“With Heart and With Voice” – National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company Review

DnNhueAW0AA47V_

For the last two evenings, I have been at the Norwich Theatre Royal watching the National Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company’s productions of Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, and Ruddigore.

It has been rather a long while since I took the time to see some G&S at the theatre, partly because the same old operas get performed time and time again, and sometimes I think I can recite the Modern Major General’s song as reliably as those in the cast.  (Please don’t ask me to; I’m exaggerating).

I was very much “into” G&S when I was a teenager – ah yes, I was that popular kid at school.  In fact, school was to blame as my first school production was of the The Mikado.  It got me investigating the other operas, too, borrowing copies of them from the local library.  And then in 1989, the BBC broadcast the complete G&S on Radio 2 and I dutifully taped them each week and listened to some of them repeatedly.  (As a side note:  Does anyone have copies of these performances?  I would so much like to get hold of them again as they are, bizarrely a key part of my teenage years).  Perhaps understandably as a fifteen year old teenager, the two “supernatural” works grabbed my attention most of all at that time.  However, they were never performed by touring companies coming to Norwich, so the nearest I got were those often-dry TV productions from the early 1980s.   As I grew older, my tastes changed, and G&S got put on the back burner in favour of Elvis, Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and jazz.  And then, this year, I saw that The Sorcerer and Ruddigore are finally being performed in the Theatre Royal, which is literally outside my front door.  Finally seeing them live was an offer I was not going to refuse.  I re-familiarised myself with the music, and then expected to be disappointed.

The Sorcerer was preceded by Trial by Jury as a curtain-raiser last night – although The Sorcerer is quite long enough by itself for an evening’s entertainment, but Trial is always good fun, so who’s complaining?  What is interesting after seeing Ruddigore tonight is that it highlights the problems with The Sorcerer – and I’m not talking about the performance, but the source material – and those problems aren’t apparent when watched separately.

There is probably a good reason why The Sorcerer is not done very much, as there really isn’t a great deal of plot and the characters aren’t particularly likeable on the whole.  And yet the music is often some of the most beautiful in the G&S operas (something I remember from that BBC production from 1989), and luckily most of the best songs are in the first act which, to say the least, has a meandering libretto.   Constance’s “When He Is Here” is a lovely ballad, as is Dr. Daly’s “Time Was When Love and I Were Well Acquainted.”  But the opera doesn’t really come alive until J. W. Wells appears about fifty minutes into the proceedings.

This isn’t really noticed in the current production, which is transported to (I’m estimating) the 1930s.  That in itself is enough to grab our interest while Gilbert finally gets around to providing us with a plot.  The opening chorus, presented to us as a choir rehearsal, is performed with so much zest and energy that it’s hard not to be sucked in.  In fact, it’s true to say that I have rarely seen the chorus in an opera provide as much joy to the audience as the soloists.  They throw themselves so much into their individual characters, over-acting their socks off (intentionally, I might add), that it’s hard not to fall in love with them and wait intently for them to return to the stage, which, I’m pleased to say, they often do in The Sorcerer.  It’s this sense that the performers are having a ball that made the last two evenings so enjoyable.   The soloists also share the same enthusiasm, although, oddly, they have less to work with in their parts than the chorus.  Richard Gauntlett provides us with a spiv of a John Wellington Wells (which works very well), and Ellen Angharad Williams shines as Aline.

Ruddigore is, rather bizarrely, a reversal of The Sorcerer:  the plot comes thick and fast from the very beginning, the main characters are much more interesting, but the male chorus in particular have much less to do – which is a shame as they were great fun on the previous evening.  Seeing the two operas side by side, there’s little doubt that Ruddigore is a much better work on the whole.  Again, I’m talking about the source material here and not the production.  The first half of the production is a lengthy eighty minutes, but it seems to zip along at quite a pace, helped, perhaps by the episodic nature of it and the split into three seamless scenes.  Another big bonus here is that it gets off to a strong start through Gaynor Keeble’s impressive “Sir Rupert Murgatroyd” (what a wonderful voice she has).  And then there comes the huge shock – Bradley Travis who is playing Robin/Ruthven is under fifty!  Actually, under forty.  Possibly under thirty.  Of course that IS the intention, but anyone who has seen G&S in the past will know that the leading male and female roles are often NOT played by age-appropriate cast members.  Robin is meant to be in his twenties, I believe, but on the Malcolm Sergeant recording from the 1960s is played by a 78 year old.  You see where I’m coming from here?  This makes a massive difference to the performance – not least by the amount of physicality that can then be brought to the role – although Travis spends much of the second act writhing around on the floor (as you do).

