Comedy

Your Next Musical-Theater Project: Carmen Miranda — An Open Letter to Lin-Manuel Miranda

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The Brazilian Bombshell: Carmen Miranda

Dear Lin-Manuel,

Are you ready for your next musical-theater challenge? Are you willing to hear about the artistic and personal life of the Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda? I don’t know why this subject hasn’t occurred to you before, but it would be a natural fit for your background and musical-theater abilities. And considering your surname, the (ahem) obvious choice!

Speaking of which, my name is Josmar Lopes, but everyone calls me Joe. You see, I am a former immigrant myself. I came to the United States in 1959 from São Paulo, Brazil. I was five years old at the time. I grew up in the inner city, i.e. the South Bronx, near Fort Apache. You were born in Washington Heights and grew up in the Linwood area. My family and I lived for eight years at the Bronx River Houses — on the 14th floor to be exact — so we were intimately familiar with adversity and difficult times, much like the characters in your first hit play, In the Heights. In that, we share a commonality.

I recently watched a clip from the CBS Sunday Morning program in which both you and author Ron Chernow admitted that Alexander Hamilton’s life story was the ultimate immigrant take on the theme of making it in America.

In view of this, I can say with absolute authority that Carmen Miranda’s story is Hamilton’s twice over: she wasn’t born in Brazil, as many people mistakenly believe, but in Portugal. Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was brought to Rio de Janeiro (the country’s capital at the time) in 1909 by her mother when she was less than a year old.

The young Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, ca. 1920s

Incredibly, Carmen never became a Brazilian citizen, for which she was severely criticized. And despite a successful ten-year stage and recording career in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Carmen longed for fame in the U.S., especially in Hollywood. Fate would eventually come to tap her on the shoulder.

In 1939, famed theater producer and impresario Lee Shubert was told of this sizzling new attraction by various individuals who had caught her act at the Urca Casino in Rio. He sent advance men to report back and keep an eye on the Brazilian’s progress. Upon his arrival there — and after watching Carmen perform live on stage — Shubert decided to invite Carmen to come to Boston and New York, and eventually make her Broadway debut in the musical revue, The Streets of Paris, in which she sang the number, “South American Way.” From there, it was a motion-picture contract with Darryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox Studios.

Carmen stayed in America for a solid year, returning to Brazil in 1940, where she was “greeted” with a cold shoulder by the elite of Brazilian society for having made her fame away from her home country. One could add that her story from this point on was a “rags to riches to more riches” tale. Carmen decided to make America her home, which in return made her the highest paid woman entertainer in the business, only to end up in a miserable, loveless marriage to a minor American producer, an addiction to alcohol and barbiturates, electro-shock therapy, and a premature death at age 46. Whew!

How does all this connect to your personal style of writing and composition? Well, to put it plainly: Carmen was a uniquely gifted talent, in that she carved out her own individual performance style. She was more than just a singer and an entertainer: she was Brazil’s most famous international export. Her rapid-fire delivery and natural flair for language and self-expression came across not only on screen in those colorful Fox musicals of the 1940s, but in her many Brazilian recordings from the period 1929 to 1939, the decade before she immigrated (for the second time in her life) to America.

As evidence of her uniqueness, check out her classic appearance in Greenwich Village, a Fox musical from 1944, in particular two numbers: Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild about Harry”; and “Give Me a Band and a Bandana” by Leo Robin and Nacio Herb Brown.  In both, Carmen interpolates some lines in her native Portuguese that, believe it not, could have been harbingers of rap and hip-hop (Brazilian style, of course!). It’s the kind of thing that Carmen did naturally.

Poster art for Greenwich Village (1944)

If all this intrigues you, Lin-Manuel, then please let me know. I have had wide-ranging experience with Broadway and theater people, for example, Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions. I worked closely with them in our efforts to bring the 1959 cult film Black Orpheus to the New York stage. They can vouch for my proficiency in the area of cultural consultant. Not only was I successful in helping to obtain the rights to the original Brazilian play Orfeu da Conceição, but I also introduced Stephen and Alia to the team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the most successful producer-director duo in Brazilian musical theater today. In addition, I helped to translate (from the original Portuguese to American English) the team’s version of Black Orpheus, as well as Möeller-Botelho’s original theater piece, 7 – The Musical, a modern interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty-Cinderella fairy tales.

The most fascinating aspect of my association with Claudio Botelho was his challenge to me to write an original stage treatment based on Carmen Miranda’s life. I did so — willingly — and called it Bye-Bye, My Samba (or, in Portuguese, Adeus, batucada, after one of her hit songs). Much as you were inspired by Chernow’s biography to write Hamilton: An American Musical, I too have met the challenge head on of doing justice to my fellow Brazilian compatriot. It took a great deal of research and study, and long hours at home contemplating the best way to present this subject to audiences unfamiliar with Carmen’s history. I can tell you that I learned quite a lot about the real Carmen Miranda.

In spite of his poverty and illegitimacy and lowly station in life, Hamilton developed supreme self-confidence and a built-in reliance on his intelligence and work ethic. As for myself, I can only boast of my dedication and thoroughness to whatever project I work on. With that said, I am confident you will give this pitch of mine the dedication and thoroughness of thought it requires. As I stated at the outset, it’s a natural!

Thank you so much for your time!

In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda (center)

P.S. We LOVED your play In the Heights, along with your Spanish translation of West Side Story. As a matter of fact, Stephen Byrd wanted to develop the Black Orpheus project along similar lines — that is, intersperse some Brazilian-Portuguese dialogue into the English translation. If that isn’t a compliment to the fine job you did with In the Heights, I don’t know what is!

Copyright (c) 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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In Search of the Perfect Haircut: An Anecdotal Trip to the Barbershop

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Close Shaves

Typical Barber Shop ca. 1970s

Oh, brother! It’s that time of the month again, when one’s mane starts to look a bit straggly and those sideburns are in dire need of a wee trim.

Did you ever get the feeling that no matter where you went or whatever hairstyling establishment you happened to frequent, you could never get the perfect haircut to suit your taste, style and looks?

That’s how it was for me (uh, when I had a full mop of hair, that is). In my youth I wandered through a host of hair-clipping joints and local barbershops, always hopeful but never fully satisfied with the results.

That elusive search for the perfect haircut can take on the semblance of a hunt for the Holy Grail. This is something that has taken me years of aggravation to understand and appreciate, that never-attained but forever longed-for journey of discovery. It can take the shape of various forms and in various manifestations. And don’t you dare think that women have it easier! Why, it’s quite the opposite! Getting the right hairdo is just as frustrating for them as it for us — maybe more so.

The art of caring for one’s coiffure is, indeed, just that: an unreachable and strictly unattainable achievement in craft as well as the latest fashion trends. In ancient times, men and women of means often had their hair braided (only to prove that they could), while they just as regularly could have had their noggins shaved. These served as viable options for many a generation until the arrival of the Swinging Sixties and Seventies. Before (and, in hindsight, many years afterward), it was considered common practice to keep the hairline closely cropped.

Actually, the mania for long hair and full-facial whiskers started with the early settlers and the notorious mountain men, i.e. those rugged individualists in the masculine mold of your average Jeremiah Johnson. A bit later, during the Civil War years, extreme head and facial hair were the norm, due to the lack of equipment or, more likely, the dearth of individuals available to do justice to the style of the period.

About every other generation or so, the business of keeping one’s tresses lengthy or shortened undergo alteration. This piece is about those times when the novelty of keeping your hair long eventually wears off. It’s then that we’re faced with the act of doing something about it. And where does one go? Where else but the neighborhood barbershop!

