it yet when I recorded WEB09.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie opening titles
1. Seatbelts featuring Raju Ramayya, "Ask DNA" (from Cowboy Bebop: The Movie), Ask DNA, Victor
2. Jon Brion, "Here We Go," Punch-Drunk Love, Nonesuch
3. Isaac Hayes, "Buns O'Plenty" (from Three Tough Guys), Double Feature: Music from the Soundtracks of Three Tough Guys & Truck Turner, Stax
4. Tom Jones, "Thunderball--Main Title," Thunderball, EMI/Capitol
5. Elmer Bernstein, "Frankie Machine" (from The Man with the Golden Arm), Crime Jazz: Music in the First Degree, Rhino
6. Elmer Bernstein, "Autumn in Connecticut," Far from Heaven, Varèse Sarabande
7. Randy Newman, "A Fool in Love," Meet the Parents, DreamWorks
8. Yoko Kanno, "N.Y. Rush," Cowboy Bebop: Blue, Victor
9. The Dust Brothers, "Hessel, Raymond K.," Fight Club, Restless
10. Badly Drawn Boy, "Something to Talk About," About a Boy, ARTISTdirect/Twisted Nerve/XL/BMG
11. Willie Hutch, "I Choose You" (from The Mack), Pimps, Players & Private Eyes, Rhyme Syndicate/Sire/Warner Bros.
12. Queen, "Flash's Theme," Flash Gordon, Hollywood
13. Craig Safan, "Confrontation," Thief, Elektra
14. The MASH, "Suicide Is Painless" (from M*A*S*H), Movie Music: The Definitive Performances, Columbia/Epic/Legacy
15. The Five Blobs, "The Blob" (from The Blob), Sci-Fi's Greatest Hits Vol. 3: The Uninvited, TVT
16. The Hollies and Peter Sellers, "After the Fox," After the Fox, Rykodisc
17. Mark Mothersbaugh, "Kite Flying Society," Rushmore, London
18. Simon Brint, "Julverset," Monarch of the Glen, BBC Music
19. Howard Shore, "The Riders of Rohan," The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Reprise/WMG Soundtracks
20. Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead (instrumental version)," Superfly: Deluxe 25th Anniversary Edition, Curtom/Rhino
21. Michael Brook, "Bar-B-Que," Charlotte Sometimes, Visionbox Pictures
22. Semiautomatic, "Can't Spell," Better Luck Tomorrow, MTV Films
23. Duran Duran, "A View to a Kill" (from A View to a Kill), The Best of James Bond: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition, EMI
24. The Dickies, "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" (from Killer Klowns from Outer Space), Sci-Fi's Greatest Hits Vol. 3: The Uninvited, TVT
25. Bernard Herrmann, "Prelude/Outer Space/Radar" (from The Day the Earth Stood Still), Sci-Fi's Greatest Hits Vol. 3: The Uninvited, TVT
26. John Williams, "Finale and End Title March," Superman: The Movie, Warner Archives/Rhino
27. John Williams, "Love Theme from Superman," Superman: The Movie, Warner Archives/Rhino
28. Jerry Goldsmith, "End Titles (Your Zowie Face)" (from In Like Flint), In Like Flint/Our Man Flint, Varèse Sarabande

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Anderson Tapes: "America, man! You know, it's so beautiful I wanna eat it!"

'America, man! You know, it's so beautiful I wanna eat it!'

I can't think of a more fitting quote to put at the top of this Fourth of July Weekend blog post. It's a standout line uttered early on by Christopher Walken in his big-studio debut, the 1971 Columbia Pictures heist flick The Anderson Tapes.

I finally got around to watching The Anderson Tapes the other day. Before Sidney Lumet's nifty little caper made its debut on DVD in September as part of Sony's "Martini Movies" imprint (uh, Sony, I think you missed the lounge movement by about 10 years), it was on my list of films I--a fan of '70s heist flicks like the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three and The Hot Rock--wanted to watch but wasn't able to because they weren't available on disc.

I always dug the Smackwater Jack version of Quincy Jones' Anderson Tapes theme, which features the late Freddie Hubbard on flugelhorn and a nice harmonica solo by Toots Thielemans. That version of the theme actually never turns up during Jones' unreleased, love-it-or-hate-it score, which is filled with early synthesizer bloops and squeals due to the paranoid film's subject of pre-Watergate (and pre-Conversation) surveillance.

