The Maze Runner Trilogy

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“They’re late,” are the first words spoke in The Death Cure, the final film in The Maze Runner trilogy.  They are rather appropriate, considering the fact that the film is finally hitting cinemas in the UK this weekend, after production was held up for a year following an on-set accident that seriously injured star Dylan O’Brien.   Sadly, the delay not only injured  O’Brien, but also stopped the momentum that the series had gathered, with audiences not used to waiting for three years for a conclusion to a group of films when the first two had been issued only one year apart.   The gap in production is obvious in some ways – O’Brien and some other members of the cast don’t look just six months older (as the film requires) but several years older, but such minor issues are forgotten after a few minutes and you get used to the difference.  The final film has received very good reviews, and with good reason.   Despite this, it is not the best in the series.  To my mind, the first installment wins that prize for managing to combine a sense of mystery, intrigue and action/adventure, and all of that in a lean running time of under two hours.  The Death Cure is more in line with the second movie, The Scorch Trials, concentrating on action sequences and, despite being nearly two and a half hours in length, no-one could complain that they were bored while the series reaches its explosive climax.

The Maze Runner, despite its production problems, might not be the most recognisable name in the cycle of films based on young adult dystopian novels, but it is arguably the best.  The Hunger Games has received more attention, but that series also seemed to have an air of self-importance that The Maze Runner does not.   The Maze Runner is there to entertain first and foremost, whereas The Hunger Games, for example, is almost a call to arms.  And I’m certainly not complaining about a series of movies or books that are trying to tell youngsters that people in power are not to be trusted and will screw you over in order to better themselves.  The earlier kids recognise that, the better.  But Hunger Games also seems sanctimonious about it, not helped by the lead character.  The same message is perhaps hidden away somewhere in The Maze Runner but it’s not what drives the narrative, and Thomas’s motives are not to bring down the establishment, but to save his own friends.   That he may or may not bring down the establishment whilst doing that is a simply a bonus for him, and this is clear throughout the final film.  Whereas the second ends with the decision to bring down WCKD, the third is still centred around rescuing his mate rather than getting too wrapped up in the bigger picture.  Thomas is a flawed character, and his decisions aren’t always the best ones, but that makes him more believable that Katniss in Hunger Games. 

The final film is a fitting finale, even if there are some moments towards the end where the action sequences just seem to go on for too long, no matter how big and loud and impressive they may be.  This series has always been more than being about big bangs.  But, again, there is no intention to be grandiose here – no desire to drag this adaptation of a single book over two full-length films.  That decision brought Hunger Games to a rather leaden, dull conclusion, whereas Divergent didn’t ever reach a conclusion at all, with the final movies having been shelved after the series ran out of steam and cinema tickets.  The Death Cure also rather unexpectedly manages to reunite viewers with characters from the first film that never got seen at all in the second.

When this cycle of youth adult films has left the cinemas and is looked back upon in five or ten years, The Maze Runner will, in all likelihood, be viewed as the most accomplished – and some reviewers are already saying that.  This is all the more remarkable given that these three movies were the first features directed by Wes Ball.  The casting was, in most cases, superb.  Dylan O’Brien managed to take the lead role and not allow it to dominate the films – despite his presence in most scenes, this is still an ensemble piece, allowing others to shine as and when required.  Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt, in particular, is superb, as is Will Poulter who rejoins the films in the third episode.  Despite this, Aiden Gillen seem to be on autopilot as the bad guy, with his motives never really explained, other than he has a job to do and he does as he’s told.   This is perhaps a flaw in the script, but there seems to make no attempt to add any depth here unlike, for example, Patricia Clarkson as Ava Paige, the head of WCKD, who is as morally ambiguous as Teresa (played by Kaya Scodelario), a trait that adds to the list of elements that separates these from similar films.  It will, as always in these cases, be interesting to see what the talented young cast that headed these movies, and director Wes Ball do next.

 

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Perry Mason: The Case of the Maligned Movies

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2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Raymond Burr, and Barbara Hale passed away a year ago this month.  This blog post pays tribute to them in an examination of the Perry Mason movies made between 1985 and 1993.

People tend to look at you kind of funny when you tell them that you prefer the Perry Mason TV movies of 1985 to 1993 to the original series that ran for nine seasons from 1957 to 1966.  Raymond Burr, forever associated with the role, stated in interviews to promote Perry Mason Returns (1985), the first of the TV movies, that he thought the first run of the series should have stopped after five seasons, and that he wanted to call it a day after seven.  He also said that he had been keen to make the occasional two-hour episode during that initial run in order to do Erle Stanley Gardner’s often complicated books more justice (excuse the pun) as well as to give more backstory to the main characters of Perry, Della Street (his secretary), and Paul Drake (his private investigator).  The TV movies that began in 1985 didn’t adapt any of Erle Standley Gardner’s original stories, but they did give the chance to give more development to the main characters that Burr had been so keen to do.

As a twelve-year-old back in 1986 when Perry Mason Returns was first shown on the BBC in the UK, I was entranced from the very beginning.  I caught most of the other TV movies featuring Burr over the next ten years or so, and have been revisiting them all again over the last few months after purchasing The Complete Movie Collection, which pulls together Burr’s 26 Mason TV movies as well as the four that were made directly after his death with other lawyer characters standing in for Mason who was always “out of town.”  It was a sad way for the films to limp to their inevitable conclusion, but Burr was apparently keen that the movies continue without him – although why investigator/lawyer Ken Malansky (played by William R. Moses) wasn’t “promoted” to the running of the cases after Burr’s passing is something of a mystery.  This, at least, would have given the series at least a chance of working.

