Mini-Review: Postcards from London (2018)

Directed by Steve McLean, Postcards from London is about a young man, Jim, who moves to London and falls in with a group of high-class male escorts who, as well as sex, offer their clients long, intelligent discussions about art afterwards – the problem is that he has Stendahl syndrome and faints every time he sees a beautiful artwork.

As might be gleaned from that quick description, this is a strange movie. The entire thing is filmed on artificial theatre-like sets, giving it a kind of fairy-tale or dream-like quality, that people are either likely to love or not get on with at all – and which is a clear nod to Fassbinder’s final film, Querelle, which was also filmed in the same way. There are a number of short dream-like sequences: when Jim faints, he imagines himself within the picture that has caused the fainting, more often than not posing for a rather short-tempered Caravaggio.

While Postcards from London tries to be arty itself, I’m not sure it succeeds in that, and yet it is surprisingly involving – although it’s a shame that the final act isn’t brought in earlier and developed further to give the film more of a narrative drive. It might have regarded some genuine peril for the young hero to face. But the intention here is clearly to make this a character-driven piece, and there’s nothing wrong with. There are many references here, visually and verbally, to the films of Kenneth Anger, Fassbinder, Jean Genet, and Derek Jarman.

Postcards from London features fine performances from two up-and-coming British actors. Firstly there is Harris Dickinson, who has since been prominently featured in the TV series Trust as well as the 2019 Maleficent film. And then there is Jonah Hauer-King, most recently seen on the BBC in World on Fire and who will be seen as Prince Phillip in the Disney remake of The Little Mermaid. He has the supporting role here, but still is a considerable screen presence. Hauer-King also sang the song over the opening sequence of the film, and provides vocals for a surprisingly effective version of “My Funny Valentine,” heard midway during the movie, and which deserves to be heard in full.

This talkie, intentionally-artificial movie is not for everyone, although spotting the film references to Fassbinder, Jean Genet, Derek Jarman, and Kenneth Anger becomes rather fun – even if they are so plentiful at some points that they become distracting. Despite this being an oddity, I have to say I find it an oddly entrancing movie, and, having first seen it a couple of years ago, it lost none of its appeal second time around.

Postcards from London is available to buy on both blu ray and DVD on the Peccadillo label.

Review: Poster Boy (2004)

About ten or fifteen years ago, long before I had any of my writing published, I started work on what was intended to be an encyclopedia of films with gay characters. There were other such books out there, but most of them didn’t seem to understand that such films existed before 1980. I wrote about 200 entries and then put the project aside and forgot about it. I think I had got to the stage where I just couldn’t watch another American gay indie film, even if I tried. This was still the period when many of the gay indies making it to DVD were, to say the least, awfully poor – non-existent plots, actors who really couldn’t act, directors who couldn’t direct, and (perhaps worst of all) writers that couldn’t write. These films had ultra-low budgets, and basically sold themselves on the fact that the actors were cute and invariably got naked for the camera at some point. Watching literally dozens of these was a depressing assault on the senses. Despite this, and as might be expected, amongst the dross there were some really good films, and Poster Boy was one of them. I re-watched it tonight for the first time in seven years, and was interested to see that I still stand by the comments I wrote for the encyclopedia back in 2008 when I first saw the movie.

Poster Boy tells the story of Henry, the gay son of a Republican senator running again for re-election. The senator doesn’t know his son is gay, and there are certainly indications that he is an abusive father. He asks/tells his son that he will be introducing him when he is going to give a speech at the university campus. Henry wants to say no, but can’t do it. The film portrays the few days between the senator asking his son and the day of the speech itself. There is a framing device, set six months later, where Henry tells the whole story to a reporter.

Like so many other gay-themed indies from the time, the film has a low budget, but it overcomes that because of the sassy way it is filmed. The hand-held cameras are prominent but not overused; there is often quick-cutting between shots; and finally the director makes great use of often- extreme close-ups. None of these stylistic choices are new, but they are combined in such a way to give the film a sense of urgency, and to give it a semi-documentary feel.

What’s more, the film isn’t an excuse for frequent male frontal nudity or elongated sex scenes; indeed, there are neither here. And the male leads, while good-looking are not the model-like, chiselled-faced guys with six-packs that populate most gay indies of the period. And the cast is superb. Michael Lerner plays the senator and Karen Allen plays his wife. Matt Newton is superb as Henry (sadly we didn’t get to see a whole lot more of him on screen in the years following Poster Boy), and Jack Noseworthy is equally as good as the activist he meets and hooks up with the night before the speech. None of the characters are cardboard cut-outs – and everyone in the film is a flawed human being. Even the characters we are meant to root for do some decidedly horrible things.

I seem to recall reading somewhere in the past that the film had quite a long gestation time between being written and actually being made, and that may well explain why some elements of the script do seem a bit dated, even for 2004. And I’m certainly not saying that this is the best movie ever made. Some lines are corny, and some sequences are uncomfortable or misjudged – and the framing sequences with the reporter perhaps only serve to pad the film out a little too much. Indeed, those sections often come over as if the makers aren’t convinced that the viewer totally understands what’s going on and has to explain the motivations of characters. They needn’t have worried, and I’m sure the movie would work better without the framing sections.

And yet, after four or five viewings since its release on DVD, it remains one of my favourite films, and one that I get something from each time I get around to watching it. More than fifteen years after its first release, Poster Boy is one of the relatively small percentage of gay-themed indies of the period that still has much to offer today – and I certainly wish there were more like this out there.

The film is available to stream in the US on Amazon (and possibly elsewhere). Elsewhere, the region 1 DVD (now deleted I think) can often be found on eBay.

