Pop Music

‘There’s Somethin’ Happenin’ Here’ — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Two): From Folk-Rock to Pop

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For Pete’s Sake

American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds
American Folk-Rock Bank: The Byrds, circa the 1960s

Long before Bob Dylan made his mark; before Peter, Paul and Mary made the folk scene a regular happening; before the Limeliters came to light and the Kingston Trio thrilled us with their harmonies; before Trini Lopez, Harry Belafonte and Arlo Guthrie serenaded us with their hits, there were the likes of Huddy Ledbetter (“Leadbelly”) and Jimmie Rodgers, Arlo’s legendary papa Woody Guthrie, and that craggy rock of ages, Pete Seeger.

You can’t talk about Sixties rock and pop without mentioning that grand ole man of folk music and world beat — that is, before “world beat” had become a standard term of art. For all intents and purposes, Pete Seeger was to protest songs and political activism what Martin Luther King Jr. was to oratory and the spoken word: our country’s conscience and moral epicenter.

Born in New York City on May 3, 1919, Pete started playing banjo while still a teenager. His father was the musicologist Charles Seeger, from whom his lifelong love and pursuit of Earth’s musical marvels would derive. A prolific recording and concert artist, the constantly touring Seeger, even in his 70s and 80s, had more energy and drive than most individuals half his age.

Although blacklisted in the 1950s for alleged Communist activities and for his failure to give testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Seeger boldly soldiered on as only he could, eventually winning an acquittal in 1962 of his contempt of Congress charge. Not that any of this prevented him from touring and recording, but Seeger must hold the record (or somewhere near it) for his many contributions to the expansion of America’s musical tastes.

 A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s
A young Pete Seeger in the 1940s

It is to him that we can attribute such popular fare as “If I Had a Hammer,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Little Boxes,” and “Guantanamera,” along with “Goodnight Irene” and “On Top of Old Smokey.” Just as Dylan eventually proved unwilling to take on the mantle of prophet of his generation, Seeger was just as willing to fill the gap — whether he realized it or not.

Like Dylan, Seeger’s sway on the flowering folk-music revival and ever-widening anti-Vietnam War movement was felt in the two most lyrical expressions from the era: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” written in 1964 and recorded by Dylan in 1965; and Seeger’s own interpolation of phrases from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (attributed to King Solomon), “Turn, Turn, Turn,” both numbers recorded by Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and the Byrds.

Dylan’s use of trippy, dreamlike imagery gave “Mr. Tambourine Man” the flavor of a call to action, but not necessarily one to go out and protest. The words seem to refer to a Pied Piper figure, a charismatic personality (along the lines of Jesus Christ, a rock star, or Dylan himself perhaps) capable of sweeping you off your feet; of taking you on a voyage of discovery, of excessive contemplation of the self in what critics of the period would deem “navel gazing.”

As was his wont, Dylan’s acoustic original with guitar and harmonica boasted a rambling discourse in four verses, each one faster than the other, thus making it purposely difficult to follow his train of thought. This style of performing was atypical of the entire purpose of popular song: to absorb the lyrics and be able to convey a message that would fall effortlessly on receptive ears. Alas, we were witnessing the changeover from the easily discernible to the deliberately vague and indecipherable (vide Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones).

Sixties rock fans doted on the strewed nature of Dylan’s words. One can further detect the influence of LSD and other acid-induced trips, something the Beatles and other rock groups experienced as they tried to set their lyrics down on paper. Oh, and psychedelia was also blowing in the wind, but at this stage it was several years off from gathering a full head of steam.

Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties
Bob Dylan in the Swinging Sixties

Where did the folk-rock group the Byrds fit in? Before the British invasion of the early 1960s and the melodic Merseybeat took hold, American singer-guitarists McGuinn and David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, vocalist Gene Clark and drummer Michael Clarke were already active as folkies in and around the Los Angeles area. The Byrds’ short-lived fame (the original members split off into various groups) came from their signature twelve-string guitar sound (a Rickenbacker 360, by all reports), a jangly bell-like texture that enveloped pristine vocal harmonies like a musical glove.

Most critics compared them to the British groups the Searchers and the Hollies, not to mention the dominant style of the “Fab Four” (to wit, McGuinn’s penchant for wearing bangs and fashionable granny sunglasses came about). As a matter of fact, Graham Nash, who co-founded the Hollies with Allan Clarke, joined, in 1968, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield to form Crosby, Stills and Nash, a trio devoted to purity of the vocal line in their highly accessible work.

