Monday, September 1, 2014

Song of the Day: Stevie Wonder - Uptight (Everything's Alright) (1965)

Of every fact in the entire history of recorded music, this is the one that makes me feel the most creatively inadequate: Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded this song when he was 15 years old. Fifteen!!! When I was fifteen, I was still playing with Magic cards and figuring out ways to sneak peaks at my mom's boyfriend's Playboys. But I guess you don't get the last name "Wonder" for nothing.

Anyway, this is my favorite Motown single (narrowly edging The Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)"), and in my top 10-15 favorite singles of all-time. It's just so goddamn joyous and infectious, I find it literally impossible to listen to without cranking it up and playing air-everything--drums, horns, guitars, Stevie's head-bob, etc. If the title of "Happiest Song Ever" were to be bestowed upon something, this track would be a prime contender.

Stevie's recordings from the seventies, when he gained total creative control of his output and started writing about social issues, are critically considered the cornerstone of his legacy, and I won't argue with that. But personally, I prefer his Motown assembly hits from the mid-to-late 60's, because at their best, they sound like this.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 22, 2014

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Boyhood, True Detective, and the Blurring of the Film/Television Divides

As recently as last year, the differences between cinema and television felt reasonably clear. Cinema told stories by a single creative voice or team, filmed in a relatively contained time span. Television told much larger stories by vastly (r)evolving sets of creators, spanning years and years. But 2014 may go down in history as the year those divisions became murkier than we ever thought possible, to the extent that divisions may not even exist in the near future. Two works are primarily responsible for this, The HBO show True Detective, which aired in the first three months of the year, and the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, which is in theaters now.

True Detective was aired on television, but it was really an eight-hour movie. It was written by one screenwriter, filmed by one director, starred movie stars, and has no plans to continue the stories of any of its characters. Boyhood is a three hour film, but it was created and filmed over the course of twelve years, watching its actors age in real time, and each year's worth of shooting script was created at that time, based on where the creators wanted the story to travel each year of their collaboration. All of these elements of both projects are either relatively rare and risky for their medium, or complete innovations that we've never seen before. Both projects were viewed as huge risks with potentially crazy business models. Both projects yielded amazing results that could change their industries for years and decades to come.

Boyhood is the year's best film thus far, and is a mortal lock to remain towards the top of that list. It's not simply about watching a person grow and evolve over the entirety of their adolescence, but really about watching what life is at its core. When I've described the film to people and urged them to see it, they've sometimes asked me what the point of it is. Ultimately, I think the point of the film for each individual viewer will be whatever that person thinks the point of life is. As you watch a life unfold, and seemingly random, unimportant days and conversations slowly shape a person into who he will be, it provokes a self-reflection of value and purpose. What is the point of it all? How and why am I who I am? What moments happened when I was eight, or ten, or thirteen, that fundamentally created the person I am now?

A lot of great cinema has provoked these questions before; that's nothing new in and of itself. But the method is. Boyhood is occasionally being compared to Michael Apted's Up documentaries, which set out to interview the same group of people every seven years to see how their lives and goals changed over time. But while those films did allow us to see the same people at seven-years old, fourteen-years old, and so on, we had to (initially) wait seven years and watch a different film to see each age. Boyhood is a (kind of) complete life experience in one sitting.

True Detective wasn't as thematically ambitious, but it's business model of having a continuing show where each season has no characters or settings in common with the previous one is pretty radical. Yes, American Horror Story beat True Detective to the punch in this regard by a little over a year, but the key difference is in how each show used this model. American Horror Story did so almost secretively, while True Detective shouted it from the rooftops. True Detective wanted you to know that each season was its own thing, and would not be continued. It wanted you to understand that it was able to sign on A-List movie stars because of its very ability to not require an actor to be locked in for several seasons. It wanted you to know that you didn't have to commit to some five-plus-season-long meandering vision, that this was an eight-week deal, so you needn't worry about getting attached to some saga that will take five years to answer any of your questions. Everything that American Horror Story did almost incidentally, True Detective heavily advertised as key reasons to tune in.