The Barber of the Block

The search for a decent haircut began, basically enough, in one’s hometown. And there were plenty of enterprises to choose from, from Coy Powell’s Barbershop to Aunt Irma’s Place. These small business shops served the locals well for any number of years.

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of all these myriad enterprises was their colorful epithets, used primarily as an attraction to potential customers: Joe’s Barbershop, The Italian Barber, Florio’s Hair Styling Emporium, Ye Olde Barber Shoppe (note the old English lettering), Your Tonsorial Palace — these were familiar and ongoing concerns geared mostly to males.

You might even call them mini-history museums. As a matter of fact, much has changed since the heyday of the “shave and a haircut, two bits” mantra of yore. I “fondly” remember the sound those crude ancient hair-cutting utensils used to make: obtrusive, whirring noises that smacked of another era entirely when getting a haircut was deemed a rite of passage for young men. However, for kids it was one long, laborious wait.

The racial makeup of the local barber pool ran the gamut of ethnicities, from Eastern European and Eurasian to Caribbean and South American. Many of our homegrown haircutters proved to be of Hispanic origin, while some were decidedly Mediterranean in looks and lineage (Italian, Greek) or Middle Eastern (Arabic and Lebanese, even Turkish). I’ve known a few Cuban and Puerto Rican barbers in my time, along with a smattering of African Americans. None of them were young by the standards of the day, and practically all of them (with rare exceptions) were non-natives.

Interestingly, Carmen Miranda, the entertainer known as the Brazilian Bombshell, had a father, José Maria Pinto da Cunha, who when he immigrated to Rio de Janeiro from Portugal took up the barbering trade in order to make ends meet. Regrettably for Seu Pinto, in those turn-of-the-century times engaging in a profession of cutting men’s hair was considered a rung or two above that of a streetwalker (go figure!).

How times have changed…

Robert Fiance Beauty School

A day in a hair stylist’s life: Robert Fiance Beauty School

As it happened, choices were limited as to where one could go to get a decent trim. An alternative appeared in the early to mid-Seventies, the so-called beauty academy or haircutting school. A relatively benign and unassuming storefront, for the most part the Robert Fiance Beauty School (established between the 1930s and 1950s) was staffed, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where I grew up), by youthful and moderately “experienced” beauty salon students — all eager to please.

I was frequently attended to by both decent and poor hair-cutting aspirants on my monthly Saturday sojourns to the school. I usually got my money’s worth, certainly nothing that I would describe as an outright embarrassment.

The shop was clean and well run, and the charges were below your average rate for a haircut in high-priced New York. The downside of going to such a place was that you ran the risk of getting scalped, both figuratively and literally. It was best to get a second or third opinion before venturing forth on your own.

It paid, too, to get a few reliable recommendations from those who had frequented the better known establishments in one’s immediate vicinity. That’s how I happened to run across the next item on my list, Manzana Hair Cutters.

Manzana Hair Cutters

The name was simply a business moniker, what we call a DBA (or “Doing Business As”), a legitimate enterprise — unless served as a front for other activities.

On the “good word” of a customer of a place I used to work at in the mid-1970s (a policeman I’ll call “Bill,” or the guy with the oh-so-cool haircut), I took time off one day to go several blocks down the street and up a steep walkway to a second-floor loft on the Lower East Side.

I had to knock several times before someone decided to let me in. The person who opened the door seemed a trifle surprised at my presence. I told this suspicious individual that I was looking for Mr. Manzana. He rudely answered, “There’s no Mr. Manzana here.” I was taken aback by his snappy response, but plowed on nonetheless. When I informed him that “Bill” was the guy who sent me, he allowed me to enter.

No sooner did I set foot in the salon when I suppressed a mild shock at what I saw. This wasn’t your recognizable, everyday beauty salon or haircutting parlor, but a ramshackle warehouse. The majority of the so-called “stylists” were either gay or transvestites, something I wasn’t prepared to deal with back then. Still, I remembered how nice my buddy “Bill” looked and how much he praised Manzana’s abilities, so I swallowed what pride I had left and patiently waited my turn.

The head stylist finally came over and, before I could open my mouth, began to berate me for being a half-hour late. This forced me to assume a defensive position. I told this irate fellow that I was coming to his establishment on my lunch hour, that our business demanded we serve our customers first before taking off for lunch (not that he cared one whit for his customers).

Not impressed with my explanation, in a huff he pointed to one of the other stylists and told me to go wait in his chair. The other stylist, who was just as annoyed as the owner by my tardiness, took one look at me and launched into a verbal invective about having to give up HIS lunch hour to serve my needs.

Oh, well, so much for sympathy from a bunch of devils …

As for the haircut, it wasn’t any great shakes, if you get me drift. Nothing special or extraordinary, more of a cut and a snip and a vague swirl of the scissors; the stylist swatted my head this way and that, and hither and yon. I’ll put it to you this way: it was more show than substance. In the end, I got nowhere near the preferential treatment my friend “Bill” had received in this place.

After that little escapade, I never went back to Manzana’s.

National Geographic Special

Traditional head massage at an Indian hair parlor

Many years later, I happened upon a 2002 National Geographic Special devoted to the search for the Afghan girl, the one with the soulful green eyes on that famous 1985 cover of their magazine.

The special was about one of the photographers, Steve McCurry, who nearly two decades later went to a faraway locale in Afghanistan in pursuit of the mysterious “cover girl.”

What piqued my interest most was the fact that the photographer had heaped praise on a local haircutting parlor where, after a haircut and a vigorous shave, “they gave you this wonderful head massage.” The little thirteen-year-old boy who administered McCurry’s massage looked as if he was kneading the man’s head like bread dough.

At the time of this special, it made me wonder to what extremes some people will go in order to get what they were after — in this instance, a relaxing massage from a young boy. At least no one yelled at Mr. McCurry for being two decades late.

Women’s Beauty Salons

Speaking of young boys, I remember, as a small child, waiting endlessly — and impatiently — waiting, waiting, waiting with my little brother in a woman’s beauty salon, while our mother would sit under this massive hair dryer for a period that never seemed to end.

Mom would wear these enormous hair curlers, which the attendant at the salon had spent an untold number of hours placing in strategic positions on her head. She looked like she had a head of extra large eyes.

Women’s Beauty Parlor, 1961

That made no sense to me, why women would spend an entire afternoon (or all day, for that matter, usually on Saturdays) under a broiling contraption that spewed nothing but hot air for hours on end.

As for myself, I do remember getting a wonderful “hairstyle” in West Palm Beach, Florida (again, back in the late 1970s), AND by a female hairstylist. It was there that I first came across the marvelous hair products of a company called Redsen, or some such name. I forget now what the products were, but they were supposed to have kept my hair from drying out.

Regardless of the theory behind Redsen’s products, I was already at the point of losing most of what was left on my head. Soon, there would no longer be any reason for me to spend money on hair products. Descriptions such as “hair design,” or “hairstyle for men,” were useless for someone who had hardly any hair on his noggin.

Floyd the Barber

Not pleased with real-life barbers? What about the fictional variety? Well, there was only one person I could think of in a pinch: Floyd Lawson, the barbershop owner, who was strictly speaking a minor character on the Andy of Mayberry television series, also known as The Andy Griffith Show.

Played by character actor Howard McNear (1905-1969), Floyd fulfilled a purpose, fundamentally to provide the comic relief from the everyday tensions of the main characters, i.e. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), Andy’s Aunt Bea (Frances Bavier), Andy’s son Opie (Ron Howard), the town drunk Otis (Hal Smith), and other denizens of the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.