The Randomatic sits in storage somewhere with other hilariously now-outdated '70s and '80s gadgets like that Etch-a-Sketch-ish police sketch machine from For Your Eyes Only and the Daggit from the old Battlestar Galactica.

Some viewers find the bloops and squeals to be grating and distracting, while I don't mind them at all. Jones' bloops and squeals--along with the now-goofy-looking Randomatic computer that's used by the film's NYPD officer characters to pull up criminal records--lend The Anderson Tapes a certain analog charm. The groovetastic sound effects remind me of the electronic noises during Roman Coppola's amusing 2001 film about the making of a low-budget French sci-fi flick, CQ, which takes place in the same era.

'Isch that a Lakers jersey under your skirt? Take the bloody thing off! You know I'm all aboat the Knicks.'

Sean Connery ditched the 007 hairpiece--or rather, chose a more revealing hairpiece--to star as Duke Anderson, a newly freed, unrepentant ex-con who plots an elaborate Labor Day heist at the ritzy Fifth Avenue apartment building of his high-priced hooker girlfriend Ingrid (Dyan Cannon). In other Connery/Lumet collabos, particularly The Hill and The Offence (when's that film going to hit DVD?), Lumet clearly loved giving Connery speeches that were long and fiery (yet not overwrought). Eager to move past his rather limited 007 persona, Connery excelled at those speeches, and he pulled off another juicy one here, an anti-authority screed that's more Cool Hand Luke than 007, courtesy of Cool Hand Luke screenwriter Frank Pierson ("What's advertising but a legalized con game? And what the hell's marriage? Extortion, prostitution, soliciting with a government stamp on it.").

Duke Anderson failed to deprive people of their money on Labor Day Weekend without getting caught. He should have just started his own Labor Day telethon for broke ex-cons who can't hack it outside prison.

Anderson's crew includes a younger safecracker known simply as "the Kid" (Walken, whose eccentric line delivery is made even weirder by the fact that he really does look like a kid here), unflappable getaway driver Spencer (Dick Anthony Williams) and gay antiques dealer Tommy (if acting styles were KFC recipes, Martin Balsam's would be Extra Swishy). They'd be the tightest crew in the history of caper movies, if they weren't so oblivious to then-recent advances in surveillance technology, which have allowed government agents or cops to illegally monitor the activities of everyone Anderson comes into contact with, from his associates to his girlfriend. Those lawmen aren't even interested in Anderson's next score. They've been spying on everyone in Anderson's circle because of unrelated improprieties, whether past or alleged. Black Panther-hating Feds are profiling Spencer, who lives near a Panther Party chapter, the IRS is keeping tabs on Anderson's Mafioso benefactor (Alan King), and Ingrid's jealous sugar daddy (Richard B. Schull) has hired a private detective to listen in on her trysts with her clients.

'We're gonna rob every single copy of 'Zardoz,' 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' 'The Country Bears' and 'Gigli' we can find and then lock them away in a vault, never to be found again. Are you in, kid?'In The Anderson Tapes (which the creatively bankrupt Sony has been attempting to remake, and I hope the box-office failure of their Pelham remake discourages them), it's interesting to see narrative devices and character types Lumet would revisit in later, better-known works. Lumet jumbled the Labor Day heist's time frame--a gimmick the director would re-use in The Offence and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The flashbacks to the heist are less distracting here than in Before the Devil. The crooked cops of Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan are cut from the same cloth as the lawmen who illegally bug or wiretap Anderson's cohorts (the only likable cop in The Anderson Tapes is a resourceful SWAT team leader played by a pre-SNL Garrett Morris). The victims of Anderson's heist get some standout lines and are as fleshed out as Al Pacino's hostages from my favorite Lumet film, 1975's Dog Day Afternoon. The heist sequence's tension is offset by some welcome comic relief from Judith Lowry as an elderly resident who doesn't seem to mind being robbed (Lowry was the same ornery old lady who stole scenes in Norman Lear's not-yet-on-DVD satire Cold Turkey, also released in 1971).

