Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Batch of Monkees Videos for a Wednesday Evening

Watching Mike Nesmith's recent Q&A at the 2014 Monkees Convention sent me down a rabbit hole of Monkees-related videos. The most interesting one brought Davy Jones (who treats us to a terrifying Joe Cocker impersonation) together with a member of another favorite group when he appeared on "Pop Quiz" as part of John Entwistle's team in October 1984. Rounding out the Ox's team and serving as trivia secret weapon is Feargal Sharkey of the great Irish pop-punk group The Undertones. The opposition unites Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz and Tony Butler of Big Country (who also worked with John's band mates Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey and also does Cocker), on a team helmed by Dave Dee.

As a bonus, here's Nez's talk at the convention:

...and here's an extra bonus--Peter Tork taking a member of David Letterman's audience on a date in 1982 before sitting down and chatting with the host:
Anyone have a cool Micky Dolenz video they'd like to recommend?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: '33 1/3: The Beach Boys’ Smile'

There are two excellent books about The Beach Boys’ “lost” masterpiece SMiLE, both very different and both by Domenic Priore. Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! is a scrapbook of period articles and more recent essays chronicling the anticipation leading up to a release that never happened and the cultish (though deserved) fan obsession that followed. SMiLE: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece is a more straight forward biographical look at the record that takes us up to Wilson’s solo recreation of it from 2004. Since the SMiLE story didn’t end there—The Beach Boys have since did the once unimaginable by sanctioning the release of a wealth of the original sessions in a deluxe box set—a third book on this particular record is not necessarily unnecessary. The SMiLE Sessions opens the story further by providing a more thorough portrait of the music and its making than most people previously heard and finally providing some closure to this uniquely open-ended story. However, Luis Sanchez doesn’t get into that in his installment of the 33 1/3 series. In fact, his Smile doesn’t really deal with SMiLE much at all, at least not for the first 88 pages of his 118-page book. Those pages are spent with each Beach Boys record leading up to SMiLE. They are discussed with light criticism and basic history most fans will already know. When Sanchez finally gets around to the ostensible subject of his book, he gives SMiLE a bit more attention than Surfin’ USA or The Beach Boys Christmas Album but not nearly enough to satisfy. I applaud the writer for not falling into the worst traps that 33 1/3 writers sometimes tumble into. His book is not preciously personal. It is not inaccessibly academic for a book on pop music. It does not eschew The Beach Boys for tangential discussions on agrarian economics or Vampire Weekend. However, this simply is not a book about a single album, which is supposed to be the purpose of the 33 1/3 series. It’s a brief history of The Beach Boys on record from 1961 through 1966 finished off with a decent but general essay on SMiLE that touches a little on the album’s troubled history, a little on Van Dyke Parks’s consequential contributions, a little on its themes and sounds, and a little on its more recent rebirth. While it is not satisfying as a 33 1/3 book, Smile certainly isn’t bad as an early-Beach Boys primer. I don’t think Domenic Priore is going to lose any sleep over this one though.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Mother of Sci-Fi Movie Franchises Was Also the Darkest

Warning: The Spoilers will damn you all to hell.

Star Wars gets all the credit for being the first major science-fiction movie franchise, segueing off into a plastic avalanche of every product imaginable from the ubiquitous toys to clothing, house wares, books, hygiene products, food, and so on and so on. First appearing a decade before George Lucas’s juggernaut, Planet of the Apes wasn’t quite as over-commercialized as its successor (what is?), but kids could still get their paws on a plethora of Apey action figures, mugs and bowls, t-shirts, comics, puzzles, piggy banks, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes, and so on. They could also get a healthy dose of harsh reality by actually watching the movies. Forget Darth Vader’s traumatizing revelation in The Empire Strikes Back and even all the skin-charring nastiness and off-screen “youngling” killing of Revenge of the Sith. The Planet of the Apes series is by far the darkest, downright cruelest film franchise ever pitched at kids.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: '33 1/3: Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville'