For “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the group’s debut single on Columbia, the Byrds performed only one of the four verses (the second), which held the song to just over the two-minute mark (two minutes and eighteen seconds, to be precise), quite the opposite of Dylan’s five-and-a-half minute homily. Besides McGuinn’s twangly guitar, only the group’s vocals were employed. The record label had decided to go with more experienced L.A. session players, known collectively as the Wrecking Crew, for the musical backdrop. On subsequent albums, the Byrds were allowed to accompany themselves on their own instruments — a wise choice.

The Byrds singing "Mr. Tambourine Man" on The Ed Sullivan Show
The Byrds singing “Mr. Tambourine Man” on The Ed Sullivan Show

 

“Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965), composed by Bob Dylan

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship

all my senses have been stripped

and my hands can’t feel to grip

and my toes too numb to step

wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

 

I’m ready to go anywhere,

I’m ready for to fade

Unto my own parade

Cast your dancing spell my way

I promise to go under it

 

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

I’m not sleepy and there ain’t no place I’m going to

Hey, Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me

In the jingle jangle morning, I’ll come followin’ you

 

You can sense the giddy, almost dizzying stream-of-consciousness verbiage in the lyric makeup above. The repetitive nature of the melody and its insistent, forward motion were deliberately designed to force listeners to pay closer attention. No wonder audiences were so keen on following the Piper along. Let’s get a move on, folks! On a side note, McGuinn’s opening guitar riff was based on Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” in a version he adapted.

A very different air, albeit with a comparable rhythmic beat, surrounded the Byrds’ next musical number: the gorgeous, gospel-like sermon of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which the Limeliters first recorded back in 1962 under the title “To Everything There is a Season.” Seeger’s version came a few months later, while a year after that Judy Collins laid down the track (sensitively, I might add) on her Judy Collins 3. McGuinn, who arranged it for Collins’ album, expressed familiarity with the tune.

“It was a folk song by that time,” he explained in some 1996 CD liner notes, “but I played it and it came out Rock-n-Roll because that’s what I was programmed to do like a computer … We thought it would make a good single. It had everything: a good message, a good melody, and the heat was there.”

And what did the song’s composer, Pete Seeger, think of McGuinn’s interpretation? “I was a Pete Seeger fan and a Beatles fan,” he told musicologist John Einarson in 2005, “and mixing the two. Actually Pete liked what we did back when we recorded it and sent me a long letter saying that he really enjoyed the arrangement of it. He said, ‘Dear Byrds. I liked your rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” very much. I thought it retained artistic integrity. My only musical query was why you didn’t repeat the first verse again?’ and obviously the answer to that is because of time. We wanted it playable on the air. As the years have gone by he’s been sending me letters that he’s really gotten into it. It’s totally different from his arrangement, but he loved it.”

That is for certain. It’s our honest opinion, then, that the Byrds may have had Mr. Seeger in mind, and not Mr. Dylan, when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

With that said, Seeger’s rendering of “Turn, Turn, Turn” (sometimes written as “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) is taken at a faster clip, although it’s not at all rushed. The melody goes up and down the scale, with a goodly amount of syncopated rhythm. The stresses fall on the phrase “Turn, turn, turn,” with added emphasis on the prominent “r” sound. It’s far from a romantic accounting, which the Byrds’ variant is a fair representative of.

Too, Seeger’s banjo playing may feel, at times, like the jangly twelve-string, but its purpose is to lend support to the vocal line; whereas on McGuinn’s take, the soaring guitars provide the primary emotional outlet as the main bridge between the third and fourth verses. And, of course, the timing lasts a full three-minutes-and-forty-nine seconds (or thirty-four seconds for the single) — not exactly in Dylan’s lengthy league, but close enough.