There are some significant differences between the TV movies and the original series, most notably that they are considerably more predictable.  The cases that Perry takes on nearly always involve a celebrity of some sort, working for a radio or TV station, or a stage production, or in film, or a politician, or even a notorious mobster.  This means that they often go over the same ground, which is a shame, but as with so many popular programmes on TV, it is the formulaic nature of the series that people love so much, and glitz and glamour was very much a staple of American TV dramas during this period.  Ironically, though, it is those stories that break away from the formula that are most memorable.

Take, for example, the Case of the Lost Love (1987), featuring Jean Simmons as guest star as one of Perry’s old flames.  The episode is particularly well-written and, for the first time, the writers start to feed in elements of Perry’s life away from the courtroom, and even touches on a subject such as mental health – and deals with it in a responsible and subtle way (especially considering this was three decades ago).  Moving even further away from the formula is The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990) which, along with the Lost Love episode, rates as the best of the movies.  Here we don’t have the killing of a loud-mouth TV presenter, or the writer of a tell-all book, but, instead, that of a Nazi SS Officer.  Mostly set in France, this tale also features one of the best casts assembled for the later Mason mysteries, with Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, Yvette Mimieux, and a wonderful turn from Theresa Wright.

Even the most run-of-the-mill of the movies are worth a watch, however, most notably because of the touching chemistry between Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, with more hints about their characters’ relationship over the years being revealed in some of the movies.  We learn, for example, in one episode (the title of which I shall not reveal in order to avoid giving spoilers) that Mason has a daughter (who doesn’t know he is her father).  In another, The Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host (1993), Burr’s penultimate appearance, Mason and Della finally share an intimate kiss just prior to the closing credits.  In a talk show appearance of his own in 1993, Burr offers the information that they had just filmed that scene in what now appears to be an obvious deflection of a question put to him about whether he and Barbara Hale had ever been romantically involved – Burr liked his private life to remain that way, and it was only after his death that it became public knowledge that he had been in a relationship for over three decades with actor Robert Benevedo, who he had met on the set of Perry Mason in the late 1950s.  He even went out of his way to make up stories of having previously been married, with children, for reporters – saying that both his wife and children had died.  But what seems clear from the Telltale Talk Show Host is that the Mason/Della romance might have been developed in the films that would have been made had Burr not passed away, and there is little doubt that such a move would have pleased fans.

Some twenty-five years after Burr made his last appearance (in The Case of the Killer Kiss, 1993), the Mason TV movies remain staples of various cable television channels, and hold up as surprisingly entertaining ways to pass ninety minutes.  There is something remarkably comforting, even heartwarming, in Burr’s portrayal of the ageing Perry Mason – something grandfatherly, even.   There is also a certain reassurance here, too, that Perry Mason, striding along majestically in his fetching big black coat and hat, will provide us with adult entertainment that is still suitable for all, with a surprising lack of gore or violence considering the subject of murder.  This, too, was something that Burr spoke proudly of in promotional interviews when Perry Mason Returns was about to air.

There is more humour here than in the original TV series, and certainly Mason comes across as more human.  The relationship with Della Street is also different, and perhaps reflects more than ever the genuine affection that Burr and Hale clearly had for each other, as well as hinting that there was something more going on between Mason and Della than we were being told about.

All of this doesn’t mean that these are better than the classic TV series of the 1950s and 1960s – I doubt anyone would argue that – but there is still something very special about them and, unlike so many TV programmes from the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is far more to enjoy here than giant shoulder-pads and dodgy hair-dos.

Perry Mason: The Complete Movie Collection (a 15-disc set) is available from Amazon for approximately £25.

She-Wolf of London (1946)

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The release last year of the complete series of the 1930s and 1940s Universal Mummy, Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies on blu-ray has, no doubt, had many, like myself, revisiting some of the films from these cycles that they hadn’t seen in some time – only this time in much better quality.  It is worth adding that, perhaps appropriately, the Invisible Man movies are nowhere to be seen on blu-ray with the exception of the original movie.  Without doubt, these films look wonderful in high definition, and some of them really come to life in a way they hadn’t in their DVD incarnation.

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is a key example.  This is a weird, dark, and eerie film that came at the end of the first cycle of Universal horror films during the sound period.   On blu-ray, all of that weirdness seems even more startling, and the picture quality for a film of this vintage is truly stunning.

Werewolf of London (1935), from a year earlier, was another that I enjoyed revisiting over the Christmas period.  Not part of the Wolf Man series at all, but a stand alone effort from six years before Lon Chaney Jr started having a problem with facial hair, this one suffers a little from rather sedate pacing, but is still an interesting movie nonetheless and is certainly better than many of the Universal horror movies of the 1940s.

In fact, Werewolf of London was the last film I saw in 2017, and so it only seemed right that She-Wolf of London (1946)  was the first I screened in 2018.  This is probably the least-known of all the films on the recent blu ray sets, and yet it is also one of the best.  As with Werewolf of London, it is not part of the Wolf Man series, but a stand alone feature starring June Lockhart as a young woman who fears she has the family curse of becoming a werewolf when there are a series of murders and attacks in a park close to her home.

