Thursday, January 27, 2011

Stella-vision: Leo Stella's "Seems Like Old Times"

Very few cable-access shows can be watched again and again, and fewer still remain entertaining over a decade later. One of the ones that I can rewatch and am still thoroughly entertained by is Seems Like Old Times, the weekly lounge-piano spectacular that was on in the mid-1990s in Manhattan and starred the one and only Mr. Leo Stella. Leo is lost to the sands of time (if you’re out there, give a shout, Leo!), but his show lives on, thanks to those of us with VCRs who captured “the beauty and the splendor of the magnificence that is me” (as Leo would put it).

I have posted on YouTube a chunk of an episode in which Leo holds forth on an old friend of his who was being put in a home by a young social worker — right after he sings a sleepy and suggestive “Some Day My Prince Will Come”:

In another episode, Leo sang the song from the Broadway show Tenderloin that became a hit for Bobby Darin, “Artificial Flowers,” in classic lounge style:

On the same episode, Leo revealed the reason for his mock “street” attire when he performed an utterly mind-roasting rap version of the Noel Coward song “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington”:

And responded to a youthful heckler on the phone (I felt that the show went a bit downhill when he accepted phone calls from the audience) who would just chant, “Faggot, faggot, faggot!” Leo’s response to this young rapscallion was to serenade him in song:

I have more Leo to upload in the future. You won’t be seeing this kind of entertainment on the major networks anytime soon — but things would be a lot better if you did.

"W for... the Weather Report show": Deceased (Access) Artiste Clinton Freeman

Some public access shows can’t be described, they just have to be seen. Such was the case with The Weather Report, a show hosted and produced by one Clinton Freeman, whom I had been informed died a few months back. I offer this slice of his show on YouTube as an example of access at its most creative, humorous (intentional and otherwise), and definitely strangest.

What “Video Clint” (as he at one time referred to himself on the show) did on his show was to deconstruct newspapers and magazine pieces (articles, ads, illustrations) by pointing out common themes. He was particularly obsessed with weather maps and would discuss them in much detail on the show, referring to how their existence in said periodicals provided references to his show. He had several other preoccupations, which included among others Britpop bands (and his hero Morrissey), very beautiful supermodels, gorillas, and bananas. The last-mentioned I believe was an oblique reference to the famous Warhol cover of the first Velvet Underground LP — Clint was obsessed with Warhol and at times seemed to indicate on The Weather Report that Andy was the inspiration for the show.

Clint had done a number of cable-access shows here in Manhattan. His first, The Four Horsemen, was done with friends and was pretty hard to fathom for those who tuned in casually (the participants wore suits and animal masks and made bizarre pronouncements); the phrase “self-aware” would pretty much cover that show. He returned on his own with shows called Lovecats and The Chair (at least I think it was called “The Chair” — perhaps it was “Electric Chair,” which would, of course, be another Warholian citation). In any case, by 1996, the time when this clip was shot, Clint had his own little world of references going on. It was very unique stuff and provoked fascination, laughter, or boredom, or a mixture of the three. See if you experience any of those reactions:

For the year 2000, access producers (working, very obviously, with no budgets) were faced with a minor dilemma: how to commemorate the new millennium? I wanted to do something about the history of film, but settled for a three-episode history of the film noir. For his show, Clint did “the best rock shows of the 20th Century,” which were revealed to have been the rock shows he had attended and liked the most. He held up tickets from the gigs, recalled stories about them, and told us about the venues they took place in. I can’t imagine that kind of content occurring in any other format than cable access (although, of course, YouTube has fast usurped a lot of the strangeness that used to find a home solely on access). Here is Clint’s obit in the New York Times. RIP, Video Clint, your like will not be seen again!

The stars honor JFK: the pre-inaugural gala

I’ve already rhapsodized on this blog about my love of old variety shows. Well, since the rerun networks have no interest in letting us see these programs, which combined the very, very best and sometimes (often, in the later days) worst of American pop culture, and DVD collections do exist but they are few and far between, we have to turn to — where else? — YouTube.

Thus, I am happy to point you to a variety show that the American public got to see exactly once on NBC. The event was the pre-inaugural gala held before JFK took the oath of office, and was famously overseen by Frank Sinatra. The roster is loaded with A-list stars who wanted to honor the new, youthful president-elect.