The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," a 45-single on CBS
The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” originally a 45-single on Columbia Records

 

“Turn, Turn, Turn” (1966) by Pete Seeger

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to be born, a time to die

A time to plant, a time to reap

A time to kill, a time to heal

A time to laugh, a time to weep

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to build up, a time to break down

A time to dance, a time to mourn

A time to cast away stones

A time to gather stones together

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time of love, a time of hate

A time of war, a time of peace

A time you may embrace

A time to refrain from embracing

 

To everything — turn, turn, turn

There is a season — turn, turn, turn

And a time to every purpose under heaven

 

A time to gain, a time to lose

A time to rend, a time to sew

A time for love, a time for hate

A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

 

If one could express the sentiment that rock was inherently beautiful, then the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” is the very embodiment of that description. Yes, it’s folk-rock magic at its best; yes, it came out of the California lifestyle; and, yes, it had a political as well as a religious undercurrent. But by any measure, this is classic radio-friendly stuff. The blending of all-male voices, the delicious harmonies, the authoritative guitar licks, the fullness of the bass, the tightly wound band sound — this is what listeners remember the most. And we should give credit where credit is due.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years -- the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music
Pete Seeger (1919-2014) in his later years — the Grand Ole Man of Folk Music

Thank you, Byrds! And thank you, Pete Seeger!

(End of Part Two – To Be Continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Jazzman Supreme — Miles Davis, Dark Prince

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Miles Davis (1936-1991), playing in France 1967
Miles Davis (1926-1991), playing in France, ca. 1967

It was that voice. Harsh, gruff, low, and gravely, like crumbled shreds of sandpaper. And that sullen personality. Surly, brooding, moody, a chip strategically perched on his shoulder. That’s what got my attention.

The first time I heard the Miles Davis sound was almost 30 years ago. The same co-worker, Mike, who had introduced me to smooth jazz and the Brazilian artists who played it also sold me on Miles.

“Got a great album for you, Joe” Mike claimed. “You’re gonna like this.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Miles,” he answered.

“Miles? You mean Miles Davis? The jazz trumpeter?

“The same.”

“Didn’t he pass away the other day?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna record him for you. Give it to you tomorrow.”

And he did. Mike gave me a cassette version, which I still own, of Miles’ late 1980s album You’re Under Arrest. I heard it later that same evening. Smooth, rich, the musical equivalent of chocolate ice cream. Miles in mellow form, both haunting and elegiac at the same time, on trumpet and flugelhorn. I loved it, couldn’t stop listening to it. Especially his take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”

The album started off with street sounds. Manhattan street sounds. Noise, crosstalk. The crosstalk turned into indecipherable chatter, rising in volume and pitch until it ended with shouting. Chaos, traffic. Police sirens, pedestrians, confrontation. The sounds of summer in New York, the city that never slumbers. Yeah…

That was Miles.

Miles and Beyond

I knew very little about the jazzman named Miles. Miles was just a name to me, like so many others. But the more I listened, the more I needed to know. His full name was Miles Dewey Davis III, christened after his father, a ranch owner and successful dentist. Miles came from East St. Louis, Illinois, of solid middle-class stock. Even then, pre-war, it was as tough a place as any for a shy kid like Miles to be raised in. I should know, having grown up in the South Bronx.

Back then, I knew next to nothing about Miles’ music. I knew he played jazz. Traditional jazz. Jazz with a capital “J.” He also played bop and cool jazz. From cool jazz came bossa nova, so claimed my friend Mike. And from bossa nova, back to jazz again — or smooth jazz, as it was now called. Terrific stuff.

His albums were classics. Bitches Brew served up innovative jazz fusion mixed with rock. It featured Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette — notables all, who went on to make names for themselves. And there were more names, all of them associated with Miles in one form or another. Jazz people, key figures in his life and art. Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, et al. Giants who once walked this Earth.

Bitches Brew (1969) album cover
Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) album cover

There were other music styles as well. Funk, R&B, disco, pop. There were combos, big bands, quartets, octets, nonets, and such. And there were gigs, hundreds of them. Record dates, too, and club dates, and all-night jam sessions. All the things that jazzmen were known for. And, of course, the drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs to stay awake, drugs to go to sleep. Drugs to keep on moving, drugs to slow the jazzman down.

Jam all night, jam all day, play hard, play rough, play again through the night. Get some sleep. Sleep? What’s that? Go get me a shot of whatever you’re having. And the women, there were lots and lots of women. Black, tan, white, brown. It didn’t matter. Frances Taylor, Betty Mabry (later Davis), Cicely Tyson, so many others. The names came, and they went.

When Miles traveled to Paris, he met and fell hard for Juliette Greco, a dark-haired beauty, a French singer-actress. Their affair was unlike any other in the City of Light, but they were on opposite ends of the jazz thermometer: she was hot, he was cool. Miles was treated with respect while he was in France. Almost like a king, but more like a prince. A dark prince. Not like in America, where he was beaten up and bloodied. He dreaded going back home.