If you can find Walken's obscure 2000 indie movie The Opportunists, in which he plays a world-weary safecracker whose mentorship of a younger crook carries echoes of the Connery character's mentorship of Walken's upstart safecracker, it would make for an intriguing double feature with The Anderson Tapes. Walken's performance in The Opportunists--it's Walken in not-so-weird Catch Me If You Can mode--is one of his most underrated. Too bad The Opportunists is rather listless for a caper flick. Compared to the fun and nail-biting Anderson Tapes, The Opportunists is--to borrow a line from one of Walken's many quotable SNL sketches--a Stiffly Stifferson.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"20, motherfucker, 20": Do the Right Thing's 20th anniversary, Part 3

Paul Benjamin, Robin Harris and Frankie Faison as the Statler and Waldorf, and uh, Statler of Do the Right Thing.Previously on A Fistful of Soundtracks: The Blog: Parts 1 and 2.

Do the Right Thing, which turns 20 years old this week, caused quite a stir at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, dividing the audience, the jurors and the guest filmmakers. German filmmaker and Cannes juror Wim Wenders complained that Mookie was not enough of a hero for throwing the trash can in the film's climax. Later on, star/director Spike Lee would say that somewhere in his closet is a baseball bat with Wenders' name on it.

When the film was first released, some critics feared it would incite black moviegoers to riot or start fights in the theaters, while more open-minded critics praised it for its ambiguity. Desson Thomson of the Washington Post called Do the Right Thing radical filmmaking at its best, and Roger Ebert said "it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time... this movie is more open-ended than most. It requires you to decide what you think about it... Do the Right Thing doesn't ask its audiences to choose sides; it is scrupulously fair to both sides, in a story where it is our society itself that is not fair."

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association was as equally awed by Do the Right Thing, and they awarded the film with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (for Danny Aiello as Sal) and Best Music honors. Meanwhile, the Oscars acted like the film didn't exist, although it was nominated for Aiello's performance and Lee's screenplay. In one of the most memorable moments from the Oscar telecast that year, a nervous and trembling Kim Basinger criticized the Academy for snubbing Do the Right Thing, which she called "the film that might tell the biggest truth of all." Barely anybody applauded, but Lee, who was in the audience, passed on a note of thanks to Basinger after her shout-out.

This week, Do the Right Thing makes its debut on Blu-ray with a few more extras than the already fully loaded 2001 Criterion DVD. This series of partial transcripts of segments from A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about one of my favorite films concludes with more comments from S. Craig Watkins, the author of Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Beacon Press, 2005), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately for the show.


Jimmy J. Aquino: Let's talk about Spike Lee's portrayals of the white characters in Do the Right Thing. What fascinates you about these characterizations?

S. Craig Watkins: What's really interesting about Spike's representation of whiteness is a number of things. I think that was the first of his feature films that actually involved white characters. Prior to that, most of his movies had been all-black casts, all-black-themed types of movies. So one of the questions that was actually posed to him as Do the Right Thing was being released was "Spike, how was it trying to direct white actors? How was it trying to write characters who are white?" The presumption for having that question was that a black filmmaker really had little of any knowledge or familiarity with whiteness, so therefore, he or she would have difficulty imagining, creating and directing white characters. Obviously, there's some sort of racial implications embedded in that in terms of... It's okay, I guess... White filmmakers are never asked, "Well, how is it creating or directing a black character?" So the question then is "Why is it that black filmmakers should have difficulty?," particularly given the sort of savvy ways in which blacks see, experience and understand whiteness in our society today anyway.

The annoying government agent from Transformers hates both robots and black people.
The other interesting thing about Spike Lee and his representation of whiteness and the white characters in the movie is that Sal is by far the most fully developed character in that movie, in terms of being a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. We see multiple sides of whiteness, multiple kinds of conflicting values around race, class, community, pride and ethnicity that are articulated via Sal's character. In that sense, it really showed how Spike on occasion is able to create very interesting, very nuanced types of characters.

The other thing too that I thought was very important about his portrayal of whites in that movie is I think it would have been very easy for Spike Lee and later African American filmmakers to play on what we might call counterracial stereotypes of whites, and that is depicting whites as the villains, in very one-dimensional, flat ways. I think what he was able to do in Do the Right Thing is to show and suggest that there are multiple ways in which whiteness gets expressed. There are multiple racial attitudes that white Americans develop. So in that sense, the way in which each of the white characters in the movie--and I'm talking specifically about Sal the father and his two sons--they all in some ways represented very different kinds of white racial sensibilities, white racial experiences and white relationships to blacks and blackness.