The YT upload doesn’t list the guests in the order they appear, so here’s the actual order: Leonard Bernstein conducting, Ethel Merman, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (performing a pretty bad approximation of a George-and-Gracie skit), Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte (bringing the show firmly into the Sixties with a terrific rendition of “John Henry”), Milton Berle/Bill Dana (his name Jose Jimenez!), Frank Sinatra (doing a Gallagher and Sheen variant with Berle, whoa baby).

The show ends with a very long bit of “special material” (I’m betting Sammy Cahn was the lyricist) that introduces all these other stars whose bits were presumably clipped by NBC: Gene Kelly, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Joey Bishop, Alan King, Pat Suzuki, and Ella Fitzgerald. Frederic March reads a speech by Lincoln at the end, followed by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sung by Helen Traubel (they left that in and cut out Lady Ella and Louis and Keely???) and a thank-you speech by JFK (with interesting jokes about how deeply in debt the Democratic Party was). It’s extremely strange to see a show co-hosted by Sinatra that doesn’t include a solo number by Frank.

One footnote on the event: some rather obvious absences are the other Rat Packers (although, as noted, Bishop participates in the closing number and Lawford can be seen in the audience laughing at the Bill Dana bit). The story goes that Sammy got a call from Frank saying that he shouldn’t be a part of the proceedings because he had a white wife at the time (Sammy had been booed at the Democratic convention when he came out to sing). Either Dean Martin was so outraged he wouldn’t participate in the show as an act of solidarity with Sam — or he just wanted to stay home that evenin’….

Thanks to pal Jay Hopkins for passing this on.

"And now, for a Special Comment..."

The swift and unexplained departure from MSNBC of Keith Olbermann last week is a major loss for those of us who were hooked on his program and, I would argue, for the TV audience in general, since I viewed Keith as a “corrective” to the fact-less, spiteful, and tunnel-visioned bunch on the Fox News Network.

His commentary-based Countdown was a pundit-laden show like the Fox shows and it had a clear political bias like the Fox shows, but it was predicated on facts, open to correction, and used Keith’s strong, often strident, commentaries to contextualize the news as well as help people in need — particularly those without healthcare, which continues to be our national tragedy and the way in which the U.S. is most like a third-world nation (run by fat, deliriously happy capitalists).

I can’t honestly say I’ve been moved by many news anchors or pundits ever, but the segment below of an episode-length show Keith did on the health care debate, and how important it is to Americans, moved me greatly (read: the *real * healthcare debate, the one to get nationalized medicine, the one that President Obama abandoned in order to play politics-as-usual, we’ll-amend-this-mess-later).

This editorial moved me not just because Keith was reflecting on his father’s imminent death, but because of his inclusion of a story about a baseball-card-collecting friend whose daughter was suffering in the ICU. I cringe when I am confronted by sentimental, Spielbergian art and entertainment, but this editorial touched me:

On the other side of the coin, I will readily admit that Keith has an in-your-face quality that is abrasive. I agree with a good deal of his stances, and so I didn’t find it to be “too much” — perhaps the only thing I thought was pretentious was his decision to close out each show with Edward R. Murrow’s signature “Good night, and good luck.” I can easily counterbalance this, though, with the fact that he has great taste in vintage comedy (Bob and Ray, Sid Caesar, the Goons) and worships the Pythons, Rod Serling, and Bill Hicks — can’t find much wrong with that.

So why is Keith now off the air? He had the highest-rated show on MSNBC, but he was “let go” last week for most likely one of two reasons (or both): a personal conflict with the heads of his network, which he had had in several of his previous high-profile jobs as a sportscaster; or the merger of NBC with Comcast empire. The merger was already seen as a possible threat to Keith’s freedom of speech on MSNBC late last year, when he was suspended for having contributed to the campaigns of three Democratic candidates (including Gabby Giffords). The heads of Comcast are “staunch GOP supporters,” and while each host on MSNBC (except Joe Scarborough) takes on the Republicans, Olbermann did so with a particular relish, focusing in particular on Fox News’ unabashed support for the party.

So it is assumed by both well-respected trade mags and bloggers who don’t care for Olbermann that he was edged off the air by the merger. What did we lose as an audience? A talking head who certainly displayed intelligence and verbal dexterity, but also a conscience, a willingness to admit when he was wrong, and an ongoing acknowledgement that President’s quixotic and ridiculous quest for bipartisanship wasn’t just a big disappointment to his “base,” but was ultimately dangerous and foolhardy.

Whatever the case may be, MSNBC was very willing to dispense with its highest-rated program. Some websites proclaim with assurance that the NBC-Comcast merger had nothing to do with the break and Keith left to create his own "media empire" a la Arianna Huffington, but then the question remains: why the “gag order”? If he left of his own volition, it’s highly doubtful the network would make him remain silent about it, if only to stifle the rumor that they bounced him.

So that leaves those of us Lefties who still watch television with three alternatives:

the “harder Left” shows like Democracy Now and GRITtv, which dispense facts ignored by the MSM and also offer actual video journalism, but lack Olbermann’s sense of visible outrage (and acknowledgment that a little dash of entertainment is never a bad thing)
— the remaining MSNBC hosts, who will continue to espouse liberal beliefs, but will never be as openly challenging as Olbermann was. I can’t fault them for wanting to keep their jobs, and have already stated how much I love Rachel Maddow as a host (although: bring back Kent Jones!). And Chris Matthews’ adamant moments of disbelief are indeed wonderful. The Mediaite website (coincidentally run by ex-MSNBC host Dan Abrams!) hit the target, however, by noting that not only was Olbermann the most engaging/enraging host on the nework, his show was also just as the best show that MSNBC had, hands down
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Those who want to perceive the political situation in a simplistic fashion go for this option. On the comedic level, both shows range from shticky to immaculately funny, but the “can’t we all just get along?” ideology espoused by the former (and playfully struck down by the latter) strikes me as extremely naïve, and also fascinatingly mirrors Obama’s hopeless longing for bipartisanship. The comedy is excellent, but the shows are not news or even news commentary, as the hosts readily admit in interviews (casting aside for a moment Jon Stewart’s “climatologist” remark to Maddow).

Thus, there is a big hole in my weekday viewing habits now that Keith is gone. I do not have a DVR, so for me television is either “preserve it” (something I will watch again or want to collect), catch it at the time it’s on, or miss it.

Whatever the reason for the break with MSNBC may be, I’m sure that Olberman will return, in one format or another. The chances of getting him back in prime-primetime are slim, but if CNN wanted a real reboot — and could honestly admit that Parker Spitzer (even the name, guys!) was a dire idea — perhaps there could be a really viable alternative to the agony of Fox News once more….

In the meantime, there are indeed the clips from the past. First, the moment I knew I loved Keith’s way of slamming public figures, a “Special Comment” about Rudolph Guiliani, the horrific and repellent ex-Mayor of New York City:

The most famous Special Comment found Keith telling Bush to “shut the hell up!” Seen as “too much, too far” by many liberals, it really was needed. Someone needs to be saying these things to the Right:

To show that Olbermann was indeed fair-minded and was willing to call “our guy" on the carpet for slowly sacrificing important points, a commentary about one of the first times Obama did something to mitigate the atrocities done by the last administration (which earned him no “brownie points” among the Repubs):

To end on a humorous note: Although the best-seen impression of Keith was the one Ben Affleck did on SNL, this gentleman does a quieter, more perfect rendtion of the outraged Special Comment Keith:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"I... hate... servants!": Deceased Artiste Susannah York

I was surprised to see that Susannah York was 72 when she died last week, but that was merely my mind having frozen her into her 20s/30s, since that was the age she was at when she made the films that have made the greatest impression on me. Her obits noted that her cute, short-haired blonde looks “fell out of favor” in British cinema come the late Seventies, and she was quite eager to play character parts in her later years. She remained a trooper, doing roles in movies, on British television, and (extensively) on the stage, including a one-woman show in which she incarnated the women of Shakespeare.

She was a top-notch actress, but began, yes, as a sex-kitten type in British film. She made her first big impression on American audiences in Tony Richardson’s superb Tom Jones (1963), where she shared flirtation scenes with the young and equally idyllic-looking Albert Finney:

She had earlier (in 1962) appeared in John Huston’s challenging and disturbing portrait of the father of psychoanalysis, Freud with Montgomery Clift. The whole film is available on YouTube, and it’s definitely one of Huston’s more ambitious pictures:

I love “Sixties movies” (read: transgressive heroes/heroines, parties, psychedelia, open or ambiguous endings), but will confess I’ve never seen Kaleidoscope (1966) and Duffy (1968), both of which feature York as the female lead. This scene from Duffy is a classic bit of “atmosphere” in which James Coburn dances with her at a trippy club:

I also haven’t seen Sebastian (1968) with York and Dirk Bogarde. It contains a nice acid freakout sequence, but York doesn’t feature in that. Here she is, again dancing in a hip, Swinging Sixties nightclub:

One of the most controversial pictures she starred in was Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968). It’s a bizarre film that is very important, in that it was one of the first feature-length dramas about lesbianism. It contains a streak of the grotesque, in which Aldrich seems to be revisiting the territory he covered in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, plus it also adheres to the unspoken rule at the time that gay protagonists had to be tragic, haunted figures. I love Aldrich’s wildly subversive style, though, and so do recommend you check out the whole film, but if you want to see a key scene, this would be the one, as Beryl Reid is told off by Coral Browne, as ultra-cute gf Susannah York has to decide which older lady to stay with:

York’s most powerful scene, with Gig Young, in Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of the brilliant Horace McCoy novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). Change the milieu from a marathon dance contest in the Depression to the pathetic “reality TV” competitions of today, and you’ve got just about the same story, don’t you?

York was the female lead in the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s play Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971). Contrary to what the YouTube poster and commenters say, it was never a Vonnegut novel, it was an original play. It’s noted that Vonnegut hated it, but I sorta like its claustrophobic staging of the play with its odd surreal moments. The boy in the film, Steven Paul, went on to make the most amazingly off-kilter (read: bad on a whole new level) Vonnegut adaptation, Slapstick of Another Kind:

When I had heard that York had died, I thought of my two favorite films in which she had starred. The first is Altman’s surreal thriller Images from 1972. It’s a hard film to synopsize, in that it concerns a woman who may or may not be losing her mind, but it features York as a children’s book author who begins to experience delusions about the men in her life. It is one of those films that Altman made because he wanted to make it, not because it had the slightest chance to do well at the box office:

The other film starring York that I love and rewatched several times is the American Film Theater adapation of Jean Genet’s The Maids (1975). She and Glenda Jackson play the servant sisters who plot to kill “the Madame” (Vivien Merchant), but also secretly wish to be her. It’s a brilliantly acted film and is also a sexy exploration of roleplaying and domination (although, of course, Genet had initially wanted young men to play the roles in drag). The film is available on DVD from Kino, and I recommend you check it out on disc, or for the limited time it’s up on YT, you can check it out there. Here is the trailer:

York was of course best known to American audiences in the last few decades as Superman’s mom in the Christopher Reeve movies, but I want to end this tribute on an “up” note from a film I believe has never played over here, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (yes, *another* one), called Alicja (1982). Made by Polish directors Jacek Bromski and Jerzy Gruza in England, the film features musical numbers, and here we have a disco-era bit of wonderment with Susannah York, Jean-Pierre Cassell, Lulu (who provided the voice of the film’s lead, Sophie Barjac), Paul Nicholas, and Freddie Mercury’s pal Peter Straker. The song is called “Talk Small” and yes, you won’t be able to forget the awful lyrics (including “They like imported cheese!”). It’s also too long and tacky as hell, so you need to watch it:

Friday, January 21, 2011

"The Man With the Golden Ear": Deceased Artiste Don Kirshner

Don Kirshner was one of the last of those folks from behind the scenes who came out in front of the camera and became a very unlikely TV star. There were a number of personalities in the Fifties and Sixties who began as journalists or authors or DJs and became hosts of television shows — Kirshner started his stint as the monotone host of his own Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in a much later era (the hip and “savvy” Seventies), hosting his series from 1973-81. He was indeed as flat as cardboard on the air, but his show presented musicians performing LIVE, which is more than Dick Clark could ever claim….

Kirshner was of course well known in the music industry long before he became a TV host. He began his “Aldon” music company in the early Sixties (with partner Al Nevins), and wound up employing the cream of the “Brill Building” group of songwriters: Pomus and Shuman, Mann and Weill, King and Goffin, Boyce and Hart, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond. To be geographically correct, Kirshner’s office was up the block from the Brill Building on Broadway (if I remember correctly, it’s where the Mamma Mia theater now stands).

