Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Lovin' Spoonful (music)

(1965-69)
Members:
  John Sebastian (guitar, harmonica, autoharp, vocals), Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Steve Boone (bass), Joe Butler (drums)
All Music Guide

After Sgt. Pepper, most rock musicians turned away from hit singles and toward albums.  Many of this period talked at the time about how they lost interest in top 40 radio, that they didn't really care for it and preferred to listen to albums.  But there was one group that they always said was an exception:  The Lovin' Spoonful.

The group had its origins in New York's Greenwich Village.  Guitarist Zal Yanovsky had become a member of the Mugwumps with Cass Eliott and Denny Doherty, who soon gained pop fame as half of the Mamas and the Papas.*  After the Mugwumps broke up, Yanovsky started working with Sebastian.  The added Boone and Butler and started recording.

Their first single, Sebastian's "Do You Believe in Magic," went to number 9, and they followed up with a series of classic singles, with  "Daydream," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," and "Nashville Cats" hitting the top ten.

The hits were all written by Sebastian.  He was able to take a combination of folk music, jug band music, and rock and turn it into a cheery new hybrid, usually called "good time music."  Which described it well:  there was a joyousness in every song and a sense of fun throughout.  It started a trend**.  

In addition to their singles and albums, they recorded two movie soundtracks:  "What Up Tiger Lily?" for Woody Allen, and "You're a Big Boy Now" for a young Francis Ford Coppola.

Things were going well, but trouble struck in an unexpected way.  Zal was arrested for possession of marijuana.  Not unusual, but the police pressured him to name his supplier, threatening him with deportation (he was Canadian).  The music community didn't forgive him and put pressure on him so much that he quit the group and moved to Canada anyway. 

He was replaced with an old friend of the group, Jerry Yester.  The group's sound changed and, though they had a couple of hits,*** things were ending.  Sebastian decided it was time to go solo.  The group continued and even had some minor hits, but it just wasn't the same.  They broke up in 1969.

Sebastian went on to a successful solo career****, starting with the album John B. Sebastian***** and hitting the charts a few years later with "Welcome Back," written as the theme song for the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.  Yanovsky released a quirky album called Alive and Well in Argentina, which was quickly forgotten.  Yester, Boone, and Butler eventually reunited and are playing as the Lovin Spoonful even now.

While they were not a group known for their albums, their singles still have the power to make you smile.

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* Their song "Creeque Alley" includes references to Sebastian ("In a coffee house Sebastian sat") and Yanovsky ("Zal and Denny, working for a penny").

**The Turtles, for instance, who had a couple of minor hits with Dylan covers and who thought of themselves as a protest band, heard "Do You Believe in Magic?" and decided they'd rather be cheerful than Mr. Alienation, and recorded "Happy Together."  The Grateful Dead reportedly saw the Spoonful and decided to switch from acoustic jug band to rock.

***Including "Money" (not the song the Beatles covered), which is a loving paean to the capitalism and the banking system.

****He was an extremely likeable live performer.  I saw him live at the Union College Memorial Chapel in the early 70s.  Sebastian came on and, with wonder in his voice said, "I've never played in a chapel before," then broke into a few bars of "Chapel of Love."  Great show.

*****Probably the only record to ever be bootlegged by a major recording company.  Sebastian signed with Reprise Records for the album, but MGM Records (the parent company of the Spoonful's label) claimed he owed them an album, so they pirated the tapes and sold it.  MGM lost the ensuing legal battle.  They tried again by releasing a live John Sebastian album the next year, but again, they were told to cut it out, and Sebastian released his own live album in response.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hollywood Shuffle

(1987)
Directed by
Robert Townsend
Written by Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans
Starring Robert Townsend, Starletta DuPois, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Anne-Marie Johnson
IMDB Entry

We always like it when a director makes a big splash with his first film.  And it's an especially good story if he does it on his own, in a small independent movie. People like Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It*), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) were able to make critically acclaimed low-budget debuts, and have them picked up by studios and move on to solid careers.

Robert Townsend started out that way.  His first film, Hollywood Shuffle, was shot on a budget of $100,000,** $40,000 of which he raised while maxing out his credit cards and working as a bit player in a handful of movie. And he hit the jackpot:  critical acclaim, a studio distribution, and a foot in the door.

Hollywood Shuffle is the story of Bobby Taylor (Townsend), an aspiring Hollywood actor.  But he has a problem:  as a black man, he keeps coming face to face with stereotyping.

Now, Hollywood was always about stereotypes.  They may have become less offensive of the years (especially the racial ones), but even now characters learn to play a type.  And at the time the film was made in 1987, roles for Black actors were still limited:  pimps, Eddie Murphy types, and other roles that, while better than the demeaning stereotypes of the pre-Civil-Rights days, were still pretty limiting.

The movie hits the whole issue with a biting satire and Bobby keeps trying to get a role that doesn't require him to portray what he hates.  It's somewhat hit or miss*** but very likeable.