It needs to be pointed out that this is the exact opposite of how television financially banked on itself in the past. What made successful television over the last six decades was the assurance of relative perpetuity; the idea that something was being created which could then be counted on for stable financial gain over a very long period of time. Television had always been in the real estate business. The great television shows used to be like Stan Lee's manifesto for Marvel Comics: give only the illusion of change, while actually creating a status quo that can theoretically exist forever. Of course prestige shows have been hacking that model to death for years now. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and their ilk have thrived on actual change far more than any illusion of such, but the key continuance has been the show itself. We still tune in, year in and year out, to see where these characters will go, and the networks that control them know we will. But with True Detective, whether or not we tune in again next year doesn't have anything to do with seeing where any of it will go. It's gone. That story was told, and next year will be a different one. It's television officially turning into a cinematic business model: give people something they'll pay to see, and worry about the next source of income later.

So what does all this mean? What does it mean that one of the best television shows of the year gave us a singular eight-hour experience that won't be returned to, and that one of the year's best films gave us a decades-spanning experience that was created over the same span of time as it portrays? Well, it means a lot. For television, it means that the steady branding networks have depended on for success since the dawn of television might not be important anymore in the near future. It means that instead of trying to sell talented people on the idea of signing in to projects that they'll be chained to for years, those same creative people can now be sold on the idea of creating an eight hour movie, where their "vision" doesn't have to be burdened by the realities of how long an audience is willing to sit still in a theater. Why have top tier filmmakers historically never gone to television (with the occasional exceptions of a Martin Scorsese or David Fincher directing a pilot episode, and then scaling back to however hands off "executive producer" allows them to be)? Because why would they? That would just be signing up for creative stagnancy instead of the ability to follow their muse in any given year. But the True Detective model (as it will inevitably be called) will allow for that. It will allow for their muse to be followed, with a greater freedom of depth than a standard film run-time allows for. We've already seen it again now with Steven Soderbergh and Cinemax's The Knick, which he quickly filmed like a ten hour movie. This is about to start happening very frequently, and five years from now, it may be the new norm.

With Boyhood, the major miracle is in the green light. A lot of business models require funding and investment that won't be returned for more than ten years. Good scotch, for example. But film has never been one of those. Think about this in financial terms: someone ponied up millions of dollars for an art-house director to film the same core set of four people over the course of twelve years, and then release a three-hour film with no plot at the end of those dozen years. It required beginning with a six-year old, banking that this person will grow up in a vaguely normal way, stay heathy, stay interested, and basically that nothing will go wrong. Because, you know, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to depend on a six-year old for, and to risk millions of dollars over. But… it worked (!). Boyhood is a hit. Audiences are melting over it. Critics are running out of laudatory adjectives. Personally, I haven't begged this many people to see a movie since probably The Social Network in 2010, when I spent months workshopping different ways to tell people over the age of forty that, "it's not really about Facebook." What began over twelve years ago as an asinine financial risk looks today like one of the best investments in creative vision that a Hollywood producer has ever doled out.

I don't know if the "Boyhood model" will become a thing quite as obviously as the True Detective model will. Even though it took television roughly seventy years to figure this out, it's already clear how and why the True Detective model will quickly become the new norm. The future for projects like Boyhood is much hazier. The financial risk of fronting money for something that can't earn a dime for over a decade will never become un-risky. Banking on actors--a profession where people notoriously don't stay sane and normal for long periods of time--to dependably create something over years and years without courting disaster might not ever become a common-place thing. But the business lesson of Boyhood doesn't have to be in creating a new norm--just a new possibility. That's what great art does; it keeps breaking through with new possibility.

