Suits (TV series)

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If Suits had been made ten or twenty years ago, it would be one of those must-watch American imports on British TV, shown at prime time on ITV.  Now, with multi-channel broadcasting, it is tucked away on the awfully-named Dave channel and most of the population of the UK have never heard of it.  The multi-channel era is very good at hiding wonderful shows away so that no-one ever starts to watch then unless they are channel-surfing and suddenly take an interest in the few seconds they get to see.

Suits, for those of you unfortunate enough not to have seen it, tells of the life, loves and cases within a high-flying law firm.  The first season begins with lawyer Harvey Specter (played by Gabriel Macht) hiring Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), a new associate, despite the fact that Mike has never been to law school.  We then move through various cases (some of which I don’t actually understand, but that doesn’t seem to matter) and the constant threat of Mike’s secret being exposed,  as well as following the personal lives of those at the law film.  It’s the emphasis on the latter that makes Suits particularly special, with the other members of the firm growing in importance and screen time as the series progresses.

There are some wonderful performances here.  Rick Hoffman manages to make Louis Litt believable, despite the fact that the character could easily fall into caricature and series clown in lesser hands.  Sarah Rafferty as Donna, Harvey’s secretary, puts in a brilliant performance week after week, instilling her character with a mix of humour and heart.  Gina Torres is Jessica Pearson, one of the characters that has been developed with each successive season and has gone from simply a boss-like figure to a warm, determined human being.  Rachel, Mike’s girlfriend and fellow associate, is played by Meghan Markle and, again, the character has grown as the series has moved on.  But it is the chemistry and the occasional sparring between Macht and Adams as Harvey and Mike that is at the heart of the show – and it was only during a short period when Mike left the law firm and the two shared hardly any screen time that the show fell in quality.  The other real stars here are the writers, who manage to produce interesting, human, moving and funny material for its characters week after week in a way that many better-known shows could only dream of.

Many would call Suits the L. A. Law of the 2010s and, I guess, that is a fair comparison, but the issue here is that Suits is a far better written, acted, directed and consistent show than L. A. Law ever was.  The earlier show, essential viewing in its day, was very inconsistent, moving from brilliance one week to sheer stupidity the following episode.  Each successive season got more and more inconsistent until the whole thing just unravelled and ended with season eight in 1994.  Suits, on the other hand, moves from strength to strength, with season five probably being the best so far, especially now the “Mike is going to be exposed” storyline has finally been seen to have run its course and, seemingly, put to bed (although, as I write this, I see in the synopsis for future episodes that it might appear again).   What’s more, it has that consistency in quality that L. A. Law never had.

If you haven’t caught Suits you have missed a treat.  But don’t join it now, go and get yourself the DVDs of the earlier seasons and catch-up first.  With more than sixty episodes to watch, it will also give you many opportunities to hear the theme song and try to work out what the hell they are singing about!

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)

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*contains spoilers*

For anyone who is a big film or music fan, there is always that chasing around for the things we can’t have.  We want the old films that aren’t available for whatever reason, or the unreleased recordings by our favourite artists that are languishing in a vault.  Sometimes we have good reason to salivate at the thought of these films and recordings being released, whereas other times there is good reason for a film or album being more obscure than the rest.

For many years, the Hammer production of Phantom of the Opera, starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, was unavailable on home video, particularly in Europe – slightly odd given the famous title.  Eventually it appeared again in 2014 not just on DVD but also on blu-ray. The point of the blu-ray release is a little bit of a mystery as, to be honest, it looks no better than the average DVD of a 1960s movie.  Anyone expecting a startlingly clear, crisp transfer is going to be disappointed.  Sure, it’s perfectly watchable, but that’s not what blu-ray releases are meant to be about.

That aside, the Hammer Phantom proves to have been rather elusive for a very sensible reason – it’s not very good.  Perhaps a hint towards the tameness of the film is  on the packaging itself – it is, surprisingly, a PG certificate.  Rather odd for a Hammer Horror.  But there is a good reason for that – there’s virtually no horror in the film.  Even the unmasking of the Phantom’s face is not actually shown to the viewer – in fact we don’t see that face until the very last shot of the film – and then, to be fair, we’ve seen some celebrity faces look worse than that thanks to botched plastic surgery and face lifts.   Perhaps the only real moment of horror comes when someone is stabbed in the eye, but that is also seen from a distance.

Now, I’m not saying that a horror film needs to be filled with horrific moments, because it doesn’t, but it does need to be tense and sinister, and Phantom is neither.   It is, instead a mystery-come-tragedy about a supposedly deceased composer – let’s face it, you all know the story already.  The film is interminably slow, especially in the opening half an hour or so, and when we actually get the Phantom he turns out to be a slightly eccentric fellow who wants to teach a girl to sing so that his opera can be heard in all its glory.  At one point, the film looks like its going to get a happily-ever-after ending, but presumably someone realised that wasn’t fitting for a horror film and so tagged a three-minute disaster movie on to the end just to give a final thrill.

Viewers that are really paying attention will know that the composer of the opera that is the centre of the film, about “Saint” Joan of Arc, must also have been a psychic.  The film is set in Victorian London and yet Joan didn’t become a saint until 1920.  The supposed opera in question is a turgid effort, which I suppose is at least true to form given British efforts at the form during the Victorian era – but this makes Sullivan’s Ivanhoe sound like Aida (although I will admit that Ivanhoe, to quote Rossini on Wagner, does have “some wonderful moments but dull quarter hours – but I digress).

The script is a lame effort and, surprisingly, Terence Fisher’s direction is decidedly lacklustre and workmanlike.  Herbert Lom makes for a very unscary Phantom (even during the section of the film when he’s meant to be frightening), although he does well during the flashback sequence.  Michael Gough chews up the scenery as always and, as always, wanders through the film looking like a bulldog chewing on a wasp.  Heather Sears looks suitably bored for the most part, and even when kidnapped and brought to the Phantom has a kind of “oh, come on then, teach me to sing and get it over and done with” look on her face.  Oddly, the usually bland Edward de Souza comes out best, making for a surprisingly charming leading man.

All in all, however, this is a very unexciting effort, both from the point of view of the film and of the blu-ray release.  If you haven’t seen it and wonder why you’ve missed the film all these years, well the above information might give you a good idea why it seems to be one of Hammer’s lesser-known titles.  Either that, or you were just lucky to miss out.

Bobby Darin: The Milk Shows

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The last in the series of blog posts reviewing Bobby Darin recordings.

March 1963 saw the announcement that Bobby would “be featured in a Monday through Friday program series on Radio Station WIBA.  The program titled Bobby Darin will be heard at 3.33 p.m. and will feature a talk (sic) and music by this young star, designed to appeal to both adults and teenagers – not rock and roll music.  The Bobby Darin show will be sponsored by the American Dairy Association.”[1]

These five-minute radio programmes became known as The Milk Shows.  Darin would record the shows at Capitol studios, and they would then be overdubbed with fake (very fake) applause, thus giving the impression that the songs were being performed live – although how many listeners were fooled is debatable.   The tapes of these shows were found back in 2002, with a trio of songs being released on the Aces Back to Back release in 2004.  After this, there was an inexplicable delay of another ten years before the release of a double CD set containing more than ninety tracks.

If you’re wondering how ninety tracks fit on a mere double CD set, then it’s worth stating that no songs featured in the series was recorded in full (with one exception).  Each song was a bite-size version lasting, in most cases, sixty to ninety seconds.  This in itself makes the release a unique listening experience, but it is also worth remembering that Darin was accompanied by just a jazz quartet featuring Richard Behrke, Ronnie Zito, Milt Norman and Billy Krist – no matter what the song.

The material that Darin chose to record for The Milk Shows cover the whole gamut of his repertoire, from renditions of rock ‘n’ roll hits Splish Splash and Multiplication to a wide variety of standards and show tunes.  Some of the songs had been recorded by Bobby previously for record release, and those numbers often get given a different feel here thanks to the stripped back instrumentation.  Other tracks are ones that Bobby never did record in a studio, and so these versions are the only ones we have.

The recording dates for these shows are unclear.  The news article quoted earlier is from the beginning of March 1963, suggesting that the recordings probably began around the same time.  Whether all tracks were recorded at once or over a longer period is not known, although it’s worth noting that, when Darin draws upon songs he had already recorded, all of them date from studio sessions before March 1963, thus suggesting that The Milk Shows were recorded over a short space of time during that spring and/or summer.  For example, while You’re the Reason I’m Living (and songs from that album) are included here, Eighteen Yellow Roses and songs from that album are not.  There are a couple of exceptions.  Days of Wine and Roses would be recorded in 1964 for the Hello Dolly to Goodbye Charlie album (in a very different arrangement), and The Sheik of Araby was recorded in late 1965, but remains unissued.  However, Darin dates The Milk Show version of Days of Wine and Roses by referring to it as “this year’s” Academy Award-winning song, thus dating the performance to 1963, but sometime after the ceremony that took place on April 8.

While these recordings are to be welcomed, it should be mentioned that Darin is not always in the best of voice, and certainly doesn’t always give a song the care and attention he would for a commercial recording.  The very first song on the double CD is a case in point.  Too Close for Comfort, from the musical Mr Wonderful, hardly gets the album off to an auspicious start, with Bobby’s voice sounding croaky and he hits a number of bum notes along the way.  Things improve somewhat for Pennies from Heaven, which gets a nice run-through, but the big finish doesn’t quite come off in the way it normally would on a Darin recording.  Part of this is due to the low-key performances, but there is also a sense here that some of the songs simply weren’t rehearsed enough.  Around the World is an example of this.  It gets an upbeat, jazzy rendition but there are points when Bobby lags behind the beat and others where he seemingly makes the melody up as he goes along.

Elsewhere, it seems to be simply a worn-out voice that is the problem.  Climb Every Mountain starts off well, and has a better arrangement than the outing it would receive ten years later on The Bobby Darin Show TV series, but the climax of the song shows that Darin’s voice is shot to pieces.  Perhaps this was one number that should have remained in the vault.  Climb Every Mountain isn’t the only song here that wouldn’t be given a studio recording but would appear years later.  Sixteen Tons was given a brilliant (and lengthy) reworking during an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show in 1968 and would emerge again on The Bobby Darin Show (although not included on the DVD of that series).

Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting songs here are the ones that Bobby didn’t record or perform elsewhere.  The choice of material is also intriguing.  A number of tracks are songs associated with Bing Crosby, for example, including I’m an Old Cowhand (during which Bobby can’t resist throwing in some impressions), Sweet and Lovely and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra Loo-Ral which gets crooned nicely in Darin’s softest voice.  Less surprising perhaps are the series of tracks associated with Al Jolson, including April Showers, Rock-a-Bye Your Baby, and Let Me Sing and I’m HappyApril Showers is particularly good, and reminds us just how good a ballad singer he was during this period, particularly when not bogged down by the choir that appears to pop up at every opportunity when the tempo falls below a certain number of beats per minute on the Oh! Look at Me Now and You’re the Reason I’m Living albums.

Some of Bobby’s biggest hits get quite a makeover in this new setting.  Lazy River, for example, is taken at an ultra-slow pace and is given a bluesy vocal that has little of the show-stopping nature of the studio recording. Splish Splash, on the other hand, seems a little bizarre when backed by a jazz quartet, although Dream Lover doesn’t suffer in the same way – in fact it works better here than with the big band on the Darin at the Copa album.  You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby is also heard in a very different arrangement to the hit twist version.  This swing version is just as credible, and makes one wish that Darin had recorded it again in this style at a later date.   Interestingly, Mack the Knife isn’t sung here, but is just used as an instrumental theme tune for the radio show.

It is often the ballads that get given most care and attention by Darin in this set of performances.  For example, Autumn Leaves is given a Latin rhythm and is beautifully sung, and a full studio recording of this lovely song would have been very nice indeed.  Also given a Latin feel and a similar vocal is the song which is, arguably, the greatest written by Irving Berlin, How Deep is the Ocean, as well as Fools Rush In.  The use of these Latin rhythms is interesting as Darin rarely employed them elsewhere, although, going by these brief outings, an album in the bossa nova style would not have been a bad move.  Elsewhere, I’ll Be Seeing You is given a gentle swing rhythm, but Darin sings it as a ballad, mostly singing it in his subdued voice which is most effective.    Also of note is a sincere rendition of La Vie en Rose.  Perhaps the most bizarre ballad performance finds Bobby reciting the lyrics of Days of Wine and Roses while the tune is played in the background.

A number of songs from the mammoth January 1963 sessions appear here.  Hello Young Lovers and This Nearly Was Mine are given renditions similar to their studio counterparts, whereas the arrangements of I Ain’t Got Nobody, Please Help Me I’m Falling and Be Honest With Me are simplified somewhat and benefit from the lack of backing vocals – although Be Honest With Me still sees Darin adding the same mannerisms to his voice as he does on the You’re the Reason I’m Living LP version.  What Kind of Fool am I is given a lightly swinging version here that arguably is more effective than the more traditional performance recorded a few months earlier.  What is particularly interesting is how Bobby approaches the end of the song in a completely different way.  There is no big finish here – instead, he sings the final lines is his softest voice, almost a falsetto, and it is just as effective as the traditional ending.  During the Broadway album sessions, Darin had recorded Tall Hope from the musical Wildcat.  Here he turns his attention to the most famous song from that show, Hey Look Me Over.  The normal march rhythm of the song is cast to one side in favour of a straight-ahead jazz approach, but it all seems a little half-hearted, and isn’t helped by a rather inept and unenthusiastic attempt at scat singing.

Alongside the well-established standards are some of the novelty songs that Darin appears to have had a genuine affection for given that the album of duets with Johnny Mercer is filled with such material.  Here we have Manana, co-written by, and a hit for, Peggy Lee, for whom Bobby often expressed his admiration.  Darin puts in a great performance here, with his voice sounding stronger that on many of the other tracks.  While Manana is fun, a number like Mairzy Dotes and Dozy Doats is an example of a novelty song that is simply tedious.  ‘A’ You’re Adorable gets a nice run-through, as does Row, Row, Row, which includes the verse which is not featured on the recording with Johnny Mercer on the Two of a Kind album.

Ironically, the best song from The Milk Show recordings is All the Way, released on Aces Back to Back but, oddly, not included on The Milk Shows set.  Quite why this lovely performance wasn’t included the second time around is a mystery, not least because it’s the only  full-length performance in the ninety or so songs.  Here, Darin takes a Sinatra signature song, gives it a gentle jazz combo backing and a subdued, beautiful performance that certainly deserved to be the climax of the double CD set.  Strangely, the other two songs from the shows released on the Aces Back to Back CD were reissued on The Milk Shows release.

The double CD release is, of course, wonderful to have, but it can also be rather frustrating.  Much of this is to do with technical issues such as the fake applause and, even worse, Bobby trying to interact with the fake applause.  It all becomes rather distracting, especially when each song only runs for a minute or so.  That said, presumably the applause was already on the tapes when they were found and so couldn’t be removed.  Less forgivable is where songs are joined together in such a way that Bobby is talking over his own singing,  perhaps saying “thank you” to the audience that isn’t there when he’s already started on the next number.  The same happens in reverse, where he’s introducing the next song while still finishing the previous one.  While one can understand why there was a desire to present each CD as one uninterrupted piece, there also seems little reason why songs couldn’t have been re-ordered so that these overlaps didn’t take place.  If that wasn’t possible, then a simple fade out and fade in would have worked better than the jarring mix of two songs together that occasionally happens.  Despite this, it should be reiterated that the sound quality of these tapes that were lost for more than thirty years is very good indeed.

Technical issues aside, the run of more than fifty songs in a space of just over an hour is almost exhausting, and with each song having the same instrumentation in its backing, they tend to run in together as if they were one long medley and thus suffer from becoming aural wallpaper.  Likewise, while Bobby is on very good form in places and gives some fine, nuanced performance, there are also moments where Darin the perfectionist is, seemingly, on holiday.  Back in 1960 in an article in Downbeat magazine, Gene Lees had commented on problems with Darin’s intonation in his early albums of standards.[2]  During The Milk Shows recordings this issue rises again, whether due to a tired voice or the sheer speed required to get everything down on tape.  However, we also need to remember that these were, in all likelihood, intended for a one-off broadcast not to be repeated – and certainly not to be listened to over and over again some forty years later.

What The Milk Shows undoubtedly show us is that Darin should have recorded with a jazz combo more than he did.  The one album that resulted from such a set-up, Winners, is Bobby at his very best, and one can imagine that, with a sensible amount of studio time, a number of the songs performed here could have been recorded in full performances for a follow-up album that would have been just as good.  That, sadly, didn’t happen, and so The Milk Shows CD release is the nearest we have, and for that we should be thankful.

[1] “Bobby Darin Show,” Capital Times, March 2, 1963, 3.

[2] Lees, “Bobby Darin and the Turn from Junk Music,” 16.