He married and divorced often, as did his contemporary, the poet, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, in Rio. Miles put his women on a pedestal, or on his album covers which were the next best thing. The albums became noteworthy because of them: Some Day My Prince Will Come, E.S.P., Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and lastly Bitches Brew. The beauty of black women, for all to see, graceful and sleek, up front and personal — in your face and in your home, lovely to look at as well as to listen to. The music, that is.

He had a violent streak, what we call “anger management” issues, which he took out on the women. Battered and bruised, what he had taken from his own brutish treatment he doled out in like form.

Yeah, that was Miles.

Miles Mannered   

Miles was neat and trim, strong and hearty, cut from the finest cloth. His frame was angular and small; eyes large, white background and bulbous, black fire in his pupils. His skin was black as well, dark and glistening, it gleamed brilliantly in the light as sweat poured down over his finely sculpted features.

In the early days Miles kept his hair short, neatly cropped and trimmed and even all around. Later, he sported a Black Power “’fro,” de rigueur for African-Americans of the late 60s and 70s, and later still it came down in tresses to his shoulders, then not so broad as in his youth. He refused to wear a beard or a goatee. That was for sissies! Dizzy had a little fuzz between his lip and chin, and was fond of his beret. Miles preferred the lean and hungry look. No sense covering up that face. He was stylish to a fault, flaunting his taste for the finer things in life.

Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)
Late Miles Davis, 1987 (Photo: Luciano Vitti / Getty Images)

He was a snazzy dresser, too, with shirts that were always starched and neatly pressed, and immaculately tailored suits. Slacks long and trim, covering his spindly legs. Shoes polished to a high buff shine. When psychedelia became all the rage, Miles chose carefully coordinated, colorfully flowing garments, wide-sleeved vestments made of the purest silk. Radical chic, I would think.

That was Miles.

Then there was the music: spare, lean, no bullshit; all killer, no filler. Ballads and mid-tempo numbers were his specialty. Cut to the chase, that was his maxim. The arch romantic in sound. Unlike his contemporaries, Miles lacked a virtuoso’s command of his instrument. That’s all right. We loved him anyway. Many didn’t. More fools them!

Herbie Hancock told a story once about an early recording session with the great man himself. Fumbling for guidance, Herbie was told to sit down at an electric piano, a Fender-Rhodes, something he had never seen before.

Herbie turned to Miles and queried: “Miles, what do you want me to play?”

Miles, hoarse, pointed at the instrument and growled back a reply. “Play that, motherfucker.”

Just another one of his quirks. His language was salty, mean. It cut to the bone, as sharp as a serpent’s tooth, so said Shakespeare. Like his music, it went to the meat of the matter. It signaled to all comers, “Don’t mess with me, motherfucker.” It was all just a cover, though, Miles’ way of overcoming his ever-present shyness, add to it the loneliness, the hurt, the despair that all jazzmen carry with them.

He called people an infinite variety of the “F” bomb. On anyone else’s lips, it might have sounded gross or revolting. Coming from Miles, it felt like poetry. How many ways could he say “fuck,” “shit,” or “motherfucker,” and still make them sound fresh and true, joyous and endearing, sad and tragic? To him, they were more than just verbs or epithets, more than just adjectives or nouns; they were every permutation in between. Like bop, hard-bop and modal, they were as much a part of his repertoire and makeup as everything else.

If he liked you, he would call you a “motherfucker.” No offense intended, none taken. If he hated you, or you angered him, he’d say the same thing: “That guy was a motherfucker.” The words may have been similar, but the context was something else entirely. You’d have to be smart enough to discern the difference. He demanded it. No apologies necessary, none given.

That, too, was Miles.

I Can See for Miles

Then, there were the records. Tons and tons of them. Thank God for that! We have him preserved for us, and for all time: first on vinyl, then in CD format; an Egyptian treasure trove of solid gold. A bountiful harvest, one might add. The early hits: Birth of the Cool, Miles Ahead, Kind of Blue, Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Quiet Nights.

Gil Evans, a Canadian by birth, arranged them. Miles Davis played his heart out for him on them. Black man, white man, making music together as musician and friend, close friends to be exact. Miles loved Gil, and Gil loved him back. “Gil and I hit it off right away,” Miles recalled in his autobiography. “I could relate to his musical ideas and he could relate to mine. With Gil, the question of race never entered; it was always about music … He was a beautiful person who just loved to be around musicians.”