This youth element is what enlivens these productions more than anything.  When I was singing G&S at an amateur level, I’m sure no-one else was under sixty.  Ian Smith, Chairman of the company, boasts in the programme: “I don’t know of any other Opera Company in Britain that takes as many graduates from the leading Music Colleges as we do.  Young enthusiasts with splendid voices embarking on their professional career in the very safe hands of Gilbert and Sullivan.”  And he is right to boast about this.  Not only is this giving young performers a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, but it also pays dividends for the company in giving the productions more energy and vitality than they otherwise would have had – and if you want proof of that check out the chorus work in Trial/Sorcerer (there are some members of the chorus who grab your attention despite not having a single line of their own) and the young cast of Ruddigore.

Both of these operas must be very difficult for a company on such a tight budget as this one – they almost beg for special effects and clever sets. They don’t get either here (and at one point, The Sorcerer pokes fun at itself over that), but don’t let that put you off.  Also don’t let it put you off that you might not know these particular works.  Ruddigore, in particular, provides the tried and tested G&S formula – indeed, compare the finale to Act I of The Mikado to the finale of Act I of Ruddigore and, dramatically, it’s pretty identical – just replace Katisha with Despard and you’re almost there.   I really do wish that audiences would be more daring with the choices they make – these performances were far from full houses, and it’s such a shame with so much to enjoy.   I hope that this doesn’t mean that the company resorts to bringing us The Mikado and Pirates instead next year, as it’s really nice to see these other works performed.

What you get with these two productions (and I’m guessing the others on the current tour) is a damned good evening of entertainment – and that, really, is exactly what G&S should be about.   I’m not going to pretend that these are the most polished productions you will ever see (although it might be the ONLY production of The Sorcerer you ever see), or that the sets are the most exciting in the world, but that is more than made up for by what else is being offered – fun.  That is what the evening is all about, and these fresh, sometimes intriguing productions, certainly provide that in abundance.

I’d like to make another comment about the programme note from Ian Smith, in which he states the company receives just £21,000 combined in grants and donations compared to the millions of other opera companies centred in London (he mentions the ENO).  We have to start realising the worth of the arts in this country.  Funding has been cut for the arts subjects at university level, there has been discouragement of taking arts subjects at schools, and funding has been cut for companies such as this one.  The government can try to drum it into our heads that we need scientists more than musicians, but there’s not much point in finding cures for deadly diseases if we don’t have music and the arts to enjoy during those extra years we gain by these cures.  And that goes for whatever areas of the arts provide your enjoyment.  Companies such as this HAVE to survive, as do our orchestras, our independent film makers, and so on.  If our country really is going to continue with this hair-brained political suicide, we’re going to need something to take our mind off it – and I very much doubt that most of those spouting the nationalistic twaddle on Twitter have ever seen a single opera written by two of our country’s national institutions in their lives.  And that’s an irony that Gilbert himself might well have appreciated.

I’d like to conclude by saying health has thrown quite a bit of crap my way over the last couple of months – but for six hours this weekend I forgot about it completely and did a great deal of smiling, and what more can you ask of a theatre trip?

