Sunday, December 23, 2012

What Time Are You? (music)

by Steve Kaczorowski

imageWhat Time Are You? is a self-published album of ten songs that came out around 1971. Normally, something like this is handed out to a few friends and relatives and never heard from again.  But in the most recent eBay auction, the album sold for over $1100.  Rare, certainly, but why such a collector’s item?

The story is a long one, and a fascinating one.  I knew Steve.  He went to my high school, a year after me.  I never met him before I graduated, for the simple reason that he transferred in the next year. My brother Ron, who even now does concert gigs back home, introduced him to me; they met because of their interest in performing.

You see, Steve was a rock star.  Under his stage name of Steve Martin,* he was a member of the Left Banke, and wrote their hits Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina.  He clearly kept his contacts in the music business:  when I visited his house, he had promotional copies of dozens of albums.**  He was my age, but a year behind me because of the time he had spent touring. 

And he made his money by writing songs for established artists and then selling all rights to them.  When groups were short a song or two, he’d write something for them as work for hire.  These included “I Got a Line on You” by Spirit,*** “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, and “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.  He was also credited (as “Steve Martin”) on an album by the “Bosstown” rock group Orpheus.  He also did music production under the name of Steve Drake.

He used his contacts that spring, when he managed to get permission for what was the first North American production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  Steve alternated in the role of Jesus and word had it that some big names – including John Sebastian and Paul McCartney -- showed up.

And, at about this time, Steve recorded What Time Are You? I remember listening to it and was impressed.  The songs were melodic and catchy, with standouts like “I’d Love to Change the Word,” “Think I Better Find My Way Home,”  “Big Green Pearl,” and several others.  There were also some big names involved:  Robert Fripp, Don McLean, and Nicky Hopkins.  I remember how strange it was to hear one song and realize I knew the people it was talking about.  My father stocked it in his store.

Here’s “I’d Love to Change the World” (co-credited to Alvin Lee of Ten Years After):

I’d Love to Change the World

I then moved on until, a few years ago, I decided to track him down on the Internet.  That’s when I learned that Steve Kaczorowski was hoaxing us all.

It started out, like so many things, with a search on his name.  I found the transcript of an Internet radio that talked about him.  What Steve had done was take obscure album cuts, often by obscure British groups, remove the audio track (or mix it down so it sounded like a backing vocal) and sing the part himself. 

The more I looked into it, the more I discovered that just about everything Steve had told us was untrue.  A little while later, a web page was put up detailing the songs he used and the technical background of it all.  The only thing that is real is that he did, indeed, arrange for the school to do Jesus Christ Superstar, but not because of any contacts:  when Andrew Lloyd Webber found out, it was too close to opening night, so he agreed to allow it as long as no admission was charged.

Steve put out several other albums using the same trick:  taking existing songs, rerecording either the vocals or getting a band to play behind him, and releasing them, now as the “Steve Drake Band.”  These albums are all collectors items among those who know their history.

The funny thing is, no one who knew him begrudges him for this (including one guy who got caught up in a lawsuit when a band found out what was happening).  Steve was a nice guy, and came across as very modest about his “accomplishments.”  He never made any claims about his supposed past to me, for instance,**** and those who worked with him were impressed by his enthusiasm and creativity.

Steve died in 2009.

*Not the comedian.

**He played Cold Spring Harbor,  the first solo album by Billy Joel.  I was used to seeing promotional albums, because I was working at my college radio station, and a copy of Cold Spring Harbor was waiting at college when I returned.

***He recorded this as a single; my brother did some backing vocals.

****I heard them from other people.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Olive the Other Reindeer (TV)

Directed by
Steve Moore
Written by Steve Young, from a book by J. Otto Siebold and Vivian Walsh
Starring Drew Barrymore, Dan Castellaneta, Joe Pantoliano, Edward Asner, Peter MacNicol, Tim Meadows, Jay Mohr, Michael Stipe
IMDB Entry

There are times when you realize a TV show or movie is a classic, even before you get to the end. I don’t get that feeling often, but halfway through Olive the Other Reindeer, I knew that this was one.

The story is about Olive (voice of Drew Barrymore), a dog.  Olive loves Christmas, but when Blitzen is injured and can’t fly, she is disconsolate. Her pet flea Fido (Peter MacNicol)* hears Santa saying “Olive the Other Reindeer, and convinces her it means he expects her to help out.  Olive is not like other dogs, as her owner Tim (Jay Mohr) points out, so she decides to go to the North Pole to help out.  Her plans are discovered by an evil mailman (Dan Castellaneta), who hates Christmas because of the burden of extra mail, plus the fact he’s been on Santa’s naughty list.  He tries to stop her.  So, with the help of Martini (Joe Pantoliano), a con man penguin, she goes out to save Christmas.

Now, the “Save Christmas” plot has been done many times. To make it work, you have to do something different and Olive has plenty of this. The story is filled with puns (especially the character names), callouts to other shows (Olive passes Frostbite Falls on her way to the North Pole), good and funny songs (written by producer Matt Groening , creator of The Simpsons), and general silliness (Olive gets out of a tight spot by opening an envelope from “Deus ex Machina”).  The humor throughout is very layered, and you notice more jokes the more often you view the show**.

The voice cast is wonderful.  Drew Barrymore captures the wide-eyed innocence of Olive perfectly and Dan (Homer Simpson) Castellaneta makes the mailman a terrific comic villain.  Joe Pantoliano’s Martini make him the comic highlight of every scene he’s in.

The show mimicked the style of the artist of the original book, J. Otto Siebold.  It looks like paper cutouts of the characters in the books.  It’s a big change from the usual style of animation, and nothing like any American or Japanese animation at all.*** People are used to the three-dimensional computer animation, or something like Anime, or even the Disney style; this may have been a little distracting.

That may have been why it seems to have vanished.  Only the Cartoon Network is showing it this year, and that’s in time slots a long way from prime time.  The show seems to have been a labor of love by Groening, Barrymore, and the rest of the cast.  It’s a shame it’s not better known.****

*Who is hard of hearing (or, perhaps secretly evil).

**In one scene, Blitzen’s cousin Schnitzel (REM’s Michael Stipe) introduces himself as “flightless, unfortunately.”  Martini responds, “It happens.”

***It seems to me to be more European in style, like the works coming out of Czechoslovakia in the 60s.

****I purchased a copy of  it at the local supermarket; the cashier was confused, wondering why there was a dog on the cover.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Arthur Christmas

Arthur Christmas(2011)
Directed by
Sarah Smith, Barry Cook
Written by Peter Baynham (screenplay), Sarah Smit (story)
Starring:  James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Ramona Marquez
IMDB Entry

I mentioned recently that I was a big fan of Aardman Animation. But one problem with Aardman is that they’re partnered with Sony Pictures; thus it wasn’t obvious to me that Arthur Christmas was their work.  I fixed that problem and discovered what is probably the best Christmas film since A Christmas Story.

The story is set at the North Pole, where Santa Claus is actually a job description, passed down from  son to father for centuries.  The current Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent) has been modernized by his oldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie) with a giant hi-tech sleigh, the S-1, and thousands of elves on board.  Arthur (James McEvoy), his younger son, is a gung-ho Christmas enthusiast, but far too clumsy to do anything other than answer children’s letters, most notably one from Gwen  (Ramona Marquez), who has many questions about Santa and to whom he writes a personal assurance that he exists and that Gwen will get the present she wants.

The high-tech delivery goes off without a hitch – except one.  Gwen’s present remains on the S-1, undelivered.  Arthur insists it has to be, but Steve and Santa are tired and missing one child out of billions doesn’t seem like a big deal.

But to Arthur, it is.  Joining up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), they saddle up the old sleigh*, get some reindeer, and head off with the stowaway Bryony (Ashely Jensen), a wrapping elf** with the same sense of duty as Arthur.  Naturally, things don’t go very smoothly.

The film is very funny, with gags coming fast and furious without a stop. But the film had a heart, and isn’t afraid to show it.  I also like the fact that there really isn’t a bad guy.  Steve has his shortcomings and is clearly not the ideal choice for Santa, but he isn’t a bad person at heart, and his methods are essential.  The film also avoids showing people teasing Arthur for his clumsiness; though they make comments behind his back, you don’t see any out-and-out cruelty as the elves and family try to indulge him and get him out of the way.

Steve, Santa & ArthurThe cast is stellar.  Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy have never appeared in a bad movie and they bring the characters to life.  Hugh Laurie has a lot of fun as Steve and James McEvoy is wonderful as Arthur, putting across his crazed, sweet idealism.  Imelda Staunton is a subtle delight as Mrs. Claus, who is clearly where Steve gets his organizational skill.  And it was great to hear Ramona Marquez.***

The movie suffered the fate of other Aardman films.  With the name “Aardman” obscured, people might not realize who made it, and the film was, like most Aardman films, more interesting in interesting and quirky characters than recognizable stereotypes.  It did adequately, but got a bit lost among bigger names.  It probably got hurt the most by opening the same week as The Muppets, which aimed at a similar audience but was a known quantity.

Luckily, it’s out on video.  Get a copy and see a real Christmas classic.

*Named “Eve.”

**Whose job it is to wrap presents.

***An amazing child actress.  She is a regular in the UK TV series Outnumbered, which depends on her ability to improvise a scene.  I suspect that her letter to Santa was at least party written by Ramona herself, who is was natural comedian by the time she was seven

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Out of Sight

Directed by
Steven Soderberg
Written by Scott Frank from a novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle,
Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina
IMDB Entry

Elmore Leonard was a major success as a writer, but it took a long time for him to catch on in Hollywood.  But by the mid-80s and 90s, directors were taking his work and coming up with successful films like 52 Pickup, Get Shorty, and Jackie BrownAnd in 1998, director Steven Soderberg took on his book Out of Sight.

Leonard was great at creating quirky and memorable characters, and there are plenty of them in the film.  Jack Foley (George Clooney) is a small-time bank robber who finds himself in jail when he can't get his getaway car started.  He manages an escape with the help of his friend Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames).  Unfortunately, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a Federal agent with a love of guns, stumbled upon the escape.  Buddy stashes her and Jack in the trunk of his car to make an escape.

An oddball romance ensues.  Sisco is, after all, a cop, and doesn't forget her job is to bring Jack in.  But she is conflicted, so when Jack goes out on "one last job" -- to rob businessman Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks) of some diamonds, she tails along.  Is she going along, or is she playing him?  And what about Maurice Miller (Don Cheadle), a vicious criminal who is also out for the diamonds?

Clooney is unsurpassed in his generation as playing the light romantic lead* and his ability to be charming and funny makes him perfect for the role.  Jennifer Lopez is usually not thought of as a great actress, but she is fine here and the chemistry with Clooney is spectacular.  Don Cheadle is always great when playing a psychotic criminal, and Albert Brooks, Ving Rhames, Dennis Farina (as Karen's father), and an uncredited Michael Keaton** all make for a solid and entertaining film.

*Only Cary Grant was better.
*Playing the same part, Ray Nicorette, that he played in Jackie Brown, thereby making him one of a small group of actors who played the same characters in more than one non-sequel films.  Others include Akim Tamirof and Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), Margaret Rutherford (playing a cameo of Miss Marple in The Alphabet Murders), Don Ameche and Ralph Belaman (Trading Places and Coming to America), and James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Seven Little Foys).