“You just need two arms and an attitude … and everybody sing with me.” Morris Day and The Time at Motor City Casino’s Sound Board

Prince pretty much generated his own cottage industry of Minnesota-bred funk acts. New artists and groups spun from his orbit on what seemed like a daily basis (at the Purple One’s peak): Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia, Wendy & Lisa, The Revolution, The NPG, Tevin Campbell, Ingrid Chavez, Andre Cymone, Carmen Electra, Candy Dulfer, Rosie Gaines, on and on. Arguably, one of the most legendary names is Morris Day and The Time – in great part to having launched the producing careers of band members Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (the master architects of Janet Jackson’s sound, among others).

In fact, Prince assembled The Time out of thin air, deciding in his whimsy (and expert marketing) that a “rival band” would make for a good narrative. (Think World Wrestling Federation, Jem & The Holograms vs. The Misfits, or any one-off episode of The Monkees.) Lead singer Morris Day was a real-life childhood friend of Prince’s so he was “cast” as Prince’s musical nemesis on the charts and, then quite literally, in the film Purple Rain. Prince was nothing if not clever at creating a deafening buzz, one that sometimes overshadowed his musical gifts.

Day always played his role to the hilt – a vain and petulant Cab Calloway to Prince’s relatively serene Duke Ellington – and The Time’s naughty novelty hits reflected that character: “The Bird,” “Jungle Love,” “Jerk Out,” “Cool,” “Ice Cream Castles,” “Chocolate.”

I always got a kick out of the dynamic, so I was excited that a partially reunited Time (at least Day and drummer Jellybean Johnson) would be performing at Detroit’s Motor City Casino Sound Board venue.

Well, as Thomas Wolfe observed, “You can’t go home again.”

The show was entertaining but on the balance disappointing. Day seemed to be going through the motions, with a new “Jerome” following him around with mirror and trench coat and Day looking pretty bored with it all. (One of Day’s trademark “bits” has been to have a footman – “Jerome” – follow him around holding a mirror up whenever Day wanted to gaze lovingly at his own face or to help Day change in and out of any number of day-glo zoot suits and swing coats.)

Day still has his ear-splitting squawk, and the band he has assembled can replicate the Prince-ified magic of yesteryear, but the whole enterprise now comes off like an oldies band performing at a state fair. The energy was down; the sound mix was muddy; and most of the time (no pun intended) I had a hard time discerning one song from the next.

There also was an unfortunate sequence during “Ice Cream Castles” wherein Day invited a number of female audience members on stage so that he could ogle and comment on their physical appearances. That’s never ok, but now in this historical moment it was particularly nauseating.

All of that said, Day is still a showman and even a worn out carnival barker has his moments. The 90 minute show zipped by, and the audience of 40-plus somethings helped him maintain a party atmosphere, reliving the bygone days of dancing in their parents’ rec rooms, basements, and garages to The Time’s loopy grooves. It’s just a shame Day has found himself locked in amber.

One of his more interesting asides during the concert was when Day posited that Grammy-winner Bruno Mars owed his flamboyant style, cheekiness, and success to the path carved first by Day. It was a telling moment, devoid of irony – a kind of Sunset Boulevard “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small” bit of snark – that revealed Day’s bitter humanity in a way none of his onstage preening ever could. And, it is true that Mars has made a pretty damn fine career mining and reinventing the best of his R&B forebears’ work, but the key difference between Mars and Day is Bruno’s heart and whimsy and  light touch. Something Day never really had. Enough with the ginned up rivalries, Mr. Day. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Roy and Nikki

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Coming out of the woods: Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour at Detroit’s Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

Taylor Swift at Ford Field

We had a debate about Taylor Swift at brunch today … well, not a debate so much as friendly banter, but, yes, about Taylor Swift. You see, I saw her stellar 1989 concert at Detroit’s Ford Field last night, and it seems to shock/awe/flabbergast that a grown (sort of) man appreciates the glittering pop output of one Ms. Swift. But I really do. Swift seems to be a polarizing force. Either you adore her or you really don’t ever, ever, ever like her style of wholesome-with-an-edge, high-waisted-Wonder-Bread-dominatrix, let-people-be-people, sh*tcan-the-jerks-in-your-life-with-a-smile jukebox jive.

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

I don’t think it’s easy to transition from child star to adult phenomenon in the public eye. I don’t mean the drug-addled, gin-soaked misadventures of a young (baby) Drew Barrymore or a slipping-down-the-rabbit hole Lindsay Lohan/Amanda Bynes. Rather, it’s probably worse for someone like Swift, whose Amazonian work ethic and drive for world domination must never give her a moment’s rest and which seems to make her a perennial target for critique.

