Saturday, October 18, 2014

Concert Review: Sondre Lerche and TEEN at the Turf Club

Sondre Lerche at the Turf Club, October 17, 2014. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)

TEEN at the Turf Club, October 17, 2014. (Photo by Pondie Nicholson Taylor.)
Last night I finally got to see one of my favorite artists live, as Sondre Lerche played the Turf Club in Saint Paul. I know that Lerche has played the Twin Cities before, but for whatever reason I’ve always missed him. I almost missed him this time too, as it was only because my wife was listening to 89.3 The Current and caught an interview with him that I knew he was in town. My wife came home and said to me, “Guess who we’re going to see in concert tonight?” “I don’t know, who?” “Sondre Lerche!” “Awesome!” If you’re not familiar with Sondre Lerche, he’s a Norwegian-born singer/songwriter who released his first album in 2001, at the age of 19. Lerche has been very prolific since then, as his discography includes 7 studio albums, 1 live album, and 1 movie soundtrack. Lerche has crafted a diverse discography, and my iTunes music library insists that his albums are classified under “jazz” (“Duper Sessions”) “alternative” (“Faces Down” and “Two-Way Monologue”) “country” (“Heartbeat Radio”) “rock” (“Phantom Punch”) “indie rock” (“Please”) and “pop” (“Sondre Lerche”). While that might sound confusing, if you like melodic pop/rock songs with strong hooks, you will probably like Sondre Lerche.

As a live performer, Lerche has a charisma that hooks the audience in. You can tell he loves performing live and enjoys interacting with the audience. He encouraged the audience to sing along on a couple of songs. (Not as cheesy as it sounds, trust me.) He often stares intensely out into the audience with his blue eyes. Lerche is an excellent guitar player, and he performed with just bassist Chris Holm and drummer Dave Heilman. Live, his music was heavier than it is on his records, which surprised me a bit. On his records, Lerche’s songs sometimes seem lighter than air, with his catchy melodies and high tenor voice, and that works very well. But live his songs had more grit in them. One of the highlights of the show was Lerche performing the excellent “My Hands Are Shaking” solo, and he walked away from the microphone, letting us hear his pure voice unamplified. Lerche played a lot of songs from his new album, “Please,” which was released in September. “Please” chronicles a difficult time in Lerche’s life, as he divorced from his wife in 2013. I haven’t listened to “Please” yet, as I didn’t even know Lerche had a new album until yesterday, but the songs were very strong in concert, packing a muscular punch. Personally, I do wish Lerche had sung more songs from “Duper Sessions” and “Phantom Punch,” which are my two favorite albums of his. (I applauded loudly when Lerche asked the audience if people liked “Phantom Punch.”) Lerche is an intense performer, and he leaves it all out there on the stage. He’s also a very nice guy, as my wife and I got to meet him after the show and I got my new copy of “Please” signed. 

The all-female group TEEN opened the show for Lerche, and they also sang backing vocals on several of Lerche’s songs. Three of the four members of TEEN are sisters, lead singer and guitarist Teeny Lieberson, keyboardist Lizzie Lieberson, and drummer Katherine Lieberson. (The only non-Lieberson in the band is bassist Boshra AlSaadi.) TEEN brought a fresh sound and plenty of energy to the stage. Teeny is a very expressive vocalist and on stage performer, and their songs mix melodic pop with heavy guitars. I expect to be hearing more from TEEN in the future. One of the funnier moments of the show was when Teeny asked the audience, “What’s the difference between Saint Paul and Minneapolis?” That’s a question that is far too complex to be answered in a shout to the stage. “Minneapolis thinks it’s really cool, and Saint Paul just doesn’t care!” “In Minneapolis there’s stuff to do after 9 PM!” “Saint Paul is older!” 

Unfortunately, because some people in this world are just jerks, TEEN had much of their equipment stolen at a recent gig in San Francisco. They are raising money to help replace what was stolen, and you can donate to them here:

I’m very happy that I finally was able to see Sondre Lerche in concert. The concert was full of good music and good vibes, and with the combination of Sondre Lerche and TEEN fans got to see two acts who truly enjoy performing live.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Movie Review: The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, directed by Elia Kazan, based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1976)

Some of the cast of The Last Tycoon. From left to right: Tony Curtis, Leslie Curtis (Tony's real-life wife playing his movie wife), Ray Milland, Robert De Niro, Jeanne Moreau, Robert Mitchum, and Theresa Russell.

Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson size each other up in The Last Tycoon, 1976. This is before they play ping pong.

Robert De Niro, generating zero chemistry with co-star Ingrid Boulting in The Last Tycoon, 1976.
Director Elia Kazan’s last movie was his 1976 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, starring Robert De Niro, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. The movie is proof that all the talent in the world can still produce a bad movie.

There are so many things wrong with The Last Tycoon that it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps making a movie of an unfinished novel was not a good idea. I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, also known as The Love of the Last Tycoon, so I don’t know how faithful the movie is to his writing, but it sure feels like it was based on an unfinished novel. The Last Tycoon is set in Hollywood in the late 1930’s, and the titular character is Monroe Stahr, who is the head of a film studio. (Stahr was loosely based on real-life movie mogul Irving Thalberg.) The film follows him as he works on movies and seeks out a beautiful young woman who reminds him of his dead movie star wife. 

Unfortunately, Robert De Niro is miscast as Stahr. Monroe Stahr is a boring character, and it’s a disservice to cast one of the silver screen’s most exciting performers in that role. Stahr was too much of a blank slate for me to ever feel invested in his emotions. There’s no dramatic tension to the movie, and whatever lingering tension there was comes to a screeching halt during the way too long love scenes between De Niro and Ingrid Boulting, as the girl who reminds Stahr of his dead wife. The scenes between Boulting and De Niro are just not that interesting, and they don’t have any chemistry together. Theresa Russell plays the other main female character, and while Boulting and Russell are both very beautiful to look at, they are not very good actresses. On a positive note, I did love Stahr's beautiful red Packard convertible.

Kazan seemed determined to include every famous person he could find in the cast, which makes watching The Last Tycoon slightly more interesting. The supporting cast includes Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Jeanne Moreau, Donald Pleasence, John Carradine, Jeff Corey, Anjelica Huston, Peter Strauss, and, oh yeah, Jack Nicholson. Yes, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro made a movie together in 1976. Unfortunately, it was this turkey.

I couldn’t figure out the tone that The Last Tycoon was going for. There are times when it seems to want to be a comedy. On their first date, Stahr takes Boulting’s character to see a trained seal at a restaurant. Am I supposed to laugh at De Niro’s interactions with the seal and his trainer? Is the scene where a movie editor dies during a screening supposed to be humorously ironic? I have no idea. I blame Harold Pinter for this. 

Another weird moment is when we see the movie-within-a-movie that Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau have been working on. It’s very obviously a pastiche of Casablanca, as Curtis plays the piano and bids Moreau adieu. She even sings part of the song he’s playing. It’s almost high camp, but not quite. I really think it’s supposed to be serious. Also, Casablanca wasn’t released until 1942, which is several years after the time period of The Last Tycoon. Curtis also has a scene where he confides to Stahr that he can’t get it up anymore, but he knows that Stahr will have a solution for his problem. I don’t remember what the hell Stahr tells him, but it works for Curtis. Of the random celebrity cameos, Robert Mitchum gets the most to do as another powerful producer at the studio. It is fun to watch Mitchum and De Niro together, as they both played the same role in the two different versions of Cape Fear. Hell, it’s always fun to watch Robert Mitchum. Ray Milland doesn’t have much to do other than hang out with Robert Mitchum and look like a more bald version of Jimmy Stewart. Dana Andrews has a couple of scenes as a beleaguered director whom Stahr releases from a movie. Despite his real-life battle with alcoholism, which he overcame in the late 1960’s, Andrews looks super handsome and not much different from his heyday as a leading man in the 1940’s. 

So, what about Jack Nicholson? Does he swoop in to save the movie from terminal boredom? Does he demand to order toast from the studio commissary? Isn’t it super exciting that The Last Tycoon pairs up two of the greatest actors of the 1970’s? Well, even the scenes between De Niro and Nicholson are dull. Their characters are adversaries, as Nicholson plays a Communist who wants to unionize the screenwriters at De Niro’s studio. Both Nicholson and De Niro seem to be operating at half-speed during their first scene together. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is super boring. And I don’t know if Nicholson is trying to do an accent or what-his character is from Tennessee-but he doesn’t have his usual Jack Nicholson vocal cadences. It’s terribly frustrating to watch two exciting, dynamic actors play boring people. In their other two scenes together De Niro totally overacts Stahr’s drunkenness, as he challenges Nicholson’s character to a game of ping pong. Yep, De Niro and Nicholson face off in a movie over a fucking game of ping pong. Opportunity wasted!

The last scene of The Last Tycoon, where De Niro/Stahr breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the camera as he tells a story about watching a girl burn a pair of gloves-a story we’ve already heard once before in the movie-is a real “what the fuck?” moment. 

The Last Tycoon was an unfortunate waste of talent, and a sad ending to the great directing career of Elia Kazan.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Review: A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland (1950)

Ray Milland and Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own, 1950.

Lana Turner and Ray Milland make a handsome couple in A Life of Her Own, 1950.

Lana Turner, in costume for a modeling scene as Lily James in A Life of Her Own, 1950.
The 1950 film A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland, is a fascinating look at the life of a woman who becomes a successful model. Directed by George Cukor, A Life of Her Own features an excellent performance from star Lana Turner, who showed that there was more depth to her than just her beauty. Turner plays Lily James, a girl from Kansas who takes the train to the big city (New York City) to try and become a model. Lily is willing to work hard, and she sees the dangers inherent in her profession right away when she meets Mary (Ann Dvorak) who was a very successful model and is now trying to re-start her career. Mary’s desperation is palpable as she tries to get another assignment from Tom Caraway (Tom Ewell) who runs a modeling agency. Mary takes Lily under her wing, and they go out to dinner with Mary’s seedy friend Lee (Barry Sullivan) and kindly Jim (Louis Calhern). Lily resists Lee’s advances and sees Mary home when it becomes obvious she’s had too much to drink. Lily leaves Mary at her apartment, and Lily learns the next day that Mary committed suicide by jumping out of her window. 

Lily focuses on her work and quickly becomes a top model, as she is beautiful and professional. Through Jim she meets Steve Harleigh (Ray Milland) who lives in Montana and owns a copper mine. They meet awkwardly, as Lily wakes up from taking a nap at Jim’s apartment and sees that Steve has been watching her sleep. (Which is kinda creepy.) They don’t seem to like each other at first, but they see more of each other and affection between them grows, even though Steve is married. Steve goes back to Montana and his mine, and he tells Jim to buy Lily some jewelry. Lily is not impressed with the jewelry and quickly figures out that Jim bought it for Steve and refuses it, saying she won’t be bought off. When Steve returns to New York on business, he and Lily begin an affair, and he pays for her new apartment. We learn that Steve’s wife Nora (Margaret Phillips) is in a wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a car crash. When Nora comes to New York to celebrate Steve’s birthday, Steve spends his birthday with Nora before sneaking out to the party that Lily is throwing for him. He finds the party to be full of people he doesn’t know, and he finds Lily tipsily dancing with another man. (Lily’s dance partner is played by the famous choreographer Hermes Pan, who choreographed all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies.) Lily resolves to go to Nora and tell her all about her affair with Steve. When Lily goes to visit Nora with Jim, they find Nora lying on the floor, as she has been trying to learn how to walk with crutches. Lily feels ashamed, and in her conversation with Nora she realizes that Nora is a good person, and that she really needs Steve. She doesn’t tell Nora about the affair, and as she waits for the elevator, she runs into Steve and tells him their affair is over. Lily says to him, “I can’t live without you, but I’m going to.” Lily then finds the unsavory Lee hanging out in the lobby of her apartment, and he taunts her, telling her how she’s been ruined. Lily walks to Mary’s old apartment building and has fleeting thoughts of suicide as she stares up at the building. But she decisively turns around and walks away, determined to find happiness on her own.

A Life of Her Own is an excellent movie, and it features a fine performance from Lana Turner. It’s not too much of a stretch to see A Life of Her Own as an allegory about the Hollywood studio system and how it chewed up the young women who endured it, just as the modeling industry consumes Mary in the movie. As a veteran of the studio system from the time she was 16 years old, it’s obvious that Lana Turner knew exactly how to play the role of Lily. 

In her autobiography, Turner doesn’t show much affection for A Life of Her Own, but I would guess that she identified with Lily’s struggles to succeed in the difficult world of modeling. At the beginning of the movie, Lily says to Tom Caraway, “I want to be somebody, not just anybody, and all I have is myself and how I look. I’ll work hard because it means a lot to me.” Turner could easily be talking about herself. Towards the end of the movie Lily is talking to Jim about men and she says, “I’ve had men buzzing around me since I was 14, and I didn’t want it that way. I never wanted it that way.” I can imagine that Lana Turner would have felt the same way that Lily did.

A Life of Her Own was something of a comeback for Lana Turner, because when the movie was released in September of 1950, she hadn’t been seen on screen in almost two years, not since The Three Musketeers came out in October, 1948. Turner was suspended by MGM during part of that hiatus, and she also took a long honeymoon with her third husband, millionaire Bob Topping, who was an heir of a tin-plate magnate. Bob’s brother Dan Topping owned the New York Yankees from 1945 until 1964. Both Topping brothers were married many times, and Dan was married to the figure skater Sonja Henie from 1940-1946. Oddly enough, the actress Arline Judge married both Dan and Bob Topping. She was divorced from Bob just days before he married Lana Turner. Sadly, 1949 was a difficult year for Turner, as she gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. 

As detailed in Lana: The Memories, The Myths, The Movies, written by Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane, A Life of Her Own had a long journey to the screen. The movie was loosely based on The Abiding Vision, a short story by Rebecca West. MGM’s first treatment of the story was rejected by the censors in 1936, as the treatment of adultery was deemed too sympathetic. The censors worried that there was “no proportionate punishment of the transgressors.” (Crane, p.303) The Production Code Administration finally approved the script for filming in late 1949, but the original ending had Turner’s character Lily committing suicide, which was apparently deemed a suitable punishment for her adulterous behavior. When the movie was shown to test audiences, they hated the ending. The ending was then re-shot so that Lily survived, which I think is a much better resolution to the story. I also liked that the ending leaves Lily on her own, to make her own way in the world. She’s a strong female character, and I think she will succeed. If the movie were re-made now, Lily would probably be paired off with Jim at the end, rather than be allowed to find her own path.

Cheryl Crane writes that many different actors were considered for the role of Steve Harleigh, “among them Cary Grant, Howard Keel, James Mason, and Robert Ryan. I would have voted for James Mason. Mother was embarrassed when she had to get his autograph for me.” (Crane, p.303) I think that Cheryl Crane had good taste, and I agree with her that James Mason would have been excellent in the part. However, MGM cast Wendell Corey as Steve Harleigh. Turner didn’t think Corey was right for the part, but grudgingly accepted the studio’s decision. On the first day of filming, Turner’s costumes were still not ready, so there was a delay as the costume department worked to pin her dress so it would look okay for the camera. Turner wrote in her autobiography, “As I left the trailer I heard Corey say, as though talking to someone nearby, ‘It’s interesting, you know. The wonderful Barbara Stanwyck never keeps us waiting. Not even for one minute.’ When I whirled around I saw that he was alone. He was talking to me, or rather, he had timed the remark for my benefit.” (Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth, by Lana Turner, p.127-8.) Because it was widely assumed around Hollywood that Turner had an affair with Stanwyck’s husband Robert Taylor, Turner took Corey’s odd remark as an insult to her and made MGM fire Corey. He was replaced with Ray Milland, who took home a huge salary of $175,000 for his part, as he knew the studio was in a bind. When the producers asked Turner what she thought of Ray Milland, she said, “He’d be great. You should have hired him in the first place.” (Turner, p.129) I think Milland was perfect for the part, and I can’t imagine Wendell Corey in the role at all. With his more ordinary looks, Corey might be a more believable copper mine owner than Ray Milland, but Corey had none of the suave charm that Milland had. The difference between the two actors is that Wendell Corey was a character actor, and Ray Milland was a handsome leading man. Ray Milland reminds me a lot of Jimmy Stewart. They both had a similar build-tall and lanky, and their eyes and noses are quite similar. 

All of the supporting performances in A Life of Her Own are excellent. Ann Dvorak is great as Mary, the veteran model. I loved Dvorak’s voice; it’s so natural and modern sounding. She and Turner don’t have that “movie actress” voice that so many actresses from that era had that now sounds so unnatural to our ears. Be on the lookout for Jean Hagen, most famous as Lina Lamont in Singin’ In the Rain, in a small part as Maggie, the model who brings her son to the modeling agency at the beginning of the movie. Hagen also gets some screen time during the raucous party at Lily’s apartment, which features some wonderful tracking shots that really immerse you in the party. A Life of Her Own was produced by a man with the unlikely name of Voldemar Vetluguin, a Russian whose only other producing credit was East Side, West Side, from 1949. 

I would highly recommend A Life of Her Own to fans of Lana Turner, as she looks gorgeous and gives a terrific performance.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Book Review: How Music Works, by David Byrne (2012)

How Music Works, by David Byrne, 2012.

David Byrne. He looks like he's about to go for a bike ride.
Duke Ellington once said that there are only two types of music: good and bad. I love that quote, and I’m pretty sure that musical omnivore David Byrne would agree with it. Byrne’s 2012 book How Music Works examines many different aspects of music, from a history of how music has been recorded to the financial breakdown of the expenses of recording Byrne’s 2004 solo album “Grown Backwards.” I’m a big fan of Byrne’s music, so I was very interested to read How Music Works. 

How Music Works is a very good and interesting book, but it’s not always a successful one, as it is feels like two different books in one. For me, the most successful chapters were the ones in the middle of the book that were informed by Byrne’s own life experiences in music. The least interesting chapters were at the beginning and end, where Byrne is writing about general theories. Those chapters felt very impersonal; a lot of it is Byrne recapping other people’s research about music. Byrne is a smart guy, he has done his homework and he breaks down complex theories into clear prose. Byrne discusses how music has powerful effects on people, but he never gives us any personal examples. I’m sure there are pieces of music that have deeply moved him, but we don’t get to hear about them. I think these chapters would have been stronger if Byrne had made them more personal.

How Music Works is not an autobiography or a memoir. While Byrne does go into some personal details about his solo career and the records he made as part of Talking Heads, don’t expect any dirt to be dished. Byrne discusses how during the making of Talking Heads’ classic 1980 album “Remain In Light,” the band recorded all of the music first, and then he went off alone to write the lyrics for those songs, which were overdubbed later. It’s a fascinating way to work, and Byrne goes into some detail about the sessions for “Remain In Light.” Then he writes, “We did another record, ‘Speaking In Tongues,’ that continued with this idea of using improvised initial riffs and gibberish vocals as a guide for lyric writing. That record turned out to be the most commercially successful so far.” That’s all you get about “Speaking In Tongues.”  He doesn’t even mention that the title “Speaking In Tongues” came from his method of singing gibberish until the final words were written. Oh well. We do learn that Byrne was very disappointed with the way the first Talking Heads album turned out. He writes, “When we eventually made our first proper record, ‘Talking Heads: 77,’ it was by and large a miserable experience. Nothing really sounded like it did in our heads, or like we were used to hearing ourselves on stage.” 

After the middle three chapters of the book, which I found to be fascinating, I found the last three chapters of How Music Works to be pretty dull. I can understand how people might feel the opposite, as they might not be too intrigued by how much money Byrne made from “Grown Backwards.” But I find that kind of thing fascinating, and I enjoy reading about the finances of the music world. Back to the last three chapters that I didn’t care for. Chapter 8, “How to Make a Scene,” is basically about the New York music scene around the nightclub/bar CBGB’s in the 1970’s. Byrne spells out things necessary to support musical creativity in an area, like low rent, free admission for other musicians, and that you should be able to ignore the band that’s playing. Well, okay. But people can and do create music everywhere, no matter if the place they’re in is supporting a scene or not. 

Chapter 9, “Amateurs!” really annoyed me. In the chapter, Byrne criticizes art museums for organizing exhibitions that are popular. I’m not sure what offense he takes at this. Byrne makes it clear that he doesn’t like museums telling people what is great art and what is not. Fine, but part of the museum’s job is to preserve the art that they have and to exhibit it so people can see it. The reason museums organize “blockbuster” exhibitions is to get people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to a museum in the door. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m a firm believer that everyone, rich or poor, needs exposure to the arts. It doesn’t matter what art they like, or how they interpret the art. But I do believe that if people are exposed to the arts, they will find art that they like, which is a very good thing. Art, be it paintings, sculptures, music, movies, or books, enriches our lives. Art takes us on voyages to places that we might not otherwise visit. If believing those things makes me an elitist, well, so be it. 

Byrne resents the fact that rich people have valued classical music over other forms of music. Sure, valuing one form of music over another might be silly. For whatever reason, classical music does have a cultural cache that other forms of music simply don’t have. What Byrne seems to miss in this chapter is that innumerable museums and cultural institutions in the United States owe their very existence to rich people. Ever heard of the Carnegie Libraries? Those were all started by a rich guy. Byrne seems annoyed that orchestras get funding from state governments, while other forms of music aren’t funded as much, if at all. The reason that orchestras are supported by tax dollars is that they need to be. Pop music isn’t usually supported by tax dollars because pop music supports itself. Katy Perry doesn’t need state funding, the Minnesota Orchestra does. I think that some people take a great deal of civic pride in the cultural institutions of their city and state. I know I certainly do. When you live in the Midwest, you sometimes need to remind people on both coasts that yes, we do have culture here in fly-over land. I’m extremely proud of the cultural institutions of Minnesota, as they are a big part of what makes Minnesota a great place to live.

Byrne writes in chapter 9 that “There are some classical works that I do genuinely enjoy, but I never got Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven-and I don’t feel any worse for it.” Part of me wants to say, “Really? Beethoven’s 9th does nothing for you? The Magic Flute is just meh?” I could go on, but I won’t. I do feel that this quote reveals some of Byrne’s agenda for the chapter. Yeah, if you don’t “get” three of the greatest classical composers ever, you’re probably not going to be a big fan of all the philanthropy that supports classical music. 

Chapter 10, “Harmonia Mundi,” attempts to answer the question, why do we need music? Byrne cites lots of sources, but doesn’t add anything from his own experience to help answer the question. Which is fine, but the chapter just dragged for me.

Despite my criticisms of some of Byrne’s arguments, I would highly recommend How Music Works to fans of any type of music. As I said before, Byrne is a very smart man who writes very well about music.