I confess I don’t have much time for the “House of” series, in which the various Universal monsters come together in one film, that dominated the 1940s horror cycle.  By this point, the series had, arguably, lost its way, becoming more fantasy (and comedy) than horror.  She-Wolf of London isn’t really traditional horror either – no hairy beasts are seen within the movie at all, with the except of a couple of dogs.  Instead, we have a film which seems to be a mix of Gaslightthe Val Lewton films for RKO, and even Rebecca.   It seems almost ironic that Universal, who at one point led the way with regards to horror during the previous decade, here borrows from what other studios were doing.  The central character’s obsession with her supposed family curse has a great deal in common with Cat People (1942) from the Lewton/RKO series  and The Undying Monster, made by Fox.  Sadly, She-Wolf of London doesn’t have the same intelligent script or sense of dread as Cat People, although it certainly treads some of the same ground thematically.  It is still a taut little thriller, aided and abetted by some really fine performances, including the wide-eyed June Lockhart herself, but also Jan Wiley, who does well in a far less showy role.  Sara Haden, meanwhile, chews up and spits out the scenery.

Running at only 61 minutes, the mystery element isn’t given room to be taxing, and the ending comes about rather suddenly, but the film seems remarkably classy compared to the other horrors that Universal were producing at the time, and the period atmosphere is nicely sustained throughout.   Certainly an enjoyable way of spending an hour if you prefer your horror to be of a sinister rather than supernatural variety.

Elvis Presley: The 1969 Vegas Season

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The following is an except from the book “Reconsider Baby.  Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide, 2nd edition” available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.  

The day after the airing of the NBC TV Special, the New York Times announced: “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances.”[1]  Elvis’s season at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, beginning on July 31, 1969, was to be his first live appearance in eight years (unless one counts the live segments of the TV show).  Unlike the TV show of the previous year, and the albums recorded in Memphis six months earlier, the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

Billboard raved that “the greatest rocker of them all came and met one of his toughest audiences at the International Hotel showroom….But it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s, on stage Thursday.  It was a polished, confident and talented artist, knowing exactly what he was going to do and when.”[2]  A week further on in the season, they reported that “nine years away from live performing have not affected his affinity for interpretation, combining the visual affects (sic) of the flaying arms and slowly gyrating hips; of his gutsy attack on quasi-blues songs or his shifting into a romantic milieu for Yesterday or Love Me Tender.”[3]

Norma Lee Browning in the Chicago Tribune takes time from her caustic assessment of Elvis’s appearance at a press conference to admit that “Presley’s smash opening in the showroom of the new International hotel, following Barbra Streisand’s fair-to-middlin’ engagement, has set a lot of showbiz folks back on their ears.”[4] Mary Campbell of the Ottawa Journal said that most of the audience were “old enough to have hated him 13 years ago and some of them admitted that they had…Rock music no longer gives cultural shock to the middle-aged.  And neither does Elvis Presley.  Presley still makes those ‘suggestive’ movements.  But the shocking of 1956 can be the nostalgic of 1969.”[5]

The third and final act of the Presley comeback was an unequivocal success, and it was hardly surprising that RCA were there to record a number of shows for a live album.  Six days of shows were recorded, and then a live album was assembled from the tapes.  Originally released as the first disc of From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis, the live album would eventually be re-released on its own with the equally catchy title of In Person at the International Hotel – or In Person for short.

The disc starts with Blue Suede Shoes, the number that Elvis used to open the shows.  The Vegas setting is obvious from the first notes of the album thanks to the introduction by the Bobby Morris Orchestra.  This is followed by an opening vamp from Elvis’s core band before Elvis finally starts singing.  His voice is strong (probably stronger than in the Memphis sessions earlier in the year), and he sounds confident and full of energy.   The song is taken at a faster pace than the studio versions (and, for some reason, Elvis repeats the same two verses rather than using the others), and the whole thing is over in two minutes, including the introduction and the vamp.

The high energy continues with a cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode.  Again, Elvis misses out a verse, the second in Berry’s recording, and substitutes it with a repeat of the third verse.  Elvis would continue to use the song in slightly different variations over the coming years.  It would be shorn of the repeated verse by the time of the performance on the Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, and would get the briefest of renditions in the final years, normally as part of the extended band introductions.  The version issued on In Person is probably the best Elvis version that has been released.  He rocks with abandon, spitting out the words at breakneck pace, and the band is as tight as a drum.

All Shook Up follows, at much the same pace as the previous two numbers.  The song doesn’t really work so well at this speed, but Elvis had a penchant for speeding up his 1950s hits on stage during the following eight years, and that habit appears to have been formed even at this stage.  It is a far cry from the shuffle rhythm of the studio recording, and it lacks charm and suggests there were some of his earlier hits that he struggled to update for his new live act.

Are You Lonesome Tonight gets a serious rendition from Elvis, with Millie Kirkham’s almost-otherworldly soprano providing a lovely obligato.  The performance is very different from the one captured on tape a couple of nights later in which Elvis gets a fit of giggles and laughs uncontrollably through almost the entire song.  That version, referred to affectionately as Are You Laughing Tonight, was released in 1980.