Song of the Day: James Brown - Down and Out In New York City (1973)

The biggest change in my taste over the last five years is undoubtedly how much more soul/blues/jazz/rap I listen to now, or for lack of a better term, black music. I had always liked soul, with Otis Redding and Sam & Dave having been amongst my favorites since my early-20s, but I hadn't fully gotten into James Brown until more recently. Sure, I owned Live at the Apollo and a hits compilation, because those are mandatory if you love pop music, but I didn't start fully immersing myself into his catalogue until the last few years, and now I just can't get enough. He's absolutely my all-time favorite African-American artist now, and I've amassed a pretty substantial collection of his music. To be fair, a lot of Brown's music is startlingly similar. He basically had three phases of his career: the early soul years, the years from about '65-'70 when he pretty much invented the future trajectory of black music, and then everything since, which mostly held to the formula. But Brown is one of those artists for which digging through the stacks and dustbins of his recorded output will always yield a lot of rewards, because he recorded so much material, and maintained such a consistently high standard of quality. 

Down and Out in New York City is my favorite Brown discovery of the last few years, a song so good that I still can't fathom why it appears on so few of his Best Of compilations. It was recorded for the soundtrack of the film Black Caesar in 1973, which was one of a handful of hugely successful Blaxploitation soundtracks from that era (with Shaft and Superfly being the two most notable). It actually sounds somewhat dissimilar from a lot of Brown's other work at the time, probably because he didn't write this song (a major rarity for him), and it's more of a pure soul song for the era. But Brown still adds just enough funk to make it clearly his own, and the result is stunning. That someone can release a four disc box set of his best work, and this song didn't even make the cut, will forever amaze me. For those of you hearing it for the first time, I hope it blows your mind just as much as it did mine.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 21, 2014

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Song of the Day: The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again (1971)

Yesterday was Pete Townshend's birthday, and there were a million Facebook tributes to him, so here's one more.

The Who were the first non-contemporary-to-myself musical artist that I truly obsessed over, and they were my favorite artist ever for a solid 3-4 years before my Springsteen love went into overdrive. They were definitely the first artist that I accumulated 10 or more CDs by (a statement that now describes MANY artists). I loved how they kept reinventing themselves and pushing what they were, from the early days of mod/punk/garage/ "maximum R&B" to the rock operas to virtually inventing classic rock, Townshend could never artistically sit still. 

I don't know if Who's Next is my favorite version of the band anymore, but it certainly was for a long time, and nothing represents that better than the epic album closer, Won't Get Fooled Again. Most of my favorite songs always have a moment where the music and the aural experience becomes truly transcendent to me, and I think this is the song that first made me realize that was something I look for. The long synth solo that builds to an explosion of drums at the 7:30 mark, which then culminates with rock and roll's greatest ever scream at the 7:45 mark, is about as orgasmic as rock music can get. It doesn't mean as much to me now as it did when I was 16 (when rock music was still the only place I could look to for orgasms) but it's still damn great.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 20, 2014

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Song of the Day: The Kinks - Powerman (1970)

I recently re-watched Wes Anderson's wonderful The Darjeeling Limited (which, for my money, is his second best film after The Royal Tenenbaums), and I was reminded how well Anderson uses three different songs from the 1970 Kinks album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround in the film. The sequences using these Kinks songs each feature slow motion movement of the characters, no dialogue or diegetic sound, and showcase the three most important moments in the film. Anderson has used pop songs like this in several of his films, and occasionally takes criticism for being too hipster in the doing, but the sequences almost always work for me. 

Powerman is the best of the three Kinks songs he uses here, and it soundtracks the film's iconic moment where the three Whitman brothers literally (and figuratively) shed their father's baggage (seen at the 3:23 moment of the included video). That this song wasn't a single, doesn't appear on Kinks' Best Of compilations, and isn't likely to be heard on the radio is apropos. Somehow, the Kinks just never quite made it in America, where they're almost regarded as a three-hit-wonder (with You Really Got Me, Lola, and Come Dancing being the three "hits"). But in England, they were probably the fourth biggest band of the 60's, and virtually everything they released from 1964-1971 is outstanding. The conventional wisdom suggests they were "too English" to make it in America, and that's a shame. They recorded dozens and dozens of songs this good during their peak, and they're all worth checking out. Powerman is nothing more than an effective example of what they did all the time.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 19, 2014

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Song of the Day: Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice (1967)

It's funny sometimes how songs that you've loved for a long time can take on entirely new meanings when placed in a different context. You Only Live Twice was the title song from the fifth James Bond film, released in 1967, and it has been my favorite Bond song for as long as I can remember. I love the epic string intro, the vocal and lyric, and the Japanese musical elements that echo the film's settings. I also love the way it was sampled in the great Robbie Williams song "Millennium."