Mind you, one rarely saw Floyd give an “actual” haircut and shave; he would mainly go through the motions, although I distinctly remember him having a shop with your standard issue barber’s chair and waiting room.

Floyd the barber (Howard McNear) with Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) on The Andy Griffith Show

Not so strangely, the fictitious Floyd was inspired by a real-life barber, Russell Hiatt, who lived and worked in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the actual town where the star of the show, Andy Griffith, had grown up in.

Floyd was “honored”, somewhat, by an early Kurt Cobain song and music video titled “Floyd the Barber.” In it, Kurt shows up at Floyd’s barbershop for a shave and a haircut, only to be greeted by the mad merchant in a wild takeoff of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

In the video’s main section, Floyd, Andy, Barney, Aunt Bea, Opie and Otis all conspire to murder Cobain in the barber chair, a really “hair-raising” episode in Kurt’s body of work.

Filmed Barbers

Unlucky with TV shows? Well, then, let’s try the movies!

From John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), where Humphrey Bogart gets more than he bargained for at a cut-rate Mexican tonsorial parlor (wait till Bogie puts on his hat!), to legendary Marshall Wyatt Earp (a particularly laconic Henry Fonda) and his fancy, shmancy after-shave lotion in John Ford’s 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine (“What kind of a crazy town is this?”), cinematic representations of barbers and their shops abound.

Too close for comfort: scene from John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946)

There’s a scene in Warner Brothers’ Dodge City (1939), directed by Michael Curtiz, where Errol Flynn’s British-accented Wade Hatton is seated in a barber chair, waiting for a shave and a mustache trim. The barber, played by the rickety Clem Bevans, is game for completing the task when he’s interrupted by the intrusion of the film’s villains, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his evil gunslinger Yancey (a particularly repellent Victor Jory).

Did you think the handsome good guy Wade was going to sit still for a nice, relaxing shave and a haircut with these mugs staring him down? Not on your life! While his road buddy Rusty (Alan Hale) is sitting in a makeshift tub in the next room, bad guy Surrett insists on freshening up with his weekly Saturday bath. Shaky barber Clem hesitates but Wade comes to the rescue. He gets up out of the chair, straps on his gun belt and confronts both Surrett and Yancey with some old-fashioned straight talk.

Later on, Wade is back in the saddle again, or rather in the barber’s chair, when another of those tough hombres appears in the doorway, threatening to take him outside for “a little talk” with the boys. Hah, I’ll bet!

Wade takes care of him handily and in the twinkling of an eye. Sitting back down in the chair, Wade tries to resume the conversation where he had left off. He asks the barber what was it he was rambling about, taxes? The barber is too nervous to talk and too shaky to trim Wade’s mustache. Luckily for him, Wade is as handy with a blade as he is with the gift of gab. He is more than capable of giving himself a trim, which negates the need for a barber.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Moving on to the musical side of things, we have, of course, the mellifluous Figaro, the most famous haircutter in all opera. He can be found in several works for the lyric stage, the first by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, the four-act The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), based on the second play in the trilogy by French dramatist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The first play, The Barber of Seville, spawned two operatic versions written several years apart, the first by Giovanni Paisiello, and the second and more popular one by Gioachino Rossini. Both operas pay precious little attention to Figaro’s plying of his trade.

In fact, in the Mozart opus, Figaro is no longer a barber but is now Count Almaviva’s valet and servant, with nary a haircut or shave in sight. However, in Act II of Rossini’s version (sometimes played as a third act), Figaro attempts to shave the cranky Dr. Bartolo, guardian of his lovely young ward Rosina. In most stage depictions of this scene, Figaro deposits a generous helping of lather over Bartolo’s features in order to divert his prying eyes from the billing and cooing taking pace with the young couple in love, i.e. Almaviva (disguised as a music master) and Rosina.

I always get a big kick out of this scene, which is most amusingly done to Rossini’s quicksilver scoring. Any opera house worthy of the name can be counted on to keep the audience in stitches at this point.

Believe it or not, there was a sequel to the Mozart work, composed by Jules Massenet, called Cherubim, based on the secondary character of Cherubino. Now, the character of the playwright Beaumarchais, along with Figaro, Susanna (whom he marries), the Count, Rosina, Cherubino, and several illegitimate offspring, all make their presence felt in the 1991 composition The Ghosts of Versailles, with music by John Corigliano and text by William M. Hoffman. Unfortunately, there are no “close shaves” in this work, but the pre-headless form of Marie Antoinette does put in a ghostly appearance.

Another operatic hairstylist, the Barber of Baghdad is of German origin. Known as Der Barbier von Bagdad in its native land, the music for this comic opera was composed by Peter Cornelius. Although once popular in Europe, the title character Abdul Hassan (bass) has fallen on hard times. He shares many qualities with his Spanish counterpart, Figaro, in that Hassan acts as a go-between the two lovers, Nureddin (tenor) and Margiana (soprano).

Musical Tastes

Running counter to the romantic sentiments found in Mozart, Rossini and Cornelius, we now come to the notorious modern musical Sweeney Todd, made more famous than he ought to have been by Stephen Sondheim’s darkly sinister yet melodious score for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Advertisement for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

A sort of latter-day Jack the Ripper, on whom he was partially modeled, the revenge-seeking Sweeney (real name: Benjamin Barker) provides the tasty filler for the otherwise disgusting meat pies concocted by the loony landlady with a rolling pin, Mrs. Lovett, his partner in crime.

There’s an associated side story as well, in the young sailor Anthony’s attraction to Johanna, the beautiful ward of the dissipated Judge Turpin. Certainly the plot of The Barber of Seville had been co-opted (or lifted), in part, by book writer Hugh Wheeler and composer/lyricist Sondheim in concocting this rather sinister brew. When one thinks of Anthony as a working-class Almaviva, Johanna as a Victorian-era Rosina, Turpin as an amoral Bartolo, and Sweeney (which goes without saying) as an Industrial Revolutionary Figaro swinging his razor high, the connections become obvious if, in the long run, abhorrent.

For a bit of animated levity, Warner Bros. Studio turned out a marvelous series of Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1950s. One of the funniest is titled Rabbit of Seville, directed by Chuck Jones in direct homage to the Rossini opera. That “Wascawy Wabbit” disguises himself as the local hairstylist so as to escape the clutches of trigger-happy hunter Elmer Fudd.

Bugs Bunny gives Elmer Fudd the “treatment” in Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Fudd gets the treatment of a lifetime, however, while waiting in Bugs’ barber chair. The rabbit mounts Elmer’s forehead for an extended foot massage (in juxtaposition to that Afghan boy’s kneading of the photographer’s scalp). All this, and more, to the bouncy tune of the opera’s Overture!

Bravo, Signor Figaro, ma bravo!!!

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Having gone through every conceivable permutation (and then some) of the where and how of the local barber shop, I have come to the conclusion that it will have to remain an obscure dream — always within reach but forever eluding our grasp.

As we all know, the fun is in the chase. And like the art of collecting, you spend a lifetime in pursuit of the Grail, but you never, ever find it. If you did, then your search would have ended and, by design, so has your life.

You wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Four): Dial ‘M’ for Mo’ Better Movies

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Bleek (Denzel Washington) practicing his scales in Mo' Better Blues
Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) practicing imaginary scales in Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Play for Your Supper

From the reverse racism and self-loathing of A Soldier’s Story to the lofty sentiments expressed in his Oscar® winning performance as Private Trip in Glory, Denzel Washington was on his way to forging an outstanding career as one of Hollywood’s most reliable — and versatile — screen actors.