Mini-review: The Happy Years (1950)

This evening I had the pleasure of watching The Happy Years, which stars a young Dean Stockwell, Scotty Beckett, Leon Ames, and Leo G Carroll.

I have to confess that this school-based story set in the turn of the century through a Meet-Me-In-St-Louis-style nostalgia is the last thing I would expect William Wellman to direct, but direct it he does. And it’s a good movie, too, despite tanking at the box office – something which maybe happened because it was made five or ten years too late. The world was far less innocent in 1950 than it was in the early 1940s, and this is certainly a rose-coloured view of the past.

Dean Stockwell plays a brat sent off to school to try and teach him the error of his ways. Cue an episodic tale in which he meets, falls out with, and then befriends the various other kids at the school while playing football, fighting and eating pancakes. Leon Ames plays the father (adding even more of a feel of Meet Me In St Louis), and Leo G Carroll is the Latin master and football coach. Leo G Carroll as a football coach – interesting casting. Robert Wagner appears on screen for around five seconds, and then is gone. And all of the above (except Wagner, who really is just an extra) are superb in their roles, even if Dean Stockwell is encouraged to overplay how horrible his character is in the first reel or so.

This is really enjoyable and fun, and while it’s not a masterpiece, it certainly deserves to be better known. It is available through the ever-wonderful Warner Archive series, and the print on the DVD is good for the most part, although a couple of shot here and there suffer from problems with the colour.

As a side-note, Darryl Hickman, who has a significant role (and who played the boy in Leave Her To Heaven) is still with us at the young age of 89; Dean Stockwell is also still with us at 84, and Robert Wagner is a mere 90. Leo G Carroll made it to 86, and Leon Ames passed away aged 91. Sounds like being in this film could have been a way to longevity.

The Complete Johnny Cash Mercury Recordings (review)

The Complete Mercury Recordings brings together Johnny Cash’s five albums for Mercury made between 1986 and 1991, as well as various bonus tracks and also the supergroup album Class of ‘55

Class of ’55, released in 1986, is very much the best album of the bunch.  Cash teams up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison for the LP.  It is, in many ways, a sequel to the live The Survivors album from a few years earlier, which featured Lewis and Perkins, but not Orbison.  There are some wonderful moments in this enjoyable nostalgia trip, most notably the tribute to Elvis, We Remember the King, and the eight-minute romp through Big Train from Memphis.  But one thing is clear – this isn’t a Cash album, even if he does take centre stage for a couple of numbers. 

Cash’s tenure at Mercury really began with Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, released in 1987.  It’s a decent effort, opening with Cash belting his way through Elvis Costello’s The Big Light.  Cash had never been against recording songs by “modern” songwriters, and in the past had embraced the music of Dylan, Kristofferson and Springsteen.  He would go on to record Hidden Shame, also by Costello, while at Mercury, before recording all manner of contemporary songs during his final decade with Rick Rubin.  The rest of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town is less interesting, although perfectly enjoyable, but it barely made a dent in the country music charts. 

The next two albums had specific themes.  Water From the Wells of Home is essentially a duets album, with so many guest stars that one sometimes forgets that it was even issued under Cash’s name.  There are expected collaborations with members of the Cash family, but also Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney, and Glen Campbell, among others.  However, the star power didn’t help to produce a distinguished product or make it do better in the charts than its predecessor.  Instead, it’s actually rather dull.  It is presented in the current set with two bonus tracks that are early mixes of songs on the album. 

The next album was also a special project, with Cash revisiting his hits and signature songs on Classic Cash.  The 20-song album presents us with no surprises, but it does remind us that, despite the mediocre albums of the 1980s, Cash was still capable of making good music.  None of these remakes are better than the originals, but they are one of the few occasions where an artist revisits their hits in the studio later in their career and the results are very good – Sedaka’s remakes in the late 1980s (due to a change of label) for his Timeless greatest hits album were also examples of where the practice works.  Classic Cash is undoubtedly the best of the Mercury albums, although purists will tell you otherwise.  But it has the best songs and the best performances – and it sounds even better in the “early mix” disc or all twenty songs that sounds considerably less “eighties” than the final versions (which are also included). 

The two final albums, Boom Chicka Boom and The Mystery of Life, are very much like continuations of Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.  They are fine, but unexciting.  The liner notes of the new boxed set gives us a clue why – Boom Chicka Boom was pieced together from sessions spread over two years, and some of The Mystery of Life, Cash’s final album for Mercury, were leftovers from his first, Johnny Cash is Coming to Town.   Listeners of country music didn’t care about the music that Cash was making at the time – and it appears that Cash didn’t care either. 

It’s nice to have all of this material in one place, and the alternate takes etc are nice to have, too.  The music is solid country – but solid recordings were not enough to reboot a career that had been declining in sales for fifteen years.  Some of the re-recordings of songs available on earlier albums give us a clue as to the problem here.  Take a listen to the Mercury version of The Ballad of Barbara, and then listen to the version on The Last Gunfighter Ballad from ten years earlier.  They sound almost the same.  Sure, production techniques had changed a little, but Cash sounded no different, and neither did the arrangements. 

In short, in the late 1980s he was making the same albums as he made in the late 1970s.  Each one of the albums over that ten year period had moments that were very good indeed, and some albums were better than others (The Baron, Johnny 99, Rockabilly Blues), but country music had changed and Cash hadn’t changed with it.  There’s evidence a-plenty here that Cash was no longer interested in recording in the studio, and perhaps he would have walked away from it completely if it hadn’t been for Rick Rubin coming on the scene and persuading Cash that he could be relevant again.  Certainly, no-one buying the predictable The Mystery of Life in 1991 could have predicted the final chapter in Cash’s career.