When the term “women in rock” became an inescapable buzz phrase around 1993, the women to which that label applied—Polly Jean Harvey, Kim Deal, Tanya Donelly, and Juliana Hatfield, to name a few—often reacted to questions about it with irritation, bugged that lazy journalists were reducing their considerable musical achievements to gender matters. Their irritation was completely legitimate, yet the Rock scene was becoming more gender-balanced than it ever had been before, and to ignore that would have been to pass on a pretty noteworthy story. It was a frustrating inevitability for the talented musicians who had to field the same tired questions about their gender over and over and over again.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Outstanding Performances in David Lynch Works

David Lynch a master of conjuring uncanny, dreamy atmosphere, of terrifying viewers with films that aren’t quite horror movies, of blending genres into swirling nightmares that defy pat analysis. This is the stuff of which the term “Lynchian” is made. But let’s not forget that he is also an expert conductor of actresses and actors, and he has superb taste in them despite his cheeky use of specimens like Billy Ray Cyrus every now and then. The emotional and logical demands of a David Lynch script require remarkably talented interpreters and very often result in thoroughly unique, flat-out stunning performances. Here are ten of the greatest.

1. Jack Nance as Henry Spencer in Eraserhead

Jack Nance would deserve a place on this list if for nothing but his commitment. Eraserhead famously took five years to make as Lynch kept running out of money. That meant Nance had to both remain in character for five years and wear Henry Spencer’s—ummm—distinctive hair style for five years. Nance’s work in the film is far more than that though. With a bare minimum of dialogue, he relies on his subtly expressive face and masterfully controlled body language to convey the real emotion roiling away beneath Henry’s placid surface as he contends with his monstrous, mocking baby. The slightest smile conveys a flash of fatherly pride, the upturn of eyebrows conveys his despondency with his lot in life, his restful expression at the end of the film let’s us know that he finally feels loved, and it is a most moving climax. And when Nance does speak, his choked delivery draws out the film’s humor and sadness with expert balance. Lynch regards Nance as one of the most expert actors with whom he’s ever worked and handed roles in almost all of his films to Nance until the actor’s death in 1996.

2. Freddie Jones as Bytes in The Elephant Man

Control is also the dominant acting style in Lynch’s second and first truly mainstream film. The Elephant Man is home to several truly fine performances of carefully calibrated emotion and steadfast dignity. Anthony Hopkins is great as the mentoring Dr. Treves, and John Hurt accomplishes the nearly unthinkable by transmitting all of John Merrick’s humanity from under a face-paralyzing makeup job. Yet Freddie Jones is the actor most likely to steal a scene by essentially parodying all the stiff-upper-lip-ness of The Elephant Man. Carnival curator Bytes is an utterly undignified man desperately attempting to emit dignity, trembling with anger, drunkenness, and desire. As cruel as he is to John Merrick, we also get the sense that he may love him a little too, that he harbors a deep fear of being left alone by the man he so wickedly mistreats. This does not forgive Bytes’s villainy, but it helps us understand him a little and humanizes a character that does unthinkably inhuman things. Some of that was probably on the page, but so much of it is due to a brilliant, brilliant performance by Freddie Jones.

3. Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet

In Blue Velvet, Lynch created a villain even more repellant than Bytes. As embodied by Dennis Hopper, Frank Booth is a truly vile individual: rapist, murderer, torturer, drug dealer, noxious gas huffer. But even more explicitly than Bytes, he is driven by a twisted notion of love. He does much of what he does because he is in love with Dorothy Vallens. We see this in the tortured expression on his face while he listens to Roy Orbison’s powerfully romantic “In Dreams” and in the lovelorn look he gives Dorothy as she serenades the patrons of the Slow Club while he strokes a piece of blue velvet clipped from her robe. Of course, that twisted love does not excuse the horrible things he does to Dorothy and her family, which make Frank a Lynch villain only trumped by Killer BOB in terms of pure evil. Hopper fully committed to both the wayward romanticism and the evil of Frank Booth, making him a fully complex villain.

4. Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet
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