He already won more hearts with honey than with vinegar in the delightful comedy-crime drama The Mighty Quinn. Now, Denzel (or “Dee,” as he was known to intimates) was steeling himself for the musical, verbal and romantic calisthenics of his next picture, Mo’ Better Blues from 1990.

Written, produced and directed by Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, Mo’ Better Blues had the undeserved distinction of following his topical and highly controversial third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989). Suffering mixed reviews by comparison, Mo’ Better Blues is better known as the first of Denzel’s four outings (to date) with the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred Mr. Lee. Their chemistry on and off the screen would, in years to come, result in what many critics would regard as both artists’ best work.

The Bleek Quintet: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn
The Bleek Quintet + One: Jeff Watts, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee, Denzel, Wesley Snipes & Bill Nunn

The action of Mo’ Better Blues revolves around Bleek Gilliam (Washington), a smooth-talking, easygoing trumpet player. Bleek, as descriptive a name as it implies, harbors a soft spot for childhood buddy Giant (the 5’6” tall Lee), who acts as his band’s no-account manager. Giant has a 24/7 gambling habit that lands him in hot water with the local bookie (Rubén Blades). Robbing Peter to pay Paul, he’s also in debt to two take-no-shit loan sharks named Madlock (Samuel L. Jackson, in a trial run for his role as hit man Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction) and Rod (Leonard L. Thomas).

As in practically all of Lee’s work, there are multiple plot lines that vie for audience attention. However, the main thrust here concerns Bleek’s love life — or rather, the dilemma of being caught between two equally bodacious babes. Who will win first place in his heart? Is it the overly ambitious, light-skinned lounge singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) who longs to join Bleek’s jazz band, or the earthier and more level-headed Indigo Downes (Joie Lee, Spike’s real-life sister)? Complicating matters to some extent is the unassuming Bleek’s rivalry with his quintet’s tenor saxophonist, the flashy Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes).

Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time
Indigo (Joie Lee) & Bleek (Denzel) sharing down time

In line with both his earlier and later efforts, Mo’ Better Blues expands upon Lee’s love of sports and jazz. According to the director, he basically grew up in a jazz household. This is reflected in his father, jazz musician Bill Lee’s background score, as well as the participation on the soundtrack of trumpeter Terence Blanchard with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. Blanchard coached Denzel for months on end until he felt reasonably assured the star was capable of giving the appearance of someone who could go beyond holding his horn.

“When Spike called me to do this,” Blanchard told Los Angeles Times critic Leonard Feather, “it seemed like a tough assignment.” Fortunately for him, Denzel had prior experience with playing the piano in high school, as he demonstrated in The Mighty Quinn. He brought to the part his customary professionalism and preparedness. Blanchard even wrote out the fingering for all the tunes and the beginning portions of his solos. “I figured that actually teaching him to play the horn was going to take too much concentration away from his acting.”

In all, Lee used his familiarity with the genre to channel the well-documented friction that existed between two legendary jazz giants, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It was common knowledge that Miles, at the time the Kind of Blue album was being cut for Columbia — while simultaneously appearing in nightclub dates with “Trane” — would express his constant annoyance with the player’s longwinded, spiritually-motivated sax solos.

In Mo’ Better Blues, there’s a scene early on where Bleek steps backstage for a breather between sets. He runs into Giant, who takes him to task for allowing Shadow to “show off” by hogging the limelight in Bleek’s absence. Returning to the stage, Bleek gets back at both Giant and Shadow: with his dark shades and head bent low so as to commune more closely with his instrument, Bleek strikes an iconic Miles Davis-like pose as he purposely cuts short Shadow’s groove with a muted turn on his trumpet.

Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another
Bleek & Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) try to top one another, as Bottom (Bill Nunn) plays on

Talking with Washington about the film for the 2006 DVD edition of Inside Man, Lee acknowledged the existence of a downside to the jazzman’s lifestyle. He raised the issue of what happens when an artist devotes his entire life to his art; and then, when something unexpected happens, how it can prevent him from doing what he loves most. “What’s going to happen to [Bleek] when he can no longer play?” he queried.

Far be it for me to give away the game, but a situation eventually occurs — when Bleek steps in to save his manager from those vicious loan sharks — that changes the outcome for all concerned.

Family Time

There are two scenes of urban family life in Mo’ Better Blues that bookend the picture. In the prologue, a young Bleek (Zakee Howze) resents having to practice his trumpet. He’d rather play ball with his friends than work endlessly on his scales. But Bleek’s iron-willed mother Lillian (Abbey Lincoln) insists he finish his scales before running off into the street.

In the final scene, Bleek’s son Miles (guess who he’s named after?), also played by Howze, is seen practicing his scales. His friends call out to him from the street, pleading with Miles to come and play. Only, this time Bleek’s son is allowed to scurry off and join his pals in their game. Consequently, the film ends on a poignant note. Lee relied on the same dialogue in each of these scenes, while ingeniously utilizing subtle gradations of tone, looks and shading that, true to the nature of jazz per se, were remarkably effective in delineating character.

Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play
Young Bleek (Zakee Howze) wants to go out and play ball

Speaking of character, audiences learned a thing or two from Do the Right Thing about associating Lee’s eccentric personalities with their given names. The viewer is bombarded with an assortment of colorful monikers, among them Bleek’s pianist Left Hand Lacey (Giancarlo Esposito), bass player Bottom Hammer (Bill Nunn), drummer Rhythm Jones (Jeff “Tain” Watts, the only trained musician in the group), the aforementioned Shadow, Giant and Indigo, and Moe and Josh Flatbush (John and Nicholas Turturro), the Jewish nightclub owners.

Denzel mentioned, in that same 2006 talk with Lee, that he and his cohorts were free to ad lib more in Mo’ Better Blues than in other pictures. Indeed, the nearly all-male ensemble fires off one-liners faster than those rapid-fire bebop notes Bleek practices ad infinitum in his apartment. This scene is an excellent example of what Lee calls his trademark “money shot,” i.e., the background appears in constant motion around a stationary figure or two. Here, Bleek, motionless save for the twitching of his eyes and the constant flexing of his fingertips, goes over the music in his head, whereas the camera takes a 360-degree pan of the room behind him.

The extensive use of improvisation, especially backstage, drew the gentle ire of the late Roger Ebert in his initial critique of the film. Knowing that Roger had freely admitted to limitations in his knowledge of music (many if not all of his reviews hardly mention a movie’s score), we must take issue with his assessment. This is a jazz-based feature, is it not? And, as indicated above, improvisation is the life essence of jazz. It’s what makes the music original and unique. Too, it can be a hit or miss affair, with some numbers sounding fresh and others falling flat. But that’s the chance you take when you’re trying to be innovative. Incidentally, the rambunctious Robin Harris, who passed away months before the film’s release, delivers a particularly raunchy standup routine as the motor-mouthed comic, Butterbean Jones.

Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment
Bleek entertains Clarke (Cynda Williams) in his apartment

Lee’s eye for detail and economy of means and time (helped in large measure by longtime cinematographer Ernest Dickerson) contributed to the film’s most startling fantasy element: that of Bleek’s coitus interruptus, a virtuoso sequence in which he inadvertently calls Indigo by Clarke’s name, while doing the same for Clarke with Indigo’s name. The women take turns berating him for his slip-up. Meanwhile, Bleek stares blankly at one, then the other, then turns his visage toward the camera in glassy-eyed disbelief at the sheer inanity of his actions.

The issue of whether jazz was or was not the exclusive property of those who invented it is addressed in the bit where Bleek complains to Shadow that he doesn’t see his people appreciating their own music. “I see Japanese, I see West Germans in the audience,” he notes. “We will go to see some crossover created by other people, but we don’t come to see our own. It incenses me,” Bleek goes on, that “our own people don’t realize our own heritage, our own culture. This is our music, man.”