Neil Sedaka: One More Ride

I don’t write many blog posts these days, but I thought that this deserves one.

When I was around sixteen or so, Neil Sedaka appeared on TV (The Des O’Connor Show, I think), promoting a new album of his greatest hits (Timeless), and his new single, The Miracle Song, which became rather popular here in the UK. A little later in the year, a concert recorded in Birmingham was shown on TV, too, and that was enough to get me hooked.

I was lucky enough to see Sedaka twice at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2012 and 2017, both of them great shows that got the audience both laughing and crying. Sedaka refers to himself as having been the king of the sha-la-las and the dooby-downs, but he’s also the king of creating songs that creep up at you and not only tug at the heartstrings, but actually snaps them. If you’re not moved by Solitaire, The Hungry Years, Going Nowhere, or The Leaving Game, you must have a heart made of stone – and behind the cheery exterior are often songs that often have a lot to say: The Immigrant has certainly taken on a life of its own in the Trump era, for example. The story of loss of innocence in Superbird is one that, in middle age, I can identify with . And was there ever a time when Going Nowhere was more appropriate than ours?

Original recording of “Going Nowhere.”

In the 1970s, Sedaka made one of the greatest comebacks in popular music, and now in 2020 he’s back again, through the most unlikely of circumstances. A couple of months ago, he popped up on YouTube in a short video made in his living room in New York (with his pet bird who probably has a fanclub of its own now), singing a medley of his 1950s and early 1960s hits to try to lift some spirits during lockdown. Buoyed by the response, he came back the next day with a few more tunes – and then added he’d come back every day until lockdown ended. Quite whether he expected to still be doing these “mini-concerts” nearly two months later is anybody’s guess, but he has been good on his word and not missed a single weekday since he made his promise (with the exception of one due to technical issues). I’ve counted 37 videos thus far, covering well over a hundred of his songs.

The video that started it all. With Basel.

The early videos covered hits like Oh Carol, Laughter in the Rain, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and Calendar Girl, but as time has gone on Mr. S has been opening his trunk of what he calls his “forgotten children” – songs that appeared on albums (many out of print, alas), B-sides and/or were written for other singers. The process of resurrecting these wonderful songs has clearly been a happy one for Sedaka (you can see it on his face with every video), who settled into the video format very quickly, and for the last few weeks has been taking time to introduce these songs that he hasn’t sung in public for decades, isn’t afraid to goof occasionally – or to shed a tear, either. “I’m a cryer,” he said on a BBC documentary a few years ago. Me, too.

Contains “The World I Threw Away”

There are some surprises, too. A few days ago, there was a performance of The World I Threw Away, which Sedaka had previously recorded back in the late 1960s for an album intended for the Australian market. But, stripped back to just a piano and an unamplified 81-year-old voice, Sedaka blew the fifty year old recording out of the water, giving it a sense of depth and despair that just wasn’t present before. The rawness of the performance reminded me of the qualities of the first album that Johnny Cash recorded for Rick Rubin: almost painfully raw and utterly devastating. There isn’t much similarity between Cash’s dark baritone and Sedaka’s tenor, of course, but they do have one key thing in common: both men are great storytellers (and The World I Threw Away is beautifully told). We see Sedaka-as-storyteller so often in his post-1970s work, like the moving Superbird (with its baroque influences and the beautiful twist in the final verse), the nostalgic Betty Grable, the French cabaret style of One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round (curiously absent from the videos so far), or the daft-as-a-brush Tillie the Twirler.

For how many more weeks Neil will continue with his mini-concerts, we don’t know (although I doubt his public will allow him to stop them completely any time soon), but the video series has been a delight from start to finish, with the online feedback clearly demonstrating that ten minutes of music each day, forgetting the bizarre and dark situation we are all in, can put a smile on people’s faces. Beyond that, though, the videos are important as a wonderful recap of a career that has lasted over sixty years so far, and spotlighting songs that Sedaka himself thinks are important or which he is particularly proud of, rather than just those that made the charts or that fill the “best of” compilations. So, if you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing songs like The World I Threw Away, Superbird, or Cardboard California, head over to the NeilSedakaMusic YouTube Channel or check out the original recordings.

Ella Fitzgerald: All That Jazz (Review)

The final albums of legendary music stars seem to fall into one of two camps critically: either they are reviewed as being “a little sad,” or as only having “slight glimpses of former glories” – or they are viewed as artistic triumphs. Ella Fitzgerald’s final album, All That Jazz, recorded in 1989 and released in 1990, has always tended to fall into the first group.

Ella had barely recorded at all after 1983, producing an album with Joe Pass in 1986 and then this final album at the end of the decade. And yet live performances from the period that have been preserved actually show her to be in good form for much of the time – and even adding new or rarely heard material to her repertoire. But what may well have led to her return to the studio in 1989 was the 1988 release of a thirty year old concert recorded in Rome, which went straight to #1 on the Billboard jazz charts. In concerts, Ella made references to the album, and seemed proud of her achievement. And, although it wasn’t known at the time, it was the first in a steady stream of previously unreleased concerts from Ella’s Verve years that is still on-going.