Elvis introduces Hound Dog as his “message song” for the evening.  The self-deprecating humour of these shows is often quite charming, but at other times just doesn’t work on record.  From this point of view, the live album released from these concerts doesn’t always work due to the often-sloppy editing.  There are long moments of silence (do we really want to hear Elvis drinking water?), and other times where the on-stage humour needs the visuals to work or where a joke goes on too long.

Hound Dog doesn’t receive the throwaway performance that it would in later shows, but it seems clear that, even in 1969, Elvis didn’t really know what to do with it.  It was no longer the yell of frustration and rebellion that it was in the 1950s, and the first verse is repeated over and over, leaving out the “high-classed” second verse on the vast majority of live performances. This demonstrates the conundrum that Elvis would find himself in for the next eight years – songs that were huge hits a dozen or more years earlier were not necessarily relevant to Elvis in his mid-to-late thirties.  His commitment now was often towards more recent songs of a more serious (and, in the coming years, more maudlin) nature.  And yet it was clear that he had to include the “oldies” in his set.  In 1969, the older songs generally got given proper attention, but they would later be used as a punctuation point in a show where Elvis could sing half-heartedly, catching his breath while handing out scarves to screaming fans.  In these 1969 shows, it is great to hear Elvis singing Hound Dog live, but there seems little point to it.  The arrangement has no real structure (it doesn’t build to a big finish), and it simply does the job and little else.  Not everyone agrees.  Cub Koda and Bruce Eder write that the guitar work of James Burton “puts a new edge on Hound Dog, coming up with something different than, yet vaguely similar to, Scotty Moore’s approach to the song in concert 14 years earlier.”[6]  One can only wish that Elvis had chosen to keep the switch to half-speed that was present in the live renditions from the 1950s.

The same can’t be said for I Can’t Stop Loving You.  Whereas the song was given a country flavour in the short jam session at the Memphis sessions earlier in the year, here it is given a full work-out and becomes a show-stopper, with a much more thought-out arrangement than many of the live versions of Elvis’s own hits.  Elvis’s vocal is both sincere and playful and the big finish is stunning, even if the cut-in of an audience member screaming is unnecessary and distracting.

Elvis romps through the r&b classic My Babe, using the song as a vehicle to show off his stronger vocal abilities.  A second version of the number was released in 1980, and this uses slightly different orchestration, but Elvis’s vocal isn’t as strong or controlled here, although it is always nice to hear the different arrangement, and fascinating that Elvis was still toying with his act this late in the engagment.

The medley of Mystery Train and Tiger Man is given a typically self-mocking introduction in which Elvis talks about the sound he had in the early days.  The sound here is brought up-to-date, though, with an arrangement that rocks like hell and features some great work from Ronnie Tutt on drums, with his riffs effectively punctuating Elvis’s vocals on Tiger Man.  The medley is, alongside Suspicious Minds, the highlight of the live album.

The recent Bee Gees hit Words gets a relatively perfunctory run-through.  Elvis’s vocal is sincere and committed, but the arrangement would be slightly modified for the Vegas season a year later, and those performances seem to have a bit more substance.

In the Ghetto doesn’t have the same impact in a live setting that it did in the studio.  The arrangement is beefier, and something is lost.  Elvis’s voice isn’t in such good shape here either, and he appears to be struggling with the low notes, with them having heavy vibrato and often threatening to go out of tune.  The biggest problem, though, is that Elvis hadn’t found a way to translate the intimate sound of the studio recording on to the concert stage, and this was something that would appear to cause him issues during the next eight years.  The ballads that made their way into the live act were, for the most past, ones with big arrangements and big choruses, which could be delivered with an impact during the live performances.  More fragile songs from the 1970s, such as I’m Leavin’ and Until It’s Time For You To Go were, like In the Ghetto, “beefed up” when sung in Vegas or on tour.  Elvis could have done with a short section in each show where the arrangements were stripped back to just him and a couple of musicians.  This would have resulted in some light and shade during the performance as well as giving an appropriate setting for Elvis to sing some of the quieter moments from his back-catalogue, whether hits such as Loving You and Don’t, or album tracks from the 1970s such as I Miss You or For Lovin’ Me.

The highlight of the original album and the Vegas season in general is Suspicious Minds.  This was Elvis’s latest single at the time, and he turns it into a showstopper that lasts over seven minutes.  Again, this lacks some of the vocal subtleties of the studio version, but here it doesn’t matter, as Elvis starts the number relatively sedately and then slowly but surely works it up into a frenzy over its mammoth running time.  This should be tedious, but it works superbly, and the excitement of the stage performance transfers surprisingly well to record.

The original album ended, as did the shows, with Can’t Help Falling in Love.  Taken at a faster pace than both the original studio recording and that used in the previous year’s TV special, the track becomes a closing credits theme song rather than receiving a fully committed performance.  Soon it would take on a new meaning, as Elvis would use the number in the vast majority of his live shows for the next eight years, and it would signal to the audience that their time with their hero was all but over.