Advertisements

Revisiting Dorian Gray (2009)

Ben-Barnes-as-Dorian-Gray-jpg-ben-barnes-21140020-500-333

 

Perhaps the biggest reason why the 2009 film of Dorian Gray is so disappointing is that Ben Barnes is probably the most suitable actor to play the role since Hurd Hatfield in the 1945 MGM version.  Barnes might have been twenty-seven at the time of filming, but he looks younger and, perhaps more importantly, is both beautiful and contains a childlike innocence during much of the first half of the movie.  If Hatfield had come across at fragile with his porcelain-like features, Barnes portrays Dorian as naïve – something I could never believe Hatfield to be, he seemed far too wicked for that.  And in both versions of the story, the lead actor was relatively unknown – Hatfield particularly so, but the public was only aware of Barnes through his role as Prince Caspian in the Narnia series, and a jolly jape misfire of a Noel Coward play.  And the public’s lack of familiarity with the lead actor can help with something like Dorian Gray.  By the time Helmut Berger was cast in the 1970 film, he had already appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, and, after that, who could ever believe that Berger could be an innocent?

Unfortunately, the 2009 movie falls down in so many places that the potentially perfect casting of Barnes becomes almost immaterial.  The opening of the film is a case in point, unable to convey through its CGI-laden visuals whether the audience should prepare for a horror movie or a fairy story.  This is an issue that continues throughout the film, with even some of the acting (particularly Rachel Hurd-Wood as Sybil Vane) making audiences wonder if they are watching a Wilde adaptation or a Tim Burton movie.  Ironically, a Burton take on Dorian Gray might be an interesting venture if Burton was feeling inspired that day, but here the visuals are too pretty, too clean (even in the sordid moments) and without the underlying wickedness that Burton is capable of bringing to such seemingly-innocent images.

But the film fails mostly because it dares to show us, repeatedly, just what Dorian’s sins are.  We know very little of them in the book, or, indeed, in the Hatfield film, but here they take place before our very eyes.  The issue here is that this is a mainstream film and, because of that, none of the sins appear particularly sinful – especially to a modern audience.  I very much doubt that anyone watching the film is likely to faint with shock that Dorian has a threesome, or has sex with another man, or that he doesn’t mind a bit of S&M even if it means roughing up that pretty little face of his (albeit temporarily).  Sure, he commits a murder too, but you only have to tune in to ITV3 every night to see half a dozen of those thanks to Midsummer Murders, Foyle’s War, and Poirot.  Trying to shock audiences (or even to titillate them) in a 15-certificate movie through some images of fetishist sex is hardly going to make us realise just what an horrific fellow Gray has become, especially when Fifty Shade of Grey is more likely to make one giggle than get aroused.

ben-barnes-shirtless-dorian-gray-01

It might work if it was a movie made by an independent filmmaker, with an appetite to come up with something more genuinely shocking, explicit or, at least, visually stimulating.  But Ben Barnes with his shirt off kissing two women at the same time is hardly a startling, hedonistic existence in a world where you can do a search on Google and be shown all kinds of sexual activities that you never knew existed – and all because you were looking for the amount of calories in a bowl of corn flakes.

Hinting at Dorian’s sins would have made for a somewhat more mysterious, maybe more eerie, film.  Even the decaying picture itself gets shown far too often for the changes to be remotely shocking – quite unlike the 1945 version where the colour insert of the decaying picture is in itself quite a jolt for the viewer near the end of the black and white film.   The script itself is formulaic for the most part, and the special effects really not very special – check out the explosion at the end of the film.  There are parts of the movie where it looks like an ITV Sunday night two-part adaptation, only with Colin Firth as Lord Henry instead of Jim Nettles.

Going by online reviews, many blame the film’s failings on Ben Barnes, but I would suggest that the film is bland and disappointing despite of him, rather than because of him.  You can’t make a good film with a bad script, and that is exactly what this film has – from the underdeveloped characters to the pointless changes to the source text, including the introduction of a back story where Dorian was the victim of child abuse, which seemingly has no purpose in the narrative and no influence on the character.

Dorian Gray is, unfortunately, a highly frustrating if somewhat watchable mess, but with a TV series in development and another film version out this year, perhaps someone will get an adaptation of Wilde’s own novel right at some point in the near future.