In the liner notes to All That Jazz, Norman Granz makes reference to the change in Ella’s voice by the time it was recorded. He also makes reference to the fact that she was one of the few of the jazz greats still alive, let alone recording. And yet, a great jazz combo was put together for the album, including Al Grey, Clark Terry, Harry Edison, Ray Brown, Bobby Durham and Benny Carter. This wasn’t just a rehash of what Ella had done in the past, though. While a couple of numbers were associated with her, others had been out of her repertoire for decades, and others had barely been recorded by anyone. There are not really any How High the Moon-style flight of fancies here (the nearest we get is the scat number Little Jazz, but it’s a pale imitation of what had gone before); the days of raising the roof with five minutes of scat singing were perhaps gone. Here, the general vibe is that of a relaxed get-together of some old friends. Even a song such as Oh Look at Me Now is given a ballad reading.

So, while this was an unambitious record, it certainly was a sensible one for a seventy-something who was well known to be struggling with her health. And yes, that voice is certainly weaker than it was just five years earlier, but it’s still that voice. The opening Dream a Little Dream of Me, that Ella had swung with Basie back in the early 1960s, seems to set the scene very well. Ella is happy to contribute an opening and closing chorus for each number, and let her musicians have the spotlight for the rest, giving this a real feel of a jam session – a kind of later version of an album such as Fine and Mellow or even Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie.

Ballads like My Last Affair (a song she had first recorded over fifty years earlier) and Baby Don’t You Quit Now fit Ella like a glove, and while Ella sounds a little more uneasy on the upbeat songs like Jersey Bounce and When Your Lover Has Gone (to which she still manages to contribute a short scat chorus that puts other singers half of her age to shame), she still manages to swing with confidence, and that ability to twist and turn a melody at will hasn’t diminished.

Ironically, the weakest upbeat number is probably the title song – not the well-known number from Chicago (a show that Ella had recorded two songs from in 1975 for a single – her only Pablo recordings never to have made it to CD), but a song from the mid-1960s first heard in the movie A Man Called Adam – a song that fails not because of Ella, but because it’s not the greatest song in the world. Elsewhere, the only ballad that Ella seems to struggle with is That Old Devil Called Love, with its angular, wide-ranging melody just too much for a well-weathered voice. Two songs were only released on the CD version of the album. Little Jazz was of no great loss to those who bought the vinyl, but they missed a lovely ballad performance by not getting to hear The Nearness of You – which would have been a better title for the album than All That Jazz.

Ella did venture into the studio again a year or so later, supposedly to record another album with Joe Pass – a project which was never finished and which no audio has been released from. She also recorded The Setting Sun, her very final studio recording, the theme song to a Japanese film – and if ever there was an appropriate title for a legend’s last musical statement on record, it was that. That song isn’t commercially available (although it’s on YouTube), and her voice had deteriorated further by that time.

No-one is going to pretend that All That Jazz is Ella’s finest or most exciting moment on record (although it did win her a Grammy). It clearly isn’t, and yet it seems a warm-hearted and fitting end to her recording career, and it’s certainly not the sad album that so many have made it out to be. There is no strain in what Ella does here – she knows her limitations, and it’s almost as if one can imagine her in a comfy chair in her living room, microphone in hand, and with a group of musical friends with her, playing through some old favourites, asking each other “do you remember this one?” or “why did we never get around to such-and-such?” And what a wonderful image that is.

Review: It (Chapter Two)

Is it really three months since I last shared my inane thoughts with you? How time flies!

I saw “IT (Chapter Two)” tonight for the first time, having been too ill to get to the cinema to see it when it came out.

What in hell’s name are we meant to make of this likeable mess of a film?

Credit where credit is due – the film is nearly three hours, but it doesn’t feel it. It zips along rather quickly, in fact, but then it has got a lot of things to fit it. The telephone calls at the beginning of the film are done especially well, I think, and I like how they are linked through visual elements. Here we have nigh-on two hundred pages of the book condensed into ten or fifteen minutes of film – quite an achievement. In fact, I would return to the book more often if it wasn’t for the thought of wading through that lumbering section at the beginning. Also I’ve got to give credit to the fact that the acting is ten times better than how the adults were in the 1990 version (I still prefer the 1990 kids). In five cases, the casting is superb, and the performances believable. The casting and portrayal of Eddie is the exception here – nothing like what he was like in the book or the first adaptation, and that is a mistake. Ritchie doesn’t need a jokey buddy as Eddie is portrayed here. The whole point of the seven people coming together was that they were all so different. Eddie has morphed into a gym-fit second Ritchie and it doesn’t work, and nor is it logical.

MILD SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH!

There are some other changes which are very strange. Much of the tension in the adult part of the book comes from the fact that Audra, Bill’s wife, follows him and gets caught by “It.” That is completely missing here, and a huge mistake I think. I’m not quite sure what the thinking was behind that. I also don’t know what the thinking is for changing Bill’s reason for not playing with Georgie when he was a kid. In fact, that change makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t want to play, but was happy to spend several hours making a boat? That is completely nonsensical – and also goes against what we see in the first movie. It’s a twist too far which, thankfully, can be put to the back of the mind, but it seems odd that, considering how many problems the film has to surmount, time was given over to adding something in which didn’t need to be addressed.

SPOILERS OVER

But the main issue I had with the film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and that it misses the reason why the book is so acclaimed. The movie should have been serious and terrifying, and for much of the time it doesn’t come across as either because the so-called horror is so comic-book and juvenile. When Beverly goes back to her home and sees the old woman, she turns into what? A CGI naked eighty year old with boobs down to her knees that looks like Ann Widdecombe on a night out. What’s THAT all about? And then we have the animated Stan’s head. Again, absolutely ridiculous – and not in the book, as far as I recall. The fortune cookie sequence has always been problematic enough for its comicbook nature – both in the book and in the previous adaptation – but the new film seemed to have an identity crisis outside of this. There were times when it felt like a serious movie, times when it felt more like “House” or “Idle Hands,” and then it moved into an adventure movie at the end akin to “Raiders of the Lost Arc” or “Romancing the Stone.” At least there wasn’t a giant spider, I guess.