Giles Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957
Gil Evans & Miles Davis at the Kind of Blue recording sessions, 1957

Then came the later fusion stuff, the jazz-pop albums, and the Quincy Jones-produced pop-art pieces. And, of course, the final concert, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux — a latter-day classic. This was Miles reliving the past — the glory years, if you must — rediscovering a lost love for the dearly departed, his pal Gil Evans, and those groundbreaking arrangements. The artist came alive again, through his music and his artistry, taking center stage.

The last years were difficult ones. He looked weather beaten. Illness of body and mind had taken their toll; the formerly ironclad frame had turned thin and frail from too much of, well, pretty much everything. The face was spared but the rest ached and screamed in pain. Sex, drugs, hard living, hard knocks, the harshness of the jazzman’s life. Then death.

Finally, the accolades. Basie was Count, Ellington was Duke, but Miles … he was Prince. The Dark Prince — always was, always would be. The darkness never left him. First in line to the jazzman’s crown. Writer, jazz buff, entrepreneur and videographer Bret Primack dubbed him the Picasso of Jazz. Hmm, some truth in that. But that’s not quite it. Sure, Miles changed with the times, transforming himself, reinventing himself every few years. His clothes and hair changed along with him. But his manners stayed the same. Picasso lived longer, well into his 90s. Miles died relatively young. He was 65, a lot older than most jazzmen of his day. But a Picasso? Well, maybe….

Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)
Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux (Warner, 1991)

He was more Paganini, the greatest concert violinist of his day. Paganini made a pact with the Devil, to play the Devil’s music as only the Devil could play it. Miles, too, must’ve bargained with Old Beelzebub, or some higher authority. I can hear him now: “Come on, man, gimme one more chance. One more shot at immortality. Lemme play my old stuff again. Huh? Sheeyut! Whatta ya say, Bub?”

Heh! That Devil never knew what hit him. If anything, Miles got the best of that deal. He got one more gig to play, and several thereafter. He lived and he loved, and he played and played and played, almost to his last breath. They couldn’t wait for him in Heaven.

As Miles Davis approached the Pearly Gates, he saw that St. Peter, the gatekeeper, wasn’t around. Carrying his trumpet under his arm, Miles walked up to the Gates in a leisurely stroll, to the fellow who was there and asked, “Hey, man, where’s St. Peter? And who the hell are you?”

The figure looked up and responded. “I’m the Archangel Gabriel. Peter sent me ahead to greet you.”

Miles answered. “He did, huh?” Fidgeting with his trumpet to hide his restlessness, Miles inquired, “So, Gabriel, what do you want me to play?”

Grabbing hold of Miles’ trumpet, Gabriel pointed to a harp nearby. He smiled wickedly at Miles and replied, “Play that, motherfucker!”

THAT’S Miles Davis.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘What is Bossa Nova?’ — Variations on a Theme by One of the Genre’s Cultural Icons

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Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)
Bossa Nova legend Carlos Lyra (Photo: New York Times)

It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.

Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.

Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.  

Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.

It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.   

WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?

Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.

To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.

Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.

Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira, Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)
Carlos Lyra (left) with Aloysio de Oliveira (above him), Nara Leao & Vinicius (1963)

It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.

A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.

In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.

Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.

In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.

Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.

Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016
Roberto Menescal (left) & Carlos Lyra at Vivo Rio, February 2016

As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.

After that, we never heard from him again.

CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor

SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016

(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)

Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New, and What’s New Gets Old Fast

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Of Concerts and Symposiums

The Felix E. Grant "Wall of Fame" at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014
The Felix E. Grant “Wall of Fame” at the Strathmore, June 8, 2014

What’s old is new. And what’s new gets old fast.