In Defence of 13 Reasons Why

13 reasons

I have already written in a previous blog post about how uncomfortable I am about the adult critic responses to the second season of 13 Reasons Why (Netflix), and that post can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/a-bunch-of-self-obsessed-teens-adult-responses-to-13-reasons-why/.   This post, however, is essentially a review of the second season itself.

**contains spoilers**

I have never had any doubt that the series has its heart in the right place, and that it intends to be both entertaining and a frank discussion of the issues that affect teenagers in schools today, not just in America, but elsewhere as well.   I have yet to see a wholly positive review of the second season – the knives were already sharpened and out, so that the critics could jump on the bandwagon of bashing the series, say how shocked they are, and what harm the series will do our kids.  But it seems to me that the reasons that adults have a problem with the series is that it paints them in a worse light than anything that the teenagers do.

The opening episode of the second season is a disaster – and I don’t mean by that that it is irresponsible, but that dramatically it is a mess.  Most people watching last saw these characters a year ago – and it’s not like this is a small cast.  Season two presumes that we remember who all these people are, that we remember what stories were told about them on the tapes, and that we can put together for ourselves what happened to Jessica and Alex in the months between the two series.  The narrative jumps around, trying to be sophisticated enough to show rather than tell us what has happened and what is going on, but fails miserably.  Thankfully, from episode two onwards, this is no longer a problem, and the series finds its feet once again.

The majority of the series uses the trial against the school over Hannah’s death as a kind of hook for each character’s story, thus allowing the same structure as series one, with each episode featuring current day scenes and flashbacks.  Sometimes the viewer isn’t sure of which of the flashbacks are real, and which are distorted tellings of the story as told by the witnesses.  Only when Bryce takes to the stand do the writers go out of their way to tell us he was lying, by giving us the real flashbacks at the end.  The writing of episodes two to twelve is, by and large, very good.  Sure, it flags a bit in the middle, and most episodes could have been better off with five or ten minutes shaved off their running times, but beyond that, for the most part, this is dark, and yet realistic, gripping drama.

Contrary to what most reviews will tell you, there are not a huge number on inflammatory scenes.  Other than flashbacks lasting a couple of seconds, there is actually no reliving of Hannah’s suicide.  Yes, there are scenes of sexual assault but, for the most part, they are milder than you would see in a film that deals with the same topic – especially one that carries an 18 rating, as the series does in the UK.  But it’s not like Netflix doesn’t warn viewers in advance.  And it’s not like Netflix don’t remind us that this is for mature audiences.  That does not mean letting your fourteen year old watch this unaccompanied and then going on twitter and saying how awful Netflix are for making such a series.  Parents are responsible for what their kids do – and if your teenager isn’t ready to watch this, don’t let them, just as you wouldn’t let them watch your porn collection.  Two different things, but same principle.  The intended audience is key.

If anything, the second series has less shocking content than the first (with the exception of the final episode), and the writing is surprisingly nuanced.  The characters are well-drawn and, while I agree it’s unlikely that all of these issues would exist within a group of a dozen kids in one school, these are very real issues for our teenagers.  What is interesting here is that very few of the characters are all-good or all-bad.  With the exception of Bryce and some of the minor characters, they aren’t painted with broad brush strokes.  Good kids do bad things.  Bad kids do good things.  That’s life.   But we tend to find that hard to deal with.  When I wrote a novel about homophobic bullying a few years back, the biggest criticism was that one of the “good” kids kept doing bad things.  We all do bad things, no matter where our moral compass lies.  13 Reasons Why doesn’t shy away from that.

Like many, I have a problem with the final episode, which is, I think, as much of a mess and a misstep as the first episode – but not necessarily for the same reasons as many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the assault mid-way through is unexpected (unless you have read reviews) and brutal, but it is briefer than many would have us believe, and actually less graphic that I was led to believe it was going to be.  Sure, you see enough, but the violence is more shocking than the sexual element for the simple reason that it is on screen, whereas the sexual element is actually implied through various camera angles.   It’s hard to know what to make of it.  There is no real build-up to it, and it does come out of nowhere, and the sexual element of the assault seems almost random.  Yes, it probably is a misstep by the programme makers – whether dramatically or as a matter of taste.