The other issue is the underlying message at the core of the book – that the clown/monster/It was a kind of representation of the corruption and failure of society. Floating Dragon by Peter Straub (written just prior to It) does exactly the same thing. And perhaps that element is why the second half of the story simply doesn’t work well on screen. It is missing its guts. Whereas the book has some gravitas, the film versions eventually turn into a monster movie and little else. What we get is enjoyable and likeable popcorn fodder – an epic, big budget, three hour B-movie, in fact, and the text of the book is much more than that, which is no doubt why it disappointed many people. No doubt the running issue of Bill not knowing how to finish his books was intended as an in-joke about this very issue – the last section of the book is notoriously hard to translate to screen. But even that attempt at humour was somehow heavy handed. And, despite the fact that the adult characters are better drawn, acted, and cast (for the most part), the film still only really shines when the kids are back on screen during the flashbacks.

Finally, it was interesting that the decision was made to include the gay-bashing incident at the opening – and even more interesting that it turned out to be the most horrific sequence in the whole movie, and not because of CGI. Many thought it would be cut – and a few years ago I think it would have been. But with hate crime increasing in western countries, it suddenly became more relevant again.

I would like to say that I was surprised by the level of violence in those few minutes of Xavier Dolan’s cameo, as it is really quite severe, but for some reason both American film and TV seem to have upped the violence quota in the last five or six years or so. I watched the first few episodes of Titans on Netflix at the weekend (no, I don’t think I’ll be watching the rest) and was rather shocked by the gratuitous violence in that as well. Even something as inane as Riverdale or as ridiculous as Supernatural has become seem all too keen to make their violent sequences as dark and bloody as possible. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this trend – especially considering three of those examples are either from comic-book adaptations or in that style of storytelling. Whatever happened to traditional comicbook violence? Perhaps I’m just getting old and squeamish, but I’m guessing I’m not alone in my thinking given the commentary there has been on Joker since it was released (although I confess I haven’t seen it).

Elvis and the Critics, 1976-77

This blog-post is a piecing together of a number of excerpts from the book Reconsider Baby. Elvis Presley: A Listener’s Guide. It takes the reader through Elvis’s concerts from March 1976 through to the spring of the following year, and concentrates on how these were received by critics and reviewers at the time, as well as the fans’ reaction to some of the negative reviews.

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Despite continued worries about Elvis’s health and state of mind, 1976 saw Elvis embark on what must have seemed like a never-ending touring schedule. The first tour was at least respectable.  Whereas Hurt was the only new song added for the tour, Elvis did at least sometimes pull surprises out of the bag such as Until It’s Time For You To Go and Steamroller Blues.    

At the afternoon show in Cincinnati, Elvis split his trousers (not for the first time) and left the stage to get changed, with J. D. Sumner introducing the band while he did so.  Billy Reed in the Courier-Journal wrote a lengthy column about the show which concentrated on Elvis’s weight rather than his singing abilities.  He quoted a female fans as saying “Lord, he looks like Raymond Burr, his face is so fat.  I came to see Elvis Presley and I get Raymond Burr.”  Elsewhere in the piece, the columnist referred to Elvis as “fat.  Not just overweight, but F-A-T.”  Later he calls him “Moby Elvis,” “the Great White Whale,” and “Whalelvis.”  The following week, numerous letters were published in response to the article, including one telling Reed to “drop dead.”  Despite the splitting of his jumpsuit, Elvis appeared to be in good spirits.  According to the report, when he returned to the stage after getting changed, he brought the ruined garment with him, laughing, and showing the audience the damage, telling them that the jumpsuit he had on now was the last one he had with him and so he needed to be careful.  The evening show, released unofficially, finds Elvis in solid form and giving an enjoyable show, particularly for the period, albeit with a shorter setlist than usual.

For the next six months, the tours continued. Nothing of significance was added to the setlists, except that the band introductions, and instrumental solos that went with them, now lasted ten to fifteen minutes, thus reducing the amount of time that the audience actually got to hear Elvis.  Sometimes there were solo numbers from Kathy Westmoreland and Sherrill Nielsen as well.  On occasion, a show such as that given in Memphis on July 5th would give hints of former greatness, with Variety noting that he had the audience “in his palm” after telling them “it’s the end of our tour and I have as much time as you want tonight.” Mid-show, he shows defiance at his critics, announcing That’s All Right and saying, “I’ve had a couple of people say ‘you can’t do that anymore,’ but by God you watch me.”  It is a surprisingly touching moment as Elvis goes on to sing a spirited rendition of the song, clearly trying his best for his hometown crowd and trying to convince them (and possibly himself) that everything was just fine.  In the end, he was on stage for ninety minutes.  It isn’t classic Presley, but it is Elvis being the best he could be at that point in time, and by the end, as he attempts It’s Now or Never, it is clear that he has used up all the energy he has, and is totally spent. 

Exceptions such as the Memphis show aside, for the majority of the time performances were merely passable at best, and, on occasion, they were disasters, with the singer seemingly half asleep and barely able to speak.  Reviewers and critics couldn’t work out whether to try to overlook the obvious shortcomings, or to voice their disappointment and, on occasions, pity.  Elvis’s performance at Long Beach in April 1976 was described in Variety as “unambitious,” and the singer appeared to be “indifferent.”  Most telling is that the writer states that “the most serious offense is attitude.  Program has remained basically unchanged for years.  Talk to the audience is minimal, while chatting to fellow performers onstage is excessive.”    Meanwhile, a review from the following month in Rolling Stone described Elvis as “weak,” and “that you go to see him as much out of reverence for the past as from expectation for the immediate future.” 