Reid explains why Lee's perspective gave Do the Right Thing an edge over other films about race relations.


JJA: How does Do the Right Thing succeed in its portrayal of racial animosity and racism, whereas other films about racism have failed?

Mark A. Reid: Like what other films would you say have failed?

JJA: Not so much as failed, but more problematic. For instance, films that portray tumultuous episodes in African American or African history, but it's really the story about the white friend of the black leader.

MAR: Oh, those types of films. I see. I think it's very important that a black directed the film. I'm not saying that any film directed by a black is going to be successful about portraying racism, but I think it's very important that Spike Lee's an African American. I think it's important also, to add on to that, that he's an African American that is aware of racism. In his film, the active characters are not just white people. It's very important to have a large swipe of different types of blacks that are involved, as opposed to one unique black and maybe two or three whites. I think that's what Spike Lee films do. They activate those blacks who are involved...

When you think of... Who Killed Vincent Chin? I don't think a white person could have made that film. I know somebody's going to call me an essentialist. I think at that point in time, when that film was made, I think it was very important that an Asian person made the film--and an Asian person who's talented, just like Spike Lee. Although he has a lot of flaws, he's a very talented filmmaker, and his language is well-versed in black culture.

'Aiiight, Radio Raheem, I feel ya, man. Now can you take it easy on my hand? I need it for delivering this pizza.'
I think it comes down to that--who the director and the writers are, when you work in a collective where you have mixed people, and you listen to all their different cultural stories and languages, to create a film... Because when Spike Lee made that film, his Italian American stars wrote a lot of what they'd say, and if they didn't believe in what they were doing, they'd say, "You know, we should do it this way." Spike Lee was a strong enough director to accept that. I think that's very important. Although I think he had a problem dealing with that in Jungle Fever, when Annabella Sciorra... I think he was unable to accept her reading of that relationship. But I think he's a director that's able to work with actors and be led by them sometimes.

JJA: Mark Reid, thank you.

MAR: Oh, you're welcome very much, and I enjoyed this. I learned something.

JJA: What did you learn?

MAR: That I didn't know that much about Spike Lee's films. [A woman in Reid's office can be heard laughing in the background.]

"20, motherfucker, 20": Do the Right Thing's 20th anniversary, Part 2

Previously on A Fistful of Soundtracks: The Blog: Part 1.

Duel of the tapes
"I've been listening to 'Cool Jerk' by the Capitols. It's a real classic, fast and upbeat, and it brings to mind summer in the city. This may be the song for the opening credits sequence. I see Rosie Perez dancing to 'Cool Jerk' all over Brooklyn at the first heat of dawn. Rosie doing the Cool Jerk on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the promenade, and on various rooftops."

--Spike Lee, the May 17, 1988 entry in his production journal, Do the Right Thing (Fireside Books, 1989)

Do the Right Thing wouldn't have been the same without Public Enemy's rousing and confrontational original song, "Fight the Power." I can't imagine the film opening with Lee's earlier choice of "Cool Jerk." The series of excerpts from my 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews with African American Do the Right Thing experts continues with a discussion with S. Craig Watkins, a UT Austin professor of sociology, African American studies and radio-television-film, about one of the film's most powerful and effective elements, its soundtrack.

The Do the Right Thing soundtrack consisted of original songs by artists ranging from P.E. to Take 6 and a Copland-esque original jazz score composed by Lee's father Bill and performed by the Natural Spiritual Orchestra, which you can hear selections from on the Fistful of Soundtracks channel. For the film, Bill Lee assembled a septet that included saxman Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Terence Blanchard (who later became Lee's regular composer), as well as a 48-piece string section.

(WARNING: These interviews contain spoilers.)


'This goes out to all the baby mamas, including the white ones. Much love, Amy Po-Po.'
Jimmy J. Aquino: Although Do the Right Thing was a pivotal moment in black cinema, the mainstream films directed by African Americans in the next couple of years were from the gangsta genre instead of being influenced by the Spike Lee Joints, which were more cerebral. Why was that so?