Also problematic for reviewers is the whole school-shooting section.  Some have said that we should not portray school shooters as just a victim, and that makes me wonder if they have actually watched just the final episode or the whole series.  Tyler isn’t just a victim.  He’s exposed as a stalker in the first series, clearly has mental health issues, and spends much of the second series blackmailing people, exposing their bad deeds, and vandalising school property.  To characterise him as “just a victim” of bullying  who goes on the rampage is ridiculous.  Life is more complicated than that.   The whole point here, surely, is that adults should have done more to help Tyler earlier on.

However, much more troubling for me, given the target audience, is the fact that Bryce is seen effectively getting away with his rapes, and Justin ends up with a longer sentence than him despite his crime not being as great (although bad enough).  This is perhaps where the writers have been irresponsible, and not with the sexual assault.  Throughout the series, the kids have fought to expose a rapist, and when they do, he escapes with three month’s probation.  What message is that giving out?  Or perhaps it is just reflecting the screwed-up justice system.

This is one of many times throughout both series where adults fail the teenagers.  They fail them in court.  They fail them as parents (particularly Justin’s, but others too).  They fail them as teachers.  They fail them as a sports coach.  They fail them as counsellors.  And perhaps that is why critics hate the series so much – not because of content that is troubling to teenagers, but because of content that is troubling to adults.  It’s a long, hard look in the mirror.  Society does fail its children.  And if that isn’t enough, the controversial near-school shooting at the end of the series throws one more punch in society’s face, with Clay telling Tyler that shooting the kids in the school will make no impact – adults will talk about it for a week and then forget it.   And how true is that?

Beyond this, there are elements of the show that are clumsy.  The final episode has far too many such moments, most notably the shoehorning in of the “suicide isn’t the answer, kids,” message during the “13 reasons why not” sequence.  Well-intentioned, I’m sure, but horrendously done – as is Clay’s talk with the minister at the end of the memorial service.  Oh dear.  And the jury’s out on the device of using Hannah’s ghost – although her leaving the memorial service and walking out into a bright white light never to be seen again as she wafts up to heaven (presumably) is, unfortunately, laughable.  And these moments are unfortunate in a series that is mostly well-written and well-intentioned

Most of the cast shine – even more so than the first series.  Dylan Minnette seems to spend the first two episodes taking his shirt off, and the rest of the time crying, shouting, or being beaten up.  And yet, despite all of this, he makes the character utterly believable.  Alisha Boe probably had one of the most difficult roles of the season as Jessica – switching between vulnerable, fallible, and headstrong throughout, and, again, she pulls off the difficult role extremely well.  But perhaps the real acting honours go to Brandon Flynn, who is stunning as Justin, managing to make him almost an entirely different character from who we see in much of the first season, and yet being most convincing as the vulnerable, fragile, difficult teenager he has become.   But there really isn’t a weak link in the ensemble cast.

Will there be a third season?  My own guess is that Netflix will decide against it, if only to avoid more accusations of being inflammatory by adults who are uncomfortable with kids watching something that accurately describes what they see at school.  But I certainly wouldn’t object to finding out what happens next to these characters.  Only time will tell – and it’s almost certain that the cliffhanger ending suggests that a third season was planned even if it never materialises.

Frank Sinatra: 20 Years On

franksinatra-hero-674973191

As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas.  The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since.  It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened).   Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.

A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year.   Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time.  They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?”  The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start?  Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra?  And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles.  I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least!  I am not sure I am up to that task.

But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away.  It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget.  I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store.  There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play.  I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.  And that was the start of that.  And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music.  I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records.  The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him.  And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  And who couldn’t fall in love with her?  Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella.  And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson.  And through them I found…  Well, you get the idea.  But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra.  Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.

And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal.   Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love.  But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra.   Albums dates refer to year of release.

1.  The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946).   There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album.  Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album.  Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones.  But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level.  In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section.  If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery.  And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.

2.  Close to You (1956).  Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice.  Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument.  Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones.  They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.”  I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth.   And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.