Reviews from the period continually refer to the Elvis of the past, and perhaps that was hardly surprising given the release of The Sun Sessions LP at the time.  Robert P. Laurence asked in a headline if “No Longer Young, Must [Elvis] Still Symbolise Youth,” before taking readers through a list of his achievements before stating  that the “gold record figures for Elvis singles cut off at 1972; that’s the way the Colonel wants it.” Little did the writer know that Elvis didn’t have any gold singles after 1972. A review of a concert in Minnesota also suggests that Elvis and his performances are entrenched in the past:

There’s also a ‘Let’s Pretend’ element to the show.  Let’s pretend that Elvis, dressed in a tight white jumpsuit extravagantly overlaid with rhinestones, won’t really be 42 next Jan. 8, that he doesn’t have a weight problem so serious he had to check into a hospital last year to drop about 30 pounds, and that his predominately female, mainly middle-aged audience is still teen-aged: chewing gum like mad, saying ‘Kid’ in front of each sentence and hurrying home from school to catch American Bandstand…What else for the 41-year-old millionaire, so establishment these days that Richard Nixon made him an honorary narcotics officer, but to parody the Elvis of old, once the epitome of teen-age rebellion and outrageous sexuality?

There is a sadness in some of these pieces of writing that it isn’t still the 1950s, that Elvis is no longer the anti-establishment figure that he once was, and, perhaps more than anything, that the audience members themselves (and therefore the writers) were no longer the same age as they had been twenty years earlier.  For even the kinder critics, seeing Elvis on stage with the added weight, singing songs about divorce rather than the excitement of first love, and tossing off renditions of his early hits with an acknowledgement of just how innocent those lyrics had been in most cases was a constant reminder that nothing remains the same, and everybody gets older, even rock ‘n’ roll kings. 

Meanwhile, there were other critics who were less interested in reminiscing and far more concerned with letting their readers know of the stark realities of the level of Elvis’s performance and his physical condition.  Dale Rice wrote that “an overweight Elvis merely went through the motions of what once must have been a polished performance.  The show lacked enthusiasm, and the only thing that sparkled was Elvis’ costume…Surprisingly, the songs didn’t bring people to their feet.  In fact, the audience response was far less than I had expected it would be.”  Unsurprisingly, the mail bag over the next week was full with fan’s reactions to his review.  However, this time, alongside the angry condemnations of what had been written, others were writing to agree with what Rice had said.  One person wrote “in our opinion your review was a perfect description of the concert.  We were extremely disappointed by that ‘fat, puffy, over-fed’ Elvis Presley.”  Another added “[Rice] reported exactly what we felt and saw at Elvis’ performance,” while Dene Snyder confessed that “Elvis was not much of a showman Sunday night.”  Such comments must have been worrying.  Negative comments from critics was one thing, similar comments from fans themselves was something else entirely.

The final tours of 1976 were, for the most part, an improvement on what Elvis had been delivering in concert during the previous six months.  The Chicago Stadium FTD release, containing the concerts from October 14th and 15th finds Elvis slimmer, sounding somewhat rejuvenated, and giving more controlled, careful vocals than earlier in the year.  In late December, another short tour would also find Elvis in good form, culminating in the famous New Year’s Eve show in Pittsburgh that was, to all intents and purposes, Elvis’s last great show.  In between the October and December tours were rather more routine efforts both on the road and in Las Vegas, with Elvis betraying signs of being bored and tired with the latter.

One thing that stands out during the reviews of these shows (and those during the first months of 1977) is the way critics talk about Elvis’s age.  Elvis was only in his early forties, and yet he is talked about as if he is much older.  “If Elvis is 41 years old, his voice doesn’t reflect it,” wrote Pat O’Driscoll in the Nevada State Journal.  Another writer asks if you can be “sexy at 42 with a weight problem.”  Elvis is being talked about as if he is in his sixties rather than his forties.  Perhaps this is, at least in part, because he had been in the public eye for such a long time, or maybe the reporting of health problems for the last four years had contributed to this somewhat twisted view of his age and what should be expected from him. 

If there had been an upswing in performance quality in late 1976, then it had disappeared by the first tour of 1977.  There are signs that he is still trying, not least by the inclusion of such rarities as Reconsider Baby, Moody Blue, Release Me, and Where No-one Stands Alone.  However, if the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, and the performances are marred by Elvis sounding out of breath and tired, and his speech slurred. 

With four tracks still needed for the next album, and Elvis unwilling or unable to take part in studio sessions, producer Felton Jarvis had no choice but to record Elvis on tour in the spring of 1977, in the hope that a previously unheard song would enter the repertoire.  Despite weeks of recording, only three new songs would be caught on tape.

Unchained Melody had been a part of Elvis’s live repertoire for a few months.  The performance featured Elvis playing the piano, something he only rarely did in concert.  The finished recording is stunning.  It presents Elvis in total command of his craft, with his voice sounding better than during most recordings from this period.  The almost rhapsodic arrangement works well and is grandiose without being totally over-the-top.  However, much of the magic of the recording was created after the event through the overdubbing process.  The original undubbed recording is surprisingly ragged.  For once, the overdubs had improved the original recording dramatically.

Little Darlin’ is a throwaway version of the 1950s hit for The Diamonds.  While this might have been fun in concert, and would have been suitable for a live album, the jokey performance had little place on the regular album where it ended up. 