S. Craig Watkins: Much of black cinema, I would argue, tends to be influenced by what's happening in black popular music. In Do the Right Thing, you see Spike using a number of different kinds of black musical genres, styles and traditions. The one song that really, really drives the movie and I think is the most remembered is the song "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, which is playing into this kind of hyper-racialized neo-black nationalist politics that were taking place during that time, and so he features that and uses that as the energy that drives his movie. But as that's happening, at the same time, we see in 1988/1989/1990 a new trend taking place within the field of black American popular music, more specifically rap music, in terms of the emergence of gangsta rap, and what we see eventually in the film industry, again tapping into that same energy, tapping into that same vibe, tapping into what gangsta rap was saying, doing and how it was resonating with consumers. So we see the movies also turning more and more in that direction...

JJA: Is there anything else that you find intriguing about Spike Lee's use of music in Do the Right Thing?

SCW: Yeah, one of the things I like to say in terms of giving Spike Lee some props regarding his movies is that he's always understood that black musical styles and traditions have a long history, a long legacy and are very diverse. Compare, for example, soundtracks that were typically associated with a lot of popular action ghetto-themed movies throughout the 1990s. Most of these soundtracks are most exclusively gangsta rap music, hardcore, harder-edged kind of music, which in some ways, don't necessary illuminate the complex and rich history of black music.

On the other hand, soundtracks that Spike Lee generally compiled for his movies--and Do the Right Thing is a perfect example--you've got your traditional R&B songs on there, a reggae-style joint on there, you have the rap music by Public Enemy, you have the black female rhythm and blues tradition... He did a jazz score for the movie and subsequently released a jazz score CD. So my main point is that Do the Right Thing, that soundtrack, as well as a number of his other films--particularly School Daze comes to mind--he draws from a broad cross-section of black musical traditions, tapping into an understanding, just how complex, diverse and dynamic black American music has been.


Not all the films we love are perfect. The Cambridge Film Handbooks volume on Do the Right Thing that UF Gainesville English professor Mark A. Reid edited is a compilation of essays that both praise and critique Lee's controversial film. The book also reprints film critics' reviews of Do the Right Thing from the summer of 1989. During A Fistful of Soundtracks' 1999 episode about Do the Right Thing, I wanted to hear from Reid what he thought were the film's merits and if there was anything that was missing from Lee's depiction of 1989 Bed-Stuy.


JJA: In the film's portrayal of Bed-Stuy and the interracial tensions... is there anything in this portrayal of racial politics that it overlooks?

Mark A. Reid: Well, one would have to know the Bedford-Stuyvesant area pretty well to be able to say that it overlooks it, but I think it gives an ample picture of the different types of African Americans that live there. You have the West Indians and the different types, and you have the African Americans. You have the fact that there are Korean shopkeepers. Perhaps when Spike was younger, they weren't Korean. They were probably either Jewish or maybe Arab. The fact that there's gentrification going on in Bed-Stuy. But gentrification isn't always white yuppie. It's also buppies. We can see that in Jungle Fever, when in fact, the people who live in that area--and I think it's Harlem--the people that gentrified that area, and they're all upwardly mobile African American couples. You do have the hanger-on who's probably been there a long time... and you have different types of reactions by this Italian American family. I think that's interesting.

'1989, the number, another summer...'
You don't get much of an art community around there, and I think there is a black art community that developed because they couldn't afford to live in Manhattan. You don't get the fact that there's drugs, and everybody has criticized him for that. I think if he introduced that, he'd have to develop it, and it would probably overtake the story he's trying to tell...

Do the Right Thing, although it's interesting and everything, I still think it's a very thin film. I think it's an important film because politically, how it was used when it came out and what is criticized in the film, not only Koch, but the brutality that some law officers--although that, I think, was an accident--they abuse their power. It does talk about the tension that was mounting, that would later erupt, and not only in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but in Los Angeles, the trial of Rodney King. It's like a marker. It sees certain things that are happening in the urban situation between blacks and other ethnics. Because ultimately, it did happen between the Korean businesspersons in Los Angeles.

JJA: And also, years before in New York, there were conflicts between the Korean shopkeepers and the blacks.

MAR: Right. But the thing is that what would have been interesting is that also--which is I guess it's hard to do in most films since you have a singular narrative that dominates a film--is that it's very important to understand who those Koreans are and their culture, and that's what we don't get. If Koreans come from a culture where you don't touch people when you're handing back the money or other things, and other people who aren't Korean read it differently, then there's a miscommunication, and it's on both parts, the Koreans and whoever the other community is, be it African American or Mexican American or whatever. It would be interesting to have a film that dealt with that and dealt with what Do the Right Thing did.


