Monday, February 27, 2012

An irresistible impulse to play it again and again: Anatomy of a Murder, which just got Criterion-ized, featured the first Hollywood film score by a black composer

Lee can feel it all oooover.
Anatomy of a Murder star Lee Remick, Duke Ellington and bassist Jimmy Woode
Otto Preminger's 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, which finally received the Criterion Collection treatment last week, is a classic of the courtroom genre. Every time Anatomy of a Murder turns up on TCM, I get an irresistible impulse a la the late Ben Gazzara's hotheaded soldier client character to stop whatever I'm doing and revisit the entire (and rather lengthy) film or at least a chunk of it.

Criterion posted three reasons why AOAM continues to shine, especially in a bothersome age of right-leaning, constantly-parodied-during-NTSF:SD:SUV:: procedurals, or as I like to call them, "Dad shows."

I second those reasons, but I'd combine reasons #1 and #3 so that it's "It gets the law right and it's not all black and white" and give the reason #3 slot to Duke Ellington's sensational, Grammy-winning score. It captures well both the tranquil Sunday-morning-stroll-through-the-town-square side (like in "Sunswept Sunday" and "Low Key Lightly") and the seamy white-trash side of the film's small-town Michigan backdrop (some, like Wynton Marsalis, think that the score is poorly edited into the film, a gripe that Marsalis expressed while discussing Ellington's score in the liner notes of Sony Legacy's 1999 AOAM CD reissue, which can be heard during the "AFOS Prime" block on A Fistful of Soundtracks).

Lee Remick lets loose her hair in my favorite Lee Remick scene from Anatomy of a Boner, er, I mean, Murder.
Besides introducing then-controversial words like "intercourse," "contraceptive," "spermatogenesis" and "panties" into movie houses where conservatives reacted to hearing those words by crapping said panties, AOAM is notable for containing the first original score for a Hollywood film written by an African American composer. (A year before Ellington's effort, Miles Davis contributed a score to a French film, Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, a.k.a. Ascenseur pour l'échafaud.) It's fitting that Criterion drops the AOAM Blu-ray during Black History Month because of that milestone.

The first Hollywood score by an African American is distinguished by a catchy theme Ellington described as "gutbucket." Written for the bass and first known as "Pie Eye's Blues," the composition wasn't originally intended to be the film's main theme. It was supposed to represent Pie Eye, the roadhouse bandleader character played by Ellington during his cameo in AOAM (in South Africa, Ellington's scene with Jimmy Stewart was banned from the film because interracial two-man piano playing was apparently too disturbing for them). But then someone in the AOAM crew changed the order of the cues ("Was this Duke's idea?," wondered CD reissue producer Phil Schaap in the reissue liner notes) and must have found "Pie Eye's Blues" to be the perfect fit with those jazzy and striking Saul Bass opening titles, and the rest is history.

Then Sir Duke handed AOAM's main theme over to Peggy Lee, who added lyrics to the melody in her cover version, which was titled "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'," a nice reference to the film it originated from and its main character's love of fishing.

After Ellington's AOAM score, in walked Quincy Jones (who had an impressive hot streak of crime or comedy film and TV series scores from the '60s to the '70s) and then the slightly less prolific blaxploitation-era likes of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Pate and J.J. Johnson (while over on the Asian American side, Japanese American composer Paul Chihara contributed scores to Death Race 2000 and Prince of the City). Then in the '90s, Stanley Clarke, the still-active Terence Blanchard (who did a cover of the AOAM main title theme for his 1999 Jazz in Film album) and even RZA followed in Ellington and Jones' footsteps. They all penned great original scores, but there needs to be more film and TV composers of color besides those maestros.

Court's adjourned.

Five reasons why IFC's Film Independent Spirit Awards are more enjoyable than the Oscars (even though this year's telecast was more tedious than previous ones)

The 2012 Spirit Awards had more people of color than the 2012 Oscars did. Sorry, Oscars, just because you have all those gold little people in the theater doesn't mean your show is diverse.
At the 2012 Spirit Awards, the coming-of-age film Pariah, directed by Dee Rees (left) and starring Adepero Oduye (right), won the John Cassavetes Award. I haven't seen that film or The Help, but unlike The Help, at least Pariah doesn't look like Driving Miss Daisy II.

5. The booze
Without it, Patricia Clarkson's classy and terse toast to the late Bingham Ray, a champion of indie movies and a co-founder of October Films (now Focus Features), wouldn't have been possible.

4. The cursing
When someone at the Oscars curses, it's an international scandal. When someone does it at the Spirit Awards, it's just another adjective.

Reason #6: The skirts are shorter
2012 Spirit Awards presenters Kirsten Dunst,
star of
Melancholia, and Jonah Hill, star of the
thought-provoking indie movie
21 Jump Street
3. The humor
The comedic material is sharper. Examples include 2012 Spirit Awards host Seth Rogen's swipes at Brett Ratner and Chris Brown ("At the Grammys, you can literally beat the shit out of a nominee and be asked to perform twice") and Garfunkel and Oates' musical number about the downbeat material in most of the nominated films. Sure, John Waters doesn't skew younger than the 50/50 star does, but he should really be the host of these things every year. Waters killed as the Spirit Awards announcer, delivering fake teasers for segments like an "In Memoriam" tribute to people whose careers died in 2011.

2. The pompousless-ness
Unlike the audience inside the Dulcolax Theater or whatever it'll be called next year, the audience inside the Spirit Awards tent gets the jokes.

At the Oscars, why is Chris Rock a frequent humorlessness magnet? A few years before Sean Penn didn't understand Rock's joke about Jude Law, there was this:
There's Fran Lebowitz, inhaling deeply, working her way, with ironic disdain, through a carton of cigarettes, while we chat up Chris Rock.

"Chris, loved it when you called Elia Kazan a rat!"

Long stare from Mister Rock.

Finally, he explains, "It was just a joke."

1. The pacing
It's paced like the NBA All-Star Game (and cut together frantically too--even the obligatory "cut to a black audience member when someone's joke references a black person" shot is faster-paced). Speaking of the All-Star Game, it aired against the Oscars and was a nice sanctuary from endless Chuck Workman montages. I don't get why those montages are so beloved by Oscar telecast producers. They're basically the opening credits of every That's Hollywood! episode.

Monday, February 20, 2012

WHAT IF… Soul Train's animated locomotive raced against the Neighborhood Trolley from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?

No wonder the Soul Train's a movin' kind of slow. It's because of all that indo smoke.

Superman: The Animated Series once pitted super-fast Superman against the equally super-fast Flash in a charity footrace that got interrupted by a supervillain's plot to make the sky rain cats and dogs or some shit. When Supes and The Flash resumed their around-the-world race after saving the weather together, the episode left the race unresolved. Nerds everywhere must have hurled their Hot Pockets at the TV screen in frustration--this must have been their equivalent of the famously infuriating Sopranos series finale ending (pre-Battlestar Galactica/Lost, of course)--but I thought concluding the race on an ambiguous note was a brilliant, post-show-discussion-sparking move.

Soul Train's recent re-emergence as a trending topic due to Don Cornelius' death has got me thinking which lovable TV show mascot from my youth would win a Supes-vs.-The Flash-style railroad race: the animated Soul Train itself or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Trolley?

For a locomotive, the Soul Train moves kind of slow, like the similar-looking Batmobile in the 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton (who happened to start out on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as an assistant whose tasks included helping the crew with the Trolley). It's kind of difficult to build up speed when your chassis is swaying back and forth to O'Bryan or Shalamar.

Because it's much smaller and it doesn't dance (that inability to dance, even during its own piano theme music, means it must be really white), the Trolley is faster.

Even though the Trolley would win and everyone in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe would lose their minds, I'd still root for the Soul Train. I'd rather root for the not-so-white underdog who can't resist grooving to Shalamar.

Shit yeah, Cheryl Song! Represent!

And this concludes this edition of "Watch What Happens When I Sound Like a Discussion Someone Had with a Housemate While Sharing Some Indo at 2am."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Air grafted a nifty new score onto the silent classic A Trip to the Moon, or as it's known to your brain-damaged little brother who gets all his historical facts from Wikipedia, that movie that ripped off the "Tonight Tonight" video

In this deleted scene from the shitty 1981 docudrama 'This Is Elvis,' one of Elvis' bullets accidentally pierces a member of Elvis' entourage in the eye while The Big E fires his gun at the TV.
When a rare hand-colored print of Georges Méliès' Jules Verne-inspired 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon was meticulously restored and shown for the first time at Cannes in 2011, the cleaned-up imagery wasn't the only upgrade A Trip to the Moon received. The restored print also contained a new original score provided by the French electronica duo Air of "Surfing on a Rocket" and Virgin Suicides score fame.

The French duo Air is made up of Maurice Chevalier and Pierre Sausenlefroofroo. Sorry, I don't know their names all that well.
Air members Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel have said that they found the restored Trip to the Moon to be a more liberating film project than The Virgin Suicides. "I don’t think we like doing soundtracks... We are not film composers. It’s a really intense job," said Godin to IFC. "You can’t go on tour, you are at the service of someone, and you are not the boss. You have no freedom. But on this project we were completely free. Basically we were writing the music the day before Cannes, so no one could say a word about it. It was a blank screen. We could do whatever we wanted."

The Trip to the Moon score sounds as futuristic and whimsical as past Air tracks like "Kelly Watch the Stars," "Sexy Boy," "Mer Du Japon" and the Alessandro Alessandroni whistle-inspired "Alpha Beta Gaga." But there's a timelessness to this Trip to the Moon score that makes it a great fit with Méliès' surreal lo-fi visuals, which are an integral part of Martin Scorsese's Méliès tribute Hugo(*) and were famously referenced 15 years before by the husband-and-wife duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris in the steampunky video they directed for The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight."

Earlier this week, Godin and Dunckel released their Trip to the Moon themes on the Le Voyage Dans La Lune album from Astralwerks. Because the Méliès film is only 14 minutes long, the release expands upon Air's score material and adds guest vocals by the Brooklyn trio Au Revoir Simone and Victoria Legrand from the Baltimore duo Beach House (the album is twice the length of the restored film, which Astralwerks has also included in its entirety in mp4 form on the release).

The album's Legrand-sung highlight, "Seven Stars," isn't part of the restored film. But like much of the rest of the album, "Seven Stars" is a nice and richly crafted companion piece to the most famous "astronauts fly to moon and commit genocide by poking most of moon's native population with their umbrellas" story ever told.

This graphic is from CBS Sunday Morning, which is like 60 Minutes, but with 70 percent less Morley Safer-style liver spots.
CBS Sunday Morning's Trip to the Moon-style sun logo for a recent segment about Hugo (Photo source: The Faces of Sunday Morning)
(*) Several years ago, I wrote down an idea for a fantasy movie script that would have presented an alternate history in which there was a top-secret trip to the moon at the turn of the century, and one of the astronauts was Méliès, who, to me, is a fascinating figure and a silent-era genius, even though his films contain yellowface and unseemly French lady armpit hair. This script would have shown how his lunar experiences ended up being the actual inspiration for A Trip to the Moon, even though Méliès would embellish (or simplify) elements of his lunar experiences because real life is far less fanciful (or cost-effective) than the universe Méliès created in his films. I wanted the moon to have facial features like it did in Méliès' film, but this planetoid-sized creature was going to be depicted through modern effects technology and appear as large and craggy as the actual moon. This script idea never went past being an idea on a napkin, or as some people like to call it, a Word document. But Brian Selznick's 2007 graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Scorsese's Oscar-nominated adaptation of the Selznick book have told a better story about Méliès than whatever I envisioned in my head.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Terence Blanchard's Red Tails score swoops into "AFOS Prime" on A Fistful of Soundtracks

'The Force is strong in this one,' thinks George Lucas while he's barely listening to what Terence Blanchard's saying.
George Lucas and Terence Blanchard (Photo source: Jessica Drossin)
Even though TV spots for feature films flash the cast and crew member credits so quickly you have to pause the DVR to read them, I was able to make out the name of Aaron McGruder in the split-second credits at the end of a TV spot for frequent CSI: NY and Treme director Anthony Hemingway's Tuskegee Airmen flick Red Tails, which came out just in time for Black History Month and was a longtime pet project for George Lucas, who produced it.

"Hold up," I thought. "The Aaron McGruder? The same Aaron McGruder who made Red Tails star Cuba Gooding Jr. and George Lucas such frequent punching bags in his Boondocks comic strip?"

I still haven't seen Snow Dogs. I take it I'm not missing much.

Wow, Jazmine's family's tastes in movies are the wackest.

'Daddy, what's Vietnam? And Daddy, what's Napster?'

I have a feeling 3-D won't be enough to redeem these prequels for Huey.

The Boondocks remains the only comic strip to ever name-check Frantz Fanon, other than that time when Marmaduke chased a mailman through the library at an Occupy camp.
If someone told me 10 years ago that Lucas and McGruder, the most vocal lapsed Star Wars fan outside of Simon Pegg, would work together someday, I would have said, "Sure, they will. When pigs fly."

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Life should just be a nonstop Soul Train line

Don Cornelius (1936-2012)
Though it stopped airing in first-run syndication in 2006, Soul Train, whose influential creator and longtime host Don Cornelius died earlier today, will never stop rolling, thanks to YouTube.

The news of Cornelius' death made me go look up clips of Soul Train lines on YouTube. Goddamn, there are so many clips. No wonder Spike Lee concluded his bittersweet 1994 coming-of-age film Crooklyn with a montage of vintage Soul Train line clips. The fly dance moves in those clips can really cheer you up when you're down. (You can also trace the history of African American dance and fashion in those clips.)

I usually avoid posting several YouTube videos at once because I never know when one of them is going to be removed from the site, and then your post looks stupid when it's left with this rotting carcass of a dead embed. Below are several of my favorite Soul Train clips that I've run into today, and they're presented in chronological order, from the '70s to the '90s. Many of these videos have been on YouTube for awhile, so hopefully, there won't be one that will vanish.

Interspersed between the clips are two of the show's various original themes. Those two chunes are the Soul Train themes I remember the most from my childhood: O'Bryan's "Soul Train's a Comin'" and George Duke's "TSOP '87," a cover of a previous Soul Train theme, MFSB's "TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)."

The Soul Train dancers get down to Curtis Mayfield's "Get Down," so that means this clip comes from the show's first season in syndication (1971-72).

In 1972, special guest Stevie Wonder made up a song on the spot about Soul Train. He would have been an awesome in-house musician on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

There's video footage of Wonder's "Soul Train" song on YouTube, but too bad it's attached to Wonder's lip-synched performance of "Superstition." If there's one thing I dislike about Soul Train, it's Cornelius' Dick Clark-style requirement that the musical guests had to lip-synch their tracks (as I've said before, lip-synching on a music show looks so dumb). But Cornelius allowed Wonder to break that rule for this one number that's more genuine and exhilarating than most Soul Train performances simply because it's sung live and improvised.

New York magazine's Nitsuh Abebe called Wonder's improvised number "One of the warmest moments I've ever seen on television... it'd make as beautiful a eulogy [for Cornelius] as anyone could ask for."

The track during this Soul Train line is Earth, Wind & Fire's "Mighty Mighty," which places this clip in 1974. Hey, guy in the Afro and gray tux at 1:35, duck!

During this Soul Train line to The O'Jays' 1975 hit "I Love Music," YouTube commenters claim that they can see Jody Watley, who started out as a regular Soul Train dancer, at 0:17 and President Obama at 2:17.

Electronic R&B from the '80s rules. O'Bryan's "Soul Train's a Comin'" is my favorite of the many original themes that opened Soul Train.