The final song released at the time was If You Love Me (Let Me Know), a rather innocuous song that had been recorded by Olivia Newton John.  Let Me Be There had been a fun and infectious addition to the repertoire a few years earlier, but If You Love Me is not such good material, and Elvis’s performance (and the arrangement used) adds nothing to the subpar material. 

All three songs would end up on the Moody Blue LP, released in June 1977.  Despite the difficulties in putting it together, the album was a decided improvement over From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee – even the artwork was classier.  It remains a surprisingly enjoyable album that paints a rather positive portrait of Elvis in his final years.  Even so, Robert Hilburn was correct in saying that “no one in pop is operating as far beneath his potential as Presley.”  Dave Marsh was even less impressed, referring to the album as being “within a track of the worst piece of garbage Elvis ever recorded.”  Unsurprisingly, those who reviewed the album after Elvis’s death saw it differently.  Wiley Alexander wrote “there is not a bad song on the album.  It is one of Elvis’ best, and that’s saying a lot…It is full of class, but so was Elvis.”

Despite the pleasant Moody Blue album, Elvis’s concerts were getting more and more problematic.  A whole CD was released on the FTD label of the recordings made during the spring tours, and the quality of performance is often shocking, with Elvis struggling for breath and mumbling his way through songs. Something as straightforward as Lawdy Miss Clawdy had become laboured, and it is hard to believe that this is the same singer who had powered his way through the gospel-tinged arrangement in the Memphis concert just three years earlier.   Bridge Over Troubled Water finds Elvis struggling with his vibrato and veering out of tune throughout the performance.  Meanwhile, the Mystery Train/Tiger Man medley sounds utterly lifeless.  Also noteworthy are the slowed down arrangements, making the overall sound remarkably bare at times

His appearance was getting worse, as were the reviews.   Fans, however, still stuck by their man.  Greg Oatis, in the Toledo Blade, wrote a decidedly unfavourable review of Elvis’s concert in Toledo on April 23, 1977 (the night before Unchained Melody and Little Darlin’ were recorded).  He referred to the singer as a “parody of his past performances,” and said that several couples sitting near him in the audience left early, “evidently disappointed.”  He states that Elvis was a “little pudgy,” and that “the only standing ovation he got was when he quit singing.”

The next day, a new article appeared in the newspaper saying the review had stirred a “hornets’ nest of fans.”  It says that the objections were to Oatis writing that Elvis “has a bulge around his waist, that he can’t play the guitar, that he mumbles at times, and that the old pelvis movement isn’t what it once was.”  Interestingly, he also says that none of the callers said those comments were inaccurate, but “all said it was unfair to write those things about Elvis, and if he read them he would never come back to Toledo.”

This, however, wasn’t enough.  A week later, the newspaper printed eight letters from unhappy fans.  One wrote that “Elvis in Toledo was an honor.  Mr Oatis’ article was an embarrassment.”  Another thought the review was “thoroughly disgusting.”  Someone also thought that the article dealt “with the writer’s personal opinion of…Presley.”  Clearly this fan didn’t realise that a personal opinion was the whole point of a review.

Despite all of this, the poor reviews kept on coming.  After a concert on April 27th, Damien Jaques wrote: 

The greatest superstar doesn’t get lost in the middle of a song and have the band start over.  He doesn’t carry sheets of paper on stage because he doesn’t know the lyrics to a song, and then ask the audience to forgive him if he makes a mistake.  He doesn’t mumble and swallow lyrics, sing so softly that he can’t be heard and play almost exclusively to the few rows in front of the stage.  And the greatest superstar doesn’t walk off stage after 70 minutes of all of this, failing to return for even one encore.

Despite the fact that Elvis was clearly struggling, a deal was inexplicably struck for him to record an in-concert TV special in June 1977. It would provide a sad final chapter to Elvis’s career.


Harry Connick Jr: True Love. A Celebration of Cole Porter (CD Review)

There is good news for Harry Connick Jr fans: his new album, a tribute to the songs of Cole Porter, is his best work since Songs I Heard, released in 2001.  In truth, it doesn’t have much competition in that regard, because, after that album, Connick took a series of disappointing musical detours.  First, he recorded easy listening albums that were one thing that Connick had never been: dull and boring.  Then, he revisited the funk sound of some of his 1990s albums (which I never had an objection to), but the resulting album, Smokey Mary, seemed half-hearted and even regurgitated tracks from Star Turtle to make up its rather meagre running time.  Then there were forays into country(ish) and pop.  By this time, I had stopped buying Connick albums.  Listening to the tracks on Youtube or a streaming service showed me quite clearly that he had given up on the music that made him famous, and therefore I gave up on him. 

Until now.

True Love is a brilliant return to form, and his first release after changing labels to Verve.  It is unclear just what made Connick revert back to his earlier style, but it is most welcome, and from the opening bars of Anything Goes many Connick fans (and maybe ex-fans) will give a collective sigh of relief – because this actually sounds like a Harry Connick Jr album.  The wonderful thing about Harry’s earlier albums such as Songs I Heard or Blue Light Red Light, is that the arrangements on them were both slightly wacky and instantly recognisable as Connick’s.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that Connick’s writing for a big band had a style just as recognisable as Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins had.  Luckily, the new album doesn’t see any attempt to change that style or to tone it down.  If you loved Come By Me, released some twenty years ago, then you will love this.

There are many highlights.  For example, the album opens with Anything Goes, with the big band sounding just as it would have done in Connick’s heyday.  Vocally, Connick sounds younger than he has done for years.  Sure, the voice is a bit darker, and the vibrato slightly wider, but he’s not a twenty-year-old anymore. What shines through this opening number, though, is that he sounds unshackled – and perhaps he is.  There is a sense here that a decision has been made to give up on trying to be commercial and reaching out to a wider audience, and of a musician just doing what he wants – and, in this case, it means using some slightly racy alternate lyrics about Grandma going clubbing, extra-marital affairs, and nudist parties.