The live section of the double album resulted in Elvis getting some of the best reviews of his career.  Don Heckman in the New York Times wrote that “the rhythmic surge is the same and peculiarly appropriate mix of Presley’s country twang with the rolling syllables of black blues still scorches the ear – what was successful a decade and a half ago is successful today.”[7]  Variety stated the live set is “packed with performer and audience excitement that explain the singer’s title as king of rock ‘n’ roll.  His vocals and poise are in top shape, and although he does considerable material over 10 years old, the backup updates the music.”[8] Robert Hilburn simply called the live album “the best thing Presley has done on record in years…Presley [demonstrates] the restless, unconventional vocal style that made him rock’s most important and most influential male singer.”[9]

Two more songs from this Vegas season were issued in 1970 on the album On Stage, primarily recorded in February 1970.  Runaway, a cover of the Del Shannon hit, receives a fine performance from Elvis, who gives the song a slightly harder edge than Shannon.  Years later, another performance was released, this time on a night when Shannon was in the audience.  It’s a nice moment when Elvis introduces him from the stage, and it’s a shame that it wasn’t this version that was released back in 1970.

The other song from 1969 on the On Stage LP is a rather bland take on The Beatles’ YesterdayIt was originally performed with the “na na na” refrain of Hey Jude tagged on the end, but this is omitted on the original release.  It is a pleasant enough rendition, but the arrangement is uninspired to say the least.

In 1991, RCA issued a three-album boxed set entitled Collector’s Gold, featuring outtakes from Elvis’s soundtrack and secular non-soundtrack recordings during the period 1960-1968, with a final disc given over to more performances from the 1969 Las Vegas season.  The emphasis here was on songs not included on In Person, although alternate versions of some of those titles were used to fill up the disc.  What these recordings show is that the double album released in 1969 should have been an all-live affair, with the Memphis material saved for a separate project.  Here we have a driving version of I Got a Woman, complete with a bluesy coda; a nice update of Heartbreak Hotel; a country-influenced version of Love Me Tender; and a fun medley of Jailhouse Rock and Don’t Be Cruel which teeters on the edge of being a throwaway during the latter half but doesn’t quite topple over.

With RCA recording, Elvis also tried out some of his newer material on occasion, and that is also included on the Collector’s Gold CD.  From the Memphis sessions, Elvis tried out Rubberneckin’, which works rather well in the live setting, and Inherit the Wind and This is the Story which suffer from Elvis losing his focus and fooling around just a bit too much.  From the TV show of the year before, Elvis includes Memories, a strange choice of song that simply doesn’t fit in this kind of live setting, and Elvis is out of breath, rather fatal for a song that requires such precise phrasing.  He also revives Baby What You Want Me To Do, but this time in a much more structured version than seen on TV the previous year. Elsewhere, there are one-off performances of Funny How Time Slips Away (nearly a year before Elvis turned to it in the studio) and Reconsider Baby, which is nearly as good as the studio recording from 1960, and certainly the best live performance of the song released thus far.  Sadly, the disc ends with an interminable rendition of What’d I Say, which might have been exciting to watch, but is remarkably tedious to listen to as Elvis shouts out the words rather than sings them, and the band play a series of solos.  It lasts for nearly six minutes, and is not remotely satisfying.

Over the last decade or so, a number of complete concerts from this Vegas season have been released by Sony both at retail level and on the collector’s label.  What these releases demonstrate is the remarkable consistency in both quality and choice of material within these shows.  There is relatively little variation between shows, with the majority of the material consisting of full throttle performances of past hits as well as the covers already discussed.  Perhaps it is hardly surprising, therefore, that the most interesting shows are the ones that veer most from the standard repertoire, and these are the dinner and midnight shows from August 26th, released as Live in Vegas and All Shook Up respectively.  The first of these features the alternate arrangement of My Babe, as well as performances of Inherit the Wind and Memories.  The midnight show, on the other hand, gives us renditions of Rubberneckin’ and This is the Story, as well as allowing us to hear the laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight within the context of the very loose show from which it originates.

These shows may well be the best performances that Elvis gave, but it could be  argued that they are not the most satisfying set-lists.  The concentration here is on rock ‘n’ roll.  Sure, there are a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure, but only Are You Lonesome Tonight really gets a decent treatment.  As we know, there was more to Elvis than rock ‘n’ roll.  There are almost no nods to his country influences here, and no gospel material at all.  By the following summer, he still wasn’t performing gospel songs on stage (except for an off-the-cuff performance) but at least the gospel sound was much more prominent, incorporated into the backing of some of the ballads, such as Just Pretend, and country songs became part of the live repertoire.  At this stage in 1969, then, Elvis’s set-list was surprisingly restricted, and ultimately built upon the black leather segments of the 1968 TV special.

Restrictive set lists notwithstanding, Elvis’s return to live performing was a huge success and, after years of having his career in the artistic and commercial doldrums, he was once again back on top.  It had taken just over three years (from the How Great Thou Art sessions to the live performances of July and August 1969), but the effort had been worth it.  Elvis now had his second chance – all he had to do now was build upon the foundation he had created for himself.

[1] Mike Jahn, “Elvis Presley to Make Personal Appearances,” New York Times, December 4, 1968, 51.

[2] James D Kingsley, “Presley Faces Toughest Challenge in Las Vegas,” Billboard, August 9, 1969, 4.

[3] Eliot  Tiegel, “Elvis Retains Touch in Return to Stage,” Billboard, August 16, 1969, 47.