This was the takeaway from my visit in June 2014 to the Strathmore Music and Arts Center in North Bethesda, Maryland. As part of their week-long celebration, “Bringing Bossa Nova to the United States,” and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Verve album Jazz Samba recorded by Stan Getz and the Charlie Byrd Trio, I was invited to take part in the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

Among the featured events that week was the world premiere rough-cut screening of the documentary Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Charmed the World, directed and produced by videographer Bret Primack and co-produced by music journalist, educator, guitarist, and bandleader Ken Avis, along with a Q & A session with Buddy Deppenschmidt, who played on the classic Jazz Samba. I had the immense pleasure of meeting and interviewing the famed jazz drummer, performer, and teacher on Sunday, June 8, 2014, at the Strathmore Music Center’s Education Room 309, which I have previously written about and posted (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/)

Prior to our interview, my wife Regina and I took an extensive tour of the Jazz Samba Project Exhibit, co-curated by Georgina Javor, the Strathmore’s former Director of Programming, and the aforementioned Mr. Avis. The exhibit showed only a small fraction of the extensive Felix E. Grant Jazz Archives, at the University of the District of Columbia, which was itself curated by Dr. Judith A. Korey, Professor of Music, whom I also met and spoke to.

Felix E. Grant was a local Washington, D.C. radio broadcaster who took a personal interest in bringing jazz and Brazil’s music and culture to American shores. It was a fabulous exhibit! We were extremely pleased with its breadth and scope, in particular the “walls of sound” (my term) wherein album covers of well known and obscure recordings from the late 1950s up through the mid-60s were displayed up-and-down and across the room’s walls. We had some truly memorable moments re-visiting and re-connecting with bossa nova greats (and not-so-greats) from years past. The entire display reflected a high degree of professionalism and respect for Brazilian music — a most satisfying experience for us.

One of the highlights was a prominently showcased, generously proportioned coffee-table tome (a copy of which I subsequently ordered online) entitled Bossa Nova and the Rise of Brazilian Music in the 1960s, and from which the above exhibition was drawn.

My wife Regina marveling at singer Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova - June 2014
My wife Regina marveling at Elis Regina, from the book about Bossa Nova – June 2014

Published in 2010 by Soul Jazz Books, a division of Soul Jazz Records, this hardcover volume is a collection of bossa nova record album cover art work from the Odeon, Elenco, Philips, and other labels from the period in question. It was compiled by Gilles Peterson, a British-based DJ, record collector, and record label owner, and Stuart Baker, the founder and proprietor of the Soul Jazz label.

Between its covers were featured breathtakingly beautiful modernist and revolutionary designs (some hinting at the coming “psychedelic” era) that reflected “the radical and exciting idealism of Brazil at the start of the 1960s,” an idealism that was quickly squashed with the advent of the military dictatorship post-1964 and the subsequent crackdown of 1968.

The fading memory of those bitter times and my fellow Brazilians’ nearly two-decade long struggle to free themselves from the generals’ iron grip have left some young people — and a growing number of old-timers with faulty recollections — with an alarming nostalgia for “the way things were.” This self-deluded yearning for the purported “good old days,” where Ordem e Progresso (“Order and Progress”) — curiously, the country’s motto stamped on the Brazilian flag — remains an unrealized promise, will serve as an excellent example of our penchant for hankering after a non-existent past.

My observation above of things that are old being new and those that are new getting old stems as well from a Friday evening concert of June 6, 2014, by Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias and the Grammy Award-winning Niteroi-born singer-musician Sérgio Mendes and his band. Both Sérgio and Eliane have long pedigrees in the pop-music business going back many decades.

Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes - Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014
Photos & Bios of Eliane Elias & Sergio Mendes – Jazz Samba Exhibit, June 2014

In Eliane’s case, her piano playing craft on the night of the concert was anything but old. Quite the contrary, she displayed finger-snapping pep and vigor to burn on the old 88s. Her treatment of material by Jobim, Ary Barroso, and Ronaldo Bôscoli, in addition to some of her own compositions, was well-nigh perfect, with just the right amount of zing and pizzazz in all the right places. Eliane was helped by a crack band of first-rate players, consisting of husband Marc Johnson on upright bass and the carioca-born Rafael Barata on drums. Barata made a particularly spectacular impression with his lightning-fast solos and fancy stick-work — why, the man was a veritable human octopus!

The second half of the program, which starred Mendes on keyboards and vocals, and his wife Gracinha Leporace as soloist providing backup support, included toward the end a re-imagined “rap” version of Jorge Ben Jor’s signature “Mas Que Nada” tune — fine and dandy in execution, but hardly an audience favorite with the over-50 crowd that predominated — and a final encore of Mendes, John Powell, Carlinhos Brown, Mikael Mutti, and Siedah Garrett’s “Real in Rio” from their 2011 animated collaboration Rio (produced by Blue Sky Studios) that fell flat and virtually sucked the air out of the good vibes left over from “Mas Que Nada.”

