Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, Directed by Ron Howard (2016)

Poster for Eight Days a Week, 2016.

The Beatles at their first American concert, Washington, DC, February 1964.
Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, is a fun look back at the Fab Four’s early days, focusing on the period from 1963 to 1966. Of course, this material has been recalled in other places, like the Beatles’ own Anthology TV special, but Eight Days a Week features quite a bit of previously unseen footage of the Beatles on stage. 

Eight Days a Week features new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with several other talking heads. The film doesn’t seek to argue for the importance of the Beatles’ impact on popular culture; it’s aim is to entertain us. But we do get a peek at the Beatles’ firm stance against segregation when there were rumors that a show in Jacksonville, Florida was to be segregated. (The band stood firm, and played to an integrated audience.) What comes across most strongly in the film is the fun the Beatles brought to the world. Here were four adorable young men playing fantastic music and just having a great time. Their collective wit is on display throughout the movie-from George Harrison casually dropping his cigarette ash in John Lennon’s hair to Lennon introducing himself to a clueless American interviewer as “Eric.” As George Harrison said, “The Beatles saved the world from boredom.” 

What comes across so strongly in the film is how different the Beatles were from anyone else. There simply wasn’t anyone or anything quite like them in 1963 and 1964. Their impact on popular music was similar to Elvis Presley-they became a dividing line of “before the Beatles” and “after the Beatles.” If you go back and listen to “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” there is still an amazing vitality to those records today. When you couple those thrilling sounds with the Beatles’ very revolutionary visual style, (that long hair!) you understand why everyone went crazy for them. 

Performing live for the Beatles became very difficult, as they had to play to huge crowds of screaming fans, and the inadequate sound systems of the time meant that they couldn’t hear themselves on stage. Given those limitations, as Elvis Costello reminds us in the film, it’s really remarkable how often they were in tune. I’m always amazed at George Harrison’s playing, how in concert he was able to replicate note for note the solos from the records. By 1966, the magic of touring had worn off for the Beatles, and what had been fab fun in 1964 now seemed like an onerous slog. Their music was also becoming more complicated-on their 1966 tour they never attempted to play any of the songs from their latest record, Revolver, live. And Lennon’s comments about the band being “more popular than Jesus” caused outrage in the United States, making for an uncomfortable atmosphere as they embarked on their last tour in August, 1966.

The live footage in Eight Days a Week is great fun to watch-my only quibble with the film is that it looks like some of the footage from their first American press conference and their first American concert has been colorized, which is too bad. Also, there’s no mention of Jimmy Nicol, the drummer who was briefly a Beatle when he sat in for Ringo for 8 shows in June of 1964 when Ringo recovered from a tonsillectomy. Sharp-eyed Beatle fans will notice Nicol appears briefly in some of the footage from Australia in Eight Days a Week. 

For a limited time, The Beatles at Shea Stadium will follow Eight Days a Week in theaters. Hopefully this will be an extra on the DVD. When the Beatles’ 1 DVD was released last year, we saw some footage from Shea for the “Eight Days a Week” clip, and it looked fantastic, which whetted my appetite for seeing the whole show. The Beatles at Shea Stadium is very high-quality color footage of an extremely important moment in rock and roll, as it captures the first big stadium rock concert, which would become a staple of the genre during the next decade. Before 55,000 fans, the Beatles played 12 songs, and the film captures their incredible charisma and talent. It’s amazing to watch John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, or indeed any century, share a microphone and harmonize together on “Baby’s in Black” and “Ticket to Ride.” And listen to the band’s performance: they tackle complicated songs like “Ticket to Ride,” and “I Feel Fine,” and they sound magnificent. As I noted earlier, George Harrison’s solos are superb. 

Eight Days a Week is essential viewing for any Beatle fan, or anyone who enjoys great music.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe (2016)

Cover of The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe, 2016. Taken, of course, on my Tom Wolfe bookshelf. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Tom Wolfe is still rocking those white suits!
Yes! Tom Wolfe is back!!! The sharply-dressed wordsmith returns with The Kingdom of Speech, his first non-fiction work since his 2000 collection of essays, Hooking Up. But you have to go back to 1981 and From Bauhaus to Our House to find Wolfe’s last extended, book-length piece of non-fiction. That seems fitting, because The Kingdom of Speech fits in well with From Bauhaus to Our House, Wolfe’s scathing critique of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, his 1975 lambasting of the modern art scene.

Wolfe is an enemy of conformity, and while some interpret his critiques of art and architecture and conclude that he’s really a conservative figure, I would argue that what he’s really saying is to question orthodoxy and authority. Wolfe might actually be more radical than people think. Wolfe has often come under fire from liberals because he attacks liberal orthodoxies, and as a liberal, I think I can say that liberals generally don’t like it when their reality gets questioned. As William F. Buckley once said, “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” We tend to see things in black and white, as a dichotomy. If you’re against modern architecture, then, ipso facto, you must be a conservative! If you’re against modern art, then you’re not part of the vanguard! You’re not on the cutting edge! Wolfe is always interested in how certain ideas or theories become entrenched-the way styles of art and architecture became entrenched, and how once they become the orthodoxy, how anyone who questions them is quickly branded a heretic.

In The Kingdom of Speech, Wolfe sets his sights on Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky. Specifically, Wolfe is interested in how speech evolved in human beings. According to Wolfe, no one has been able to truly explain this-which as Wolfe says, is what really made man able to dominate all of the other species on the planet. Wolfe goes back to Charles Darwin as he traces Darwin’s writing of On the Origin of Species, which was partially published to beat Alfred Russel Wallace into print, as Wallace had independently developed the same theory. Wolfe then examines Darwin’s theories about how language developed…which leads into Wolfe taking on Chomsky, who has long been the reigning linguistic theorist. Wolfe sums up some of the research of Daniel Everett, who found a lost tribe in the Amazon whose language seems to contradict some of Chomsky’s key theories.

I am not enough of an expert on language or linguistic theory to definitively say that Wolfe is right or wrong, but The Kingdom of Speech is an entertaining read. Wolfe’s style is his usual, love it or hate it, stream of consciousness ramble. I’ve seen some reviewers who have mocked Wolfe’s flights of fancy, asking “How does he go from this to that?” but in asking that question it seems clear that they don’t understand how stream of consciousness works. Unlike some other Wolfe books, the first exclamation point doesn’t appear until the bottom of the second page! But have no fear; Wolfe’s trademark wit and sarcasm are still fully intact. Oh, and this time, unlike The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, there are footnotes!

As with Wolfe’s other books, The Kingdom of Speech has been controversial, and debates have raged over how accurately Wolfe has summarized the thoughts and ideas of Chomsky and Everett. I am sure that delights Wolfe, who has never shied away from criticism or controversy during his long career. The criticism over the book follows exactly the pattern that Wolfe describes when he writes about people protecting their orthodoxies-the outsider is invariably attacked for not being “one of us.” The experts shriek and howl: But he’s not a linguist! He hasn’t studied linguistics and evolution for thirty years! How many books about language has he read? He doesn’t know the territory! Well, sometimes an outsider can provide a fresh perspective. I don’t think Wolfe is saying that his book will be the final word on this subject. What Wolfe is really doing is popularizing the ideas and theories he presents in The Kingdom of Speech. Because he’s a famous writer, they will invariably get more attention. It’s fitting that Wolfe would choose to write a book about language, since he is such a terrific writer. Wolfe has always held a high place in the kingdom of speech.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Concert Review: "Weird Al" Yankovic at the State Theatre

Promotional image for "Weird Al" Yankovic's Mandatory World Tour, 2016.

On Friday night “Weird Al” Yankovic brought his accordion and his “Mandatory World Tour” to the State Theatre in Minneapolis for nearly two hours of musical parodies. Since Weird Al released his first album in 1983, he’s carved out a unique career as America’s favorite writer of musical parodies, and ironically enough, his career has outlasted some of the artists that he’s parodied. 

As a child of the 1980’s, I’ve been aware of Weird Al’s music for a long time, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve seriously listened to him. What impresses me the most is the cleverness of Yankovic’s lyrics. One of his most brilliant songs is 2014’s “Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which details the many grammar errors that people make. 

In concert, Weird Al puts on a great show, with many costume changes and a projection screen that shows clips from his career. Unfortunately, our seats were on the side, so I couldn’t actually see the entire projection screen, so some of that was lost on me. Oh well, note to self for next time. 

The energy that Weird Al puts into his performances was felt by everyone in the State Theatre, and it was extremely fun to be a part of a crowd that is as fanatical as Weird Al’s audience is. The crowd was really into the show, and Weird Al sometimes made them a part of the show, as when he made his entrance through the crowd singing “Tacky,” his parody of “Happy.” 

The setlist encompassed Yankovic’s entire career, from his early 1980’s hits like “Beat It” and “I Love Rocky Road" to many songs from 2014’s Number One album Mandatory Fun, like “Foil” and “Lame Claim to Fame.” 

One of the great things about Weird Al is that his humor is family friendly, and I saw lots of little kids in the audience, which means yet another generation of listeners will appreciate Weird Al’s witty songs. From everything I’ve ever read or heard about Weird Al, it sounds like he’s really one of the nicest people in show business, and it’s great to see the success he’s had over the last few years. 

Even if you’re only a casual fan of Weird Al, you should really go and see him in concert. He’s a lot of fun, as expected.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Book Review: Johnny Tonight! by Craig Tennis (1980)

Paperback cover of Johnny Tonight! by Craig Tennis, 1980. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

An early 1970's ad for Johnny Carson Apparel. The white pants Johnny's wearing on the right look pretty cool.
Craig Tennis was the head talent coordinator on The Tonight Show for eight years, from 1968 until 1976. After leaving the show, he wrote the 1980 book Johnny Tonight! It’s a peek at the backstage world of The Tonight Show, and while it’s an interesting book, it’s not full of dramatic revelations. 

In my reading of numerous books and articles this summer about Johnny Carson, I’ve been a little disappointed that most of them focus on Carson’s off screen personality at the expense of his on air personality. Very few of the books and articles I’ve read go into much detail about Carson’s duties hosting The Tonight Show. Carson balanced a number of difficult tasks in hosting the show. In order to be a successful late night talk show host, you need to be good at stand-up comedy, but you also need to be a good interviewer and be able to interact with the numerous different kinds of guests who will be on the show. Carson excelled at all of these skills, and he was also a good enough actor to create very different characters for the show. If you need proof of Carson’s acting ability, just watch him as Floyd R. Turbo, American, the right-wing reactionary who was always getting upset about something. As Floyd, Carson delivered his lines stiffly, and never quite knew where the camera was. Floyd was the exact opposite on screen of Johnny Carson, who was a consummate pro. It takes skill to pull that off successfully. Kenneth Tynan, in his New Yorker profile of Carson from 1978, probably has the most insight about the Johnny Carson that viewers saw on screen, and what made Carson so successful as a host.

Tennis doesn’t pull any punches in writing about Johnny Carson’s personality, and like many others who have written about Carson, he finds him to be an enigma. Tennis wrote, “This may sound eerie, but I firmly believe that no one-including Johnny’s own family-really knows him intimately.” (p.206) That’s probably a very true statement. By the time Tennis wrote Johnny Tonight! he had already moved on from The Tonight Show, which allowed him to candidly assess Carson. I wonder what Johnny Carson thought of Johnny Tonight! or if he ever read it. 

Johnny Tonight! doesn’t dish much dirt about the celebrities who appeared on the show, which is probably smart, since Tennis wanted to keep working in show business, but we do get to learn some small tidbits about stars of the 1970’s. For example, Craig Tennis had a great time doing the pre-interview for Raquel Welch, and he always wonders what would have happened between them if they had more time to talk. Charles Bronson answered his own phone. And it took Tennis quite a while to convince the producers of The Tonight Show that McLean Stevenson would make a good guest. (Stevenson became a frequent guest host for Carson in the mid-1970’s.) 

Johnny Tonight! is not the definitive book about Johnny Carson, but I’d recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about the behind the scenes world of The Tonight Show.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson, by Laurence Leamer (1989)

The paperback cover of King of the Night, by Laurence Leamer. King of the Night was originally published in 1989. This is the updated edition, published in 2005, that contains a short afterword covering Carson's life from 1989 until his death in 2005. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor.)

Johnny Carson doing what he loved best, sometime during the 1970's.
In my summer-long quest to learn everything about Johnny Carson, I read Laurence Leamer’s 1989 biography of Carson, King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. Even though it was published more than 25 years ago, Leamer’s book is the definitive biography of Carson. Leamer did his homework on Carson, as he interviewed hundreds of people who knew him. 

King of the Night gives the reader a fascinating portrait of Johnny Carson, a man who was able to connect with millions of Americans every night as the host of The Tonight Show, but who found it difficult to connect with people in his private life. Carson was married four times, had difficult relationships with his three sons, and had very few longtime friends. 

Leamer dissects Carson’s life in detail, and the reader is fully immersed, for better or worse, in the various investments and lawsuits that Carson was embroiled in. King of the Night makes an interesting counterpoint to Henry Bushkin’s 2013 memoir, Johnny Carson, which I reviewed here. Bushkin, who was Carson’s lawyer for many years, also handled many of Carson’s investments, and according the Bushkin, those investments were quite successful. However, Leamer paints a different picture, and after reading King of the Night it sounds like Bushkin’s investments were not very successful at all. Now I wonder how much of Bushkin’s book was an attempt to change his image from King of the Night. 

Honestly, reading King of the Night made me a little sad for Johnny Carson. I hope he was a happy man, and yet I have the feeling, from all that I’ve read about him, that it was a challenge for him to find happiness. He brought such joy to so many people for so many years, and yet, like so many entertainers, it seems as though he had a difficult time finding a similar joy in his private life. Also, like so many entertainers, Carson was happy and fulfilled when he was doing The Tonight Show, but the other hours of the day were more difficult for him to fill.

Carson was brutally honest in a 1986 interview in which he said, “If I had given as much to marriage as I gave to The Tonight Show, I’d probably have a hell of a marriage. But the fact is I haven’t given that, and there you have the simple reason for the failure of my marriages. I put the energy into the show.” (p.352) 

One of the most insightful quotes from King of the Night comes from Jeanne Prior, who was Carson’s secretary in the 1960’s. She told Leamer, “Except for the beginning years of his life, I don’t think Johnny has ever been rejected. Just think of the fact of going around for thirty years and never being rejected by almost anybody, not waiters, not anybody. What do you think would be easier to live with, his life or the life most of us live? There is a cost, and that’s why he insulates himself.” (p.160) I think that gives the reader some idea of what it would have been like to be Johnny Carson, and why success can be so difficult to deal with. 

Whatever he was like off the screen, on screen Johnny Carson projected warmth and a likability that came through the television set. Shelly Schultz, a talent coordinator for The Tonight Show in the 1960’s, said of Carson, “I think that he is one of those rare phenomenal people who understood the medium.” (p.143) That’s very true, and Carson’s understanding of television served him well during his long career.

Johnny Carson presided over a media landscape that is totally different from 2016. King of the Night opens in 1987, as Carson is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his hosting The Tonight Show. Yet even then, as Leamer writes, “The networks had begun to decline, viewers lost to cable networks and video recorders. It was unlikely that any other performer would ever have the same hold over the American night.” (p.2) Of course that’s even more true now, as no one on late night television has the same reach that Johnny Carson did. Carson’s career is unique in late night television history, and it will remain so. Johnny Carson is the man who set the standard; he is the late night host that all others are measured against. 

Johnny Carson was one of television’s biggest stars, and King of the Night allows us a look at his private and professional life. If you’re interested in Johnny Carson, King of the Night is the book that paints the most complete picture of Carson’s life.