I Love Paris is even better, with the orchestration and arrangement seemingly influenced by what would have been heard at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s or early 1930s.  The chorus taken up by the clarinet seems to cross that early Ellington sound with gypsy jazz, but soon (perhaps too soon) the baton is passed to saxophone, trumpet, bass, piano, drum, and finally trombone solos (with Lucien Barbarin as the guest trombone soloist). 

For anyone who has seen Connick live, or who owns the 20, 25, or 30 albums, it is wonderful to have a number here that spotlights his piano playing.  Begin the Beguine is bookended by a solo piano rendition of the song, with the band taking centre stage for the central section.  This isn’t as epic a piano solo as the ten-minute Avalon on the Swinging Out Live video, but the style and sound is the same – and one wishes that the decision had been made to make the whole track a solo.  As it is, with this being the only number without a vocal, it serves as a timely interlude before he swings his way through the remaining four songs.

Of those, True Love and You’re Sensational are the second and third songs here to be pulled out from the soundtrack to High Society (Mind If I Make Love To You was the first), but it’s the album’s finale, You Do Something To Me, which works best out of this final batch of numbers, as Connick’s arrangement has a kitchen-sink approach throwing in influences from his Sinatra-style vocal through to Latin and New Orleans elements in the orchestration. 

One can only hope that this is (in the words of Steve Allen) the start of something big.  It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to persuade Connick that this is what he should be doing.  It is understandable, of course, that artists do want to try new things and go down different avenues (I’ve written a book on Bobby Darin, and if anyone highlights that approach to a music career, it’s him), but the problem with that is that artists now make one album every three years rather than three albums every one year – and you can lose your core audience if you abandon them for years at a time.  Given his tour celebrating New Orleans last year, and now the new big band album, the stars seem to be aligning for Connick to make a musical comeback.   

Eddie Izzard at Norwich Theatre Royal: Review

The fact that Eddie Izzard is even coming to a relatively small theatre such as the Theatre Royal in Norwich instead of performing at arenas as he has done in the past, is perhaps a clue that he doesn’t have the audience pulling power that he once had. Or perhaps I could be generous and assume that he simply wanted to reach as many people as possible on this, his final tour before he attempts to become an MP.

Anyone who has seen the DVDs of his stand-up shows from the last eight years or so will know that he has lost his mojo a little. He doesn’t tell jokes as he’s not that type of comedian, and while his bizarre, off-on-a-tangent imagination was funny twenty years ago, it has become stale now, and his one-man sketches have now become so ridiculously long that they are stretched to breaking point and seem self-indulgent. (Talking of self-indulgent, I have never know a programme at a Theatre Royal show costing £10! And no, I didn’t).

For someone of my age that’s rather sad, for Izzard was THE comedian for me and my friends around the time I left home when I was in my early twenties. The VHS tapes (yes, that long ago) of Live at the Ambassadors and Unrepeatable were treasured and watched time and time again, and each time we laughed uproariously at the thoughts of cats drilling behind the sofa or wondering why people being chased by daleks simply didn’t go up some stairs which the daleks couldn’t get up. It was perfectly normal and common to quote Izzard in conversations, just as previous generations had quoted Monty Python. He reached his peak with the Glorious, Definite Article, and Dressed to Kill tours (on DVD), and then the sheen seemed to rub off a little and later efforts didn’t have the same sparkle.

In the first half of the show tonight at the Theatre Royal, there was certainly some of the magic of the early days. Not Izzard at his very best, but he had interesting things to say and he kept the performance moving along at a fair lick as he discussed William the Conquerer and why, if God created all living things, how come no animals other than humans pray. It was the second half where it fell to pieces, and it became a self-indulgent bore for much of the time – and even if Izzard isn’t always funny, he’s rarely been dull. Jokes and mimes were extended for far too long, and the performance seemed to lack shape. The final section, on Lord of the Rings, just ended suddenly with no great hilarious finale, and then it was “good night,” and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “oh? that’s not an ending.” And it wasn’t, for he came back for an encore about space which was a damp squib, too. The same feeling occurred at the end of the first half, where he simply announced an interval at a time when he just seemed to be getting into his stride. It was almost as if he had a clock on stage, and the show was being run by that rather than being driven by the material. The issue of jokes and mimes being dragged on for too long has been raised by critics for quite a while now, and one wonders why some of those criticisms haven’t been taken on board.

With Izzard soon running to be an MP, the show would probably have been better if he got serious for a while and told the audience why he was doing that, what got him into politics, and what he thought of current politics. Just as when he, rather surprisingly, talked about the death of Princess Diana in one of his heyday shows, he doesn’t have to try to be funny in order to be interesting. There were indications he might go down that route when he briefly turned to his marathon runs, and the passing of his parents, but soon we were back to how Pingu might tell Bible stories. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that two of the biggest laughs were when Izzard told us traditional jokes told to him by his ninety-year-old dad.

All of that said, it was enjoyable (especially the first half), and I’m certainly glad to have seen Izzard in person and the audience seemed to lap it up – but whether that was because he was hilariously funny or whether it was because he was simply Eddie Izzard, is up for debate. There was a standing ovation from many in the audience at the end, but it felt less like an audience showing appreciation for a comedian at the peak of his powers, and much more like an audience paying tribute to, and giving support for, a man who has rightly become a national treasure and with whom fond memories of youth are attached.