3.  Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958.  This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time.  He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio.  And what can be said about Where Or When?  Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years.  That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.

4.  Point of No Return (1962).  This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years.  We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger.  But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion?  When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of.  We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece.  A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.

5.  Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962.  This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016.  This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process.  What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage.  His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end.  He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points.  Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.

6.  The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967).  The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials.  1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this.  Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this.  Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it.  Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her.  The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release.  Is there more material?  Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special).  We can but hope.

7.  Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968).  This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form.  And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself.  All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment.  And is there a better version of Sunny out there?  If so, I haven’t heard it.  A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.

8.  Watertown (1970).   Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades.  It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it.  This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children.  He doesn’t know if she will come back or not.  Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences.  And that is the case here.  This isn’t an easy listening album.  It demands your attention from beginning to end.  Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving.  And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it.  But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album.  But this is a beautiful, haunting album.  Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.  

9.  The Lost Songs (1973-1978).  OK, I’ll come clean.  This isn’t really an album at all.  It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard.  In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period.  He didn’t know what to record.  Albums were discussed and discarded.  Albums were started, and discarded.  Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially.  Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc.  Other songs remained in the vault.  And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard.  I’m talking here of Everything Happens to MeJust as Though You Were HereDry Your EyesLike a Sad SongEmpty TablesSend In the ClownsBang BangI Love My Wife.  Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s.  So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD.  They deserve to be heard.

10.  The Ultimate Event (1988).  One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not.  This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra.  What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other.  Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes.  Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better.  Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys.  Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort!  Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley.  Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.

Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?

 

 

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (Review)

large_searcher

There has been much anticipation over the last year or so about the three and a half hour documentary about Elvis Presley, entitled The Searcher, which finally got aired last weekend.  Many have believed that this would be the definitive documentary on Elvis and his music, both with regards to what he recorded and what he was influenced by.

In reality, the documentary proved itself to be worthy of its subject in many ways.  It was well put together and edited, it didn’t stray much from its mission to be mostly about the music rather than the man, and there was enough confidence by the filmmakers to delve deep into the Elvis legacy for the soundtrack, skipping over many hits and, instead, presenting songs that many viewers would not have heard before.   The way the documentary used the 1968 TV show as a pivot for the various chapters of the story worked well enough, but it seemed to borrow the idea from the HBO Sinatra documentary a year or two back which used his 1971 retirement concert in much the same way, and with better effect.

However, there was little here that hadn’t been said before.  The story is well-known, and here it certainly got a sophisticated telling, but it’s hard to find anything here that shone new light or new perspective on the established narrative.  There is plenty of material that could have questioned some of that narrative, but instead there was no effort to do so.  For example, Steve Allen was said to have booked Elvis purely for ratings, despite the fact that he booked Elvis before his TV performances caused ratings to soar.  Allen was said to have hated rock n roll music, and yet nothing was mentioned about the other rock ‘n’ roll acts on his show, the fact he defended Elvis in print, and that he gave Elvis’s first album a good review in a magazine column.  This material might not have been widely known in the past, but it certainly is out there now, and this would have been a good opportunity to at least show just a hint of the other side of the equation.  The same is true of the Colonel, who also comes across as a one-dimensional bad guy.

As is so often the case with these things, facts are intentionally or unintentionally distorted.  D. J. Fontana tells us that the “bump ‘n’ grind” ending to Hound Dog  on The Milton Berle Show had not been done before, and nobody knew what was happening, and yet we have aural evidence from a Little Rock concert a month earlier which shows us that it was a regular part of the performance.  Clearly, some mis-remembering on Fontana’s part, but an important detail nonetheless.  Meanwhile, the discussion of Elvis’s Las Vegas return in 1969 was accompanied by footage of Elvis a year later, with no indication in the voice-over or on screen that this was the case.

Some things were almost conspicuous by their absence – there was no mention of Elvis winning three Grammys – despite this being a documentary almost entirely about his music career.  Likewise, there was no mention of the two concert films by name – although footage from them was shown – meaning there was no talk of Elvis on Tour winning the Golden Globe.   The Memphis sessions of 1969 were dealt with in surprisingly little screen time, and Elvis Country, possibly Elvis’s greatest album wasn’t even mentioned at all, despite its return to Elvis’s musical roots and the use of footage of a press conference where Elvis discusses the importance of country music to him.