Watkins explains why even some black viewers thought Do the Right Thing fell short.


SCW: I would argue that the problem with Do the Right Thing in retrospect is that it also illuminated some of the limitations with the kind of racial politics, the racial ideology, that the movie both played on and used as a driving and narrative force. Some thought that it was a bit overdone, in terms of the black racial politics. Some thought that the black racial politics were articulated in ways that weren't either nuanced or very sophisticated, in terms of the kinds of characters who were the leading proponents of a prism of the black progressive agenda. Here, I'm talking about, for example, the character of Buggin' Out, who many argue--and I think accurately so--was basically more of a caricature than a character per se.


I asked Reid about some black viewers' gripes with Giancarlo Esposito's Buggin' Out character.


Mookie and respected black scholar Buggin' Out
JJA: There's this interesting criticism about Buggin' Out, that Spike Lee's portrayal of Buggin' Out is a mockery of black political activism.

MAR: It's a mockery in a sense that what Buggin' Out wants to do is boycott Sal's, as opposed to... In the history of African Americans, we boycott, and we also choose another alternative to Sal at the same time. What Buggin' Out wants to do is change pictures, which really doesn't mean that much. It's superficial.

JJA: It's about image.

MAR: Right. Why wouldn't he say, "Hire more people from the community"? Why wouldn't he help support somebody else who wants to build a small restaurant and teach them--an internship? That's what a boycott could do. A boycott to change photographs on a wall? "You put up Muhammad Ali and you put up a basketball player"? So what? That's decoration.

But even within the film, the characters didn't take Buggin' Out that seriously. Spike Lee using those characters and taking that not so seriously means that they're waiting for a more serious type of political activism than what Buggin' Out offers them. So I wouldn't look at it totally as a critique of black activism. I'd look at it as a critique of a certain type of black activism, which might, in fact, be a critique of Al Sharpton. That hasn't ever been discussed, but you could see that at that point in time. I don't know what "Tawana Told the Truth" means. Are we supposed to take it seriously or is it like a critique of the Tawana Brawley thing? That's the problem too... But the thing is that do we want a conclusive "Yes, this is what it's about"? Or do we want to be forced to think about these issues? I think that maybe that's what Spike Lee is doing.


Watkins offers his take on the film's open-endedness.


JJA: Another intriguing aspect about Do the Right Thing is the narrative techniques. What's unconventional about these narrative techniques?

SCW: What Spike does in Do the Right Thing in some ways is indicative of the way he approached film early on in his career--adopting and incorporating very stylized, very non-conventional kinds of cinematic techniques into his own narratives. One of the problems that a lot of people had with Do the Right Thing is that the narrative structure was very unconventional, both in terms of the way the story evolves, but perhaps more importantly, in terms of the way in which the story is concluded. That is how he goes about trying to engage in narrative closure, when in fact, he engages in a more open-ended kind of narrative structure.

Later, Domino's moved into Bed-Stuy after the end of Sal's, and the neighborhood pizza was never the same again.We as filmgoers are so accustomed to movies where there's a definitive beginning, definitive middle and decisive end. I think that Do the Right Thing threw a lot of people off and was perhaps part of what made it a sensational movie in 1989--sensational in the sense that perhaps more so than any other movie during that year, it attracted considerable media attention. It attracted considerable attention within the academic community. There was a very interesting and profound buzz about the movie, and I think part of that was because the movie ended on a series of question marks as opposed to definitive conclusions and definitive statements. It left people wondering, "What was the right thing?" Was Mookie right or justified when he threw the trash can through Sal's pizzeria window and then started the incident that ensued from that point on? What are the right racial politics and black political ideology? Is it Malcolm's version or is it Martin Luther King Jr.'s version? What are the best and most effective ways for blacks to deal with perceived racial injustices and real racial injustices?