[4] Norma Lee Browning, “Elvis, in Person, Still the King,” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 1969, Entertainment Section, 5.

[5] Mary Campbell, “The Pelvis Isn’t Stilled,” Ottawa Journal, November 1, 1969, TV Journal, 13.

[6] Cub Koda and Bruce Eder, “Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada,” in The All Music Guide to Country: The Definitive Guide to Country Music, ed. Vladimir Bogdanov (San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2003), 605.

[7] Don Heckman, “Zeppelin, Elvis, Butterfield – Three Styles of Rock,” New York Times, December 7, 1969, D42.

[8] “Elvis, The Byrds, Neil Diamond, Rankin, Lou Rawls, Joe Cocker, Parks, Humble Pie Top New LPs,” Variety, November 19, 1969, 48.

[9] Robert Hilburn, “Live Albums Best for Displaying Artists Talents,” Lansing State Journal, December 6, 1969, D3.

Bobby Darin: 1971 – The Lost Year

Even for many Bobby Darin fans, 1971 is a year which is a bit of a mystery.  Darin began the year with a residency at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  An album was planned, entitled “Finally,” but it didn’t emerge until 1987.  Straight after the engagement, Bobby had heart surgery and laid low for next eight months or so, only appearing on TV again in September in a short, almost unrecognisable, cameo in a Jackson 5 special, and then in two acting roles in Ironside and Cade’s Country.  He finished the year with an appearance on the Merv Griffin Show.

This post pulls together some press cuttings from this “lost year.”  I have purposefully NOT included the many articles that dwelled on the surgery, and instead concentrated on other things.  Check out, though, the second and third articles, both from Variety.  In the first, they accuse some singers in Bobby’s act of walking out without warning on his show.  In the second, just days before the heart surgery and when he no doubt had plenty of other things on his mind, Bobby wrote to Variety to set the record straight.

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Fort Myers News-Press, Jan 6, 1971. 

variety

pg (42)

Variety, Jan 27, 1971. 

pg (43)

Variety, Jan 29. 1971

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_2

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_3

Detroit_Free_Press_Wed__Nov_10__1971_ part 1

All of the above:  Detroit Free Press, Nov 10, 1971

The_Daily_Times_News_Tue__Mar_16__1971_

Burlington Daily-Times News, March 16, 1971

Des_Moines_Tribune_Fri__Jun_4__1971_

Des Moines Free Press, June 4, 1971

Reno_Gazette_Journal_Fri__Sep_10__1971_

Reno Gazette-Journal, September 10, 1971

The_San_Bernardino_County_Sun_Sun__Sep_19__1971_

San Bernardino County Sun, September 19, 1971

Neil Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall, Sept 18, 2017 (review)

neil sedakaNeil Sedaka admitted to Billboard magazine in 2010 that “I’m a crier.”  Well, I am too, and Sedaka got me from the moment he walked on stage and sat down and sang what is possibly my favourite of his songs: One More Ride on the Merry-Go Round.  Recorded back in the day by Peggy Lee, Sedaka’s own version has always been  more compelling, not in any small way due to the fact that he includes an extra verse.  With the singer-songwriter now aged 78, one could be forgiven for thinking that the show would be one lasride on the merry-go-round, and yet, for the most part, he sounds little different, and the version of the song from last night sounds virtually the same as the one recorded for the criminally out-of-print live album from 1977,  Neil Sedaka and Songs, if perhaps the voice is now a little darker (note that the “CD” pictured in the Youtube video is not official).  Does this 78-year-old sound any older?  Yes, a little.  He now sounds all of 50.

One More Ride is a melancholy start to a concert but does give way to Standing on the Inside and The Miracle Song, with the latter not performed in 2012 when I saw Sedaka at the Royal Albert Hall the first time, if memory serves me correctly.  Again, this lush sweeping melody is sung beautifully.  Sure, a couple of melody notes are changed to allow for a slightly narrower vocal range, but essentially nothing has changed.

The run of early hits was given more attention this time around.  I seem to recall that some were abridged back in 2012, but not only were they sung with in full tonight, and with particular attention, Oh Carol even got an encore.  Likewise, Where the Boys Are gets a full and passionate outing, with no apologies from the singer for the performance of what was essentially a woman’s song, and it was all done far less self-consciously than on the aforementioned 1977 LP.  Tonight, alas, there was no I Go Ape, or, indeed, the slow version of Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, but when you’ve written 600 songs (that’s ten a year in a 60 year career!), you can’t do them all.

Despite his permanently cheerful demeanour and good humour, I prefer my Neil Sedaka singing about lost love, desolation and missed opportunities.  The Hungry Years is still the saddest song I know, Solitaire is still devastatingand Going Nowhere makes me bawl like a baby each time I hear it.  It was good too hear Superbird, too, another song of innocence lost – and, in a twist, regained.  Cheerful Neil also put in an appearance as he shimmied around the stage to Do You Remember in a slightly absurd, but disarming, fashion.  Sedaka takes his songs and his craft seriously, but not always himself.