Mixing the old with the new, then, turned out to not only to be a mixed bag but one that left a big, fat hole in an otherwise excellent program shared by two established Brazilian artists.

The Offer I Couldn’t Refuse

Before I get into the particulars of the Jazz Samba Legacy Symposium, let me recount what led up to my participation in that weekend invitational. It was Buddy Deppenschmidt himself who informed me about this event in Bethesda. He sent me the link back in mid-March 2014, which I swiftly checked out. As I did so, my wife called me to say that somebody from the Jazz Samba Fest had phoned my home asking for additional information. Now that was quick! My wife tried to get the name of the lady who called, but was unable to understand the semi-garbled message.

My initial thought, if indeed I’d ever get the rare opportunity to be up there with the Giants of Jazz Samba and Bossa Nova, was to discuss Black Orpheus (that is, the original play and musical), how it all came about, how the Vinicius de Moraes and Antonio Carlos Jobim partnership came together, and all that jazz. Might as well put my knowledge to good use, at least that was my impression, since I had been involved in trying to bring the project to Broadway for the last, what, six or more years!

Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall -- Strathmore, June 2014
Yours truly showing the Black Orpheus wall at the Strathmore, June 2014

Finally, I received an e-mail from Ms. Georgina Javor, the young lady who had called my home. She would love to have me attend some of the festivities and asked if I had ever moderated any discussions before? I told her that yes, I had moderated a few as well as interviewed several personalities in the recent past, and that I would love to moderate the Q & A session with Buddy.

Georgina spelled out the terms of my participation, to which I accepted. In addition, she kindly provided tickets to the Elias-Mendes Friday night concert, which for us turned out to be the spicy topping on this all-Brazilian pastry.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Godfather, Part I’ (1972) — The Dark of Side of the American Dream

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Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto)
Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) speaks to Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) in The Godfather, Part I

“I believe in America,” an unseen voice exclaims. After which, a dull, amber-colored light illuminates the person speaking: a man with a comb-over in his mid-50s, dressed in a black tuxedo and winged collar. The camera now begins to pull back — slowly and deliberately — matching the cadences of the man’s speech. The speaker resumes his story. “America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion.”

While he is speaking, the camera continues to spend an inordinate amount of time studying the man’s features: his dark eyes, his pursed lips, his foreign accent, his distressed tone, and his obvious discomfort at having to beg for a favor from the dreaded Don Vito Corleone. The man telling his tale of woe is the sorrowful undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), who informs Don Corleone of how his beloved daughter was attacked and nearly raped by two young men, one of whom was her boyfriend. “She resisted. She kept her honor,” he exclaims, his eyes glowing with pride, but, as Bonasera then reveals, “they beat her like an animal.” He starts to weep.

Seconds later, with the camera pulling back, the blurred, shadowy form of a figure is seen at left. The figure signals with his right hand for one of the listeners in the room to provide the undertaker with some refreshment. Continuing to pull back, the camera now shows Bonasera in his chair growing smaller and smaller before our eyes, while the figure at left starts to take shape behind a desk, looming larger and larger in comparison.

And so begins one of the most influential Hollywood films of the seventies, with the cautiously chosen words of the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera making a desperate plea for justice in Don Corleone’s inner sanctum. This scene, so memorable in its outcome and so carefully constructed and paced by the actors and crew, sets the stage for what is to come. It broadcasts the undisputed fact of the godfather’s hold on men, only to see that hold slip away and deteriorate with the unraveling his realm by others.

Francis Ford Coppola’s directing career took off like a rocket as a result of this film’s unprecedented popularity and success. It made him and Paramount Pictures a bigger fortune than either of them could ever have imagined. Mario Puzo’s pulp novel The Godfather – not exactly high art or intellectually challenging as great literature – came to passionate life in Coppola’s now-classic depiction of the Sicilian-American underworld (we know what he meant, even though the word “Mafia” is never uttered).

Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)
Sonny (James Caan), Don Corleone (Brando), Michael (Al Pacino) & Fredo (John Cazale)

Postwar America is the setting for this violent tale of Don Corleone, the godfather of the title, who lords it over his crime syndicate as one of the heads of the five New York “families.” Gambling, prostitution, murder incorporated, judges in their hip pockets, and nefarious bribery schemes are the syndicate’s life blood. The men who work for this syndicate are bound to each other by their adherence to a code of honor. But incredibly, the godfather refuses to dabble in illegal drugs, which makes Don Corleone out to be a beggar among thieves. His unequivocal stand against dope dealing lands him and his family in hot water with the opposing forces longing to take over his territory. And honor to a code, as we learn in the end, can both be adhered to or not.