“That’s bullshit, man!” Shadow snaps back. “Out of all the people in the world, you never gave nobody else a chance to play their own music.”

“I’m talkin’ about the audience,” Bleek shouts right back at him. Shadow is indignant. “That’s right! The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you play the shit that they like, then people will come. Simple as that.”

And if Denzel Washington and Spike Lee continue to make movies that treat their subjects with as much dignity, respect, pride and affection as they did in Mo’ Better Blues, then audiences will continue to flock to see them. It’s as simple as that!

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Four) — Foreign Travels Without His Aunt

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Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)
Johnny Depp & Vanessa Paradis (thesun.co.uk)

Adventures in Paradis

Having befriended the trippy gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in real life — and whose funeral expenses he would pay for upon the drug-addled author’s untimely 2005 passing — Johnny Depp continued to push the outside of the envelope as far as it could go with respect to his choice of film roles.

The excitement and anticipation of a new millennium — more specifically, what those expectations might bring in the way of a possible course-change in his career ambitions — were telegraphed in the hugely popular star’s next round of cinematic forays.

Similarly, Johnny’s personal associations also began to normalize. Exuding a somewhat calming effect on his high-flying lifestyle, in 1998 the actor met and started a live-in relationship with French-born singer-actress and model Vanessa Chantal Paradis. The by-product of their 14-year partnership would result in two new additions to the Depp household: a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody Depp (born in May 1999), and son John “Jack” Christopher Depp III, who was born in April 2002.

Fatherhood and all the customary encumbrances that went with it appeared to suit Depp’s newfound outlook on life quite well, thank you. “Johnny is the perfect father,” Vanessa Paradis would claim in a 2002 Elle magazine article. “He dresses the children, he makes them laugh… [But] he does give Lily-Rose too many potato chips.”

Too many potato chips? She should be so lucky if that’s all there was to complain about, given his past notoriety. There’s an unwritten rule that as an actor’s domestic life improves (sometimes, by leaps and bounds) one’s craft tends to suffer along with it. Well, then, like anything else that concerns the acting profession, we believe there exists some level of “truth” to this parable.

In Johnny’s case, while it may have influenced his performance to a noticeable degree in such family-oriented features as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and particularly the emotionally draining Finding Neverland, the pictures he participated in before and after he set up shop in the Plan de la Tour region of southeastern France were basically all over the map in terms of story line and character development.

Depp & Theron in The Astronaut's Wife (and matching hairdos)
Depp & Theron in The Astronaut’s Wife (and matching hairdos)

For starters, take the big-budget sci-fi thriller The Astronaut’s Wife from August 1999, written and directed by Rand Ravich and co-starring South African-born actress Charlize Theron. In the picture, Johnny had his hair bleached blond (to transform himself into an all-American boy?), while Ms. Theron cut hers to resemble Mia Farrow’s crew cut. Talk about a lack of family values, this obviously derivative combination of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) crossed with Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate (1997) — to include several ripped-off segments from the Alien saga — was a certifiable bomb at its initial release.

It’s creepy and it’s kooky, and altogether loopy, with both stars giving substandard performances of a slow-moving screenplay hardly worth bothering about. To top it off, the “shock” ending was as lame as they come, something writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (with all due respect) might have thought up had he been consulted on the matter.

As Depp’s first in a series of FX-laden, budget-heavy productions, The Astronaut’s Wife took in nowhere near the amount it was expected to make, nor did it earn back what was expended in its making. Did that bit of disappointing box-office news stop Johnny from seeking further challenges along the psychological horror-film front? Not on your life!

A Devil of a Time

As a matter of fact, his next entry would be directed by that old schlockmeister Polanski himself. How’s that for “good” timing? The Ninth Gate (1999), billed as a supernatural mystery thriller, was shot on several European locations in and around France, Spain, and Portugal. Real castles (or châteaux) were used as backdrops for many of the outdoor scenes.

Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)
Johnny as Dean Corso in The Ninth Gate (1999)

Despite the exotic locales Johnny played it safe, remaining calm, cool and collected, and properly subdued much to producer-director Polanski’s annoyance. Depp’s character, Dean Corso, was supposed to be a New York rare-book dealer and part-time con artist. So how would it look if the guy went off the deep end every time a wealthy client approached him about retrieving some long-lost copy of an ancient manuscript, including one purportedly written by Beelzebub?

Along with Depp, former leading man-turned-character actor Frank Langella was hired for the part of the myopic Boris Balkan, that wealthy client mentioned above who harbors an all-too-visible penchant for dusty-old books. Lena Olin played a rich widow named Liana Telfer, with James Russo as Bernie Rothstein and Barbara Jefford in strong support as the Baroness Kessler. The director’s main squeeze and current wife, Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, Bitter Moon), was mysteriously billed as “The Girl” Johnny has sex with outside one of those spooky-looking castles. Hmm …

The movie starts off well, with a convincing atmosphere of dread and gloom pervading the action, sets, and color palette, ideally provided by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, City of Lost Children). Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s groaning, eerie-sounding film score, suggestive of the excellent one he did for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, helps to maintain the unsettling mood.

Soon, however, we are introduced to what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “barely releasable hokum, stuffed with cheesy blah-blah” via satanic devil-worship and all sorts of occult-like razzle-dazzle. This is where things start to unravel, especially towards the end. The late Chicago Tribune movie critic Roger Ebert’s crack about the “fade-to-white” finish holds especially true.

Still, this was also the spot where Johnny got to meet and greet Ms. Paradis, so it wasn’t a total loss (if you get my drift). In the future, he could work closer to home as well as be near his growing brood and sprawling two-million-dollar estate.

Career-wise, most reviewers agreed that Depp had performed well under Mr. Polanski’s direction, despite so-called “creative differences.” He even sported patches of graying hair on both sides of his temples to portray the 40-something Corso. Now THAT’S acting, folks, or at the least total role immersion.

Way to go, Jack!

This is Halloween

Or maybe we should change that to Jack-o’-Lantern in deference to his next project, Sleepy Hollow, also from 1999. Directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and a powerful organ-based score by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (who also did the music for Burton and Depp’s Edward Scissorhands), this screen adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was a direct homage to Britain’s Hammer Studios and their blood-soaked horror output of the late 1950s to 1960s.

Hammer Studios, you may recall, was renowned for their bloody-good recreations of those time-honored Universal monster classics Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy, in addition to side trips involving Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The difference, however, lay in their full-color splatter effects, oozing guck from open wounds, and Victorian ladies’ tight bustiers bursting to overflowing. Sex, blood and gore: that’s the ticket!

A thorough re-imagining of Irving’s tale, this newest edition of the Sleepy Hollow yarn (a place this writer once visited as a boy, and which cartoonist Walt Disney felt the utmost pleasure in animating) was filmed in Merry Olde England, naturally. Production values and craftsmanship there, along with small-town village ambiance, were said to recapture the spirit and essence if not the literal letter of the story better than in the real Tarrytown, in spite of numerous deviations in the script.

Depp was signed on to play the sniveling, snipe-nosed pedagogue Ichabod Crane. Proving far too handsome to embody Ichabod as the original author had conceived him, Depp and Burton hit upon the novel idea of reshaping the character into a New York City police inspector who employs the most “modern” of scientific techniques to track down and capture the killer who’s been lopping off the heads of the helpless citizens of the titular town.