Kirshner never wrote or performed music, but he published some of the early hits of the songwriters mentioned above, and he produced several hit singles. When he was brought on board The Monkees TV project to find the band hit songs, he succeeded quickly in getting them two big singles (“I’m a Believer,” “Last Train to Clarksville”), but the band “fired” him when they wanted to take charge of the music themselves and were furious that the More of the Monkees LP had come out without their knowledge. The famous story has it that Michael Nesmith (wool-hat rebel!) smashed his fist into a hotel wall and told Kirshner, “That could have been your face!”

Here is a perfect example of what Kirshner gave the Monkees on their first album, a great piece of pop psychedelia from Carole King and Gerry Goffin, “Take a Giant Step”:

The song that supposedly was one of the “breaking points” for the band was “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” by Neil Diamond, which was one of those tunes that came out without their approval. It’s still a damned fine pop tune (and no, Bobby Sherman wasn’t part of the production, he was just in this episode):

Kirshner’s next big move was to create a prefab band that couldn’t talk back to him, the studio creation “The Archies,” manufactured to debut on the Saturday morning Archie cartoon show. The “band” (which consisted of studio singers Ron Dante and Toni Wine, seen to the right with Don, and whomever else Kirshner corralled into recording under the moniker) had a few giant hits, including (of course) “Sugar, Sugar” and “Jingle Jangle”:

The last popular band Kirshner discovered was Kansas, but we’ll leave them aside to pay tribute to his TV show, which offered us genuine time capsules, like this live performance by Sly and the Family Stone:

UPDATE: This clip was taken off of YouTube by Andrew Solt's SOFA corporation, which evidently holds the rights to Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. They have pulled most of the clips from DKRC, but have thus far issued no DVDs of the program, nor have they put the shows up in any permutation on iTunes, Hulu, YT, or any of the usual websites. I guess they're hanging onto the shows, a la the Dick Clark empire, for future use in documentaries and in the meantime not allowing fans to share them. I understand a capitalist move like that under ordinary circumstances, but taking them all down right after Kirshner's death so fans can't commemorate Kirshner's contribution to TV rock history is an especially nice, Scrooge-ly touch. So much for your Kirshner tributes, bloggers! The SOFA folks need these tapes locked up in their library, nice and tight.

The Seventies continued on with Linda Ronstadt with the Eagles:

One of the only national TV appearances by The New York Dolls in their prime:


ABBA in 1976 doing “SOS”:


The Ramones, with a full wooden intro by Don!

I can think of no better way to close out a tribute to a leisure-suited gent who gave us some of the best music of the Seventies than with one of my personal faves of the decade, the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach”:


UPDATE: Mike Nesmith posted a Facebook status acknowledging the wall-punching story: "Sad to learn of the passing of my old adversary Don Kirshner. He was a formidable foe and I send my condolences and sympathy to his family and his many friends. Donny, where ever you are — I want you to know I put my fist thru the wall just for dramatic effect. Apparently it worked. It is all behind us now, and we wrote what we wrote. Rest in Peace." Thanks to Krys O. for passing this on.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Let us now praise Sam the Sham

I brought a number (a big number) of my records back to my apartment from storage last weekend and indulged in a listening marathon that included one of my fave compilation albums, something called “Super Stars/Super Hits,” a two-record comp released in 1968 that was created by the CBS' direct marketing division. I purchased the set for 50 cents back in 1981 from a record-filled joint down on Broadway right near the Unique Warehouse (and how long has that emporium of fine weirdness been gone?). Anyway, this album is constructed like you’re turning an AM dial and “hearing” these hits from various genres: pop-rock, bubblegum, soul, garage, psychedelia, and mawkish ballads.

One of the tunes that always mesmerized me on that collection as a kid was “Ju Ju Hand” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. In rediscovering the song, which does nick from “Woolly Bully” but seems to have its own deranged logic, Sam wails out some proto-New Orleans stuff about spells or something. Like any really great rock ’n’ roll, the song makes little sense, and it fucking shouldn’t. The lyrics online depend on how the listener heard the nonsense words, so you can find this version of the lyrics. Who knows which written lyric is correct and what the song means? Only Domingo Samudio himself, the man better known as Sam the Sham. And here is that song, still as awesome as when it was released in the mid-Sixties and I first heard it in the early Eighties:

Samudio definitely scored a garage/frat-rock anthem with “Wooly Bully” back in the 1965, but in re-listening to his Greatest Hits LP, I realized that he was some kind of missing link between Bo Diddley's truly “classic rock” of the Fifties and the Tex-Mex (and garage) artists of the Sixties. In trying to follow up “Wooly Bully,” he fell into the novelty-record biz, which happens to be another subgenre of pop-rock that I am fascinated by. His other biggest hit was “Little Red Riding Hood.” The follow-up was “The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin,” and a tune that literally is an old comedy routine done as a song, “Oh That’s Good, No That’s Bad.”