But that also has its downsides.  That happy demeanour and self-deprecating humour also means that he isn’t always taken as seriously as he should be.  One can only wonder why this genius of songwriting hasn’t been rediscovered by the hip, cool cats of the student crowd.  Are there any more fitting songs for 2017 than Going Nowhere or The Immigrant?  One can only feel that so many people are missing out.  Oh, to see Sedaka at Glastonbury in the legends slot. And in that rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame.  Why he isn’t there is anybody’s guess.

Neil was on stage for 105 minutes, and performed well over two dozen songs.  Just him and his piano.  The connection with the audience was instant, and he held us in the palm of his hands all evening.  Faults?  Not really, although it would be nice if there was more time to explore some of the darker recesses of the back catalogue.  There are dozens of songs that are hidden away, and I for one would love to hear Stephen, My World Keeps Getting Smaller EverydayIs Anybody Going to Miss YouLonely Nights, or The Leaving Game – a song that should have been a hit, but was wasted as the B-side of Amarillo.   But you can only sing so much in one night.

It is almost criminal how much of the back catalogue is out of print, and never released on CD, and it is something that needs to be put right.  Albums such as Neil Sedaka and SongsIn the PocketA Song, All You Need is the Music, Neil Sedaka Now, and Come See About Me are all more than deserving of a CD release.

What perhaps is really needed is a definitive career-spanning boxed set, but Sedaka greatest hits packages of the past suggest that the various labels are unable or unwilling to work together, with (albeit very good) remakes of the 50s and 60s hits more often than not replacing the originals in recent years.  Here’s hoping that boxed set might eventually happen, collecting not only the hits but the multitude of other great songs that have been on albums and now are, perhaps temporarily, forgotten.  Until then, Sedaka will continue to do what he does best, entertaining audience with his remarkable catalogue of songs.  There was a suggestion on a TV show appearance a couple of weeks ago that this might be the last UK tour.  Going by the strength of the voice last night (much stronger than on the TV shows a fortnight ago, I might add), I wouldn’t be surprised if he returned for another ride on that merry-go-round – after all playing The Leaving Game isn’t easy.

Postscript

Given the terror attack in London just three days earlier, all credit to the staff and crew at the Royal Albert Hall last night for making people feel as safe as they could possibly be through bag searches etc.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciated that outward show of being security conscious.  As always, the staff at the RAH are some of the most friendly and helpful I have yet come across in a theatre environment.

As a final comment – if you’re at a concert such as this:  turn your bloody phones off.  An atmosphere in a concert hall/theatre can be easily spoilt by little lights going on everywhere as budding Alfred Hitchcock’s think it would be fun to start filming.   PUT THEM AWAY!   If all else fails, perhaps singers should start saying “right, you can film the next song.  Everyone who wants to film, do it now for the next performance, and then put the damned things away!”

Songs performed (from memory, and in no particular order, but I think complete!)
One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round
Standing on the Inside
The Miracle Song
Alone at Last
Oh Carol
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Next Door to an Angel
Calendar Girl
Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen
The Queen of 1964
Stairway to Heaven
Where the Boys Are
Solitaire
Laughter in the Rain
Superbird
The Hungry Years
Betty Grable
Going Nowhere
Trying to Say Goodbye
You
Do You Remember
Amarillo
Love Will Keep Us Together
That’s When the Music Takes Me
I Do It For Applause

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

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John Kingsley Orton was born on January 1, 1933 and died on August 9, 1967 – a little over a week after parliament had voted to partially decriminalise homosexuality.   However, that political event gets no mention within Prick Up Your Ears, a film that takes its title from the play that Orton was about to start work on at the time of his death.

The film tells the story of Orton (would was rechristened “Joe” instead of “John” once he achieved literary success) and Kenneth Halliwell, his lover, mentor, friend and partner-in-crime (even if that crime was defacing library books).   The two had met back at the beginning of the 1950s at RADA, with Orton intrigued by, and ultimately attracted to, the older, well-read Halliwell.  The last entries in Orton’s first period of diary-writing gives the reader a good idea of how their relationship was progressing:

15 May:  Started at RADA.  Oh bliss!

19 May:  Someone in the other class keeps looking at me

21 May:  Was Eyed.

25 May:  Met Ken at Charing Cross road.  I don’t quite understand Ken.

2 June:  Am beginning to understand Ken.

8 June:  Met Ken.  He has invited me to live with him.

11 June:  Must leave my digs

12 June:  Ken offers again.

13 June:  I say no.

14 June:  Ken offers again.

16 June:  Move into Ken’s flat.

17 June:  Well!

18 June: Well!!

19 June: Well!!!

20 June:  The rest is silence.

Writing later, Orton spoke of how he found RADA to be “complete rubbish,” and that, at the end of his two terms there “I had complete lost my confidence and my virginity.”

Orton and Halliwell wrote works together over the next decade, but it was only when they were separated that Orton’s creative genius came into its own and his radio play, eventually entitled The Ruffian On the Stair, was picked up by the BBC Third Programme.  It was based on an unpublished novel by Orton and Halliwell called The Boy Hairdresser and, as you will see in the film, marked the beginning of both jealousy and rage on the part of Halliwell that he was not got getting the recognition and acclaim that Orton was, something which only became magnified with the success of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot, and Orton’s commission to write a film for The Beatles, a film which was never produced.

The film actually begins at the end, with the finding of the dead bodies of Orton and Halliwell, From there, it jumps forward more than a decade as author John Lahr writes Orton’s biography with the help of his wife and Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsey.  At first, the film suggests that it is going to be a relatively straightforward account of the last six months in the lives of Orton and Halliwell, told in flashback.  However, about a third of the way into the film, the flashbacks take us to the early 1950s, telling us how the two men met and, ultimately answering the inevitable question that most will have after watching the 1967 segment:  why were these two men living together?

The relatively complicated flashback structure is unsurprisingly handled with ease by the masterful Alan Bennett, whose script switches from moments that are unflinchingly dark to others that are uproariously funny.  He also manages to filter in parallels between the past and the present.  When Orton becomes famous after the production of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Halliwell keeps reminding him of the contributions that he has made to Orton’s script and success.  In the present-day sequences, we see the same thing with Lindsay Duncan as Anthea Lahr, wife of Orton’s biographer, trying to remind Orton’s agent that the book wasn’t a sole effort and that she was working on it as well.

Bennett’s screenplay does take some liberties with both the timeline and the truth at various points.  For example, Orton and Halliwell made three trips to North Africa and not just the one that we see within the film (although one of those only lasted a day).  One of those trips was made with Kenneth Williams, who may not be portrayed in Prick Up Your Ears since he was still alive at the time the film was made.  Their trip together was, however, dramatized as part of the BBC film Fantabulosa, a dramatization of Kenneth Williams’ life starring Martin Sheen.   Williams and Orton had become friends back in 1964, during the time when Orton reworked his next play, Loot, as a vehicle for Williams.  However, it was a flop during its try-out in Cambridge, and Williams didn’t continue his association with the play which, after many re-writes, would become a success and win Orton the prestigious Evening Standard Award.  Bennett’s screenplay pays very little attention to the troubles that Loot had from its inception through to its eventual success.  Meanwhile, it is understood that the telephone call between Brian Epstein and Orton regarding the film script for the Beatles never happened, with the script being turned down with no reasons given.  In Prick Up Your Ears, Joe Orton proudly talks about having sold the film rights for Loot.  The film was made in 1970, as was an adaptation of Entertaining Mr. Sloane, but, rather interestingly, the general opinion was that they had not translated to the screen well.

Alan Bennett as scriptwriter headed a production whose cast reads like a who’s who of British acting talent.  Gary Oldman was cast as Orton on the back of his acclaimed performance as Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid and NancyPrick Up Your Ears was Alfred Molina’s breakthrough role, although he had also appeared in films ranging from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Letter to Brezhnev.   The supporting cast of the movie is likely to have many audience members of a certain age thinking “oh look, it’s him,” at various points as Lindsay Duncan, Frances Barber, Eric Richards, Sean Pertwee (if you look close enough), Richard Wilson, and Julie Walters flash up on the screen.  It’s interesting how thirty years can make a difference to an actor or actress’s life – Walters, playing Orton’s mum, is on screen for all of five minutes, and yet her name is proudly emblazoned on the front cover of the most recent DVD release of the film as if she is one of the main performers.  Stephen Frears directs the film, just two years after he was at the helm of another gay-themed movie, My Beautiful Launderette.

It is interesting to note that the film received largely good reviews in the UK, but not so in the US, although one perhaps has to disagree with some of the comments by Philip French, written in the Observer.  He says that the “film’s sympathies ultimately lie with Halliwell, a sad, pathetic, vulnerable figure.  He is made to think himself in grave need of psychiatric help because his fidelity, loyalty and tolerant kindness have turned him into a jealous monster. As opposed to the cruel, opportunistic, amoral Orton, who radiates psychic health while exhibiting the air of false innocence and psychopathic absence of guilt associated with his bisexual hero, Mr Sloane.”  One can only wonder if the critic’s sympathies for Halliwell rather than Orton had to do with the time in which the film came out and the review was written: 1987, when the AIDs crisis was at its peak, and conservative Britain (with both a small and capital C), only a year away from imposing section 28, was not allowing itself to sympathise with a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed meeting strangers for sex in public toilets – whether he was violently murdered or not.

Nearly a decade after Prick Up Your Ears was made, British queer film would take an altogether lighter form with a cycle of gay romantic-comedies spurred on by the success of movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, among others.  There is little sign of that levity within Prick Up Your Ears, though, despite the fact that is very funny in places.  Instead, the movie is part of a tradition dating back to the late 1950s, where the dour Serious Charge and the sobering The Trials of Oscar Wilde paved way for 1961’s Victim, which was then followed by A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys, The Killing of Sister George, Nighthawks, and Sunday Bloody Sunday.  This dark, gritty tradition of queer-filmmaking that the Orton biography is a part of would continue through The Fruit Machine in 1988, Young Soul Rebels in 1991, Priest in 1994, Like It Is in 1998, and even on through the acclaimed Weekend in 2011.

Like so many of those films that I have just mentioned, Prick Up Your Ears makes no excuse for the flawed nature of its protagonists, or even how there are moments within the film when they come across as thoroughly unlikeable.  At times within the film, both Orton and Halliwell appear to hit the self-destruct button, although it is unlikely that either of the two men could have envisaged how their story would end.  Perhaps Orton realised, however, that his success would eventually bring unhappiness, writing in his diary just two months before his death that “to be young, good-looking, healthy, famous, comparatively rich and happy is surely going against nature.”