The ending is what makes the movie stand out.  It's something of a twist that turns Bobby's seeming failure into a real success, letting him do what he's been wanting to do in a surprising way.

Townsend was able to pay off his credit card bills and establish himself as a director to watch.  Alas, it didn't pan out.  He directed Eddie Murphy Raw, not the type of film that gets and director noticed, then had a series of flips:  The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, and BAPS, none of which made more than $9 million in the box office.****  He moved to TV, but still hasn't done anything of particular note.

Hollywood Shuffle may be a bit dated, but the issues it raises still exist, and it's final message is something everyone can take to heart.

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*He also did several student films, but She's Gotta Have It was his first film on his own.

**Remember, this was still the film era, where the cost of shooting was greater.

***There's a overly long section with Keenan Ivory Wayans (pre In Living Color) portraying one of a Black "Siskel and Ebert" pair of movie critics that isn't all that funny and really clouds Townsend's point.

****Though they did make more money than Hollywood Shuffle.  Still, they also cost far more than $100,000 and were a loss in real accounting, not just the Hollywood version.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baroness Orczy (author)

Baroness Ocrzy(1865-1947)
Wikipedia Page

European nobles are not known for their contributions to the arts. Oh, there's Lord Byron, of course, but other than that, it's hard to think of anyone who was successful in the arts, where their bloodlines and money does them no good. But Baroness Emmuska Orczy managed to become an extremely popular writer in the early years of the 20th century.

Orczy was the daughter of a Hungarian baron who moved to London when she was twelve to escape a revolution in his home country. In the late 1890s, she began to write as a way to bring in money, and, after a few fits and starts, ended up establishing herself as a writer of mysteries and adventure stories.

She made her name as a writer of swashbucklers, starting with The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Though the name is pretty much forgotten except as a joke,* it was a major success when the character first appeared in short stories and finally a play in 1903.  The stories were set during the days of the French Revolution as the Pimpernel**, one of the first characters to have a secret identity, fought to rescue nobles from the madness of the Terror.  The Pimpernel was really a precursor to superheroes like Batman and the Shadow, and both better-known heroes had similarities to him.

It is interesting that Orczy, who was uprooted by revolution as a noblewoman, chose as a hero a man who fought against revolutionaries to save noblemen.

But the Pimpernel wasn't Orczy's only literary creations.  She also wrote a series of mystery stories featuring the Old Man in the Corner.

The Old Man -- his real name unrevealed -- was one of the first armchair detectives.  He sits in the ABC Tea Shop and engages reporter Polly Burton*** in conversations discussing the mysteries of the day, all the while fidgeting with a piece of string.  The Old Man does get around -- to visit the scenes of the crime or to watch the trial -- but each story has him staying entirely in his chair.  Like he does with the knots in his string, he unravels mysteries, and finds the solution.  But he never arrests anyone, and often the murderer remains free.  The stories are first class mysteries.

Orczy also had another series about the adventures of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, the police's only woman detective, who manages to solve crimes by using a woman's eye to see what men have missed. 

With these and other series, Orczy was one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century.  Alas, her stories slowly lost favor and the type of swashbuckling adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel is out of date****

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* Looney Tunes parodied it in their classic cartoon, The Scarlet Pumpernickel.

**One of the first characters to have a secret identity -- Sir Percy Blakeney

***Whose function is to put forth questions to challenge the Old Man, only to have them shot down.

****Except when they use lightsabers.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Magic

(1978)
Directed by
Richard Attenborough
Written by William Goldman
Starring Anthony Hopkins, Burgess Meredith, Ann-Margaret.
IMDB Entry

Ever since The Great Gabbo, ventriloquists in film* always seem to have the same problem:  the dummy becoming a representative of their own multiple personalities.  Magic is one take on the genre, overcoming the cliche with good writing and an excellent cast.

Fats and CorkyIn the film, Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) is an aspiring stage comic who comes up with ventriloquism as a gimmick for his career.  His dummy, Fats, is foul mouthed and rude, and makes Corky into a star.  But just as his agent Ben (Burgess Meredith) lines up a prime time TV show for him, he vanished into the Catskills.

The reason is that he keeps hearing Fats talking to him, even when he's not holding the dummy.  Corky fears he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Meeting an old girlfriend (Ann-Margaret) seems to help at first, but soon things get worse.  Very much worse.

The interesting part about the film is that it's never entirely clear whether Fats is part of Corky's personality, or some sort of supernatural being. Except for one shot, he is being manipulated by Corky, but that one shot -- where Fats appears to move -- hints that maybe it's something else.**

This was the first American starring role for Anthony Hopkins, and he does a fine job showing Corky and a man on the edge.  Ann-Margaret was at the peak of her career, and great to watch as the woman who inadvertently sets the tragedy in motion.

The script is by William Goldman, a purveyor of first-class movie scripts, and best known for The Princess Bride and Marathon Man.  Director Attenborough took the job partially to raise money for his bigger project:  Gandhi. The film also started getting Hopkins noticed in the US, and his next starring role, in The Elephant Man, put his career into high gear.

Though the story is a bit old hat, the great talents involved make it a solid psychological horror film.

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*Except for Edgar Bergan

** My feeling is that there's no supernatural explanation and the movement is merely gravity doing its thing.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Bent Fabric (music)

(1924- )
Official Website

Bent FabricThere are, of course, many one-hit wonders, groups that had a single hit and were never heard from again. Usually, you remember the name of the group when you hear the song, but in the case of Bent Fabric, his name has been completely forgotten, despite the fact that his one hit is still played around the US -- just not on the radio.

Though it sounds like the name of a group, Bent Fabric was the stage name of Danish pianist Bent Fabricius-Bjerre.*  Fabric started a jazz group after World War II and even founded his own record label.  And, in 1961, he recorded "Omkring et Flygel," a simple but sprightly little piano tune that was released in the US and was an immediate hit, reaching #2 on the charts and winning him a Grammy for Best Instrumental.

But the song didn't stop there.  It took on a life of its own, especially when a simple but fun dance was created for it.  Whenever there was a happy gathering -- wedding, anniversary party, etc.  -- in the 60s, 70s, and beyond, with live music, you could bet that at some point the band would play it.  You probably danced to it yourself.  Lyrics were added at one point for those who wanted to sing along.

Never heard of it?  Of course not.  With a name like "Omkring et Flygel,**" the US record company knew it stood no chance.  Since it was an instrumental, however, they were perfectly free to choose a new name for it.

The name they chose was "Alley Cat."

Bent Fabric continued to release albums, usually given animal-themed names like The Happy Puppy***, but never struck gold again.  It didn't matter.  Back in Denmark he became a respected film composer and TV host.

But somewhere this weekend, you can bet that there's a wedding where the band is getting everyone up to dance to the Alley Cat.

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*"Bent" evidently was not uncommon as a first name in Denmark. A friend of the family who was Danish was named "Bente," the female version.

**"Around a Piano" in Danish.

***The first I saw his name.  It took me awhile to realize it was a single person.He also did an album with another instrumentalist of the time, Mr. Acker Bilk.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Inki and the Mynah Bird

the Mynah Bird Created by Chuck Jones
The Little Lion Hunter (1939)
Inki and the Lion (1941)
Inki and the Minah Bird (1943)
Inki at the Circus (1947)
Caveman Inki (1950)

Chuck Jones is a legend in the world of animation.  Ten of his cartoons listed in the book The Fifty Greatest Cartoons, including four of the top five. But in the early years, he was feeling his way and his creations were of characters that are not part of the Warner Brothers canon any more.  And while Sniffles the Mouse is pretty forgettable, one of his creations is a forgotten touch of absurd greatness.  That character is the Mynah Bird.*

The bird first appeared in The Little Lion Hunter, as something of a supporting character.  The title character -- later named Inki -- is an African boy who is sort of an Elmer Fudd wannabe.  The plot of the cartoon involves Inki's encounters with a lion (and other creatures), but what makes it work is the presence of the Mynah Bird.

The Bird is introduced with Inki following his tracks into some bushes, which begin to wave violently.  He retreats, thinking it's a larger animal, but out of the storm** comes a small, black bird, like a crow only rounder, and with a yellow beak and legs.  The bird walks across the forest to the time of Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave/Hebredes Overture"*** in a peculiar gait that part walking, part hopping, moving in a perfectly straight line until he vanished into a hole or another bush.  He ignored everything going on around him -- until the right moment, when he would wreck havoc on those who got in his way (usually a lion that was out to get Inki). 

Inki usually started hunting the Mynah Bird, who was always two steps (and hops) ahead of him, but, at the end, the bird would come to his aid. They were friends, in a way, though the Bird refused to acknowledge that.

Jones continued the series sporadically as he moved on to other things.  For awhile, it was regularly shown on Saturday morning TV, but then vanished.

The reason was simple:  Inki.

As our racial attitudes changed in the 60s, the character became an embarasment.  Jones was one of the nicest guys in show business**** and Inki was never ridiculed due to his race.  He acted just the way he was:  a young boy playing at hunting.  But the character design was unacceptable, with the typical traits of the comic Negro that were offensive in so many other contexts.  It was impossible to look at Inki without seeing the racism (not to mention the racism in his name).

By the 70s, it was impossible to find the cartoons.  Though they have made something of a comeback (some are on youtube), the long gap has made them forgotten.

It's too bad.  The Mynah Bird is one of Jones's great creations; it's a shame he only appeared with Inki.

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*Sometimes spelled "Minah Bird."

**Which got bigger in subsequent adventures.

***You can get a great familiarity with classical music by watching Warner Brothers cartoons.  Carl Stalling, their musical director, seemed to think they worked well -- and he was right.  In addition to "Fingal's Cave," he also loved using "The William Tell Overture," "Poet and Peasant," and, of course, the work of Raymond Scott.

****Read his autobiography, Chuck Amuck.