So because the movie ended in that way, I think it caught a lot of people off guard and left a lot of people pondering a lot of different questions, which I actually liked because what it does is, unlike most films, which pretend that the kinds of issues, conflicts and crises that it might address during the middle of the film, instead of pretending that those conflicts, tensions and crises can be easily resolved through some heroic individual or some heroic stance, what Do the Right Thing suggests is that many of society's deepest and most profound social problems are in some ways almost unfortunately... very difficult, and you can't come up with a very tidy ending to address these issues. This is something that we need to leave open-ended. This is a debate that we need to have, an ongoing conversation. I think the movie, in terms of a narrative sense, provoked that kind of discourse, provoked that kind of conversation. When I was in graduate school at the time, I could remember a number of different panels and a number of different forums. Even one of the local theaters in the city where I was in school in Michigan actually screened the movie and then had a post-film discussion.


To be concluded. In Part 3 of this series of excerpts from archived interviews about Do the Right Thing, Watkins praises the film's nuanced characters.

"20, motherfucker, 20": Do the Right Thing's 20th anniversary, Part 1

Radio Raheem entertains Mookie with his two-minute recap of The Night of the Hunter.
When I first saw Do the Right Thing in high school--this was a couple of years after the film debuted on VHS--I was more of a fan of Public Enemy than Spike Lee, whose films were too artsy for this kid who was more into Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. P.E.'s "Fight the Power" theme from Do the Right Thing and their earlier track, the Yo! MTV Raps staple "Night of the Living Baseheads," got me hooked on hip-hop and made me interested in seeing the much-hyped movie that introduced "Fight the Power."

Lee's film floored me. I had never seen anything like it before. The open-ended and complex screenplay about Bed-Stuy racial tensions introduced me to a more cerebral and mature kind of cinema, where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, and like life, not everything has a tidy ending. Do the Right Thing helped improve my tastes in film. It was my gateway to Lee's other films, then to GoodFellas and Martin Scorsese's other films, and then to Chan Is Missing, Dog Day Afternoon and so on. Movies didn't have to dazzle me with just explosions and tits anymore. I learned to become dazzled by adult ideas and themes and--in the cases of Do the Right Thing and GoodFellas, another great late '80s/early '90s New York movie that was also robbed at the Oscars--brilliant dialogue and astonishing editing.

I first saw Do the Right Thing at a time when I became aware of the racism around me and embraced hip-hop because in their lyrics, rappers were anti-establishment, and they spoke to me about topics I was dealing with at the time--and in some ways, still do. As a teen of color, I identified with the anger and frustrations Lee's younger black characters--and P.E.--expressed in Do the Right Thing. I dug how Lee helped change African American cinema (as well as indie cinema) and empowered black viewers and would-be filmmakers with his bold, angry, funny and complex cinematic statement, and it made me want to someday create something for my community that would be equally bold, angry, funny and complex.

Because this week marks the 20th anniversary of the release of a film that influenced me (June 30, 1989), I thought it would be the perfect time to transcribe excerpts from a couple of Do the Right Thing-related phoners I recorded for a 1999 A Fistful of Soundtracks episode about the classic Spike Lee Joint. The Do the Right Thing ep was part of a series of 1999 AFOS eps called "I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1989."

Two decades after Do the Right Thing's release, even members of the film's cast and crew still can't decide on how they feel about Mookie throwing the trash can. The countless questions that the film raises have fascinated African American Do the Right Thing experts S. Craig Watkins, the author of Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1998), and Mark A. Reid, the editor of Cambridge Film Handbooks' volume on Do the Right Thing (Cambridge University Press, 1997), whom I interviewed separately in 1999 for the show.

Almost all the pre-2000 broadcasts of AFOS were pre-recorded on audiocassette, and I don't have the equipment to transfer audiotape content to computer--the audio quality would suck anyway--so I'd rather just post text of the interviews below.

(WARNING: These interviews contain spoilers. Yes, there are people out there who still haven't seen Do the Right Thing yet.)


S. Craig Watkins: I think the movie struck a chord with a lot of young African Americans in particular, in terms of the way in which it played into the kind of neo-black nationalist politics that were being articulated in a variety of different ways across the African American community, particularly by young African Americans who were rediscovering leaders like Malcolm X, Black Panthers and even to some degree, a more militant version of Martin Luther King Jr. So I think this film tapped into the racial discord that was going on during that time... So in that sense, it represented the degree to which black filmmakers, black artists, were able to successfully tap into a lot of those mood shifts and social and political sensibilities that were taking place within the African American community.