While the storytelling was sophisticated, the story it told often lacked nuance, and was remarkably safe. The 1968 TV special was a one-stroke return to form.  Not true – and the comment that it received universally great reviews is also not true.  There was no mention of the non-formula movies at the end of the 1960s, which might not have artistic or commercial successes as such, but they certainly demonstrated that Elvis and his work was changing.  There was much discussion about the publishing situation but, again, nothing about some of the fine music that came through that avenue from the likes of Pomus and Shuman or Don Robertson.   There was no mention of how Elvis approached his studio work in the 1970s, and how the mega-sessions might have helped or hindered that process.  And, oddly, nothing at all about the final videotaped performances from Elvis’s last tour.  They might not be an easy watch, but a choice excerpt from Hurt, or I Really Don’t Want to Know or Unchained Melody would have been apt in demonstrating that there were still flashes of brilliance even at the end.

Despite these failings, or (to be kinder) artistic choices, The Searcher achieved something which very little Elvis-related TV does – bringing it back to the music, and that is always a good thing.  However, the endorsement by the Estate does make it feel just that bit too safe.  We never really learn what made Elvis tick.  We learn about his musical influences, and the loss of his mother, but very little else.  Despite much talk about the evil Parker, we don’t ever get to grips as to how their relationship worked, or why Elvis didn’t just sack him when he was unhappy with his choices – a question which many viewers were probably left asking themselves.  In many respects, I’m reminded of Vincent Canby’s review of Elvis on Tour:  “Close-ups do not reveal anything but, rather, they enshrine an ideal, like an official photograph of a president or a pope.”  The Searcher seems to have a similar problem.

If you enjoyed The Searcher and would like to know more about Elvis’s music and how it was received during his lifetime, check out Reconsider Baby: A Listener’s Guide.  http://a.co/eenPMzO

 

Love, Simon (2018)

__5aaace669b89e

Well, we finally made it.  2018 is the year when a major Hollywood studio thought it could finally make a mainstream high school movie with a gay lead character.  Considering gay characters have been part of teen TV dramas for around twenty years, I have no idea why it has taken this long to reach this point, but Love, Simon carries a great burden of responsibility with it.

And the film is a delight.  No, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece, nor is it intended to be.  But it lacks any sense of self-importance, and is a well-made, unassuming, charming, likeable teen high school movie.  Note that I don’t say “gay teen high school movie.”  And this is the key thing here, and why the film has created interest.  This isn’t a film aimed at a gay audience, it is aimed at a general teen audience.

As a forty-something gay man this is a big deal.  There have been plenty of high school movies made before with gay teenagers as the central character, but they were indie movies made by gay men for gay men.  There was never a suggestion that such a protagonist could or would be of interest to a general audience.  And yet, tonight (when the film opened in the UK) the cinema audience appeared to be made of teenagers just having a normal night out at the movies.  And, remarkably for a UK audience, they actually applauded and cheered.   The gay protagonist didn’t matter, and surely that’s the way things could be.  The movie is being viewed as a teen rom-com, not a gay teen rom-com.  I wonder how much of a difference that must make if you’re a gay teenager growing up today.  I could never have imagined twenty-odd years ago going to a cinema with a group of straight friends to see Beautiful Thing or Get Real.  

The fact that Love, Simon betrays none of its historic significance on screen is part of what makes it so likeable.  But credit also has to go to the writer, director and actors for making sure the near two-hour film (Ok, it could have been trimmed just a little) actually works.  Nick Robinson (who I know very little about) was a superb choice in the lead role, but the supporting cast was also filled with faces familiar to the teen audience thanks to roles in The Flash, 13 Reasons Why, and others (a rather canny way to reassure those potential audiences who might be unsure of the subject matter).  And, while the film has attracted attention, there is a vast difference between this and the self-trumpeting pomposity that accompanied Brokeback Mountain thirteen years ago.  It’s a shame that it has taken a dozen years to get from that (all gay guys live miserable lives or die premature deaths) to this (it can be difficult, but it will all work out), but now we’ve finally made it, hopefully this will lead to other movies of a similar ilk very soon.

