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Letting the Music set the Place

Early in this past summer I was excited to be reminded (in person) of a healthy music store in West Chester, PA. Such stores are quickly (already?) becoming an endangered species, and so it was particularly satisfying to come back to this store and see it offering a wide range of music and other related selections. I thought that I was going to leave without purchasing anything, but lying near the cash register was a small boxed set of five compact discs highlighting “80’s Classics”. This seemed to be a perfect match for my upcoming long haul road trip, and so I purchased it. (Actually my mom bought it for me as a “getting on the road” present.)

As the driving spurts resumed, I continued to let my iPod shuffling set the mood for a little while after purchasing the set of discs, but that got old as I began to enter the long-haul westbound territory, and so I decided that the especially long haul across Nebraska (400 something miles) would be a great introduction to the set of music. I quickly appreciated that some care had been taken in selecting the choice and sequencing of music. The first song of each disc got things off with a bang of energy and the mood rolled along after that, mixing between slower tunes and higher energy pieces. I let the whole sequence of five discs play through on that first day and it was a GREAT way to enliven the scenery and pace of going through Nebraska, which eventually gave way to the arid plains and mild mountains of northeastern Colorado.

After the first listen, I expected that the music would time capsule itself to that stretch of driving through Nebraska, and it did, at first, as I tuned into other radio offerings and back to the iPod (along with bits of silence here and there) for a little while. But in an effort to continue the sonic variety, I ended up tuning back into the CD set sooner than I expected.

One song in particular (“Good Life” by a group called Inner City – never heard of them) took on the role of road trip theme song, as I began to listen to it at the start of each long-haul driving day and felt that it set the right upbeat mood. Now, a month and a half later, the song has settled into a role as emblematic of the whole summer, and while I’m not listening to it at the start of every day, it does bring a smile to my face, as many other songs do that quickly associate themselves with the time or circumstances that you first hear them in.

Getting back to Blogging, and Detroit Culture Vulture-ing

My first few days back in Southeast Michigan have brought a lot of driving, reunions, food, logistics, and just one film. Time will tell if I’m able to get this blog back up to regular speed. I think it is doable.

The one film, Amy, is clearly one of the most powerful entertainment (as opposed to human rights or other subject) documentaries I’ve ever seen. Using a combination of home movies, existing concert and interview footage, and present day voice-only interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the film charts the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who achieved her widest fame for her “Back to Black” album around 2007, before falling into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to her premature death in 2011.

The success of the film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia, lies in its ability to refocus the narrative about Winehouse from a one-hit punchline into a full complex person. The viewer walks away with a clear and devastating understanding of how the acquisition of fame changed her life and what those around her could and could not enforce to make sure she was still herself.

Multiple forms of Whiplash at the movies

So apparently I lied about being done with my moviegoing for the year, and this morning I ended up at the recently opened MJR cinema in Troy for a screening of Whiplash, a film I had tried to see a few times over the past month.

I think it’s very cool that MJR has their own theme song, a great nod to movie theatre traditions of the past. Here it is on YouTube:

The song reminds me greatly of the Loews Theatres jingle I grew up with, also viewable on YouTube:

Back to Whiplash

The film is much darker than what I had expected, focusing right in on promising music student Andrew Naiman (Miles Teller) and his struggle to fit in at a prestigious music conservatory in New York City. Soon after his arrival, Andrew encounters a teacher (JK Simmons) who notices his talent, and recruits him to be part of an upper-level band. But Andrew soon learns that the teacher excels at pushing his students to the brink, in order to get the most out of them, and Andrew finds himself making changes in his life and becoming increasingly, fanatically, focused on the music.

The film evokes a complicated line of thought recalling mentors and teachers one might have had, and how much they pushed you/their students to be successful. A more subtle thread in the story looks at trust and forgiveness – if we are bothered by some thing or action that a person caused, can we even speak with or trust them again? And finally, how much do you/I/we want to achieve for a lifelong dream? I know I have felt all of those sensations at different times in my life.

Native Detroiter Simmons (recently interviewed by the Free Press about the film and his hometown connections) captivates in a demanding multifaceted role. Perhaps most impressively, just when I thought the film had closed up his character, and the storyline, a third act appears that turns his character around and fills in the shadings, while also setting up a provocative finale.

I wasn’t familiar with Teller prior to this film, although I see from IMDB that he’s become quite well known thanks to several big hits aimed at audiences slightly younger than me. He scores a 10 on the music scenes, thanks to his existing musical background and a similar ferocious intensity, but I felt that he didn’t fully inhabit some of the dramatic scenes of the film. Admittedly, that may have been part of the point, where the character was getting so consumed by his work as to neglect other parts of his life.

The supporting cast includes few well – known names, save for veteran actor Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad. Reiser hasn’t changed from his affable presence as seen on 1990’s television and several films in that decade, and I felt that touch was just what the role needed, where his son faces such high personal stakes.

The film’s story is conducted in a broadly familiar way, and so I could tell where the narrative was going, with a few exceptions. However the intensity of the story is such a surprise, with a powerful punch, that I often still was on the edge of my seat. Hope that the film continues to stay in the awards season conversation.

WCW – Never Been Gone

I’ve never posted about the #WCW (Women Crush Wednesday) social media trend, but this seems like an appropriately random time to start. The natural starting point for me at least is the enduring appeal of singer – songwriter Ms. Carly Simon, whose music I grew up with, and was semi – fixated on for a time in my younger years. (I acknowledged that in a solo performance a few years ago and was surprised by the warm reaction.)

Anyhow, Simon recently posted a picture on her Instagram account that exemplified her continued aura of beguilement, at least for me. The picture shows her on Lambert’s Cove Beach on Martha’s Vineyard, not far from her home. That beach is also a favorite destination for my family members and I when we can get in – usage is generally restricted during the high summer season. In the picture, Simon seems to strike just the right pose of slight amusement and satisfaction, clearly enjoying the moment but not gloating in it. (It would be a perfect album cover shot for her if she had an upcoming release waiting in the wings.)

This picture perfectly fits Simon’s role in my current musical tastes – someone whom I “come back around again” to from time to time, to paraphrase one of her well – known lyrics, but don’t fixate on with regularity. Nonetheless, her music and persona continue to be emblematic of Martha’s Vineyard, the family homestead, for me, and presumably in a similar way for others. I didn’t shy away from occasionally watching her 1987 concert at Menemsha if I’m feeling homesick, and her song Never Been Gone remains the most iconic example of being home in Massachusetts. A handful of her songs have additional family or home region associations for me.

So that picture brought a brief resurgence in my appreciation of her work, which has been more on the periphery recently as she has maintained a lower public profile over the last several years. Her children Sally and Ben now take the lead in the family business, which she often supports during their Vineyard shows, and I last saw her join Ben onstage three years ago in Edgartown.

Her music remains emblematic of a certain special or cherished time and place, and I’m sure it will always be that way for my family members and I.

An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.

Sassy tuneful nostalgia

I’m offering some short hot off the press impressions of an appearance this evening from singer-songwriter Cheryl Wheeler at the Ann Arbor Ark, which also functioned as a very belated first visit for me to the acclaimed local music venue.

Wheeler, who has long been a familiar presence on my family’s playlist, continues to shine in the live setting, treating the audience like old friends. However, this isn’t to say that she loses focus on the music — it seemed to be quite the opposite, as she worked very specifically from a (presumed) outline of songs from her catalog. She was quite generous in offering a range of personal anecdotes that mostly focused on East and West Coast experiences, whether walking with her wife and animals at Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts or driving the long haul from Seattle to California destinations (Petaluma and Santa Monica both got specific shootouts) and writing a song or two along the way. She expertly segued her narrative so that the last quarter or so of her concert focused solely on the music, after plenty of laughs and chat in the earlier part of the evening.

I’m pleased that Wheeler included “Driving Home” – one of my favorites of her recordings – and a few other of her older songs. She offered a subdued interpretation of “Aces”, another older tune, earlier in the evening, leading me to think she was choosing not to use her higher register, but later selections showed that range to still be in place and in excellent form.

Of course I also appreciated the strong New England feel of the concert. She even included her song “When Fall Comes to New England”, which was a frequent sight on my iPod playlist for a time, most notably during a series of driving commutes in Western Massachusetts in the summer and fall of 2007.

She got the most reaction out of the (nearly sold out) crowd before her final song, which she humorously prefaced with a “fake final” song of her fan favorite “Potato” (yes, that’s the song name) – explaining that she doesn’t like the forced tradition of the singer leaving and then being called back to the stage for “…just one more.” And so she proceeded with the most heartfelt tune of the evening (wish I knew the name) written in honor of her father’s 75th birthday.

Although some might say that Wheeler flies under the radar in her music career, she seems just fine with that and willingly capable of doing whatever she wants with her music, with a loyal and appreciative fan base that is right there cheering her on.

Crowdfunding and the Arts

Recently something had led me to believe that crowd funding had passed its moment, with sites like Kickstarter and its relations seeming to have lost their novelty – and more awareness about accompanying service fees or editorial challenges that the various sites might impose on their funders.

But, two current projects involving music have shown me that’s not the case, and so I wanted to give them a quick shout out here.

My longtime friend Christa has successfully funded a Kickstarter project for her second album generating support from 142 (!) backers including myself. (Her folk-based music is definitely worth a listen and can be heard here.)

Meanwhile, famous musical daughter – and versatile artist in her own right – Sally Taylor, whom I followed during her active musical touring career throughout my high school years, has launched a new Indiegogo campaign for an ambitious and unique-sounding multidisciplinary art project due to debut next summer on Martha’s Vineyard.

I am sure there are many more examples of crowd funding continuing to make an impact, but those are the two that have my attention right now.