Played by the legendary method-actor Marlon Brando, the Don is power personified: a lift of his hand, a cock of the head, a mere whisper into someone’s ear, and his slightest whim is dutifully obeyed and carried out, especially by head enforcer Luca Brasi (former wrestler Lenny Montana). Both are giants among mortals, or so they are meant to appear. But it’s all an illusion, wiped away by the necessities of their chosen profession.

Brando won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar (he refused it, however, sending in his place an actress posing as a Native American) for his subtle, tour de force performance as Don Corleone, even though he’s relegated to what is essentially a supporting role. For a film that concerns itself with such disreputable types as hoods and gangsters, Brando is still able to find the human element in many a situation. For instance, his playful handling of grandson Anthony in the garden scene late in the picture, where he places an orange peel into his mouth and musses his hair up like a scarecrow to frighten the little boy with a monstrous visage, only to comfort the crying child a split second later.

Equally deserving of mention is Al Pacino (note the fire in his eyes as he talks) as youngest son Michael. It’s been said that Francis Coppola’s film is about the dark side of the American dream, and there are many examples throughout where this dictum has been carried out with startling efficiency (e.g., the decapitated horse’s head, the bullet through Moe Green’s eye). While true enough in practice, the real crux of the drama (with a screenplay by Coppola and author Puzo) is the unquestioned loyalty and devotion Michael feels towards his father, despite Michael’s distaste for dad’s “work.” Michael proves his love by taking over the family business after Don Corleone is seriously injured in a botched assassination attempt — perpetrated by the shifty-eyed Virgil Sollozzo (a cagey Al Lettieri) — and after hot-headed brother Sonny (James Caan, equally hot-tempered) is gunned down at a Long Island toll booth.

Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)
Michael (Al Pacino) listens to his father (Marlon Brando)

So many quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Leave the gun, take the cannolis,” and “Never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”), so many individualized portraits (i.e., Clemenza, Tessio, the Tattaglias, Apollonia, Don Tommasino, Fabrizio), it’s one of those pictures that demands repeated viewings as well as our undivided attention. No matter how many times you’ve seen The Godfather, there are always fresh insights to be savored, over and over again: the opening trumpet solo — mournful, longing, full of untold regret; right-hand man and ex-cop, Al Neri (Richard Bright), closing the door on Michael’s wife Kay (Diane Keaton); Brando’s tearful breakdown (“Look how they massacred my boy”) upon viewing the dead Sonny’s shattered features at Bonasera’s funeral parlor; that ironic, masterfully orchestrated finale whereby Michael all-but wipes the slate clean of his father’s foes while standing stoically as godfather to his sister Connie’s child; and many more.

With a fine ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall as the family consigliere Tom Hagen, Talia Shire (Coppola’s real-life sister) as Connie, John Cazale as Michael’s older brother Fredo, Richard Castellano as the fat Pete Clemenza, Abe Vigoda (Fish in Barney Miller) as Tessio, Alex Rocco as Moe Green, and John Marley, Sterling Hayden, Richard Conte, Al Martino, Morgana King, Gianni Russo, Vito Scotti, Simonetta Stefanelli, Angelo Infanti as Fabrizio, and Gabriele Torrei (uncredited) as Enzo the nervous baker. The striking cinematography is by the late Gordon Willis, with incredibly detailed production designs by Dean Tavoularis, and of course that instantly recognizable film theme by Nino Rota.

Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)
Wedding scene from The Godfather, Part I (INTERFOTO / GRAZIANERI)

Speaking of film scores, there are two romantic ballads featured in the picture: one, the pop song “I Have But One Heart,” sung by Al Martino at Connie’s wedding, was originally published in 1945 and recorded by Vic Damone, with music written by Johnny Farrow and lyrics by Marty Symes; the other number, the so-labeled “Love Theme from The Godfather” — more familiarly known as “Speak Softly Love” — was composed by Nino Rota, with lyrics by Larry Kusik. Given an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score of 1973, Rota was disqualified from competition when it was learned that “Speak Softly Love” was previously used by him for a 1958 movie called Fortunella.

Need we say more?

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