Clark Hill assembled a list of “meaningful media” to honor Pride month, with contributions and (most importantly) heartfelt stories from all across our great firm. Thank you to my colleagues Hannah Reisdorff who organized the list’s development and Ray Koenig and Tobias Smith who are leading our overall Pride recognition activities. Here is my contribution to the list …
For me, there were two albums that helped me as a young high school man living in a small town in Indiana still trying to figure out what his sexuality might mean. Might be surprising to hear but in the late 80s there wasn’t a lot of good guidance for people like me. Lol. But I found a voice in two records that weren’t overtly LGBTQ but were recorded by artists who have always been allies to our community.
In 1989, I wandered into our mall’s Musicland and bought a cassette of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. It was all the money I had in my pocket, and that album with its day-glo, percolating inclusivity gave me a summer soundtrack that made me feel like the world could be a better place.
The following summer, I was chosen by the US Senate as a youth ambassador to Japan. A bit homesick, I bought another cassette, this time of Madonna’s I’m Breathless, a pastiche of songs from Dick Tracy and songs inspired by the film. Problematic as the song “Vogue” has become as we are increasingly sensitized to cultural appropriation, nonetheless its thundering pulse and message of liberation – as well as the fizzy camp with which the queen of pop delivered the album’s other show tunes – spoke to my soul and gave me a sense of self.
I still listen to both of these albums often, now streaming, and they transport me to a time of discovery and give me a sense of great gratitude that these artists were willing to push the envelope of popular entertainment and acceptance.
Stephen Sondheim’s passing hit me harder than I even had thought it might. I have been privileged to play BOTH Bobby and Buddy (from Company and Follies respectively): two sides of the same male-arrested-development coin. And, speaking of sides, I did my time in Side by Side by Sondheim. I have cherry-picked from his inestimable songbook for one-man cabaret shows over the years. I spent my high school summer in Japan obsessed with Madonna’sDick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless, most notably the numbers “Sooner or Later,” “More,” and “What Can You Lose?”
But my deep love of his story-songs began with Barbra Streisand, Betty Buckley, and Dawn Upshaw, who wove magic with Sondheim, plucking tunes from his catalog, disentangling them from their source shows, imprinting the vocalists’ own hopes and heartaches on his twisty-turny lyrics, and giving the soon-to-be standards new life through clever and evocative arrangements. That’s when I saw Sondheim’s true musical brilliance, as a Rorschach test on the soul, malleable and elastic but never losing the unique zing that was purely him.
I find myself heartbroken yet also optimistic that generations of similarly intrepid performers will continue to be inspired by Sondheim and to explore the maps of their hearts through his work.
Let me see the world with clouds Take me to the world Out where I can push through crowds Take me to the world
A world that smiles With streets instead of aisles Where I can walk for miles with you
Take me to the world that’s real Show me how it’s done Teach me how to laugh, to feel Move me to the sun
Just hold my hand whenever we arrive Take me to a world where I can be alive
“Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.” – Galileo, in Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943)
“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre”
“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away
“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeingJoker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.
My co-workers and yours truly in line for Madame X
Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.
Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]
Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.
Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.
Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]
What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.
That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).
Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]
Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns.
Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]
As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).
For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.
This was NOT a deal as Madonna didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm, concluding at nearly 2 am! She may be in cahoots with the parking industry.
When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.
The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”
My work pals and yours truly before dinner/show
The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.
When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.
As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.
As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.
With my Detroit pals at Come From Away
There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one
‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)
Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that (I can’t take that)
I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all
I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too
Family is what you make it. Two holiday film offerings – seemingly disparate as can be – explore that notion with nuance, surprising gravitas, and humor to spare.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The Green Bookis pretty darn magnificent. Just when you think you’re getting another magical Hollywood-cures-racism retro-tear-jerking fantasy, the film subtly indicts the prejudices that plague us all, without avoiding the fact that we have some grade-A hateful jackholes in our country who need to be taken down a notch … or eight. Viggo Mortensen runs just shy of coming off like a Hanna-Barbera character, but he is nonetheless lovably/adorably brilliant in one of his broadest roles to date.Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali is brittle, haunted, wry, and superb, and they make a heckuva duo. Oh, and the film still manages some retro-tear-jerking holiday magic too.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
There is a strange sub-genre in well-meaning, liberal Hollywood: the crowd-pleasingly simple-minded, amber-hued “let’s overcome racism together in two hours” flick (The Help,Hidden Figures,The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy,on and on). There can be a tone-deaf, self-satisfied entitlement to the “white savior” trope in these films, and that is just as off-putting as the nasty institutional racism these movies overtly critique. I’m not sureGreen Book,directed byDumb and Dumber‘s Peter Farrelly of all people,entirelyavoids this trap, but the performances of Mortensen and Mahershala (not to mention perpetually underrated Linda Cardellini as Mortensen’s stoic-but-free-thinking wife) raise the film’s profile significantly fromHallmark Hall of Famepap to something more vibrant and compelling.
Depicting real-life jazz and classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur/hired muscle Frank Vallelonga as they tour the Deep South in 1962 and encounter one well-heeled bigot after another,The Green Bookdraws its name from a guide that helped African-American motorists of the era tour the country with as little aggravation as the era would allow. Reportedly, Shirley and Vallelonga would eventually become lifelong friends, but that is the kind of factoid that becomes increasingly debated as a biographical film like this grows in popularity and collects more end-of-year trophies. So, who knows?
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
As for the film’s central thesis, it is summarized in this comment by a member of The Don Shirley Trio when asked why Shirley would take them all below the Mason-Dixon Line in the first place: “Because genius is not enough. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.” It’s the kind of line that sounds like it was penned expressly for the daily horoscopes, but in the context of Mortensen and Mahershala’s exceptional dynamic (not to mention today’s strange days), it takes on a heart-wrenching profundity.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verseis unlike any superhero film nor any animated film I’ve seen: inventive, whimsical, poignant, heartfelt, transporting, kinetic, inclusive, unashamedly odd, surreal, and funny as hell … a true comic book brought to life in the best possible ways. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is the superior film to the awards-baitingGreen Bookwhere issues of race, gender, identity, and inclusion are concerned.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
Rife with the delightfully irreverent influence of producers/screenwriters Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie,21 Jump Street),Spider-Verseintroduces its audience to a new Spider-Man in the form of African-American/Latino Miles Morales whose ethnicity isn’t a gimmick or a plot point but just part and parcel to his character, that is, in addition to him being a teenager, a science prodigy, an artist, and a music lover. How about that?
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
After a multiversal quantum physics experiment gone awry, Miles finds himself surrounded by a Benetton ad’s worth of fellow Spider-people: proto-feminist Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (notably not “girl”), silver-haired ass-kicking Aunt May (cheekily voiced by Lily Tomlin),Untouchables-throwback Spider-Noir (another fun voice cameo, this time by Nicholas Cage), paunchy and midlife-crisis’d Peter B. Parker/Spider-Man, Japanese robotics expert Peni Parker and her sidekick SP//dr, and (for us animal nuts) an anthropomorphic pig Peter Porker / Spider-Ham. Miles’ mission – in addition to navigating his newfound super powersandhis loving-but-demanding parents who want him to focus on nothing but his science academy studies – is to help these Spider Buddies save the world and return to their respective parallel Earths. A bit likeThe Wizard of Oz, in reverse, but with super villains and web shooters.
The movie has a visual language unlike anything seen in computer animation before, photo realistic yet simultaneously comic book flat: a bit Andy Warhol, a touch Roy Lichtenstein, a smidge Warren Beatty’sDick Tracy, yet wholly original, breathtaking, and dreamlike. The film’s comic timing borrows liberally from Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, Pink Panther, and Tex Avery, while the narrative grounds itself in the polyglot humanity of modern day NYC. It’s an exceptional piece of pop art, and effortlessly leverages the best of superhero egalitarian metaphor to give the middle finger to MAGA nationalism. I can’t wait to see it again.
I loved Wonder Woman as a little kid – the escapist kitsch of the Lynda Carter TV version with the spinning costume changes and the disco theme song and that Pepsodent-grinning Lyle Waggoner.
As I entered adolescence, the DC Comics version went through her own renaissance, led in great part by one of my favorite writers/artists George Perez (and later advanced in equal measure by Phil Jimenez and Greg Rucka). Diana, Amazonian princess, rediscovered her mythic Greek roots, fully embracing all of the soapy sudsy sturm-und-drang that being the daughter of Zeus and Hyppolyta can bring with a whole heaping helping of jealous demi-god cousins, stepmothers, and half-siblings biting at her heels. Those stories were great fun (for the reader … not so much for Diana herself.)
I’m happy to report that the new (and first?!) cinematic treatment of Wonder Woman honors all that has come before, even incorporating a bit of original creator William Moulton Marston’s skeezy blend of feminist kink (see: Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor exiting an Amazonian glowing warm springs hot tub while Diana’s gaze sizes him up – literally – but she is ultimately more interested in his wristwatch than anything else.)
Whether or not Wonder Woman finally breaks the Zack Snyder-invoked curse of stinkeroo movie-making that has blighted DC Comics’ cinematic output to date or is merely the brilliant exception that proves the rule remains to be seen. Nonetheless, director Patty Jenkins (Monster) working from a script by Allan Heinberg (who rocked the comics world over ten years ago with the similarly humanistic Young Avengers) gives us a return to form for classically majestic comic book movie making (Richard Donner’s Superman, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy) with a nod toward Marvel’s postmodern humane whimsy (Captain America, Ant-Man) but with a surety of voice and purpose that is wholly its own.
Is it feminist? Of course it is! Unapologetically and utterly inclusively so.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Diana, as portrayed with warmth and fire and wit and steel by Gal Gadot, is a stranger in a strange land to whom all creatures (man, woman, child, animal) deserve respect and love … and if you are incapable of showing that love, she’ll unequivocally kick your ass.
Making the interesting choice to set the action during WWI (Wonder Woman has traditionally been more associated with WWII), Jenkins and Heinberg make absolute hay with a setting where war was arguably at its peak of muddy, bloody brutality and where the nascent suffrage movement continued to make waves (pro and con) for women in society.
In Wonder Woman, Gadot fulfills the promise of her all-too-brief screen time in the comparatively glum and humorless (and horrifically titled) Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, delivering a star turn for the ages. It is not a showy performance (ironic, I know, since she is wearing a glittering metallic bathing suit, wielding a mammoth sword, deflecting lightning bolts with her bracelets, and, you know, flying) but is layered with beautiful notes of heartache, ironic detachment, utter bemusement, and complete bewilderment over a world designed chiefly to destroy.
She is joined by a stellar supporting cast – the aforementioned Pine who turns his character actor good looks into matinee idol charm as mansplaining sidekick Steve Trevor, glowering Danny Huston as a German warmonger, David Thewlis as a British idealogue whose rhetoric seems to urge a quick and speedy armistice, Elena Anaya as a bruised soul whose distaste for humanity leads her to develop poisonous gasses of mass destruction, and Lucy Davis stealing every scene as bantering “secretary” Etta Candy whose delight at being in the presence of a woman (Diana), who could give two whits about societal decorum, is utterly infectious.
The film is at its most thrilling when Diana leads a ragtag band of adorably mismatched soldiers across the Western Front, herself marching directly through the battle lines, armed only with her wits, her magic bracelets, and her righteous indignation over the horrors she has just witnessed befalling everyday families (and horses). I may have cried a little (a lot) during that sequence.
Wonder Woman‘s only misstep is in its length. At nearly 2.5 hours, the film’s running time strains audience patience. Though beautiful and transporting, the movie’s opening third, set in Diana’s home Themiscyra or “Paradise Island” amidst a utopia of warrior women, is, well, kind of a bore. While it is essential to show Amazonian society, which is designed through reason and equality, contrasted with man’s ugly world, locked as it is in the plague of war, we could have used about 20 fewer minutes of pristine beaches, jewel-hued skies, horseback-riding, and Queen Hyppolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her dutiful General Antiope (Robin Wright) stumbling to mimic Gadot’s irrepressibly undefinable accent. (At times, I wondered if the Amazon nation settled off Greece by way of Transylvania.)
Hyppolyta warns Diana early in the film, in a line that foreshadows thematically all that is to come, “Be careful in the world of men, Diana, for they do not deserve you.” Indeed, we do not deserve Wonder Woman, but we do need her and her message of inclusion and peace, tolerance and integrity … now, more than ever.
P.S. And, rest in peace, to that other superhero icon of my youth, Adam West, whose Batman introduced me to a universe of colorful characters that I still love to this day.
Thank you to Rose McInerney of WomanScape for her kind words and for referencing the above Wonder Woman review in her fabulous site’s latest and greatest. Rose writes, “So, while Wonder Woman is undoubtedly good storytelling with a sizable marketing budget, its success is also explained by key factors in our changing world. The first of these is the growing number of men like movie reviewer Roy Sexton who are joining with women to help promote the Diana-like warriors in our world. Roy lends his unabashed support and writing talents advocating for feminism and equal rights.” Read here.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.
I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future King. A Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).
Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.
Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:
Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled in her own bureaucratic machinations;
Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.
Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.
It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.
She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.
I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.
I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.
And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.
Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”
To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, shestarted to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.
But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?
I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.
After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.
She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.
Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).
By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.”
So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.
Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).
Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.
Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”
It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:
I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”
Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”
And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
Reel Roy Reviews 2
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)
As all the Marvel movies go, my hands-down favorites feature Captain America. So I approached Captain America: The Winter Soldier with some trepidation that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. How wrong I was.
[Image Source: Wikipedia]
The first Captain America film did a lovely job borrowing nostalgic pixie dust from films like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, and director Joe Johnston grounded those proceedings in postmodern yet earnestly American messages of anti-bullying and of championing the underdog. The follow-up, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, takes that Americana quilt-work and ups the ante, delving deep into the dark heart of post-millennial U.S. society.
In the years since September 11th, we have seen fear and anxiety chip away at the most American of values: tolerance and courage, freedom of thought and sincere kindness. The film attacks that dilemma square on, albeit with Marvel Studios’ now-trademark escapism, wit, and whiz bang effects.
I dare not spoil any of the twists and turns, and, while some have compared this sequel to 70s government conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, it is more of a pulpy roller coaster ride than a tightly coiled potboiler. Regardless, it is smart and well done and expertly paced.
Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers/Captain America, and, unlike his flippant work as another superhero Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four series, he exudes a soulful sadness as a man quite literally out of his own time and depth. His heartache over an America that has strayed so far afield from his World War II-era “Greatest Generation” perspective is palpable.
The plot details the explosive corruption that runs through all levels of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization – that CIA/Interpol-hybrid that has been a unifying element in all Marvel’s cinematic output. This sequel draws cleverly on thematic elements established in the first Captain America entry, specifically the Nazi villains’ monstrous notion that ethnic, spiritual, intellectual cleansing will bring about order in a chaotic world. Winter Soldier neatly turns that concept on its head, alluding to how some Americans today seem to share that same nefarious concept: that the only way to avoid anarchy, violence, and societal decay is to quite literally eliminate all those people who threaten “order” in their questioning of the powers-that-be.
Robert Redford is a fascinating and welcome addition to the Marvel Universe, playing Alexander Pierce, a Washington bureaucrat whose Machiavellian intentions are simultaneously noble and suspect. Bringing a nuance we don’t always get to see in these movies (with nary a glib moment), Redford telegraphs sincere, profound, and arguably misdirected concern for a world that he feels has gone totally off the rails. He is the kind of comic book heavy that only a steady diet of FoxNews and MSNBC could inspire.
The other supporting players, including Scarlett Johansson, Emily Van Camp, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Frank Grillo, Samuel L. Jackson, Toby Jones, Jenny Agutter, and Anthony Mackie, rise to the material, providing gravitas and the occasional (much-needed) lighter moment (or two). Sebastian Stan as the titular Winter Soldier is a heaping helping of imposing glower, and he makes the most of a rather underwritten role (not unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane in Dark Knight Rises).
Unfortunately (and this is the only minor quibble I had with the film), the movie does little with the Winter Soldier’s fascinating, Terminator-meets-Manchurian Candidate back story. Hopefully, the inevitable third film will fill in those gaps.
Superhero flicks have, in aggregate, become an ever-expanding cinematic metaphor for the angst that blankets our planet – movies of note include Bryan Singer’s X-Men films (e.g. civil rights/tolerance), Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (e.g. class warfare, Orwellian nanny states), and now both Captain America entries. These films employ a kind of four-color funnies code with larger-than-life heroes and villains standing in for the mundane, insidious cruelties we enact daily.
Samuel L. Jackson notes at one point early in the film, “This is the world as it is … not how we’d like it to be” – nailing a haunting fear and sadness most of us over 40 grapple with daily. Not sure where the movie Marvel Universe goes from here as the studio’s architects are clearly picking poignancy and punch over popcorn and pizzazz. But I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.
Bonus! ( … apropos of nothing … )
This Thursday, April 10 at 7 pm, Common Language in Ann Arbor (317 Braun Ct.) will host a mixer. I will be signing books, and theatre colleagues from The Penny Seats (including Rachel Murphy, Lyn Weber, Rebecca Biber, Nick Oliverio, Barbara Bruno, and now John Mola) will offer interpretive readings of some of my wilder essays. Light refreshments will be provided. See you there! Nice coverage from Sarah Rigg and MLivehere.
Thanks to Ryan Roe and the Tough Pigs: Muppets Fans Who Grew Up website for this shout-out to Reel Roy Reviews and my review of Muppets Most Wanted. Be sure to check out the site – it’s a lot of fun!
Finally, enjoy this video interview of yours truly from last week’s Legal Marketing Association conference. Thanks to Lexblog and the Lexblog Network and Kevin McKeown for this opportunity!