Depp as Constable Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow
As “Constable” Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Deemed too “prim and proper” by some reviewers, Depp nevertheless excelled as a colonial Sherlock Homes-type who wades far too deeply into Sleepy Hollow’s tawdry familial ties for his own good. It’s been rumored that Johnny modeled his finicky, nerve-wracked portrayal of Constable Crane on the shakiness of former child actor Roddy McDowall, to include some of his vocal ticks and inflections. There might even have been a bit of Norman Bates, but I do digress.

“I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person,” Johnny confided to the supermarket tabloid Entertainment Weekly, “who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” This would account for Ichabod’s frequent fainting spells at the slightest provocation. Johnny’s particular gift was in making this cowardly lion into a sympathetic, albeit clownish adversary to the hellish Hessian known as the Headless Horseman.

The washed-out, monochromatic color scheme and hazy look of the picture was credited to Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who was feted in February 2016 with a third Academy Award for his back-to-back efforts (i.e., Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant) for directors Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The visual FX by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and the Headless Horseman green-screen effects by Kevin Yagher (story credit), complemented by Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young’s Oscar®-winning production designs and Colleen Atwood’s superb period costumes, came together to make this a meaningful endeavor.

Although Johnny was the obvious star of the proceedings, the cast assembled for the outing read like a laundry list of Hollywood’s finest supporting players, or Central Casting gone amok: from Michael Gambon as Van Tassel, Miranda Richardson as Lady Van Tassel, the always dependable Jeffrey Jones (along with Heinrichs, a Burton regular) as the periwig-wearing Reverend Steenwyck, Richard Griffiths as Magistrate Philipse, and a slimy Ian McDiarmid as Dr. Lancaster, to the dyspeptic Michael Gough as Notary Hardenbrook. Odd that for a town predominantly settled by Dutch descendants, there wasn’t a native Dutchman or woman in sight.

There were, however, brief but memorable turns by octogenarian Christopher Lee (a Hammer Studios alumnus), Alun Armstrong, Martin Landau (unbilled), Lisa Marie, and Christopher Walken as a pointy-toothed Headless Horseman (doubled by stuntman Ray Park). Among such lofty company, only a far too low-key Christina Ricci failed to impress as Katrina Van Tassel.

Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background
Bloody fingertip: Depp with Marc Pickering & Christina Ricci in background

With deft ensemble work, credit must also go to casting directors Susie Figgis and Ilene Starger for assembling such a uniformly excellent company of players. And let us pay homage to the more junior members of the group, including the adorably dimpled, dark-haired Sam Fior as Young Ichabod, Marc Pickering as Young Masbath, Tessa Allen-Ridge as Young Lady Van Tassel, and Cassandra Farndale as the Young Crone.

Burton upped the ante on the blood and gore quotient to rival the best horror that Hammer had to offer, including a fairly gruesome gnarled tree that serves as the entranceway to Hell itself. What that studio once lacked and that he and Johnny introduced into Sleepy Hollow was a good deal of black humor that made the horrendous portions more (gulp!) … digestible???

There were even gentle reminders of Edward Scissorhands in Crane and Katrina’s blossoming romantic relationship (on and off the set, so we are told). The ghoulish Grand Guignol aspects would reassert themselves a few years later in Burton and Depp’s 2007 interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990) — Sensitive and Scarred in California

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Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands
Wynona Ryder embracing Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands

This is the movie that firmly cemented heartthrob actor Johnny Depp’s teen-idol “creds,” and with good reason. Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (charmingly played by Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set — in actuality, the movie was filmed in Central Florida, sort of a return to Johnny and director Tim Burton’s small-town roots. It’s a beautifully crafted, highly sentimental, and mostly enjoyable film, despite brief episodes of crude language and forced humor.

Edward Scissorhands (1990) represents a modern parable of Burton’s pet hang-ups and pent-up feelings of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. It was also his and Depp’s first joint venture, a partnership made in cinematic heaven and one of (at last count) eight feature films they’ve participated in together.

Depp had his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. In essence, Edward is a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended — fair-weather friends is more like it. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, his story ends in death and tragedy, but Edward lives on, alone but happy in one of those stereotypical old mansions — blissfully trimming the verge as he goes about his business. Parallels to the legend of King Midas and that monarch’s two-sided gift of turning everything he touched into gold are evident throughout.

Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut
Edward (Johnny Depp) gives Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) a haircut

An allegory of our own equal fascination with and fear of anything different or abnormal, Burton exploits Johnny’s sensitive side to its fullest. Indeed, his angst-derived interpretation of a misfit who just can’t seem to fit in was spot on casting. When the perky Avon lady Peg Boggs (played by a clueless Dianne Wiest) comes a-calling, only to discover Edward hiding under the ruins of what appears to be a window — with one of the window panes shaped like a broken cross — you know you’re in for a makeshift ride through pseudo-religious territory. I’ll be damned if that ruined castle where Edward resides in isn’t a stand-in for a makeshift cathedral.

The young Winona Ryder (whom Depp had been dating during the filming) is equally winning as Edwards’s would-be girlfriend, the blonde cheerleader Kim. Wiest is wonderfully ditzy as the perky, never-say-die Avon lady; a laid-back Alan Arkin is equally fine as Bill, the easygoing head of the household, and an all-but grown-up Anthony Michael Hall is cast (against type) as Jim, Ryder’s spoiled brat of a jock boyfriend. Kathy Baker (The Right Stuff) is a howl as Edward’s sex-starved next-door neighbor Joyce, who just adores Tom Jones, a recurring Burton motif (see Mars Attacks!). And horror-movie icon Vincent Price has a field day as Edward’s elderly inventor, who tries to teach him the finer points of table etiquette, while his half-formed hand twitches nervously nearby.

Composer Danny Elfman’s lovely and evocative score, with celesta and women’s choir in the foreground, is beautifully sung and played by a 79-piece orchestra, a major factor in the movie’s long-term popularity and success. It’s worth comparing to Burton’s next opus, the Henry Selick-directed stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, of which it shares a similar production design and art direction. Otherwise, this is early Tim Burton at his emoting best. Just the thing for a romantic Halloween night out for two!

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Bossa Nova’ — Carioca Love Story: The Rio of One’s Dreams

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Doing the Bossa Nova

Antonio Fagundes & Amy Irving in Bossa Nova
Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes) & Mary Ann (Amy Irving) in Bossa Nova

While Walter Salles’ Central Station attempts to bind up old wounds from Brazil’s past with expectations of a brighter future, Bruno Barreto’s Bossa Nova (1999) takes a step backward towards an altogether different set of standards. There’s no point in making a side-by-side comparison of the two pictures, although if one were attempted it would be the equivalent of pitting, say, Mark Hellinger’s documentary-style The Naked City against Hope and Crosby’s farcical Road to Rio — both flicks from the same late-forties time period.

Adapted from the 1989 novel A Senhorita Simpson by carioca writer Sérgio Sant’Anna, Bossa Nova (a Woody Allen-like romantic comedy, by most descriptions) stars the director’s spouse, Amy Irving, as the widowed Mary Ann Simpson, a forty-something former airline hostess-turned-English language instructor; and Rio-born leading man Antonio Fagundes as Pedro Paulo Silva, a middle-aged lawyer who finds the still fetching Miss Simpson worth pursuing (don’t we all?) during the course of its long-winded plot.

The other cast members, most of whom have worked together in diverse capacities throughout the years, include Drica Moraes as Mary Ann’s friend and assistant Nadine; Alexandre Borges as Acácio, a girl-crazy soccer player who frets about his recent trade to a British club; Débora Bloch as Tania, Pedro Paulo’s wife of seven years who recently left him for a Chinese tai-chi practitioner; Pedro Cardoso as Roberto, Pedro Paulo’s lovesick brother who hankers after the law firm’s new intern; Giovanna Antonelli as Sharon, the new intern who only has eyes for the soccer player; Kátia Lyra as the English school’s one-track-minded receptionist; and Stephen Tobolowsky as Gary/Trevor, a nerdy American corporate type who strikes Nadine’s fancy via an online dating service.