'Wake up! Up you wake! Up you wake!'
In a separate interview with Mark A. Reid, the UF Gainesville English and film professor discussed some of the events in New York that shaped the film.


Jimmy J. Aquino: One interesting comment that you made in your book about Do the Right Thing was his ties to his family. He uses his family a lot in his movies. [Spike's father Bill composed Do the Right Thing's original score, and Spike and his sister Joie played siblings Mookie and Jade in Do the Right Thing. At one point in the film, a disgusted Mookie thinks his pizzeria boss Sal (Danny Aiello) is putting the moves on Jade. When Mookie tries to warn Jade, she laughs off her brother's suspicions.]

Mark A. Reid: In fact, sometimes, it's interesting to see how it's played out in Do the Right Thing, where he's trying to protect her, even though she seems like she's much more mature than him. He's trying to protect her against Sal and his Italian sausage. Anyway, uh...

What's interesting also is how he used the Fruit of Islam, how this film can also be taken as a critique of New York City politics. Some people even have argued that the film also helped to bring New York's first African American mayor...

JJA: For those listeners who aren't really aware of New York City political history, can you explain the resentment towards Ed Koch? [In Do the Right Thing, "Dump Koch" graffiti can be seen on a wall, and Sonny, Steve Park's Korean shopkeeper character, expresses his dislike of the then-mayor during the film's famous racial slur montage.]

MAR: Well, one thing is that Ed Koch divided the city--ethnic and racial lines. One thing you have to think about when you think about New York City is it's made up of boroughs, and Manhattan is not the only borough. There's other boroughs that are largely dominated by certain ethnic groups, and sometimes, those ethnic groups are in competition for space and jobs. With Ed Koch, although it was a city that... wasn't in bankruptcy, it was in bankruptcy when you think about the type of racial and ethnic conflict. It led to a lot of deaths during Ed Koch's administration. So I think that that's one of the things that brought together a group of people from different ethnic and racial communities to dump Koch. It was written on the wall.

Another thing about Koch is that he's the type of... Giuliani, right now, is mayor, but after this beating of the Haitian guy by the police officers and the murder of this African, Giuliani at least met with the Haitian and African community to discuss matters, whereas Koch would not do that. He's very flippant after these things happened...

With Giuliani, I think he's at least trying to alleviate that, although I don't think he's going to be successful with that because of the fact that these police officers seem like they're overdoing... He's not critical of the police force...

That's Miguel Sandoval from Repo Man and Medium as one of the NYPD patrolmen. The fact that not all the adversarial cops in Bed-Stuy were white was another nice touch in Do the Right Thing.
I recently did visit New York, and it's much a cleaner place, but it seems that the cleanliness... and the lack of much theft and everything, it's taken its toll on how the police deals with the people who pay their wages, the citizens.

This is why perhaps Do the Right Thing is necessary because it's still important when you think of the politics of New York right now. You see how the police are acting, and you see this scene where the police, in fact, accidentally murder this guy, suffocate him. It's interesting because you always will have in New York City struggles between ethnic groups. That's shown there. And it's beautiful in a sense because you also see ethnic groups that can work out their problems.

In Do the Right Thing--it's kind of humorous--the portrayal of the Korean shopkeeper, who's very interesting because he's able to talk to Radio Raheem on the same level, cursing and everything. It's interesting in the sense that he doesn't back down. It's interesting that Radio Raheem gives him a wink, saying "Yes, you're one of us," whoever "one of us" means to Radio Raheem. It's also interesting, the relationships between the African Americans and the Puerto Ricans... They battle it out with music as opposed to using physical force. The only physical force that's played out is Sal and the police officers, and it's kind of interesting because the people who are considered of color don't do that. It's through language or music.

There's one instance of Savage...

JJA: John Savage's yuppie character...

MAR: ... who is gentrifying the neighborhood... It's kind of interesting because he is part of that neighborhood too. He's not a threatening figure even though he dirties...

JJA: ... Buggin' Out's Air Jordans.

MAR: He's not a person of color, but he's not a threatening figure. And if you think about the people who are threatening figures, they're the ones who pick up the bat or use physical force. They're authority figures...


To be continued. In Part 2 of this series of excerpts from archived A Fistful of Soundtracks interviews about Do the Right Thing, S. Craig Watkins discusses the film's incredible original music.