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

Charlotte, MY chaperone for the evening

The 1989 show, named after the year a wide-eyed Taylor (now 25 years old, natch) powered into this unsuspecting world, brings all of the pop (formerly country) powerhouse’s disparate influences into sharp relief. And it makes abundantly clear just how profound her transition has been from kiddie cult to global superstar. Watching last night’s show, I was struck by Swift’s confident swagger (and I normally hate swagger) but she wears it well.

She is not limited by gender, age, public perception, nor a cavalcade of A-list ex-paramours. NO.

She has reverse engineered the formula for inevitable, relentless singularity: one part Mick Jagger, two parts Madonna, a pinch of Janet, with a healthy sprinkling Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos self-mythologizing confessional. Well-played, kid. No one else quite cracked that code – not Britney, not Rihanna, not Gaga. Not even sure Beyonce did it … but watch your back for Miley. Most important? Last night’s show was fun. (And, yeah, I might have been one of the oldest and fewest Y-chromosomed attendees – but if the Church of Swift teaches us anything it’s “haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”)

Welcome to New York

Welcome to New York

The set list is essentially the 1989 album (from last fall) in its entirety with a few other now-classics (strange to say of songs not even five or so years old) thrown in (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Love Story”). Performance highlights included: a glitzy 42nd Street take on opener “Welcome to New York” with its swirling, infectious message of universal inclusion; a little Fosse in the stylized shadow-dancing of hypnotic “Blank Space;” some sweaty Velvet Rope-era Janet stylings on a molasses-throbbing “I Knew You Were Trouble” and a Rhythm Nation twist on rival-skewering “Bad Blood;” and straight-up Courtney Love guitar-raging on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (arguably the strongest reinvention of the bunch).

Bad Blood

Bad Blood

Before her (literally) soaring encore of the ubiquitous “Shake It Up” (staged as a can-can kick-line atop a spinning/floating catwalk), Swift closed with a stadium-rattling take on my personal 1989 favorite “Out of the Woods.” Against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of twisting Grimm Brothers trees and underneath giant spiraling paper airplanes, Swift nailed this Simple Minds/Tears for Fears/Kate Bush-homage, an anthem of empowerment and self-actualization and her ultimate thesis for this sleek, epic pop evening. You are you. Own it.

Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods

There were many surprises in an already jam-packed evening. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons popped up for a frisky duet on his own hit “Radioactive” that had the crowd in a frenzy. (Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get the 50K plus, sold-out crowd in a frenzy. They were going nuts over trivia questions about Taylor’s cats in the pre-show warm-up period.) Other members of the Swift celeb mafia put in video and live appearances – models GiGi Hadid and Martha Hunt walked the catwalk in “Style” to wish their singer-songwriter pal well, and Girls‘ Lena Dunham and the band Haim (not to mention, yes, Taylor’s cats Olivia and Meredith) offered their greetings from the big screens. (Is Swift the new Sinatra – and it’s not Jay-Z after all? Food for thought.)

Shake It Off

Shake It Off

The spectacle of the show was tasteful – more old-school Vegas than stadium bombast – with minimalist choreography, a series of subtle costume changes (all spangles and mini-skirts), a lot of rear-screen projection, and Taylor’s fabulously perfect 1989-bobbed haircut. (Seriously, she should never wear her hair any. other. way.) The niftiest touch of all? Every member of the audience was given a light-up wrist-band (RFID-powered?) that flashed and pulsed and changed colors to the stage activities. Such a simple thing, but had such a profound effect on the overall experience. The huge room at Ford Field looked like a twinkling galaxy, and all of us – young and, ahem, old – were gobsmacked by the clever inclusion of every one us in the concert staging.

The galaxy of wristbands

The galaxy of wristbands

The show is a reverent homage to an era which Swift couldn’t possibly remember – the late 80s. I do. Unlike Katy Perry’s Prismatic Tour (which I enjoyed), Swift is not winking at the Day-Glo era. She is embracing it and exploring those musical influences she never knew she had. I was 17 in 1989, and it was the year I started loving pop music from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation to Madonna’s Like a Prayer to, yes, Prince’s Batman. I still treasure those albums as they transport me to a simpler, maybe sillier, possibly less socially divisive time when a lifetime of opportunity still extended before me. Whether she knows it or not, Swift captured the summer fun of listening to pure pop escapism on my little red boombox on the sundeck of my parents’ house in 1989. Thank you, Taylor.

Linda's daughter Laura (right) with Taylor's mom Andrea

Linda’s daughter Laura with Taylor’s mom Andrea

P.S. Taylor loves Detroit. She first sang the National Anthem at a Lions game at Ford Field years ago, and she even brought her mom along last night to help usher ecstatic fans backstage. My pal Linda Cameron, mom of frequent Penny Seats cast-mate Matt Cameron, was there as a belated holiday present from her family, and Linda even got a chance to meet Mom Swift whom Linda described as a  “sweetheart.”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital) In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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, she started 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
Walking alone
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 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar: Katy Perry’s Prismatic World Tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

 

Katy Perry is adorable. I realize this is not news. But when you spend several hours in her orbit during her Prismatic World Tour you are stunned by the extent of her Hello-Kitty-meets-Mae-West powers.

Like Madonna before her (only without the hauteur), Perry mines every element of current (and past) pop culture to concoct a cheeky confection that is two-parts 12-year-olds’ slumber party, one-part Bettie Page pinup calendar.
 
Hot n Cold

Hot n Cold

 

 

 

Every pop dolly from Britney to Gaga has been after Madge’s crown for years, but I daresay Katy sneaked off with it ages ago with a wink and a smile. Whereas Madonna couches her pop appropriation (theft?) in Marlene Dietrich-style Teutonic frost, Perry zooms in on California sunbeams with a spray of confetti in her wake. But don’t be fooled by the bonbon guise, Perry is just as crafty, intelligent, and witty as her forebear.

 
Walking On Air

Walking On Air

 

Last night’s show at the Palace of Auburn Hills, attended by a sold-out crowd of crazed KatyCats who braved one of the most torrential downpours in recent memory, was/is an epic tribute to one young person’s (Perry’s) astounding ability to crank out nearly two-dozen top ten hits in half a decade. These are the kind of ubiquitous, ear-wormy, inescapable, platinum(!) sing-alongs that most rock stars would give their eyeteeth to have just once in a lifetime. In this sense, Perry and her prodigious musical output have as much in common with the Jackson siblings – Janet and Michael – as any other singers. Like those two talents, the hits just keep on coming … like you’re being pummeled in a disco-fied prizefight.

 
Prismatic

Prismatic

Perry’s latest extravaganza is a deceptively lean and efficient delivery mechanism for all of her numbers, running the gamut from ancient Egypt to 80s video games, from LOLCats-inspired memes to hippie dippie flowers and fairies. The show is a technical marvel with nary a misstep.  As one might expect from a tour dubbed “prismatic,” COLOR! and pyramids and COLOR! and light and COLOR! and triangles and COLOR! are key visual elements.

 
The cartoon cavalcade of costumery appears to have been designed by Roy G. Biv on a bender … and it’s exquisite. The lighting scheme is rife with laser beams, pyrotechnics, kitschy/campy video projections, and enough light-pipes to make Tron green with envy.
 
Birthday

Birthday

As anyone who watched (and loved) Perry’s documentary Part of Me (click here) will attest, Perry’s aesthetic may be best described as American Greetings crossed with Andy Warhol, and the front woman delivers it all with wide-eyed wonder, tongue firmly in cheek. In this sense she may be more Jeff Koons than his self-appointed muse Lady Gaga – sorry, Little Monsters.

My high points from the show?
 
Turning “Hot-n-Cold” into a cabaret number featuring singing/dancing/jazz-handy felines; lightly kinky “Birthday” delivered with zero irony in what appears to be a Chuck E. Cheese party from hell; and closing number (arguably the strongest tune in her canon) “Firework” which she performs alone, amidst, yes, fireworks and wearing a Marie Antoinette gown as bedazzled by Jackson Pollock.
 
This is How We Do

This is How We Do

Every element of the show is meticulously manicured, including opening acts Ferras and Kasey Musgraves, both of whom give the kind of fully-realized performances you rarely see in a warm-up. Ferras is the missing link between Flock of Seagulls and Adam Lambert, strutting about the stage, delivering his new wave hoo-ha in a supremely confident and compelling manner.

 
Kittywood

Kittywood

Musgraves, though, is the stealth winner of the evening – a twangy Laura Benanti who complements nicely Katy Perry’s Lucille Ball-esque screwball tomfoolery.

Enveloping the audience in a big country hug, Musgraves delivers her sweetly sharp, refreshingly progressive hits like “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ‘Round” not to mention Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin'” amidst neon cacti and groovy roots musicians. Genius counterprogramming on Perry’s part.

 
Katycats

Katycats

Both Musgraves and Perry are adept at torching their own glamazon façades and letting their freak flags fly, directly interacting with their audiences in funny and touching ways. Last night’s production felt as if a female Rat Pack had arrived from somewhere beyond Pluto to stage a Pride parade, bringing too-cool-for-school hipsters, screaming junior high girls, their befuddled parents, random “bros” ashamed to admit how much they love pop music, and tightly wound Walmart shoppers all into one big tent revival of tolerance, expression, and joy. I loved every minute!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“The beat goes on …” Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena

Heart of Stone

Heart of Stone

This review of Cher’s “Dressed to Kill” tour stop at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena will not mention anything about how good she looks or how great she sounds or how well she moves or her stamina, all of which seem to be referenced by other reviewers with the qualifier “for her years.” These remarks annoy me for many reasons, chiefly that they are ageist and sexist and demeaning and, well, just plain dumb. Cher is an awe-inspiring pro regardless the era of her storied career.

A Woman's World

A Woman’s World

 

 

 

 

With that disclaimer out of the way, the show kicks ass. Yes, she employs the arena spectacle template that Madonna and Janet Jackson perfected in the 90s, but she definitely makes it her own. (Some might argue that Cher actually invented the genre with her “Take Me Home” tour in the 70s/80s.) There are plenty of Cirque du Soleil style moves from her backup dancers, a thunderously tight band, and all manner of pyrotechnics and digital displays.

And the costumes. Oh, the costumes. Rather famously, Bob Mackie had to withdraw from his long-time professional relationship with Cher because he couldn’t handle the demands of this tour. Well, whoever filled his sequined loafers did a fantastic job. Cher, with a knowing wink to her audience, proceeds seamlessly (pun intended) through just about every iconic outfit of her forty-plus year career, including the ginormous Native American headdress and that leather-thong-up-her-derrière get up.

Cher ... of Troy?

Cher … of Troy?

Unlike some other pop stars, who shall remain nameless, Cher sings full voice throughout, with no apparent backing vocals other than those provided by the onstage backup singers. She doesn’t seem to lip-sync for one moment. I know that should go without saying when you pay exorbitant prices for concert tickets, but I’ve seen plenty of stars in recent years quite obviously mouthing along to prerecorded vocals.

Cher covers all of the major hits, and even some forgotten ones. But her strongest moments are when she breaks through all the Vegas glitz, and talks directly to us in that inimitable, down-to-earth, saucy style.

Her tribute to Sonny Bono is touching without being maudlin, and her overview of her film career is surprisingly moving, given how uneven some of those movies have been.

The Beat Goes On

The Beat Goes On

(At one moment tonight, she let loose a delightfully irreverent diatribe about her addiction to Dr. Pepper and how the company has never given her any swag in her decades of drinking the stuff, save one shabby cooler filled with a lowly six pack after one of her recent shows. She also told the crowd that her cat was rescued from under a tour bus on another concert stop in Detroit years ago. “He’s a Malibu cat now,” she drawled in that distinctive contralto of hers.)

She is at her best when she just stands still and SINGS (!), including “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” an underrated gem from her last cinematic foray Burlesque. The song is lyrically perfect for a performer who has launched about four “farewell tours” in the last decade.

Benatar and Giraldo

Benatar and Giraldo

The mod 1960s montage of hits from “The Beat Goes On” through “Half Breed” is also a high point. Cher efficiently glides through those numbers, giving us just enough to remember how much we love those songs and not so much that we realize how darn silly they are.

Opening act, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo are outstanding as well. They shred gleefully through all their 80s classics, having a ball tonight as they celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary with all of us at Joe Louis Arena. Benatar’s vocals are crisp and throaty as ever, and Giraldo proves what an amazing guitarist he is over and over. And I really don’t give a hoot about guitarists, but I was impressed.

Finale

Finale

 

Cher and Benatar are wonderful examples of smart, savvy, witty women – no, strike that last word and replace it with people. They have given their all to the entertainment industry and yet retain strikingly distinctive senses of self. Their authenticity should give hope to all the young performers out there who may be tempted to sell their souls to the devil. Cher likely would wink and nod, flip her hair, and say, “Don’t sell your soul to the devil … just give it to him on consignment … whoooaaahhh.”

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Dinner before at Ferndale's Local Kitchen

Dinner before at Ferndale’s Local Kitchen

 

 

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound, Common Language, and Memory Lane also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.