You can imagine the endless combination of circumstances this mixed-up group of individuals gets into! Here’s a tiny sampling: still smarting from his wife’s separation, Pedro Paulo has a meet-cute with Miss Simpson; in fact, they share an elevator ride to the English school where she teaches. Naturally, he’s immediately taken with the tutor, so he signs up for nightly classes as a pretext for getting to know her better (his master-tailor father just happens to have an office in the same building as the school).

Pedro Paulo is but one of numerous of complications Mary Ann has to contend with, among them that over-sexed soccer player who wants more than private lessons from her. His prankish efforts at turning Brazilian expletives into their English equivalent (“Go to shit!” and “Kiss it, my ass!”) are nothing short of strained.

Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Mary Ann (Amy Irving)
Acacio (Alexandre Borges) tries to kiss Miss Simpson(Amy Irving)

Billed as a “love letter to Rio” — and a perfect Valentine’s gift to his wife — Barreto’s Bossa Nova was produced by his parents, Lucy and Luiz Carlos Barreto, and co-produced by the movie arm of Rede Globo, Brazil’s largest TV network. Shot in ultra-photogenic style by French cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, the city itself has never looked lovelier, scrubbed down and polished up in the manner of another French-guided frolic, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), which also happened to have been filmed in Rio.

Miraculously, there are no street urchins or beggars to mar the luscious backdrops — and no prostitutes or drug dealers to confront, either; nor are there glimpses of ramshackle housing developments (known as favelas) to distract from this celebration of Rio as a place for lovers. From interior shots of rooms with strategically-positioned camera angles, to exterior settings of picture-postcard comeliness, the city’s idyllic landscapes (Corcovado, Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain, and Copacabana Beach) are expertly arranged to elicit wistful sighs of longing and nostalgia.

“Everybody has some kind of fantasy about Rio,” Barreto claimed in the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of Bossa Nova’s release, “and I wanted the film to take place in the Rio that people fantasize about … There is the Rio of the social problems; that’s there. Then there’s the Rio of the bossa nova; that’s there too.”

Dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the pioneers of bossa nova, Barreto’s candid admission is a most telling change from that of veteran filmmaker and fellow Brazilian Cacá Diegues, whose own views on the subject of Marvelous City, along with his motives for remaking Black Orpheus into something less pandering to potential tourists, are markedly different.

Pass the Soap, Please

Rather than go with the flow of more serious late nineties fare, Barreto kept to a winning formula that pays homage to the work of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, two of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of screwball comedies. Though scarcely what most people would think of as a Cary Grant or even a Katharine Hepburn, Mr. Fagundes (closer in build to the burly Gérard Depardieu) and Ms. Irving did make for a credible pair of over-aged lovebirds. The other participants gleefully joined in the fun, resulting in a generally pleasing if hardly innovative feature.

Amy Irving as Miss Simpson
Amy Irving as Miss Simpson at the airport

Not surprisingly, the high-gloss sheen behind the film’s facade was shaped by a variety of factors, primarily those “soap-opera” vehicles called telenovelas (or novelas, for short) that super-conglomerate Rede Globo continues to export to countries beyond those of Latin America.

Those carefully crafted images of Rio — likely held together with spirit gum and baling wire — were deliberately designed to produce an effect, a dream vision of Cidade Maravilhosa which, as evidenced by the above quotation, the film’s director made no bones about exploiting. However, at this point some additional cultural background may be warranted.

For decades, Globo’s writing teams have been churning out dozens upon dozens of formulaic scripts, many if not all of these “serialized dramas” boasting interlocking story lines tailored to the serendipitous lives of the rich and fanciful. Most are ensemble pieces, i.e., character-driven dilemmas with serio-comic undertones that thrive on the chemistry and interaction of a capable cast, if only to make it in the highly competitive 9 to 10 p.m. viewing slot.

At their best, novelas are models of their kind, a factory product of enormous popularity and appeal, and, of course, staggering ratings success. Two of the more watchable examples from about the same period as Bossa Nova are Laços de Família (“Family Ties”), which aired between June 2000 and February 2001, and featuring such stalwarts as Vera Fischer, Carolina Dieckmann, Reynaldo Gianecchini, José Mayer, Tony Ramos, Marieta Severo, and the aforementioned Alexandre Borges and Giovanna Antonelli; and the earlier Torre de Babel (“Tower of Babel”), broadcast from May 1998 to January 1999, that included an all-star lineup headed by the ubiquitous Tony Ramos, Glória Menezes, Tarcísio Meira, Cláudia Raia, Maitê Proença, Edson Celulari, and Adriana Esteves.

With his qualified team of screenwriters (Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young), Barreto employed the same logic that TV Globo had mastered and developed for its own vast repertoire of sudsers. The web of interconnected plot threads that made Bossa Nova so typical of the genre is neatly untangled by movie’s end, though not always to an individual character’s liking. (No spoilers here, I’m afraid. Let’s just say that not everyone lives happily ever after, and leave it at that.)

The job of taking this kind of culturally specific program out of its natural element and preparing it for international dissemination must have been challenging not only to Barreto’s sense of his own Brazilianness (i.e., of his having been born a carioca), but also the California lifestyle he’s been leading for well on twenty years.

Bossa Nova is very personal to me on every level,” he admitted to IndieWire magazine in April 2000, “in the sense that I wasn’t aware as I was doing it. I guess that’s actually good … When I started to edit the film and then looked at sections of it, I went, ‘It’s so close.’

Bruno Barreto behind the camera
Director Bruno Barreto behind the cameras

“The fact that the more time I spend here, the more I miss the city where I come from. I remember that while driving all the time in L.A., whenever a Brazilian song played, some song from when I was growing up, I would just cry. I’m so homesick. At the same time, I’m very happy that I have a career here. That I do what I love to do.

“The way [Rio] is in the movie doesn’t really exist. It’s the way I like Rio to be. It’s a totally idealized city. People go, ‘Oh, wow!’ But the minute they get off the plane, they see a very different Rio. The Rio in the movie is the Rio I have in my heart. It’s the way I remember Rio. That is why I think this is my most personal movie.”

If we’re to understand the director correctly, Bossa Nova represents one man’s unrequited passion — a love story, if you will, though not necessarily about a woman but for a city. In the same IndieWire interview, Barreto explained his picture’s other dedication: to the late Nouvelle Vague director, François Truffaut.

“I think Truffaut was maybe the last truly romantic filmmaker in my opinion. Above all, he was a master for me. All the films I make are very much about relationships and encounters and miscommunications. All of these in a light romantic atmosphere. And I think Truffaut was the master of that.”

Along the lines of l’amour toujours, Barreto indicated that “In Brazil, there isn’t this obsession with youth and being young … People are not self-conscious about their bodies. They go around, even the men, in their small bikinis, and they go to the beach and they don’t care much about the way they look. They’re having a good time, and they think they can fall in love and have affairs in their sixties or seventies. They don’t think that love and romance is just for young people.”

Of course not! One is never too old for love, and the film proves that. It may also help to explain Barreto’s decision to adjust Pedro Paulo’s age in the novel from a young and restless public servant to a silver-haired legal professional in pin-striped suits and expanding waistline.

