Archive for the Music Category

20 Feet From Stardom

Posted in Documentary, History, Music with tags on July 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

20 Feet from Stardom photo starrating-4stars.jpgEver want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought.  That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.

I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.

I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar.  There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.

Not Fade Away

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on January 8, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Not Fade AwayPhotobucket1960s coming of age memoir concerns three best friends from New Jersey who decide to form a rock band. Television writer-director David Chase is best known for creating the influential and critically acclaimed HBO drama The Sopranos. Here he makes his feature film début after having worked in television for 30 years.

Not Fade Away is somewhat hampered by a collection of characters that are hard to like. Our script focuses on an Italian-American adolescent named Doug growing up beginning in the year 1964. It affirms the evolutions in music that began with the British invasion of groups like the Beatles and more importantly in this story, the Rolling Stones. That musical onslaught also heralded a transformation in fashion and hairstyles which our young star adopts as he becomes the lead singer of a teenage rock and roll band called the “The Twylight Zones”. He is a good singer, but he is an uninteresting shell of a protagonist. He constantly mopes in a sullen disposition. I don’t recall him ever having smiled once in the entire film. He’s bland too. Ditto his inexplicably too-pretty-for him girlfriend played by Bella Heathcote. The Twiggy-eyed Australian is an unearthly beauty at least, but she was more appealing in Dark Shadows.

Douglas lives with his insufferable parents – a father with the standard-issue intolerance for social change and a perpetually distraught mother who overreacts to everything: ‘Why me, God?’ Douglas’ initial desire to join the army diminishes as he gets caught up in the artistic movement. Needless to say his dream to start a band doesn’t sit too well with his father who constantly challenges his son’s choices in life. Challenges is too nice a word – bullies is better – he’s really overbearing. Douglas fights with his parents, he fights with his band mates, he fights with his girlfriend. For a movie supposedly portraying the unbridled abandon of rock and roll, this is kind of depressing.

Not Fade Away is a trip through the 60s of various clichés. The rock and roll tale is highlighted by some rousing musical numbers and nice period detail. Unfortunately the chronicle isn’t particular innovative. It’s liberally sprinkles in 60s buzzwords like JFK, the Summer of Love, sexual revolution, civil rights, Vietnam, and Martin Luther King with the depth of someone who skimmed a Wikipedia article on the subject. You’ve seen this before. It’s trivial observations on the life of a teen interested in starting a band is rather generic right down to the disapproval of his reactionary parents. The memoir is unfulfilling. It has its moments, but the narrative kind of meanders with little regard toward the attributes of a plot. Events just occur lacking a traditional story that should rise to a climax and then fall to a satisfying dénouement. That’s the only thing about this hackneyed drama that didn’t follow the rules.

Pitch Perfect

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on October 9, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketTake Glee, Bring it On and Bridesmaids, mix together, sprinkle liberally with cheese, and serve up to a receptive audience. Pitch Perfect is a recipe for fun. The story concerns the competitive world of collegiate a cappella groups. Pretty young Beca is a guarded cynic who would rather produce a tune than sing one. Having just entered college, she is newly recruited by an all girl a cappella group desperate for new members who can harmonize.

Pitch Perfect is greatly assisted by a talented cast. A few are worth a special mention. Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are two ESPN style announcers that give play by play announcements interspersed throughout the a cappella singing competitions. Their witticisms from the broadcasting booth are side splittingly hilarious. In many cases, some of the biggest laughs. The only person who surpasses them is comedian Rebel Wilson, a zaftig Aussie who actually refers to herself as Fat Amy. As one of the girl vocalists she has an off kilter personality that makes her kind of a uniquely unexpected individual.

Of course the bread and butter of this diversion are the bright song selections that are enthusiastically arranged and passionately sung. The best performance is a “riff-off” between the boys and the girls, a rumble in the streets that uses superior vocals to beat down their opponents instead of guns and knives. It has a spontaneity that the official competitions lack. Unfortunately it only goes back and forth a couple times and then it’s over. What a shame that the segment is so short because it’s easily the most exhilarating sequence in the script. The drama hints at a plucky repartee that could have been sustained for the entire film.

Pitch Perfect is a crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word. Even if you have only a slight interest in hearing a cappella singing, this should make you very happy.  Anyone on the edge of their seat wondering how this is all going to play out would have to be under the age of 10. The storyline is pretty basic. Yet it’s helped immeasurably by an attractive cast with likable personas. Sure there’s the standard archetypes: the bitchy blonde, the slutty brunette, the sensitive heartthrob, etc. But they’re undeniably appealing. These characters have just enough modification to make them interesting. On the whole, the production is a spirited joy.