Geography Club (2013)

maxresdefault

Cameron Deane Stewart and Justin Deeley star as Russell and Kevin, two teenagers at the rather oddly named Goodkind High School who are gay and closeted – as are virtually all of the LGBT teens at the school.  But one night Russell and Kevin are spotted kissing by Min (Ally Maki), who is part of the “Geography Club,” a group where LGBT teens can get together without the worry of arousing suspicion thanks to the name of the group.  Russell joins, but getting Kevin, a star football player, to join is altogether more difficult.

It is easy to dismiss Geography Club, a relatively family-friendly film (only minor swearing and no nudity or sex) about LGBT teenagers (and others who view themselves as outcasts) at a high school in America.  It is bland, even twee in places, and yet it is remarkably charming  for the most part, even if there is something of a sting in the tale’s conclusion.

The film is refreshing in a number of ways.  Firstly, it’s a gay-themed film without sex and nudity at every opportunity.  Anyone who watches gay-themed indie movies regularly might be surprised to even know they exist at all.

Secondly, this isn’t really aimed at gay adults, but gay teens – arguably younger teens at that – and that separates this from the crowd.  The artwork for the UK edition of the DVD compares it to Glee, and the comparison isn’t totally unwarranted, but it also does the film something of a disservice.  Glee, even at its best, was never really believable in any way.  This, of course, was intended for the most part.  People don’t break out into song at every opportunity in real life, and the often-surreal nature of the show didn’t really place it in the real world, despite it’s attempts (both successful and unsuccessful) to cover virtually every topic important to teenagers – with the strange exception of drug abuse.  But my point is that the target audiences for Glee and Geography Club are the same, although they approach things is a very different way.

Thirdly (and this ties in with my first point), the film is well-acted, well-directed, and clearly has a higher budget than most indie gay-themed films from America.  This looks like a real movie rather than a student piece put together by eighteen-year-olds.

However, there are some issues.  Cameron Deane Stewart is superb as Russell – likeable and charismatic, and, ultimately, believable.  However, Justin Deeley was twenty-seven at the time the movie was made.  And he’s playing a sixteen year old.  No matter how fine an actor he might be (and he plays the part well), it’s obvious that the guy is not sixteen.  Quite why filmmakers insist on using men in their mid-to-late twenties to play teenagers is a mystery to me.  A few years older isn’t a problem, but ten year older is, and even more so when major films are now using kids/teens who are the actual ages of their characters (or thereabouts).  This is a relatively new phenomenon – Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played high school student Peter Parker in Spiderman (2002).  Tom Holland was twenty when he played the role for the first time.  The difference is startling.   The same is true of the young cast of It (2017) who were, for the most part, roughly the same age as their characters.  It isn’t just a case of whether someone’s face looks sixteen or twenty-six – the believeability comes about by how they walk, how they talk, their build, etc.  This is not to criticise Deeley’s performance, which is fine, but it does rob the film of some realism.

That issue aside, Geography Club works rather well, and is worth revisiting, especially with the release this year of Love, Simon.  I haven’t seen that movie (it’s not out in the UK for another week), but it is a mainstream movie aimed a gay teen audience in the same way Geography Club is.  It will be interesting to see how the two movies compare, not just in plot and budget, but how they address their intended audiences.  Either way, Geography Club is well worth a watch, and is an important movie in its own right.  No, it’s not a gay teen movie made by a major studio, but it is still a gay-themed movie aimed at teens and, despite the plethora of gay-themed movies over the last fifteen years or so, that is still a rarity – which is rather surprising given the popularity, and almost classic status, of UK gay-themed movies such as Beautiful Thing and Get Real, made in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  In 2013, Geography Club managed to fill a void in the market – or, at least, provided a stop-gap until Love, Simon came along.