But then came the end of Mad Men season 5, with this song playing over the final montage that closed out the season (which, for my money, has been the show's best season). I can't recall a more perfect choice of music being paired with visuals and thematics. As each of the show's main characters settles into their new status quos, Nancy Sinatra's beautiful voice makes us question whether these are the lives they're living for themselves, or the ones for their dreams. And then there's Don Draper's great ambiguous look before the fade to black. Ever since that moment, this song has been elevated in my mind into one of the best pure pop songs of the 60's.

This was originally written and posted on Facebook on May 18, 2014

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Great Scenes: The Last of the Mohicans and What Perfect Filmmaking Looks Like

This is the last nine minutes of the 1992 Michael Mann adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans, and it's as good an answer as any to the question of why I think film is the greatest art form. At 1:07 of this clip, the music starts, and at 1:24, the last word is spoken. The eight minutes after that is the most exciting, seductive, and breathtaking filmmaking you will ever see. 

Most (though definitely not all) good films have quality story, dialogue, and acting. Those are all important, but not the keys to great cinema. None of those are what sets cinema apart. After all, theater has each of those as well. What great cinema does is control the exact visual and sonic sensation you experience while still letting you experience it on your own terms. Three things combine to do that, and more than anything, they're what come together to create the art of filmmaking: editing, photography, and sound. Never have those three artistic elements been better used in unison than in these eight minutes.

The stunning score creates the tempo and the editing drives it. The location photography transports us to one of the most beautiful settings imaginable (taking place in upstate New York but filmed in North Carolina), but balances that setting with the savagery of the capacity for humans to inflict pain on one another. Everything Michael Mann and his team accomplish here is about absolute precision. The duration of the shots, the angles and distances of the camera, the use of filming death from above and leaps into the abyss from below, the subtle and occasional deployment of slow-motion, the way the driving nature of the music takes a break during the deaths around five and six minutes in before kicking back into full gear for the next action piece… It's all masterly composition in the most literal sense.

Every moment is an exercise in total control over what Mann wants us to see and hear, but what we think and feel comes from us. There's no exposition or explanation in anything that happens, it's all just pure action. It's the film version of shoot first, answer questions never. Mann has a gift of lingering in his direction where he tends to hold shots on characters in transitional moments for longer than other directors, and it allows the audience more of an opportunity to get in the heads of the characters. But these shots are usually devoid of dialogue, which ensures that the character's head is the only place we can go. Mann's films are almost never silent; music is far too important to him as a tool to dictate emotion, pacing, and mood. But his films are never overly talky, either. His characters are always given breathing room for the viewer to feel their situation without being talked to death about it.

Over the last 20 years, Daniel Day Lewis has become more of a star character actor, and retreated from really being a movie star. He disappears into his roles so much that we no longer know what he looks like in "normal" life. I don't know that this is ever what he looked like normally, even in 1992, but it is a wonderful anomaly in his career how much he allowed himself to be a visual star in this film, and how much Mann took advantage. Daniel Day Lewis isn't likely who people think about as a sexy, masculine, lead actor, but that's what he gives in this role. His screen presence is commanding, but not via the voice that he's used so well in his career. His physical presence just soaks up the screen.

Whenever I find myself questioned about why I believe filmmaking is the most potent art form (sometimes even questioned by myself), it's scenes like this that I go back to. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people collaborated to bring these eight minutes into existence, but we got the best out of each of them. It's that ability for the many parts and collaborators to create the greatest of all wholes that ensures filmmaking is the greatest of all arts.