What of the movie’s namesake, that calmly soothing and rhythmically enticing beat of bossa nova? Alas, there are moments where the music is simply too overpowering — that is, when it’s not relegated to the background in a way that speaks inoffensively of Muzak. At other times, as in the gathering at the cemetery, the soundtrack wells up expectantly. But then, we hear the raspy tones of rocker Sting, groaning his rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive.” How apropos is that?

Pretty Little Love Songs

Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio
Michelle Johnson & Michael Caine in Blame It on Rio

Whether Barreto was conscious of it or not, his film bears a striking resemblance to another “rom-com” from the mid-eighties, Stanley Donen’s sex romp Blame It on Rio (1984), which starred Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, and a young Demi Moore.

Caine plays a foreign businessman living in São Paulo, who, on vacation in Rio, meets up with his best friend’s daughter, the buxom Michelle Johnson. He’s hard-pressed to resist her nubile charms, so he winds up having an illicit affair with the girl. In return, his wife (Harper) has an affair of her own with his best pal (Bologna). The outcome? Emotional and family mayhem.

This irritating piece of fluff boasted a purely bossa- and samba-strewn score, with original music by guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, a longtime resident of the West Coast. Most of the movie’s songs were written by Kenneth Wannberg and Dennis Spiegel, with the title tune and another number, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” the work of Cy Coleman and Sheldon Harnick.

Basically, the plot stayed at B-movie levels, and was the kind of thing done better by expert hands: case in point, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), which, in 1973, was transformed into the musical A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim; and Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy from 1982.

As bad as it turned out, Blame It on Rio did serve its purpose as a stepping-stone to better things; in this instance Bossa Nova, as thoroughly acceptable a domestic product as any in recent memory, but only slightly more authentic as a snapshot of present-day Rio with its share of unresolved issues.

Bossa Nova poster art
Bossa Nova poster art

How, then, did Bossa Nova stack up in the popular song category? From such classics as “Useless Landscape” (“Inútil Paisagem”), “One Note Samba,” the inescapable “Girl from Ipanema,” “Wave,” “The Waters of March,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “No More Blues” (“Chega de Saudade”), and “Once I Loved,” it was a veritable Jobim love-fest.

This is where the film finally came into its own to live up to that iconic title. And with the artistry of orchestrator and musician Eumir Deodato, along with performers Djavan, Bárbara Mendes, Stan Getz, João and Astrud Gilberto, Claudia Acuña, Carlos Rogers, Elis Regina, and Jobim himself, how could it be otherwise?

Still, one can’t help recalling this sage advice, allegedly attributed to the self-same Tom Jobim. When pressed for his thoughts, upon stepping off his plane at Galeão International Airport, of having lived and worked in New York and Rio de Janeiro, the shy and unassuming Tom, in that vaguely understated fashion of his, complied as only he could:

Nova York é bom, mas é uma merda. Rio é uma merda, mas é bom.” Roughly translated, it means: “New York’s good, but it sucks. Rio sucks, but it’s good.”

That sums it up for Bossa Nova as well: “The film’s good, but it sucks. The film sucks, but it’s good.”

Oh, wow! ☼

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Graduate’ (1967) — Mike Nichol’s Homage to Wayward Youth

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The Graduate (1967)
The Graduate (1967)

Note to readers: In homage to director Mike Nichols and his recent passing at age 83, I am re-running one of my earlier blog posts concerning his fabulous comedy-drama The Graduate.

Never had poster art so succinctly summarized the essence of a motion picture. The raised leg forming either an arch or a bridge to unimagined pleasures; the low camera angle reflecting the seriocomic situation at hand; the shot of a smirking, incredulous college graduate named Benjamin Braddock; the rhetorical and self-fulfilling query uttered by him (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”); and, of course, the half-mocking, self-implicating laughter by the cynical Mrs. Robinson.

And then, there is the music:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains

Within the sounds of silence

The first musical strains of director Mike Nichols’ screen adaptation of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate come from “The Sounds of Silence,” written and performed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon and his partner, Art Garfunkel. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the song was unrelated to Nichols’ iconic feature, but only became part of the finished soundtrack as an afterthought — a soundtrack that spoke to a generation of disgruntled youth.

At the time, The Graduate seized upon the prevailing mood of the period, i.e., the mid- to late 1960s, which reflected the angst, the awkwardness, and the uncertainty of modern life, as well as the feelings of impending doom that the Vietnam War (and other crises) would soon bring to the fore. What Nichols brought to the material (an opening salvo in the so-called Hollywood “New Wave” of contemporary productions) was a biting wit and satiric edginess that captured the essence of the turbulent sixties as few flicks of the era could.

Not to say there weren’t other, equally absorbing glimpses into sixties pop culture (for example, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night were among the better ones); but this film, which made stars of its leads — and a household word out of Simon and Garfunkel – was the hands-down popular favorite.

The sexual revolution is about to kick into high gear when Benjamin Braddock (a perpetually befuddled Dustin Hoffman, in his first major screen role), the clueless graduate of the title, comes home after four years of undergraduate studies in the East. Benjamin has no idea what to do with his life; his rich, upper-class parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) provide little guidance, as do their unhelpful neighbors:

“I just want to say one word to you,” the kindly Mr. McGuire advises him. “Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin no more cares for that tidbit of information than he does for the other mindless indulgences of the Southern California lifestyle.

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) brooding about life
Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) in his room, brooding about life, in The Graduate

Unable to face up to the challenge of life away from school, Benjamin isolates himself in his room, brooding and reflecting upon his worthlessness. Into his dreary world walks Mrs. Robinson (a supremely self-possessed Anne Bancroft, who was only a few years older than Hoffman), the alcoholic wife of his father’s best friend and law partner (delightfully underplayed by the laid-back Murray Hamilton in an array of coordinated cardigans).

Mrs. Robinson initiates the young fool into the pleasures of the flesh, which boosts the ungainly Benjamin’s confidence level to no end. A hilarious hotel rendezvous notwithstanding, wherein the utterly bewildered Benjamin almost loses what’s left of his bearings (and his sanity), all goes well with the illicit affair. That is, until he is introduced to Mrs. Robinson’s strikingly attractive daughter, Elaine (angelic-looking Katharine Ross). When Mrs. Robinson hears of the couple’s budding romance, she decides to take matters into her own hands, to disastrous but ultimately comic effect.

Many of the film’s most memorable moments, including Dustin’s head-banging episode in the hotel room, were spur-of-the-moment inspirations, as recounted in Mark Harris’ tell-all book Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin Books). Besides the other Simon and Garfunkel hits scattered throughout the story (“Mrs. Robinson,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April Come She Will”), the remaining music was supplied by jazz artist Dave Grusin.

Calder Willingham and Buck Henry wrote the riotous screenplay, with Buck playing it straight as the deadpan Room Clerk. There are many priceless vignettes by an army of featured contract players, including (try to spot them all) Alice Ghostley, Marion Lorne, Norman Fell (“I don’t think we’ll have any more of this agitation. Will we, Mr. Braddock?”), Mike Farrell, Richard Dreyfuss, Elaine May (who partnered with Nichols onstage in the fifties and sixties), Jonathan Hole, Noam Pitlik, and Kevin Tighe.

Even approaching “middle age,” the film is still as fresh, funny, and sharp as it was back in 1967. Our favorite scenes are Benjamin’s disruption of Elaine’s wedding (with Benjamin rattling the doors of the church at back and on high, and shouting “Elaine! Elaine!” to the startled onlookers), and the iconic last shot of the two of them in the back of the bus with a look of “Now what do we do?” on their faces. This one scores a perfect 10 in my book. Millennials, take note: you are not the only ones who’ve gone through difficult days!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes