Friday, December 31, 2010

The Kids are Alright

Directed, Written, and Researched by
Jeff Stein
Starring Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon
IMDB Entry
A description of the film from

The cast list should have tipped you off:  this isn't the 2010 film about a lesbian couple.  It is one of the top ten rock documentaries.

I've been a big fan of the Who from the early 70s, when Tommy was played constantly on our college campus.  Pete Townshend was one of the great rock songwriters, while John Entwistle was the just a great rock bassist.  And Keith Moon was clearly the most impressive rock drummer ever.  So when the film came out, I wanted to see it.

And The Kids are Alright is different from most of the genre.  Usually, the filmmaker starts filming a concert or tour and edits the footage to make a movie.  Director Jeff Stein -- who had never directed before -- had the brilliant idea of collecting video and film clips of the Who performing on TV and in concert and weaving it into a single film.  He pestered the group to let him try it, and when he showed them an early version, they fell in love with it and let him complete the film.

The Who was one of the most theatrical of rock groups.  You had Daltrey as the lead singer, dancing and spinning the microphone around like a lasso.  Townsend's guitar playing was bravura -- part musician, part dancer as he hopped around the stage and used his famous windmill* to bash out the music, often with him smashing the guitar at the end of the show.  Moon was a madman behind the drums, playing faster than it seemed humanly possible and bouncing drumsticks up into the air, where he'd catch them without losing a beat. Entwistle was the opposite of them all -- he never seemed to show any expression as he played.  In the early days, they always dressed in high Mod style.**

The movie consists of performances and interviews, with Moon showing his mad side at every turn, and the others joining in. In the opening sequence -- as they took over The Smothers Brothers Show and refused to say their rehearsed lines -- Keith Moon set off a firecracker that probably led to Townsend losing his hearing***. 

We hear some tidbits, like how the group managed to get new guitars in the early days when they weren't making much money.  Townshend would run into a guitar store, grab one quick, and then shout out, "Put it on our bill!" 

The movie is one fine performance after another, capturing the excitement of one of rock's greatest stage acts.

*Moving his right arm in a giant circle before playing a power chord.  He may not be the one who invented the trick (I've seen in credited to blues great Sister Rosetta Tharp), but he made it his own.

**A British teenage subculture that stressed high fashion and rock and roll.  They competed and brawled with the Rockers, who had a motorcycle gang leather jacket image.

***Mood died while the film was being finished.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Weekend (TV)

Executive Producer
Reuven Frank
Presented by Lloyd Dobyns (later joined by Linda Ellerbee).

Back in the 70s, believe it or not, no one in television thought TV news shows had any chance of being more than just a prestige loss leader.  News was reserved for the 6:00 hour, and the idea of a prime time news show was tried and never seemed to work.  60 Minutes struggled along, helped by its Sunday time slot, until it started to gain momentum in the late 70s. 

But it did well enough for NBC to think about emulating it.  Their first attempt, First Tuesday, struggled.  So Reuven Frank decided that the best way to go was to try a time slot where they had little to lose -- late night on Saturday.  Thus, Weekend was born.

The show was hosted by Lloyd Dobyns, who also wrote a lot of the pieces. It was different from 60 Minutes.  There were no interviews, for one thing.  For another, it was willing not only to handle serious subject, but also lighter fare, all held together by Lloyd Dobyns's wry commentary.

Dobyns has worked his way up NBC news to doing documentaries, and he was a major change from the 60 Minutes crew.  He was willing to add a little humor to the news, often at his own expense.  For instance, after a news report about africanized "killer bees," he ended it with a story about how while filming the natives expressed one wish:  that the TV crews would go home and not rile up the bees.  Dobyns was able to make these comments using his dry sense of humor.

The show premiered in the fall of 1974, and gained acclaim, eventually winning a Peabody Award for its writing (Dobyns wrote his own commentary).  And the ratings weren't bad, considering that the network never had anything in that time slot before.  But there was a problem.

Weekend was not the only show NBC premiered in that time slot that season.  The other was Saturday Night Live.  In the beginning, they played nicely -- Weekend was on once a month, while SNL appeared the other three weeks.  This gave SNL a break, while allowing Weekend time to develop stories.  But SNL became a breakout hit, and executives decided it was best not to skip a week.  And while Weekend was not up to SNL's ratings, it won awards and had enough of a following that NBC decided to move it to prime time.

They made a brilliant move of adding Linda Ellerby to co-host with Dobyns.  The two were very much alike in attitude and wit; they made a perfect team.

But they made an stupid move that ruined all that:  it was scheduled opposite 60 Minutes*.  And in the time that Weekend ran, 60 Minutes had become a ratings powerhouse, moving into the top ten of all TV shows.  Weekend just couldn't compete.  It was canceled in 1979.

Ellerby and Dobyns moved on to the acclaimed NBC Overnight** and both continued as successful if underappreciated news figures. 


*They were faced with the problem of the name of the show.  They didn't want to change it due to the good will it had, but it had to be put into a weekend slot.  (Once, they did run it on Tuesday, and Dobyns said that the weekend was a state of mind, but I doubt many would get the joke).

**Which probably deserves a Great but Forgotten entry of its own, but I never saw the show and thus cannot comment on it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Man Who Loved Women

The Man Who Loved WomenDirected by
Blake Edwards
Screenplay by Blake Edwards, Milton Wexler, Geoffrey Edwards, based upon a screenplay by Michel Fermaud, Suzanne Schiffman, and François Truffaut
Starring:  Burt Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Marylu Henner, Sela Ward, Denise Crosby
IMDB Entry

(In memory of Blake Edwards)

This film is exhibit A.  I have often mentioned here that some movies are mismarketed -- their ads implying things about a film that are just not there.  The Man Who Loved Women is the key example of this:  it was marketed as a comedy.

Now, that's not particular surprising.  Blake Edwards was best known for his Pink Panther films and for later comedies like S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria.  But he did make some dramas. 

The Man Who Loved Women is not quite a comedy, and not quite a drama, but is a very interesting time. It's the story of David Fowler (Burt Reynolds), who has the problem of loving too many women.  He goes to a psychiatrist (Julie Andrews), who tried to help him come to terms with his behavior -- while, at the same time, Fowler is finding new women to love.

The key point is that Fowler is not a womanizer as most people use the term.  He is not really into the conquest.  He truly falls in love with all the women he sleeps with, and his problem is trying to choose as to who he wants to stay with permanently.  And one of the main points is that the women loved Fowler just as deeply.

But few others do.  The movie was advertised as a laugh riot from the director of The Pink Panther.  And while there was a bit of perfunctory slapstick, the movie was generally dealing with Fowler's inability to make a decision over anything.

It flopped, in part because people were led to believe it was something very different than what it was.

Edwards took it in stride, and continued to make movies, and the film didn't hurt any of the actors careers.  But I find it a sweet rumination on love and relationships between the sexes.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ref

The Ref(1994)
Directed by
  Ted Demme
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, from a story by Marie Weiss
Starring Dennis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Christine Baransky, Glynis Johns.
IMDB Entry

Ah, Christmas.  A time for joy and heartwarming movies about families getting together. But read any advice column this time of year and you'll see that it's also a time of drama, bad feelings, spite, and malice. And The Ref takes the dark side of Christmas and turns it into a sharp little black comedy.

Gus (Dennis Leary) is a burglar, who is ditched by his getaway man as he pulls off a job on Christmas Eve, forcing him to improvise. He finds Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) and forces her and her husband Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) to take him to their home while the police search for him.  Caroline and Lloyd's marriage is, to say the least, in trouble -- neither can say anything without attacking the other.  Gus is forced to deal with him until he works out a plan, but soon Lloyd's family arrives, forcing everyone to pretend that things are normal. Gus soon discovers that the only way he's going to be able to escape the police is to solve the problems of Connecticut's most dysfunctional family.

The movie has a lot going for it:  a very funny script and some very talented performers.  Though the names of Leary and Spacey are well known today, they were just becoming noticeable in films at the time.  Leary was known primarily as a comedian and Spacey was just reaching stardom.  Judy Davis was even then one of the most well-regarded actresses in film, even if she has rarely had roles worthy of her talents.  Christine Baranski was a year away from her breakthrough role in Cybil

Even though today we'd look at the cast list and nod at how good they must have been, the movie was not a hit, and barely made back its budget.  Leary has blamed the marketing, and the time was certainly not right for black comedy with a Christmas theme, especially one coming from Touchstone/Disney.  And the name of the film was probably not a help; while The Ref makes a lot of sense in the context of the film, it's a bit opaque and hard for audiences to remember.

Director Ted Demme career didn't seem badly affected by the so-so box office, as he made several more movies with top level casts.  His last film was Blow starring Johnny Depp as the man who made cocaine mainstream in the 70s.  That's ironic, since Demme died the next year of a heart attack induced by cocaine in his system.

This is not a warmhearted Christmas movie, but it's still a film that gets a lot of laughs about the dark sides of the holiday.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jon Gnagy (TV)


Jon Gnagy He was billed at "Television's Original Art Teacher," and few disputed the claim.  Jon Gnagy was a fixture on TV in the 50s and 60s, and millions bought his "Learn to Draw" kits in an attempt to bring out their artistic ability.

Gnagy grew up in Kansas, where he took up drawing and began winning art competitions when he was in his teens.  After attending art school, he moved to New York in the Depression to try his hand as a freelance artist. He gained success surprisingly quickly, getting a major commercial art contract two days after he got there.  He went on as a successful freelancer and teacher, developing his system to make people comfortable drawing.

All that put him in a good position when, on May 16, 1946, the first television broadcast from the Empire State Building antenna was aired. Gnagy's charm and ability let him to getting the leadoff spot on the broadcast, and he was on TV for years afterwards.

Gnagy's system made it easy for beginning to learn to draw.  He broke everything down into four geometric shapes:  a ball, a cone, a cube, and a cylinder, and promised that if you could draw those shapes, you could draw anything.  And he would proceed to show you how.

Gnagy was a fixture of off-hours TV.  Part was because his shows were interesting, but I suspect that they were also cheap for the stations to run them. Production costs were minimal -- there was just Gnagy and one camera.  In addition, Gnagy also sold a "Learn to Draw" Kit, which had imageall the pencils, erasers and other equipment needed to follow along with the show. The kit and others by him are still being made, and kids continue to use his methods to learn how to draw. But sales of the kit clearly helped support the show, and probably allowed Gnagy to make offer it at a low price.

It's hard to get a handle on the show's history.  It was syndicated, and appeared in odd timeslots like Sunday mornings.  By the late 60s, they were gone.

Gnagy had the ability to make things look easy enough that any beginning artist could feel he could follow along.  Thousands of kids -- including many who went on to be professional artists -- got their start from his shows.