Searching for Sugar Man

Posted in Biography, Documentary, Music with tags on August 26, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Note: Because I don’t want to lessen this documentary’s impact, this is spoiler free. As a result, my analysis isn’t as specific as I would like it to be. However what my review lacks in detail you will gain in enjoyment when you watch the film. And I beseech you, please watch this film. It should be noted these surprises can easily be discovered by casual research regarding the subject. Therefore avoid all articles (except this one of course).

PhotobucketTwo aficionados endeavor to discover what became of their favorite recording artist. Rodriguez was an American singer-songwriter from Detroit who released two albums: “Cold Fact” in 1970 and “Coming from Reality” in 1971. Both flopped in the U.S. Maybe it was the songs’ highly politicized message, the pervasive drug references, a failure of marketing or perhaps something else altogether. Why Rodriguez never connected with the American public is a question one may ask any entertainer of undeniable ability. His fate is not unlike the thousands of other talents who never make it. Except this tale is notably different. “Cold Fact” found its way into Cape Town, South Africa where it was warmly accepted by progressive Afrikaners rebelling against the government. Bootleg copies were made and spread rapidly amongst white South Africans who embraced his music as a soundtrack for the anti-apartheid movement. Yet these fans knew little about their idol’s life. One rumor claimed that he’d ended it by committing suicide on stage by setting himself ablaze.

The film’s narrative focuses more on the quest of two South African fans to make sense of what happened to this musical icon rather than in shedding light on the man himself. The search was spearheaded by an indie record store owner named Stephen Segerman and an investigative journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom back in the late 90s. Along the way we‘re treated to a generous helping of Rodriguez’ work. It becomes a saga of how a performer’s legacy can touch the lives of their listeners in ways they may never know. Rodriguez’ blend of folk and funk with a side of country seemed to fit perfectly within the psychedelic landscape of the early 70s. Bob Dylan is an obvious influence. If you enjoy his style of music, this soundtrack is a must.

Searching for Sugar Man presents an inspiring tale of one Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. He remains an enigmatic mystery even by the end of the feature. His face constantly shrouded by large sunglasses and a mane of black hair. It spoils nothing to say the two fans featured do ultimately uncover the truth. As promised, the unexpected developments will not be revealed here. The documentary can be seen as a meditation on the unpredictable tastes of the masses. Why musicians can sell millions of records in one country and be virtually ignored in another. Rodriguez story is a fascinating one. This is a movie for anyone who has ever toiled in obscurity doing something they loved without recognition or success. An uplifting docudrama that celebrates the joy of a human life.

Chico & Rita

Posted in Animation, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on February 5, 2012 by Mark Hobin

From their humble beginnings in Cuba to the big time in New York City, the rise of Latin jazz is documented through the love affair of Chico and Rita. The narrative is a bit conventional. It’s your standard rags to riches story and it hits all of the soap opera stereotypes you’ve seen a million times. If this was a live action drama there might not be enough here to engage our attention. However the chronicle never loses sight of our two protagonists as the focus. I found this to be a beautiful expression of jazz and Latin music during the 1940s and ‘50s in Havana and New York.

Chico & Rita is a rather unconventional animation. Every frame is drawn in a technique that qualifies as more than a mere cartoon, it’s art. The drawings employ a very clean graphic style, bold and bright with thick lines. The look and the mood of the era are exquisitely captured. The atmosphere, street scenes, and fashions are quite evocative. The uncharacteristic approach in which the drama takes its time is lovely. The production unfolds at a leisurely pace to tell its tale. Characters move at the deliberate pace of natural people. Their expressions aren’t nearly as detailed as the elaborate backgrounds, but they suggest much more than they show. Nuance and silence aren’t attributes usually associated with a cartoon, but they occur here. Even the sound effects get things just right, from the way the piano tones echo through a room or an idling car engine to footsteps across the floor and the sounds of traffic outside a window, everything has the feel of real life.

The film highlights Latin jazz and the compositions are sumptuous. Anyone with an appreciation for jazz will find much to enjoy here. The moviemakers clearly have a genuine affection for the genre. Spanish director Fernando Trueba who won the Academy Award in 1994 for Belle Époque joins Spanish artist Javier Mariscal and Mariscal’s younger brother Tono Errando, in directing Chico & Rita. Although this is a fictionalized account, artists Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker all make appearances here. These people give the fable a historical truth. Chano Pozo, a conga player in Gillespie’s band, is in a cameo here as well. His untimely death becomes a minor plot point. Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, wrote the score and plays on the soundtrack as Chico. The movie which contains parts of his own life is dedicated to him. Idania Valdés (no relation) provides Rita’s singing voice. Her performance of “Bésame Mucho” is one of many standouts. Rita is positively seductive. Not since Jessica Rabbit has an animated creation been so sexually suggestive. In case you misunderstand, Chico & Rita is definitely NOT for kids.

The story arc may have the clichéd trajectory of a Behind the Music TV episode, but that’s because so many showbiz careers really have followed that career path. The main characters aren’t particularly likeable but they’re very authentic. They behave like human beings driven by lust and greed. These individuals curse, smoke, do drugs and have sex. They’re not sensitive or cloying.  What they are is a convincing depiction of real people and attitudes of a certain time period. That uniqueness is kind of refreshing. But most of all, this is a love letter to a bygone era made by aficionados who truly appreciate Latin jazz, which was essentially a mixture of bebop and Cuban folk. It’s a visually lush and beguiling re-creation that earned this a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. The picture draws attention to this beautiful music and I can think of worse things than reveling in these poetic rhythms for 94 minutes.

Shine

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on February 26, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Bittersweet biography dealing with Australian concert pianist David Helfgott who suffered from mental illness.  Most of the film concerns his formative years as a musical prodigy.  He escapes the tyrannical rule of his father who disowns him after he departs for London upon being offered a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.  Armin Mueller-Stahl makes an indelible impression as his domineering father in a truly unsympathetic portrayal.  Helfgott’s ongoing obsession with executing Rachmaninoff’s technically demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 ultimately reaches an exhilarating manic apex.  The narrative is a bit murky when it comes to Helfgott’s subsequent psychological breakdown. Are his  problems caused by the virtually unplayable composition or the result of physical and mental abuse by his father?  It’s never quite clear, but regardless, the scene that highlights the performance of this piece is a beautifully edited sequence of talent and dementia.  Geoffrey Rush won the Best Actor Oscar for his work in the role of the virtuoso as an adult, but Noah Taylor actually registers much more screen time with his sensitive depiction as the adolescent David.

The Runaways

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on March 19, 2010 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketPhotobucketSolid biography of the seminal LA girl band the Runaways which launched the career of singer Joan Jett.  Never a major force on the charts or even with critics, the rock quintet seems an unlikely candidate for a biopic.  Based on lead vocalist Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, this well-acted story  follows the somewhat clichéd dramatic arc of your above-average Behind the Music episode.  The talented cast is what sets the film apart, particularly Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Riley Keough as her sister Marie.  Their scenes together have a genuine bond of sisterhood that is engaging.  Actor Michael Shannon is also memorable as rock promoter Kim Fanley.  It’s surprising a man in his 30s would be allowed such unsupervised control over a group of girls barely in their teens.  That’s the sort of fascinating detail that makes this biopic a notable addition to the growing list of  films about “sex, drugs and rock & roll”.

Crazy Heart

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 29, 2010 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketPhotobucketPoignant character study of Bad Blake, an aging country singer whose existence is something of a mess, until, that is, he meets a young female reporter. Actor Jeff Bridges embraces the personality of the ragged, seen it all country singer so convincingly it doesn’t even feel like a performance, it feels like real life. He even sings his own music. It is a brilliantly restrained achievement, a portrait long remembered even after the story fades from memory. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, almost 30 years his junior, supports him nicely as the woman who gives his life new meaning.

All That Jazz

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music with tags on January 18, 2010 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketPhotobucketVulgar, decadent, autobiographical musical about Bob Fosse.  Interestingly, the portrait is not flattering despite being written, directed, even choreographed by Fosse himself.  There is real self -loathing here as the film challenges the viewer to care for the main character.  He’s morally repellent and downright unpleasant.  Joe Gideon’s constant daily routine is Vivaldi, Visine, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine and sex.  He juggles multiple women, including a wife and  girlfriend as his health deteriorates.  Overly affected and self indulgent, fantasy sequences in which he flirts with the angel of death are intercut with graphic scenes of real open heart surgery.  Even the dance numbers feel overwrought.  “AirRotica”, one of his most flamboyant, tries to be so aggressively sensual, it’s actually humorous.  Shockingly overrated, it was nominated for Nine Academy Awards.  Roy Scheider has a real presence in the leading role.  As for the rest?  I just didn’t  get it.

Fame

Posted in Drama, Music with tags on January 16, 2010 by Mark Hobin

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Ambitious musical drama follows a group of students through their four years at the New York High School of Performing Arts, as they take music, theater and dance.  Raw and profane, this bears little resemblance to the hit TV series that followed.  Nevertheless, this is a heartfelt and emotionally involving slice of life.  Rarely has a film so beautifully shown how people of diverse backgrounds can come together and get along in an effort to be the best.  But Christopher Gore’s Oscar nominated script isn’t cloying or saccharine.  This is gritty stuff and he’s masterful in juggling multiple characters and storylines.  Their lives feel authentic and sincere.  A brilliant ensemble film.
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