It’s noted on the Net that Sam the Sham is back doing gigs these days, but mostly acoustic, from his homebase in Tennessee. If you want to see what he looked like in his prime, some great examples are on YouTube. Here the band does “Ring Dang Doo” (with an intro from the ever-clueless Ed Sullivan indicating that they had a big hit with “Hully Gully”):

If that ain’t rockin’ enough for ya, here the band does a song called “Go-Go Girl” on Hullaballoo, with some of the titular specimens on display. This is truly in Bo Diddley territory, but it is priceless, since the song is done live:

And there’s no other way to close than a live version of the group’s biggest hit, which is one of the greatest nonsense anthems EVER in rock ’n’ roll:

Speeding cars, racing bicycles, and low-key love stories: Deceased Artiste Peter Yates

Peter Yates, who died at 81 last weekend, was yet another example of the many directors who made sterling, indelible work during the Nixon era, when Hollywood was willing to back “maverick” projects that were low-key, personal, and very character-driven. After that period ended, thanks to Jaws and Star Wars, these directors floundered, occasionally making great works, but primarily genre-jumping and making some sadly unsatisfying multiplex fare. Others, like Funhouse deity Robert Altman, kept making their kind of films by moving to other media, making smaller-budgeted truly independent features, and getting foreign funding.

Since I really don’t want to acknowledge the latter part of Mr. Yates’ career, which included such mainstream fare as The Deep (1977), Krull (1983), the Tom Selleck prison drama An Innocent Man (which I saw for review purposes, and man was it dreadful, but it did have a rather jarring line — for a Tom Selleck vehicle at least — about anal rape), and Year of the Comet (1992). Let’s talk instead about the “hungry” young British director who started with a Cliff Richard vehicle in 1963 (Summer Holiday), proceeded to direct several eps of The Saint and Secret Agent, and then moved on to make some truly memorable work in the “maverick” era.

The best-remembered Yates picture is without question Bullitt because it is a tight, lean specimen of the tough-cop subgenre that is less atmospheric and downright nightmarish than Dirty Harry, but is the most Steve McQueen-ish pic of all Steve McQueen pics. Yates' car chase set the standard for ALL the car chases to follow in the Seventies — and, believe me, there were plenty. Don Siegel himself had to acknowledge that car chases in cop movies were de rigueur by the mid-Seventies and would probably be looked back on with nostalgia in the future (how right he was).

I also have a major, major love for Yates’ John and Mary, the “singles” dating movie that draws on lessons from Godard and other Euro-gods (with a scene directly inspired by Band of Outsiders, plus the characters meeting through a discussion about Weekend). It also HEAVILY prefigures Annie Hall and Manhattan — I’m not saying Woody stole from it, but he definitely had seen it, I’ve always thought.

And lastly, the third “maverick”-era masterpiece by Yates was The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a low-key caper movie with Mitchum and a cast of terrific supporting performers including Peter Boyle. You can’t get much better than Eddie Coyle in the “neo-noir” category of updated fatalistic crime pictures. Mitchum was a wildly underrated actor, but only because he worked in so much garbage throughout his career. Eddie Coyle is a worthy bit of understated Mitchum that, luckily for us, is in distribution on DVD.

Yates did go on to make several fine pictures, including Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1983) with the ever-awesome Albert Finney. His last pic was a James Spader-starrer called Curtain Call, which ain’t that auspicious but, hey, in the scheme of things it’s better than the terrifically talented John Schlesinger closing out his prestigious career with a Madonna rom-com (The Next Best Thing). A man’s gotta draw the line somewhere….

The trailer for Bullitt can be found here, but its most memorable sequence, the car chase that still keeps you on the edge of your seat 42 years later, can be found here:

There are several clips from Eddie Coyle up on YouTube, but here is the trailer, which gives a good impression of the film’s low-key tone:

"Old" meets "new" on Sixties TV

I continually love to return to the late Sixties and early Seventies on the Funhouse TV show, because that was both a most productive and imaginative period in American film and TV, and also an era when producers were scrambling to find ways to discover the “new” in American culture and possibly just throw some of it in with the “old.” Here, that lovable scamp and “Polack… with the nutty wig” (per Lenny Bruce’s jazz musician character) decided to try on a new persona in 1969, for about two minutes. Hilarity ensues. Or at least brain damage:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Daddy Cool: Deceased Artiste Bobby Farrell

I liked the work of recent shufflers-off-this-mortal-coil Gerry Rafferty and Anne Baxter, but they’ve been well covered elsewhere. I’d like to focus instead on Bobby Farrell, who was a star in popular music, but never actually made the music himself. He was described variously in his obits as “lead performer,” “lead dancer,” and “lip-synch artist” in the group Boney M. It was the last credit that made me research Farrell’s life, and I found a wealth of wonderfully kitschy Eurodisco that never really seemed to have caught on over here, as far as the mainstream (I’m sure it was played at many discos in the States by DJs aware of “continental trends”).

Farrell, who died at 61 on December 30th, was an Arruban who traveled to Norway and the Netherlands before he hit Germany and encountered wonderfully mad record producer Frank Farian, who had started to make Boney M. records himself in late ’74, with his own voice put through a filter. He needed to find a face (and dance moves) to go with his voice, so he had Farrell tour as the “lead singer” of the group, with two ladies who were also stylish lip-synchers and a fourth performer, Liz Mitchell, who had actually provided female vocals on some of the Boney M. releases.

There are two wonderful things one discovers when one researches Boney M.: first the trove of catchy-as-fuck and absolutely ridiculous disco tunes Farian came up with for the group, and secondly, the 1990 court case that allowed each member of the touring Boney M. to start his or her own version of the group! Now that is some subdivision of a prefab non-existent enterprise: allow the public faces of the concept to create their own stage versions of it, resulting in a lot of competing Boney M. touring acts, which kept the name alive in Europe right through to the present. Boney M. ran its course hit-wise in the early Eighties, but Farian later came up with several other prominent studio creations, including (you guessed it) Milli Vanilli.

The most interesting thing about Farrell’s death was that he died in St. Petersburg, Russia, where there was still evidently a strong cult for Boney M., lo the many years later. It was noted in one British tabloid that Farrell died “on the same day and in the same city” as Rasputin, who was the subject of one of Boney M.’s bugfuck brilliantly goofy tunes. Actually the Mad Monk died on December 29th (in one of the great fuck-up assassination stories of all time), but I think he might’ve, in his perverse wisdom, actually enjoyed the Boney M. tune that proclaimed him “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine!”

The only Boney M. song that I heard on AM radio back in the late Seventies here in NYC was “Rivers of Babylon,” which is indeed wildly catchy. It has been used effectively in movie soundtracks for years, most notably for me in the mostly music-less Jim Thompson adaptation Série Noire (1979) starring Patrick Deweare and directed by 2010 Deceased Artiste Alain Corneau:

The very first Boney M. hit was the memorably titled
“Baby, Do You Wanna Bump?” from 1975. However, the clip that makes me go into a state of camp overload is the minimalist disco exercise “Daddy Cool” from 1976:

In 1978, Farian released “Rivers of Babylon” backed with “Brown Girl in the Ring.” The fact that the latter song has the refrain “tra-la-la-la” over and over and over again (as well the other Boney M. hit that endlessly repeats "hi-di-hi-di-ho”) immediately makes me think of Neil Innes’ sublime “Mr. Eurovision Song Contest Man.” Then again, Innes was kidding — I’m not so sure about Farian….

I have a complete loyalty to “The Night Chicago Died” as the premier Euro Seventies song that got American history wrong but made a DAMNED fine pop record out of it, but I will begrudgingly admit that Farian’s demented take on the Ma Barker saga, inexplicably called “Ma Baker,” is pretty damned impressive too:

Some really crazy dancing from Farrell in this video, for the song “Boonoonoonoos” (don’t ask me, I can’t answer), which for some reason includes a major portion of the Van Morrison song “I Shall Sing,” which I know best from Art Garfunkel’s cover:

And since disco was all about doing strange stuff in strange ways, here’s Boney M.’s cover of the ultimate rock epic, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”:

I truly must close out with my fave ridiculous song by the group, “Rasputin.” This song, and this video, are both wildly ridiculous ("Rah-rah Rasputin, lover of the Russian queen!"), and that’s why you should watch it NOW: