Somethin’s Happenin’ Here — Songs that Celebrate a Turbulent Time (Part Three): ‘I Protest!’

Buffalo Springfield (1966-1968) with Neil Young at center and Stephen Stills at far right

Work-Life Imbalance

We tend to think of life in the 1960s in terms of happier, carefree days. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they were extraordinarily turbulent times, as the title of this series suggests.

Major occurrences, both good and bad, ruled the day: the civil rights movement, political assassinations, the Beatles, the Great Society, Vietnam, the anti-war marches and anti-establishment protests, economic uncertainty, police brutality, the Kent State shootings, and so on.

“Burn, baby, burn!” was the inartful catchphrase, coined at the time by Los Angeles DJ Nathaniel “The Magnificent” Montague in response to the anarchic situation in the LA-neighborhood of Watts and other urban centers. There was a growing sense of despair, that many Americans’ chances for betterment and upward mobility were moving farther and farther out of reach.

Does this sound eerily familiar? Déjà vu all over again?

In the midst of our current troubles, the working world of the 1960s had itself undergone a dramatic shift from where it had been. The prosperity and relative peace of the 1950s began to give way to darker elements within our society.

Because of Vietnam and the changes taking place in many corners of the U.S., more women than ever before were entering the workforce. We can thank the award-winning AMC series Mad Men (2007 to 2017) for enlightening viewers as to the true nature of the times in which we lived.

Many old timers have expressed nostalgia for a non-existent “pristine past.” But make no mistake: the times were changing — and fast. As an illustration, the Women’s Lib Movement had come into bloom and began to control the conversation around the company water cooler. This development took place both from a fundamental need to rectify longstanding inequities in hiring practices and the lack of promotional opportunities for women in general. Moreover, the word “feminism,” which originated in Europe in the late 19th century, reemerged on our shores as an offshoot of that era.

Increasingly, the pressures of establishing a viable work-life balance — the pull and tug of career obligations vying with the constant needs of family — began to show not only among working women, but in their male counterparts as well. As Mad Men accurately portrayed, the competition for jobs in the high-pressure, cut-throat advertising industry was one of countless migraine-inducing professions that appeared beyond the reach of most individuals — particularly for women.

Whether male or female, young or middle-aged, your average working stiffs labored long and hard to put food on the table and money in their account. If “stability” and “complacency” can be applied to define the 1950s, then “insecurity” and “uneasiness” would become the terms of art in explaining the middle- to late 1960s.

Except for a privileged few, the median salary for working-class Americans remained stubbornly low or, at best, modest with respect to actual buying power. To put it bluntly, Americans continued to struggle to keep up with the Joneses.

When people weren’t commuting from home to work and back again, they spent their nights and weekends in leisure-time activities. For the most part, these were relegated to sports watching, conventional TV viewing, going to the park, reading the daily newspaper, listening to the radio, and/or Sunday afternoon outings.

In big cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., where masses of individuals congregated in public housing projects, the mood was generally sullen. Winters were harsh and summers were scalding, especially with no air-conditioning available.

What most urban dwellers relied upon to “lighten the mood,” so to speak, were movies and music, usually of the pop-rock variety.

The Vogues — “Five O’Clock World” (1965)

Pennsylvania vocal group the Vogues in 1965

Before you get the wrong idea, not everything was coming up roses (as Mama Rose voiced in the musical Gypsy). The sounds that emanated from the pop-rock world of our youth were, by all accounts, emblematic of this new reality. Indeed, “peace, love and dope” were not the only concerns uppermost in the minds of young people.

One of these songs, the bouncy “Five O’Clock World” by the all-male vocal group the Vogues, epitomized the daily grind that most Americans were subjected to. The number, written by Allen Reynolds, a Country & Western producer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee, was released in October 1965 on the Ce & Co label.

Original Vogue members Bill Burkette, Don Miller, Hugh Geyer, and Chuck Blasko were residents of Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh. After stints in the Army or at college, the young men re-grouped to record a cover version of British pop darling Petula Clark’s “You’re the One.” It scored a hit with record buyers, which led to their signing a deal with producer Nick Cenci to record “Five O’Clock World.”

The most captivating twist behind this recording, however, was that the instrumental tracks were all performed by veteran Nashville players. For instance, that same arrangement was produced and supervised by Nashville musician Tony Moon; and the 12-string acoustic guitar that starts things off was played by Chip Young who once worked with Elvis Pressley and Dolly Parton, among others — an odd assemblage, considering that, stylistically, the song itself was pure pop puree. Another addition was the prominent horn section, which captured the future Memphis-based Stax sound of the 1970s.

Nevertheless, the descriptive lyrics and the sprightly, upbeat mood (sustained throughout by the boisterous backing vocals and some periodic yodeling) were what struck a chord with radio listeners. The narrator accurately depicts what it’s like to go to work and battle the rush-hour crowd:

Up every mornin’ just to keep a job
I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob
Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain
While another day goes down the drain (Yeah, yeah)

But it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a five o’clock me inside my clothes
Thinkin’ that the world looks fine, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

Tradin’ my time for the pay I get
Livin’ on money that I ain’t made yet
I’ve been tryin’ to make my way
While I live for the end of the day (Yeah, yeah)

 

On a personal note, I absolutely HATE, HATE, HATE this much overused and hackneyed phrase “at the end of the day.” In any event, after straining to get through the tasks at hand, a little lightness and joy appear headed his way:

 

Cuz it’s a five o’clock world when the whistle blows
No one owns a piece of my time
And there’s a long-haired girl who waits, I know
To ease my troubled mind, yeah
Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

In the shelter of her arms everything’s OK
When she talks then the world goes slippin’ away
And I know the reason I can still go on
When every other reason is gone, (Yeah, yeah)

 

In my five o’clock world she waits for me
Nothing else matters at all
Cuz every time my baby smiles at me
I know that it’s all worthwhile, yeah

Oh-de-lay-ee-ee

 

With relief at hand in the loving embrace of the narrator’s main squeeze, what better solution is there to top off one’s labors? I can’t think of any!

The Lovin’ Spoonful — “Summer in the City” (1966)

The Lovin’ Spoonful, with John Sebastian at far right

On a totally different note, sweltering summers were no stranger to strap-hanging New Yorkers, or to most urbanites for that matter. Released on a sweaty Fourth of July weekend in 1966 (not nine months after “Five O’Clock World”), one of the best remembered tunes from that period was the self-explanatory “Summer in the City” by the folk-rock group the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Written by founder and lead singer John Sebastian, this talented musician was an authentic Greenwich Village creation. With a background in blues and roots music, Sebastian dabbled in songwriting and performing on the side. Teaming up with like-minded guitarist Zal Yanovsky and two others, Sebastian (together with brother Mark and bandmate Steve Boone) placed his finger on the Big Apple’s pulse with “Summer in the City,” the only Number 1 hit of the group’s career.

According to writer Mary Catherine Reynolds (in a May 2014 post titled “Mark Sebastian Tells the Real Story”), young Mark wrote the song in three-quarter time. Big brother John liked what he heard, so he went about rewriting the verses, including some musical interludes that Steve had concocted.

Along with the addition of appropriate sound effects (i.e., jackhammers pummeling away on a city sidewalk, cars honking their horns), a masterwork of stridency and dissonance was born, wrapped in the group’s signature airy effervescence:

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity

Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head

 


Ah, but in comparison to the Vogues’ late-1950s-era buoyancy (more of a throwback to doo-wop and boy groups, in general), the end result is strikingly similar — that is, you need a little lovin’ (whether by the “spoonful” or not) to get through the workday:

 

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on, come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright

 

And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity
That the days can’t be like the nights
In the summer, in the city
In the summer, in the city

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city
Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop

 

This was about as “streetwise” and “relevant” to the times as John Sebastian (who became a solo artist after 1968) and the Lovin’ Spoonful ever got. Indeed, the bulk of their recorded output was devoted to feel-good love songs such as “Do You Believe in Magic?” and “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” pretty but inoffensive paeans to “flower power” and the hippie sensibility.

The Rolling Stones — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965)

The British rock group the Rolling Stones circa 1965

Frustration with the way things were, tempered with hefty drops of self-indulgence and dissipation, were better left to the “experts.” And by that, we mean the Rolling Stones. Along with free sex and the easy availability of drugs and alcohol, no band at the time expressed the ups-and-downs of life on the road (and the rock-n-roll lifestyle in all its offensiveness) as these native Londoners.

Far be it for grade-school classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to mock their own inadequacies. But if EVER there was a rock-star anthem to strike one’s fancy, then the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” can be billed as the all-time champion. And no other song of the 1960s has encapsulated the counterculture attitude of rebellion and in-your-face sexuality as this one.

Alan Clayson, author of The Best of Rock: The Essential CD Guide, described “Richards’ use of the foot-operated [Gibson Maestro FZ-1] fuzz-box” for the opening guitar riff as “the Beethoven’s Fifth of rock” (p. 110). The song (now considered a classic) was released as a single, half a century ago, on June 5, 1965. Instantly recognizable, its relentless sameness drove home the message that “We’re not gonna take it anymore,” long before Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame came to the same conclusion.

The growing displeasure that young people showed with the status quo, and the annoyance expressed at the way the bureaucrats and politicians were running things (called the “generation gap”), was a favorite theme of the 1970s British and American punk rock movement. The Rolling Stones happened to be precursors to all that.

In addition to the pounding rhythm and Charlie Watts’ explosive drum kit, there were Mick’s critique of unbridled commercialism (“And the man comes on the radio” and “While I’m watchin’ my TV”), and the exasperation of having sex with a girl but being hung out to dry at the last minute:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And the man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
about some useless information
supposed to drive my imagination

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m watchin’ my TV
and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

When I’m ridin’ round the world
And I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that
And I’m tryin’ to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back, maybe next week
‘Cause you see I’m on a losing streak

I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
A hey, hey, hey, that’s what I say

I can’t get no, I can’t get no
I can’t get no satisfaction, no satisfaction
No satisfaction, no satisfaction
I can’t get no

 

Talk about rebellion, this was a literal rallying cry for disaffected youth.

Buffalo Springfield — “For What It’s Worth” (1966)

Protests and demonstrations. These were all bound up in the same package with civil rights, voting rights, the right to free speech, and the right to be heard above the din of dissent. And there were others, among which are the right to petition one’s government and the right not to be judged by the color of one’s skin or the origin of one’s race.

When those rights have been trampled upon, our laws provide for some form of redress.

Pandora’s Box Protests – November 1966 (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

On November 12, 1966, a popular Sunset Strip coffeehouse with the prophetic name of Pandora’s Box became the scene of a mass protest. Because of recently enacted curfew laws preventing young people from gathering there (illicit drug use and underage drinking had allegedly taken place), the surrounding businesses and residents filed a complaint to close the establishment.

The brunt of their ire was directed at crowds of young people who were blamed for the increase in traffic congestion along the busy Los Angeles thoroughfare. Riots and crackdowns resulted, with many participants being whisked off to jail and the inevitable closing and demolition of Pandora’s Box — conspicuously, after the community’s ills had already been poured out.

This was the background to lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” a protest song written in reaction to the situation and recorded by his group, Buffalo Springfield, on December 5, 1966. Later, many had mistakenly thought the song had to do with the May 1970 Kent State shootings — and, to be honest, the context fits many similar situations, both in the past and in the present.

In addition to Stills, the individual band members featured Dewey Martin on drums, Bruce Palmer on bass, Richie Furay on guitar and vocals, and 21-year-old Toronto-born singer, songwriter, guitarist (and future “Godfather of Grunge”) Neil Young. It was Young’s employment of a tremolo (what he labeled “guitar harmonics”) that lent the number its characteristic reverb and soundscape.

Unfortunately, the group was short-lived, barely lasting a two-year period. Stills went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash (with David Crosby, formerly of the Byrds, and Graham Nash, a vocalist and guitarist with the Hollies). Young briefly joined the trio, until he too left to pursue his own creative endeavors. The road he took has yet to end, but it was a most winding one to be sure.

Today, we are privileged to have their work preserved for us in pristine condition. Check out the videos available on YouTube and you’ll see these fine young artists in an entirely different light. As to the lyrics of “For What It’s Worth,” their significance for today’s reality needs no elaboration:

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
A tellin’ me, I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speakin’ their minds
A gettin’ so much resistance from behind

Time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and they carryin’ signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
We better stop, now, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

We better stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

 

End of Part Three

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

Plague on Humanity or Manna for Modern Times? — A Review of the Available Film Versions of the Story of Moses

The giving of the Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston as Moses

Today is Good Friday, a day commemorated across the globe as one of tragedy and misfortune that, leading to eventual triumph and hope, culminates Sunday on a glorious Easter morning. Earlier in the week, Jews from around the world observed the solemnity of Passover, a time when Death passed over their households.

Knowledgeable readers, too, may recall the 2003 protests for and against a controversial ruling involving the imposition of a Ten Commandments monument at the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama — a veritable clash between the sacred and the secular.

Concurrent with that story, the 2003 commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington brought to mind how much people of faith have taken this unique and inspiring symbol of God’s ancient law for granted.

Flash forward to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, a scurrilous plague of Biblical proportions if ever there was one. Oh, how humanity needs its “manna from heaven” moment!

To echo a well-worn phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt.” You may be under the assumption that everyone has advance knowledge of what Passover, the Exodus, and the Ten Commandments came to symbolize, what ostensibly led to their evolution, and what they entail for us TODAY as far as a spiritual guidepost for these fearful, stress-filled times.

Politics aside, most God-fearing citizens have forgotten the sacrifices that went into the shaping of this gift of His promise for a happier earthly existence. We tend to overlook how God’s chosen people, the Hebrew slaves of Egypt, long sought to put an end to their suffering under the yolk of pharaonic vanity and abuse; how they yearned for freedom, and waited in vain for deliverance to the Promised Land, as prophesied in those same Old Testament passages.

Over the years, we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the obvious modern parallels to African-American struggles for dignity, respect, and racial equality in other, more socially intolerant times. The same holds true for our growing Latino population, for the millions of poor and homeless people, and for those less fortunate than ourselves.

If only we could make real what was conveyed so wondrously in the pages of Holy Scripture. Similarly, if only we could empathize with the historical, social, and religious contexts that helped shape the thoughts, lives, and social patterns of these same individuals, who so valiantly fought — and died — for their beliefs, so that we, today, might enjoy the blessings of freedom under a merciful, loving, and protective godhead.     

For home-bound viewers, there exists a number of cinematic recreations of the Old Testament story of Moses and the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, preserved as a makeshift “visual record” of these events. In lieu of physical Sunday-school lessons (due to social distancing constraints), these films have been made available to one and all via Blu-ray, DVD, YouTube, and/or various streaming devices.

All serve to inspire and enlighten us. But most importantly of all, they can be viewed, singly or as a whole, as filmed reminders of Moses’ symbolic significance to all faiths as the harbinger of Christ’s mission on Earth; and as a powerful lesson to world leaders to humble themselves before nature and the environment.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923): 146 minutes

 

One of the earliest motion picture representations of the story of Moses and the Exodus that remains widely accessible to movie audiences comes from famed producer-director Cecil B. DeMille.

A former stage actor and Hollywood co-founder, DeMille, even in the silent-film era, was known for his lavish historical pageants and superb handling of mass movement in crowd scenes.

His first crack at the Biblical genre came with the 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, starring veteran stage and film actor Theodore Roberts as Moses, Estelle Taylor as Miriam, Charles De Roche as Pharaoh, Julia Faye as Nefertari (sic), and James Neill as Aaron. Released by Famous Players-Lasky Corporation and distributed by Paramount Studios, the production was partially filmed in the desert country of Guadalupe, Mexico.

The sets and costumes are impressive, as is the flamboyant acting by the principals. The mighty Exodus sequence and the handing down of the Commandments are dealt with in expert fashion, while the plagues are given short shrift (only the last and deadliest plague is depicted). Still, the rudimentary effects, particularly the pillar of fire and the parting of the Red Sea, are indeed remarkable for the time.

The second (and longer) portion of the film is devoted to a more “contemporary” interpretation of what happens to one of two siblings who continuously breaks God’s laws. Richard Dix and Rod La Rocque play the battling brothers (one good, one bad) in traditional clutch-and-stagger style. Silent movie queen Nita Naldi vamps it up as the tragic temptress who comes between them.

In the prologue, the haughty Pharaoh Rameses (De Roche) is brought to his knees upon the demise of his firstborn son (Terrence Moore). Alert viewers will notice some startling similarities between the way DeMille captured this and other sequences when juxtaposed with his 1956 remake (see below).

Having doubled Paramount Studios’ initial outlay from US $600,000 to over $1.2 million (and giving nervous backers a mild coronary in the process), DeMille’s gambit paid off handsomely at the box office.

Despite the soap-opera trappings — there are more than enough melodramatic subplots, including a preposterous episode about a lover infected with leprosy — the movie proved a hit with the Roaring Twenties crowd, raking in an incredible four million dollars in its day.

The first part, running about 50 minutes in length, is the more gripping section, and is recommended for joint family viewing. You will want to fast-forward through the stagy second sequence, however, which tends to drag a bit and may prove too mature for young children to fully grasp.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956): 245 minutes (with overture, intermission and exit music)

DeMille’s next attempt at the story was the widescreen Technicolor extravaganza The Ten Commandments, released by Paramount in 1956. It is quite possibly the most well-known and widely viewed religious film ever made. DeMille made the wise decision to drop the modern parallel and stick to the tried and true, especially after the runaway success of the earlier Samson and Delilah from 1949.

The wily director-producer spared no expense in the crafting of his greatest work, which stars the then-relatively unknown Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner (fresh from his Broadway triumph in The King and I) as Rameses II, Anne Baxter as his voluptuous wife Nefretiri, Edward G. Robinson as the overseer Dathan, Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, John Derek as Joshua, Debra Paget as Lilia, John Carradine as Aaron, and a literal cast of thousands.

DeMille went on location to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula for the Exodus and other desert sequences. Returning to the U.S., the production team resumed shooting on eighteen Hollywood sound stages, with another twelve waiting for them in Paris, France.

While this version is considered pure camp — with such ludicrous plot devices as the bogus romance between Moses and the future Queen of Egypt, and an absurd love triangle between Baka the Master Builder (Vincent Price), Lilia the water carrier, and Joshua the stonecutter — the gargantuan sets, fabulous costumes, gorgeous production values, and memorable music score by novice composer Elmer Bernstein, are all worthy of attention.

As Ole Man Mose himself, Heston steadfastly maintained that his casting as the fiery prophet made him a household name in the movie industry. It was his first successful foray in a long line of religious and historical figures to be interpreted by him on the big screen. His looks and voice, and moving portrayal (plus the apparent sincerity Heston gave to the part) lift this film out of the usual dull run of Biblical epics.

Several of the scenes, including the Burning Bush sequence, the plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Commandments have gone down in movie history as among the most memorable ever filmed (see the following link for a fuller in-depth analysis of DeMille’s biblical epic: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/07/16/the-ten-commandments-american-society-in-the-fifties/).  

The last of those nasty plagues, the one that brings the Destroyer into the heart of Pharaoh’s household, will send shivers down your spine (it was quite effective in the movie theater, of that I can personally vouch for). It’s one of the few sequences in the three hour and thirty-nine minute epic that is not over the top.

Highly recommended for all family members, the movie is best appreciated in its letterbox format.

MOSES – THE LAWGIVER (1975): 150 minutes; mini-series 360 minutes

Burt Lancaster as Moses, the Lawgiver

A British-Italian-Israeli co-production based on the book of Exodus, the title, Moses – The Lawgiver, did not bear the hallmarks of a primetime ratings grabber, not by any means. Nevertheless, this 1975 foreign-made version was first broadcast on the small screen as a six-hour television mini-series.

It features American actor Burt Lancaster as Moses, his son William Lancaster as the young Moses, veteran English character player Anthony Quayle as Aaron, Ingrid Thulin as their sister Miriam, Marina Berti as Elisheba, and Greek film star Irene Pappas as Moses’ wife. Curiously, it was partially filmed in Rome, Morocco, and the Holy Land during the height of the Yom Kippur war. The script is by Anthony Burgess, author of the futuristic novel A Clockwork Orange.

The story is presented in fairly reverent, straight-forward fashion, the dialogue highly literate, and a low-key Lancaster surprisingly good in the title role. Just don’t expect the usual Hollywood-style histrionics to spice up the proceedings, though, as this version is more dialogue-heavy than most.

Too, it takes a more intellectual approach to the saga. As for the special effects, they are modest in comparison — I’d say pedestrian, to be frank, and not even close to big budget standards.

The mini-series was subsequently released to theaters as a feature-length film, but the extremely mundane atmosphere, dusty sets, and colorless wardrobe did not provide much in the way of competition for the two earlier DeMille flicks. On a side note, many of the crew members, including producer Sir Lew Grade, worked on the subsequent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series from 1977, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli, a much more ambitious and noteworthy assignment.

Recommended for older audiences but with the above reservations. Younger viewers might find it too talky and the performances lackluster.

THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1998): 97 minutes

For a change of pace, kids of all ages may want to tune in, along with their parents and friends, to this animated musical account of the Exodus story. The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 production by DreamWorks Pictures, was a joint Steven Spielberg-Jeffrey Katzenberg studio venture.

It incorporates state-of-the-art digital animation effects, and utilizes the services of Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Pharaoh, Patrick Stewart as his father Sethi, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, and Ofra Haza as Yochaved, with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, in other key roles, to tell the tale of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of God’s Laws.

Despite the clash of accents among the talented international cast, the story is clearly and succinctly told. The voice acting, especially by Kilmer and Fiennes as equally-matched combatants, is well done. Much care was taken with the script as well, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. If anything, this treatment is almost too mild by comparison to DeMille’s gaudier excesses.  

Nevertheless, this visually-stunning animated version, which is vastly superior to most Saturday morning children’s fare (if not quite up to the advanced level of the best of the Disney/Pixar Studios’ efforts), is entertaining and worthwhile.

The visual rendering of the characters favors an elongated look reminiscent of the Mannerist school of portraiture (think El Greco, or possibly Modigliani) that gives the finished product a uniquely original stamp of its own.

Interestingly, the rivalry between the young prince Moses and the future pharaoh Rameses is a thinly-veiled reworking of the Judah/Messala conflict found in MGM’s 1959 widescreen remake of Ben-Hur, another superior religious picture. Thankfully, the script for this outing, written by veteran screenwriter Philip LaZebnick (Pocahontas, Mulan, The Road to El Dorado), is on the same high level as that William Wyler-directed opus.

There’s even a hit song, i.e., “When You Believe,” to thrill to (written by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz), beautifully sung in the movie by Ms. Pfeiffer and repeated, in the end credits, as a power duet between then-reigning pop divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The score itself is by Hans Zimmer.

This is highly recommended for all family members.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014): 150 minutes

Finally, there’s director-producer Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, with the likes of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Pharaoh, John Turturro as Sethi, and Aaron Paul as Joshua, with Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Ben Mendelsohn.

This version has not yet been viewed by yours truly. But with a cast such as this, it would be unfair of me to pass judgment on its merits. About the best I could say for it, though, is: Buyer beware!

Still, this and the above entries serve to perpetuate the Idea that haughtiness and vanity will only get you so far. The high and mighty will be brought down and laid low before forces too powerful to control.  

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar L. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Seven): The Law is On His Side

Male cast members of Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1993)

‘I Fought the Law and the Law Won’

Americans love lawyers.

Now, before you throw a fit or have me committed to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward, let me elaborate.

We enjoy watching television shows (and movies, if you want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth) about lawyers because we’re fascinated by the concept of the law and its defenders. Whether we like them personally or not, issues related to lawyers and the law are hammered out in trials, thus giving rise to the ubiquitous courtroom drama.

Courtroom dramas are the very essence, if not the bane, of our existence. They’re part of everyday life, based on the incontrovertible view that people tend to commit crimes. Along with their criminal activities come the post-criminal investigations. Witnesses emerge, evidence starts to pile up. Soon, these assorted elements get introduced (or not) in a forum deemed appropriate to the circumstances. That forum happens to be the courtroom.

And where there are courtrooms, there are judges. Judges, as anyone who’s ever been confronted by one will tell you, are the no-nonsense arbiters of the law; they are the experts, the so-called professionals in matters of jurisprudence.

So who are the arbiters of the facts? Why, the jury, of course. And juries are made up of ordinary citizens — with all our biases and prejudices and accumulated knowledge, both pro and con, of the facts. For, indeed, we, the people, are the ultimate judges of what can be deemed factual.

Okay, but who are the individuals who bring these criminal cases to court, to be heard by a jury of one’s peers, to be adjudicated by a judge? Those individuals are the lawyers, the people trained in presenting a case and arguing the merits before a court of law. This is also where the heart of the “drama” takes place. You might call it a ringside seat, where the “ring,” in this instance, takes the form of a large rectangular room.

As obsessed as we are with high-voltage courtroom dramas — and we can cite numerous examples that fit that description — there is one actor I know of who, at one time or another, appeared to have cornered the market in his association with the law, both on the side of what’s “right” and on the side of what’s “wrong.” And that actor is Denzel Washington.

Not only does Denzel make the perfect attorney at law (in looks, manner, and speech), but his recurrent forays into such related subgenres as crime capers, police procedurals, investigative journalism, and criminal behavior — to include his participation in the crimes themselves (via his earlier ghostly “embodiment” in Heart Condition) — have given him a unique perspective quite apart from his fellow actors.

Certainly his stature as a figure of authority has had something to do with it. Writer and movie critic David Thomson, in his book The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, referred to Denzel’s “extra confidence” and the authentic “command” he brings to his parts, even to the “silly films along the way.”

We’ll be exploring his commanding presence (and, along the way, some of those “silly films”) in this next installment, which we have subtitled “The Law is on His Side.”

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) hears the proposal by Don Pedro (Denzel Washington)

We begin, of all things, with a star-studded production of Shakespeare’s comedy of errors, Much Ado About Nothing. Filmed on location in Italy — specifically in the province of Tuscany, at a real Italian villa blessed with sunny skies, verdant pastures, authentic locales, and moonlit nights — this is your standard-grade period piece.

As straight a screen adaptation of the English poet’s opus as you can get, much ado is made of the fact that good-ole reliable Denzel plays a supporting role, i.e., that of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, instead of his usual male lead. It’s back to ensemble work for the workaholic Mr. Washington!

Heading up this ribald dramedy, then, is Irish-born actor, director, and producer Kenneth Branagh, the closest Hollywood has come to that unrivaled thespian and multi-talented performer, director, and theater manager Sir Laurence Olivier.

An Olivier wannabe in everything but name only, the self-directed Sir Kenneth stars as Benedick, a member of Don Pedro’s court. Arrogant, boastful, and self-assured to a fault, the handsome nobleman has a “thing” for the equally brash yet beauteous and witty Beatrice (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife at the time). It’s that age-old gag where the one, Benedick, insists that the other, Beatrice, is beneath his contempt, and vice versa; where “I hate your guts” means “I love you truly.” You get the drift.

The main conflict (besides the obvious one twixt Beatrice and Benedick) takes place when Benedick’s companion, the young count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), expresses his heartfelt passion for Beatrice’s comely cousin, Hero (the charmingly attractive Kate Beckinsale). Don Pedro is pleased with the match and forthwith blesses the union to everyone’s satisfaction — everyone, that is, except his rebellious half-brother, the jealous Don John (a brooding and bearded Keanu Reeves, who mugs his way through the picture). Don John has designs of his own where the bride is concerned; consequently, he hatches a side-plot to discredit the virtuous Hero before her betrothed. Zounds, the scoundrel (boo, hiss!).

Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) is tricked into accepting Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as wife

Mixed into this exhilarating brew is the cretinous Constable Dogberry (Michael Keaton, who acts as if he had accidently stumbled onto the set of Beetlejuice), accompanied by comparably inept associates. In addition to Branagh, Thompson, and Beckinsale (they sound like partners in a British law firm, don’t they?), the other cast members — among them, Richard Briers as Hero’s father Leonato (and the owner of the villa), Gerard Horan as Borachio (his name, in Spanish, translates to “constantly drunk,” which he is), Imelda Staunton as Margaret, and Brian Blessed as Antonio, Leonato’s brother — bring their proficiency in iambic pentameter to Shakespeare’s words with enthusiasm and zeal.

As the only African American member of the group (and one of a handful of American English speakers), Denzel’s Don Pedro comes off well enough physically. He certainly looks the part of a potentate, who here epitomizes the literal law of the land; and he performs it with the utmost taste and command (there goes that word again) born of self-confidence. It’s evident the actor’s earliest stage encounters with the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon (in Othello and Julius Caesar) make all the difference.

Yet, there is something not quite right. To these ears, Denzel’s dialogue sounds mannered and leaden. His speech does not “roll trippingly on the tongue.” There’s a clash of American English with its British variant in the enunciation department, which is to be expected. However, an absence of spontaneity creeps into passages that demand a less measured approach. Taking nothing away from his delivery per se, one notices an overly cautious reading of Don Pedro’s lines than there needs to be — an over-compensation, if that clarifies things, as if the speaker had placed the emphasis on every word of text so as to make his meaning clear.

There are several examples of this occurring, the first in the scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discussing Beatrice’s true feelings for him; the second, in the quieter moments between Don Pedro and Beatrice, where he gazes intently into her eyes and proposes a marital union between them. Thompson, as Beatrice, rattles off her riposte with a gentle but casual air of indifference, accompanied by a toss of the head. Whereas Washington, on the receiving end, ever-so-cautiously articulates every vowel and syllable, along with the appropriate punctuation.

Yes, yes, I know. I’m being excessively picky in my assessment. This is still a marvelously photographed and gorgeously costumed realization, if I can be blunt about it. For instance, those opening slow-motion shots with a lusty male contingent bobbing up and down on their mounts, along with those of buxom young ladies in various forms of undress, are notable for their sex appeal and air of anticipation — a balm to Shakespeare addicts.

More likely, I’m making … well, much ado about nothing!

The Pelican Brief (1993)

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) joins forces with Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts)

On a more serious note, the initial pairing of Denzel Washington with everyone’s favorite screen sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in The Pelican Brief was cause for jubilation among their millions of dedicated fans. The onscreen chemistry this oddly-matched couple generate lifted the film adaptation of another of ex-lawyer John Grisham’s windingly dense legal thrillers to near-Olympian heights at the box office.

If magnetism and “star power” can be manufactured, bottled, and sold over the counter, then these two brightest of movie lights might have cornered the world market. Call them the twin “flavors of the month,” which, where their followers were concerned, had placed them at cross-purposes to one another. Despite that handicap, both Washington and Roberts shined at playing protagonists who win the audience’s favor. One couldn’t help but root for their success, no matter what project they took part in.

Warner Bros. Studios’ belief in their staying power as box-office draws led to this faithful if needlessly drawn-out conspiracy yarn about the murder of two Supreme Court justices. The book, published in 1992, was Grisham’s third novel and second literary effort to top the New York Times bestseller list (after The Firm).

In the movie, Julia plays law school student Darby Shaw who unwittingly stumbles across an elaborate plot by a ruthless oil tycoon to exploit some oil-rich Louisiana marshland inhabited by an endangered species of pelican — to wit the raison d’être for the avian title. Her subsequent legal brief on the incipient nature of this scheme spells out the particulars in detail.

Before you can say, “What the hell does all that have to do with the death of two Supreme Court justices?”, the next layer to be revealed connects Darby to the assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci), the person responsible for those murders. Although the late justices were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, they were both staunch environmentalists. The idea is for the tycoon to profit handsomely from this oil venture by getting the clueless U.S. President (Robert Culp), whose campaign for reelection has been financed by this same tycoon, to appoint two new justices favorable to the scheme. Thus everybody “wins,” except for the defenseless pelicans.

Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), investigative reporter turned action hero

We warned you this was a needlessly complicated story line. Having read several of author Grisham’s books, however, I can report that this 1993 screen edition is true to the original tome, a rarity among films of this nature.

Readers may be wondering, too, where Denzel might fit into the action. Is he a cop or is he a lawyer? Actually, he’s neither. On a seemingly unrelated note, Dee plays Washington Herald investigative reporter Gray Grantham, who receives a tip from an informant named Garcia about those two assassinations. One thing leads to another, and soon Darby Shaw links up with Grantham, as the two curious individuals — the rookie law student and the veteran journalist — join forces to begin the laborious task of unraveling the maze of deceptions.

I would be remiss in my sworn duty to keep the dénouement a secret. I will say this: the very antithesis of the usual slam-bang, shoot-‘em-up police/crime thriller, The Pelican Brief, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent), is a more thoughtful case in point. In view of our stated theme (vide the guardians of law and order and their being on the right side of justice), Denzel occupies an integral secondary spot.

Some critics complained that there were no love scenes between him and Ms. Roberts — and why should there be? As a matter of fact, they don’t fall in love at all, which is how the novel played it. “Any romance would have been rather tactless,” wrote Roger Ebert in his December 17, 1993 review, “considering that the story takes place in the week or two immediately after her [law professor] lover has been blown to pieces.”

How about that! A logical, well-thought-out screenplay for once that makes perfect sense. Consequently, audiences ate this feature up, which only goes to show that Hollywood can still shock and awe you when it wants to. On the other hand, in one of the myriad subplots to director Robert Altman’s labyrinthine The Player, released in May 1992 (a year and a half before The Pelican Brief hit the big screen), the little film-within-a-film Habeas Corpus (with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts, of all people!) subverts the whole idea of staying faithful to one’s original work.

You’re probably wondering: “What the hell is he talking about?” I’m glad you asked! Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to watch both The Pelican Brief AND The Player, in that order. To test your knowledge of each, there’ll be a pop quiz on Wednesday. The best of luck to you!

Philadelphia (1993)

Lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) refuses to take Andy Beckett’s case

From our current crisis relating to the mounting coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we harken back to a time when HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and the AIDS epidemic (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) were placed front and center in the debate about how to treat those afflicted with the sexually transmitted disease.

With an all-star assemblage of top-shelf acting talent (Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Joanne Woodward, Charles Napier, Ann Dowd, Roberta Maxwell, Roger Corman, et al.); an Oscar-winning music score by Howard Shore; and a similarly feted Best Original Song (“The Streets of Philadelphia”) by Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood production that directly addressed the issue of AIDS in the workplace.

Released in December 1993 — in the same month and year as The Pelican Brief — TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia also took on the related topic of homosexuality. Unfounded fears of being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through touching and non-sexual transmission were an indispensable subtext in the script’s depiction of associate attorney Andy Beckett (Hanks), a rising star in one of those typical “white-shoe” Philadelphia law firms. With his worsening condition becoming more and more apparent, the firm’s partners contrive of a scheme to dismiss Andy on the grounds of incompetence.

The bulk of the drama follows Andy’s pursuit of justice in a court of law — not only for himself but for others fighting for their choice of lifestyle and/or sexual orientation. This is where Denzel’s participation as ambulance chaser Joe Miller becomes a lifeline for the terminally ill attorney.

Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) asks lawyer Joe Miller to defend him

Andy wears the marks of his affliction not so much as a badge of honor but as a constant reminder of the life and death struggle that he, and others like him, face on a daily basis.

Combining many of the elements discussed above — that is, the law and its authority in Much Ado About Nothing and the criminal investigation intrinsic to The Pelican BriefPhiladelphia is a film both utterly absorbing and periodically cloying, itself tinged with what used to be termed the “Disease of the Week” syndrome. That it overcomes the worst tendencies of this genre of movies can be traced directly to its screenplay and to its lead actors.

It’s been pointed out that Andy’s parents are depicted as almost too nice to be true. Too, Andy and his gay lover, Miguel Álvarez (Banderas), are loving, caring individuals openly accepted by family and friends (a hell of a stretch at the time), but their emotional relationship to one another is stillborn, as is their steadfast commitment to stay together come what may. (A scene of the two men in bed was cut from the finished product; it’s been restored for the home edition on Blu-ray and DVD).

Joe Miller (Washington) now represents the interests of ex-lawyer and HIV/AIDS victim Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks)

Despite these deferential nods to outward civility, the movie’s best moments look inward at the surrounding characters, most notably at Andy’s legal representative, Joe Miller. Miller, a straight-arrow African American male, is frightened out of his wits with representing a gay man in court. He can’t even bring himself to properly shake Andy’s hand he’s so biased. His hatred of gays spills out in a potent scene with his wife, where his use of the word “faggot” colors his negative view of his client.

Interestingly, the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled, in a December 2018 BuzzFeed News interview with reporter Adam B. Vary, how “Some people thought that [Denzel],” during a radio talk-show program, “was going to play the gay character. People called in [to the station] and said the most vile things about him. He was stopped on the streets by fans. People were pretty blunt about how they felt about gay people who were carriers of this fatal disease.”

The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up, but it proved the point that Americans at the time had a long way to go in their grasp and understanding of the problems affecting recipients of the HIV/AIDS virus.

How Denzel’s character begins to overcome his prejudices occurs in several of Philadelphia’s key scenes. Reluctant at first to take on Andy’s case for “personal reasons,” Miller reverses his initial thoughts when he observes Beckett at a library doing research for his case. When one of the librarians asks Andy if he’d be more comfortable in a room by himself — where he’d be away from others who are uncomfortable with his presence (including the librarian) — Miller walks over to where Andy is seated and greets him cordially. Miller’s steady gaze at Andy (and at the librarian) forces the librarian to depart, as does another researcher.

We can infer from this confrontation that Miller, an African American, had undoubtedly experienced the same kind of intolerance as a struggling law student, but for racially motivated reasons. After Miller sits down at the table, Andy hands him an extract from a 1973 law equating the carriers of HIV/AIDS with victims of discrimination, which perfectly underscores the dilemma they face: how to overcome the built-in prejudices inherent in their case by citing the applicable law, along with its precedents.

Other moments in the picture either reinforce or obscure the argument, including one where an African American law student, thinking Miller is also gay, tries to pick him up at a pharmacy. The attempt does not end well as Miller erupts with a volley of verbal invectives against the law student.

Andy (Hanks) listens as his attorney Miller (Washington) cross-examines a witness

Once the case is presented in court, the gist of the drama begins to take hold. Thankfully, the trial scenes are handled in non-sensationalist fashion by director Demme. Outside of the occasional objections, they’re almost matter of fact, a respite from the torpor of real-life court trials or the heavy-handedness allotted to TV courtroom dramas (I’m thinking of the worst of Law & Order).

But the most moving episode of all (for opera buffs such as yours truly) is the well-known example of Andy expounding to Miller on the essence of Maria Callas’ art in a recording of the aria, “La mamma morta,” from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Without going into specifics, both Washington and Hanks’ handling of this sequence is a case study in how to convey emotional intensity with only their eyes and bodies as props. Miller is touched by Andy’s love for the art form, which symbolizes his love of life.

In the film’s final sequence, a terminally ill Andy is greeted by family, friends, and well wishers at home. But his most welcome visitor is Joe Miller, who caringly places Andy’s oxygen mask over his mouth so the ailing attorney can take one last breath before expiring. Upon seeing Andy’s pitiful condition, Miller extends his two hands on either side of Andy’s face. He is no longer afraid to touch Andy or of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. His only sentiment is sympathy for the man. Where fear once dominated his relationship to his client, empathy and love have taken over. Miller has finally come to terms with his prejudices: He gives back to Andy that which Andy had given him — his humanity.

While Philadelphia proved to be a feather in Hanks’ cap (he won the first of two back-to-back Best Actor Awards for this and the following year’s Forrest Gump), Denzel reconfirmed his own status as a co-equal contributor  — both for the subtlety of his performance and the camaraderie he shared with fellow actor Hanks. Their dual roles as lawyers, one the defendant and the other the defendant’s counsel, secured Tom and Denzel’s positions as two of this country’s hottest screen properties.

End of Part Seven

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘I Saw Them Standing There’ — How the Fab Four Pleased, Pleased a Budding Fan Like Me

Paul McCartney (R.) shows his guitar to Ed Sullivan before the Beatles’ live television appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in New York City, Feb. 9, 1964. In the center are, John Lennon (L.) and Ringo Starr, partial view. (Photo: Associated Press)

Storm Clouds a-Comin’

Ah, to be young again and relive those treasured moments from one’s past!

One such moment — indeed, one of the more pleasurable experiences I can recall from my youth growing up in the Soundview section of the Bronx — was the first time I laid eyes on the Beatles, live and in the comfort of our parents’ living room.

That took place, of course, on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on the CBS Television Network. The performance was broadcast “coast to coast” on February 9, 1964, not three months after President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, another of those life-altering events that, frankly speaking, was not so pleasant. When the nation needed a lift, however, the Beatles’ initial U.S. tour did exactly that.

My family and I also bore witness to the Mop Tops’ mammoth Shea Stadium concert, broadcast live as well on August 15, 1965. If the Beatles could impress my Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian-born parents, then their future in our home was secure. No doubt the gathering storm had turned into a veritable tornado.

By that time, the Fab Four’s music and exuberant personalities had exploded across the globe and onto every continent — even in Brazil, the country of my birth, where the group’s recorded output went on to make an immediate and enduring impact. Not only was their sound a fixture in every record shop, but in the way people dressed, in the way they wore their hair, the way they talked, the way they walked, and especially how their music was played.

How could that be? The Beatles didn’t sing their tunes in Brazilian Portuguese but in the Queen’s English. Back in the group’s Hamburg days, when German-language versions of their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were all the rage, the boys used to feature the Mexican pop ballad “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss Me A Lot”) as part of their act. Paul even got to record the number in June 1962 during the band’s ill-fated relationship with Decca records. It also turned up in their later January 1969 “Get Back” sessions (released on Beatles Anthology 1 in 1995) and as part of the Let It Be film.

In spite of this backdrop, many Brazilian and/or Argentine artists, including (but not limited to) Roberto Carlos, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, the Beat Boys, Erasmo Carlos, Milton Nascimento and others, took the Lads from Liverpool as their guiding lights.

A notable example of the above was a young performer named Ronnie Von (born Ronaldo Nogueira), a 23-year-old singer-turned-actor who, in 1966, introduced the Beatle’s Dylanesque “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” on Agnaldo Rayol’s TV show, then a year later sang John Lennon’s “Girl” on the live Sunday afternoon program Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”). The song was translated into Portuguese and retitled “Meu Bem” (“My Beloved”) for the Brazilian market.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t Von’s wisp of a singing voice that served as the main attraction, but his oh-so-bashful looks that seemed to “mow the crowd down,” so to speak. The dreamboat Ronnie would shyly croon the number with forelock hanging precariously over one side of his face. He barely managed to get the lyrics out (in truth, he edged ever closer to incoherence), which endeared him even more to the female members of the audience.

The artist known as Ronnie Von (aka Ronaldo Nogueira) ca. the mid-1960s

It was obvious from this milestone performance that Ronnie Von had connected with Brazilian youth by virtue of the Beatle’s music. And it seemed equally evident that the British invasion had hit South American shores about as hard as it did the North American variety.

So when and how did their music and reputation affect me personally?

Public School Daze

I was all of 11 or 12 years of age and living in the Bronx when Beatlemania had been on the scene for several seasons. What I heard on the radio, and from what most of the kids at school had told me, was that the group’s tunes had become the Number One pop hits in the land. Soon afterward, one of those hits had smacked me right between the eyes (and in the pit of my stomach) at, of all places, our public school’s auditorium.

Yes, that’s correct, at Public School 77 in the South Central Bronx, located on East 172 Street between Ward and Manor Avenues. My family had already taken up residence at nearby Stratford Avenue, about a two or three block walk from the school.

As near as I can remember, P.S. 77 had what was known as “assembly day,” which normally occurred every Friday morning (at least, that’s when our school held it). On those days, all the school kids had to be dressed in white shirts or blouses, blue pants and skirts, and red ties or kerchiefs. (Note the colors, symbolic of the American flag). That was a requirement — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you forgot to bring your tie, one of the teachers would pull out a clip-on from his or her desk. If you failed to wear a white shirt or blouse (or blue pants and skirt), you were sent home with a note to your parents which stipulated, in no uncertain terms, that you could not return to class until you were properly dressed. Try doing THAT today!

I was in the sixth grade at that point, so this particular assembly day must have taken place sometime between the months of September 1965 and June 1966. I don’t believe it happened in the fall, but it wasn’t in the winter either (I have no recollection of having to wear a coat to school that day). So I’ll take a wild guess and say the assembly in question must have occurred around the spring of 1966.

In prior assemblies, we students were privileged to have seen a number of programs: from puppet shows (I remember a colorful presentation of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale), a chamber orchestra, magicians, and short educational or animated features (of the “Don’t Do This or You’ll Be Sorry” type) showing the hazards of smoking or playing with matches, along with public service announcements about hurricanes and such — something we hardly ever experienced in the Bronx, at least not at that time.

On that specific assembly day, we were treated to a talent show. Kids from some of the lower and upper grades performed their acts on the school’s stage. My memory is a bit fuzzy as to what the majority of students did that day. However, one group REALLY got my attention, and the attention of everyone present.

Three boys roughly my age, from either the fifth or sixth grade (neither of them were in my class, by the way), took it upon themselves to form a singing group. The tallest of the boys, Ronald Naso (we called him Ronnie), stood in the middle and played an acoustic guitar. The other two boys, Joseph Pavone and David Diaz, flanked Ronnie on either side. After a brief pause, Ronnie looked about and started strumming the guitar as all three boys chimed in at once:

     Last night I said these words to my girl

     I know you never even try girl

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Come on (come on), come on (come on)

     Please, please me, whoa yeah, like I please you

It was the Beatles’ “Please, Please Me,” from the group’s first UK album of the same name (the song was released as a single in both the U.S. and the UK in early 1963). Reliving that moment in my mind’s eye, I am unable to recollect, for the life of me, what exactly went through my head. Surprise, I suppose, or maybe shock. Quite feasibly, I might have been stunned beyond belief. A fleeting lapse of consciousness took hold, and of numbness — about as apt a description as any.

But saying I was oblivious to the event, as it was happening in front of me, isn’t quite accurate, either. All of us, including our teachers, had no idea what to expect. I don’t want to belabor the point and state the obvious; that is, to spew forth tiresome clichés about how the three boys had wowed the student audience (which they did — girls screaming, lots of yelling, vigorous cheers and applause).

I couldn’t begin to capture the exuberance if I tried, or the sense of excitement and discovery we collectively experienced concerning what we had heard. It must have been a magical moment, otherwise I would have wiped it from my memory. After it was over, there was chatter galore from the student audience as to who they liked the most. And, best of all, their names — Ronnie, Joseph and David — started circulating among the crowd. Within a day, the youngsters had turned into celebrities.

As I write this, I’m struggling to decipher what made these boys stand out from the other so-called talents. It might have been the simple fact that each of them bore a passing resemblance to the Fab Four. Yes, that must be it! As a matter of fact, dark-eyed Ronnie was a dead ringer for hazel-eyed Paul (tousled hair over his forehead and all); blue-eyed Joseph actually “looked” like bashful George (except for his short haircut); and hook-nosed David could easily have passed for a hook-nosed John (despite David’s dirty-blond locks).

A group portrait of the Beatles, straightening their ties, backstage at the Odeon Cinema in Luton on Sept. 6th, 1963. (L-R) Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon. (Photo: Tom Hanley/Redferns)

Was it my imagination? Had I subconsciously associated their physical aspects with my burgeoning affection for the Beatles and their tunes? I really couldn’t say. Well, then, how did they sound? Did the tone and timbre of their voices add or detract from the image I had inadvertently formed in my head?

Here’s the answer: Ronnie, Joseph and David excelled in three-part harmony, and, to tell you the truth, all three of them sang in tune. They did take the number a beat or two slower than the original, but considering the ad hoc nature of the circumstances they made “Please, Please Me” succeed in their favor. Like the title of that 1965 Beatles’ hit, they had worked it out.

But hold on a minute! Where was “Ringo”? I couldn’t help noticing that the trio needed a fourth member to complete the picture. If their idea was to mimic the Fab Four, the boys had come up short. I began to imagine that I could be the one to fill the drummer’s shoes (I don’t know WHY I thought that, since I couldn’t play the drum to save my life). All I remember was seeing myself joining the boys on stage and singing along with this terrific trio. By doing so, I could (hopefully) transform this motley crew into that fabulous foursome.

Fat chance of that happening! For one, I was much too shy at the time and much too self-conscious about getting up on a stage and warbling my amateurish way into a song — any song! “Please, Please Me,” my butt! For another, there was no way I would have had the chutzpah to do what those brave public-school lads had done. Kudos to them for trying, though. They had more courage than I could ever muster.

Beatlemania or Bust!

It was shortly after this occurrence that I sent away for a Beatles songbook. I must have torn apart that songbook every which way. Along with the lyrics and sheet music to all their hits (up to and including the year 1965, if I’m not mistaken), the songbook was filled to the brim with photos and mementos of the Mop Tops’ concerts — in other words, a Beatlemaniac’s dream! I even started wearing my hair long in a Beatle-like manner. Well, if you can’t join them, be them!

Between 1965 and 1967, my obsession with the Beatles peaked with the television debut of a syndicated cartoon series on ABC: The Beatles half-hour TV program solidified my love for their music, with each of the two individual segments devoted to one of the group’s songs. I owe my knowledge of their song lyrics to this Saturday morning showcase and to my trusty songbook. But my fandom did not end there.

There was one winter when I begged my mother to buy a purple Navy CPO jacket, just like the one the Beatles used to wear in their Sgt. Pepper period. It was a hideous thing, made of heavy wool with rows of brass buttons and shoulder epaulets. It was hot as hell, too. I wore it once to school and even tried dancing in it, sweating profusely with every arm movement (somehow, I survived the ordeal). Along with the CPO jacket came a matching 1960s long-sleeved blue shirt with super-wide collar and bright-yellow polka dots. Trashy and kitsch, it too was a one-shot deal. Both articles of clothing hung in my closet for years before mom convinced me to toss them out (oh, the pain).

So much for Mod fashions from Carnaby Street!

The Beatles Songbook – circa 1964-1965

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’

As these stories tend to go, a short time later Ronnie and Joseph found their way to one of my classes. Coincidentally, we all wound up going to the same junior high school (or middle school, as they’re called in some regions): to be precise, James M. Kieran Junior High School 123.

While at Kieran, I got to know both of them quite well. Ronald Naso lived a few blocks from the school, and we would often get together afterwards to play touch football. We’d chat about the latest James Bond flick and, of course, the Beatles. Instead of practicing how to conjugate the verb “to be” in French class, Ronnie and I would bounce song lyrics off one another, for instance, from John Lennon’s heartfelt “If I Fell in Love With You.”

Joseph Pavone and I went on to attend James Monroe High School (no longer in existence). Joe even went to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I, too, had graduated from. I never did get to know David Diaz, though, since he must have moved out from our old neighborhood some years before.

Needless to say, neither Joseph Pavone nor Ronald Naso (nor I, for that matter) developed into a performing artist of any renown. Years later, I ran into Ronnie at an outdoor basketball court. He had grown bigger, and had also filled out some. I did manage to keep in touch with Joe for a while after graduation from Fordham. Last I heard, he was working for the Metro North rail system. They both must be retired by now, David included.

The Beatles’ Brazilian influence continued, however. In 1969, pop singer Milton Nascimento, along with lyricist and friend Fernando Brant and the brothers Marcio and Lô Borges, wrote an offbeat number dedicated to John and Paul. They called it “Para Lennon e McCartney” (“To Lennon and McCartney”).

The song is in the form of a “challenge” to the British duo, sort of a question and answer session where Milton attempts to “educate” both Lennon and McCartney about what’s going on in the world (a few years before Marvin Gaye’s attempt). That he, Milton, is a native of South America, from the State of Minas Gerais. So why are they not familiar with the problems relating to the West? Why do they feign ignorance of Third World issues, their being from the First World? Their visibility as artists should place them in the unique position of addressing social injustice. Still, they have nothing to fear from him, Milton assures them, for he’s also one of their own.

The high literary quotient and elevated quality of the lyrics make “Para Lennon e McCartney” one of Milton, Brant and Borges’ most memorable song structures.

More recently, in January 2008 (and for several years thereafter) the Rio-based musical theater team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho brought to life a song-filled spectacular in honor of the Fab Four. They called their revue “Beatles in the Sky With Diamonds.” With a cast of 11 singing actors, accompanied by piano, cello and percussion, Charles and Claudio led audiences through a magical mystery tour of the group’s output, to include “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Help!”, “Get Back,” “Because,” and various other novelties.

Ronnie Von today, at age 75, still singing and performing

Which brings me back to present-day matters. Whatever became of the so-called “Brazilian Beatle,” Ronnie Von? He’s still alive and kicking! Currently at age 75, Ronnie Von had been a fixture at São Paulo-based TV Gazeta since 2004 as a singer-host and presenter. Unfortunately, Ronnie was fired last July 2019 by the station due to budget cuts and alleged low ratings, but vowed to come back to live television. Supposedly, within hours of the announcement of his firing, Von received a proposal for a new show to debut in 2020.

In the wise words of the Lads from Liverpool:

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     Any time at all

     All you gotta do is call

     And I’ll be there!

Beatlemania dies slowly.

Copyright © 2020 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

Mixing the Old with the New (and More): The Met Opera’s 2019-2020 Radio Broadcast Season

Embattled former Met Opera artist-conductor, and ex-general director of the Los Angeles Opera, Placido Domingo

I look forward with anticipation to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD and Radio Program Guide. It can be found online, if you’re interested (here’s the link: https://www.metopera.org/season/radio/saturday-matinee-broadcasts/). I, for one, prefer to wait with bated breath for the physical delivery of this little gem of a booklet.

What I found in it both pleased and irritated me. There were photos of favorite works (for example, Massenet’s Manon and Verdi’s Macbeth), famous and not-so famous artists (Anna Netrebko, Joyce DiDonato, Sir Bryn Terfel, Peter Mattei, Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Ailyn Pérez, and others), and lavish displays of such productions as Franco Zeffirelli’s Turandot and Sir Richard Eyre’s Così fan tutte.

My favorite parts of the guide are the descriptions of each production and the juicy tidbits of background information allotted to each opera. We’ll be getting to the particulars in a moment.

But there was one name, among so many, that stood out from all the rest: that of Plácido Domingo. Apparently, the booklet’s publishers had failed to expunge his moniker from the Met roster in time for the post office to mail off the guide.

From Fame to Shame

Another fall opening, another fall. Yes, readers, it’s been almost two years since former Met maestro and musical director James Levine was removed from his post due to accusations of sexual harassment of men that allegedly took place some twenty to thirty years prior. It was soon after the first broadcast work, Verdi’s Requiem, on December 10, 2017, that news of Levine’s behavior, which had been rumored for some time, finally broke in the print and online media (see the link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/quid-sum-miser-verdis-requiem-and-the-end-of-a-met-opera-career/).

The fact that maestro Levine’s longtime colleague and fellow performer, Señor Domingo, had himself been implicated in demanding sexual favors from a bevy of women, all to further their careers (he claimed they were consensual) and to curry favor with respective opera houses (along with appeasing his own carnal desires), was another of those firmly-held “beliefs” that, for better or worse, had been bandied about for longer than anyone can remember.

Domingo’s decline, like that of his predecessor Mr. Levine, makes for fascinating if somewhat lurid reading. As of this writing, neither artist has yet to have his day in court. However, because of the delicate nature of the issues involved, the facts are that Levine had to step down from his position. Domingo, too, was forced to cancel his appearances at the Met (as Macbeth in Verdi’s opera, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), as well as resign the general directorship of the Los Angeles Opera. In addition, he withdrew from all future performances with Los Angeles and other institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera.

This pretty much puts an end to Domingo’s fifty-year career in the U.S. It has also cast a pall over the upcoming season (as it did two seasons ago), which the company intends to dispel at all costs. The tenor-turned-baritone and opera conductor-director will continue to appear in Europe at select venues. While there, Domingo may expect to be hammered by journalists and dogged by accusations from nine women who claim that for nearly three decades he harassed them with “unwanted kisses, groping and sexual advances.”

It’s incredible how a person’s professional life involving opera and the performing arts can turn into an opera all its own. Not a comic opera, mind you, but an exceedingly tragic one. Let the courts decide Plácido’s fate.

The End of All Things

One another sad note, we pay respects to the memories of two fallen Met artists: American diva Jessye Norman at age 74, and Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani at 56.

Soprano, mezzo, contralto. Those terms were interchangeable in the mouth of a true force of nature, the formidable Jessye Mae Norman. At six foot one inch tall, Norman towered over most singers, but not only in height. Norman’s artistry was such that listeners would be hard pressed to place her country of origin. She was an all-American girl, born in Augusta, Georgia, of African American parentage. But you would never know it from her cultivated speaking voice. In fact, most radio listeners would swear she spoke the Queen’s English or, at the very least, favored Western European diction.

With regard to her chosen profession, Norman refused to be pigeon-holed in opera. Her vast repertoire, both on the stage and in the concert hall, was wide and eclectic. She spoke German like a native, and her French was more Gallic than those of many Parisians. She was grandly eloquent in Wagner, and absolutely magisterial in Berlioz. Verdi or Puccini were never her forte, but she could whip up a head of steam over Strauss. Her classic recording of that composer’s Salome revealed the playful teenager in her.

A true artist and an incredibly devoted professional, Norman had the fiery temperament of one who believed whole-heartedly in her talent. Although she could be cutting in her comments to others, or as gentle as a lamb, there was no doubt she was divinely inspired. And who could resist her open-throated assumption of Strauss’s Ariadne, the perfect part for this most perfect of prima donnas? She will be sorely missed.

The late opera diva Jessye Norman (1945-2019)

Marcello Giordani had a most infectious tenor sound. It was a powerful, thrilling instrument, absolutely electric in performance, and instantly recognizable. To reach that elevated status in so short a time is remarkable enough. That Giordani achieved it almost from the start is a testament to his innate ability to be recognized as a singer of worth.

Achieving renown in both his native land and in America during the 1980s, Giordani managed to capture the attention of the New York press with his assumption of such standard parts as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore and Rodolfo in La Bohème, which occurred in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Now, here was a worthy challenger to Luciano Pavarotti’s mantle.

After overcoming vocal difficulties in the mid- to late ‘90s, Giordani began to flourish and shine in some highly unusual repertoire — unusual for the Met Opera, that is. His performances in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in 2003 (a Met first), and earlier in Bellini’s Il Pirata (another company first) in 2002, brought needed attention to these operatic rarities.

Marcello also appeared in standard repertoire (Prince Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, Pinkerton in Butterfly, and in Verdi’s Ernani), but his excursions into the French variety were met with less favorable notices, i.e., his short-lived Aeneas in Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens. He abandoned the part soon after.

The late Met Opera tenor Marcello Giordani (1963-2019)

One wonders how many artists at the top of their game would have had the courage and wherewithal to know when they had pushed their voices beyond their natural limitations. Giordani knew. He earned our respect by doing the unthinkable: he canceled his subsequent Met Opera appearances, thus paving the way for another young talent, the New Orleans-born Brian Hymel, to triumph in the role. That’s humility for you! Grace under pressure. Giordani was that type of artist.

I have criticized Signor Giordani’s performances in the past — sometimes harshly, sometimes mercilessly. The only reason I did so was because I wanted to hear Marcello at his absolute best. I knew what he was capable of and urged him to husband his resources for better things. I’m hopeful he took my words to heart.

Marcello’s 2008 performances as Faust in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, in addition to Susan Graham’s lovely Marguerite and John Relyea’s dapper Méphistophélès, proved, without a doubt, what an unqualified tour de force the staged version of this “dramatic legend” became in their hands.

On October 5, 2019, Giordani’s golden throat was silenced. He died of a heart attack at his home in Augusta, Sicily. We wish his family our most heartfelt condolences.

What’s in Store for Radio Listeners

Onward and upward to bigger and better things. The broadcast season kicks off on December 7, 2019, with the Met premiere of minimalist composer Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, the last in a trilogy of works that began in 1975 with his and director Robert Wilson’s elaborately staged Einstein on the Beach, followed in 1980 by Satyagraha based on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This final portion, Akhnaten, about the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV and his founding of a monotheistic Sun-worship religion, premiered in 1984.

It will be performed at the Met by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, mezzo J’Nai Bridges as Nefertiti, soprano Dísella Lárusdóttir as Queen Tye, tenor Aaron Blake as the High Priest of Amon, baritone Will Liverman as Horemhab, bass Richard Bernstein as Aye, and actor Zachary Jones as Amenhotep III. The production is by Phelim McDermott, with sets and projection designs by Tom Pye, costume designs by Kevin Pollard, lighting by Bruno Poet, and choreography by Sean Gandini. The Met Orchestra will be led by Karen Kamensek, one of the few female conductors around, who made her English National Opera debut in 2014 leading this same work.

Philip Glass’ ‘Akhnaten’ comes to the Met Opera (any resemblance to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is purely coincidental)

On December 14, we’ll be hearing Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame in French, or Pikavaya Dama in the original Russian), in Elijah Moshinsky’s acclaimed production. Met debutante, Norwegian-born soprano Lise Davidsen, sings the tortured Lisa, in love with the fiery gambler Gherman, voiced by Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazov (replacing the previously announced Aleksandrs Antonenko). Eyvazov is married to Russian diva Anna Netrebko, who will be appearing this season as Lady Macbeth and Tosca.

Others in the cast include Russian mezzo Elena Maximova as Pauline, mezzo Larissa Diadkova as the old Countess (the lady with the secret of the cards), baritone Alexey Markov as Count Tomsky, and baritone Igor Golovatenko as Prince Yeletsky (who asks for Lisa’s hand in marriage). The opera will be conducted by Vasily Petrenko, completing this practically all-native-speaking cast.

And speaking of Macbeth (watch your mouth!), Verdi’s initial attempt at translating Shakespeare to the operatic stage will be broadcast on December 21st in Adrian Noble’s production. Sets and costumes are by Mark Thompson, lighting designs by Jean Kalman, and choreography by Sue Lefton. Replacing Mr. Domingo in the titular name part will be Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who will share his nightmare visions with Anna Netrebko’s Lady M. American tenor Matthew Polenzani is Macbeth’s chief antagonist, Macduff, along with Russian basso Ildar Abdrazakov as Banquo. The orchestra and chorus will be led by Marco Armiliato, whose brother Fabio happens to be a spinto tenor.

Mozart’s delightful The Magic Flute is the next radio offering on December 28. It will be performed, in English, in the famed Julie Taymor/George Tsypin production. Taymor also designed the costumes and puppets (along with Michael Curry). Lighting will be provided by Donald Holder and choreography by Mark Dendy. The colloquial translation is by noted author J.D. McClatchy.

Heading the large cast is soprano Ying Fang as Princess Pamina, tenor David Portillo as Prince Tamino, coloratura soprano Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, baritone Joshua Hopkins as the clownish bird catcher Papageno, tenor Rodell Rosel as the evil slave Monostatos, baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Speaker, and bass Solomon Howard (who I personally saw in two North Carolina Opera productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Wagner’s Das Rheingold) as the High Priest Sarastro. Lothar Koenigs will preside at the podium.

Season’s Greetings!

The Met rings in the New Year in style with Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, to be broadcast on January 4, 2020. The opera will be heard in last year’s new production, directed by avant-garde Canadian Robert Carsen. The set designer is Paul Steinberg, with costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, and choreography by Philippe Giraudeau. Sir Simon Rattle will bring his expertise in leading the phenomenal Met Orchestra and Chorus in this most popular piece.

Such a noteworthy production demands singers of the highest caliber. So to that, we tip our hat to stylish Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund as the Marschallin, Moravian mezzo Magdalena Kožená as Octavian, South African soprano Golda Schultz as Sophie, German bass Günther Groissböck as the obnoxious Baron Ochs, tenor Thomas Ebenstein as the scheming Valzacchi, mezzo Katharine Goeldner as his accomplice Anina, baritone Markus Eiche as Herr Von Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer. Will Matthew hit that Act I high note before Orchs cuts him off? Tune in and find out!

Robert Carsen’s staging of Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

The next offering is Berg’s expressionist psychodrama Wozzeck on January 11. With a cast headed by Swedish baritone Peter Mazzei as the oppressed Wozzeck, soprano Elza van den Heever as his live-in lover Marie, mezzo Tamara Mumford as Margret, British tenor Christopher Ventris as the vicious Drum Major, German tenor Gerhard Siegel as the Captain, tenor Andrew Staples as Wozzeck’s comrade-in-arms Andres, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn (in a role more congenial to his talents than that of Boito’s Mefistofele) as the Doctor, sparks are sure to fly!

This is another new production, brought to you by famed visual artist William Kentridge (responsible for the 2010 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, which starred Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot). Wozzeck will be co-directed by Luc De Wit, with projection designs by Catherine Meyburgh, set designs by Sabine Theunissen, costume designs by Greta Goiris, and lighting by Urs Schonebaum. The Met’s current music director, Canadian Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will lord it over the orchestra in this highly charged presentation.

Along traditional lines, Verdi’s La Traviata will be the next featured work to be broadcast (January 18). The production is credited to Broadway producer-director Michael Mayer, who did that Las Vegas-style Rigoletto a few years back. The cast includes Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak (aka Mrs. Roberto Alagna) as “the wayward one” Violetta, Ukrainian tenor Dmytro Popov as her lover Alfredo Germont, and Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey as his father Giorgio Germont. Gibraltar native, maestro Karel Mark Chichon (married to Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča), will conduct. You can feast your eyes (or ears, in this case) on the production’s opulent sets (by Christine Jones) and costumes (by Susan Hilferty). The lighting designs are the work of Kevin Adams, with dance sequences by choreographer Lorin Latarro.

Another popular item, Puccini’s La Bohème in the lavish Franco Zeffirelli production, will take center stage on January 25, but only in a recorded broadcast from Fall 2019. Featured in the predominantly youngish cast (and why not — this IS a story about young people, isn’t it?) are Chicago native, soprano Ailyn Pérez (of Mexican descent), as the tubercular Mimì, the peripatetic Matthew Polenzani as the poet Rodolfo, Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska as the fiery Musetta, Serbian baritone David Bižić as the painter Marcello, Moldovian baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky as the musician Schaunard, South Korean basso Jongmin Park as the philosopher Colline, and American bass Arthur Woodley in the dual roles of the landlord Benoit and the cuckolded Alcindoro.

The late Mr. Zeffirelli, an extremely refined and intellectually stimulated individual in his prime, had a boundless thirst for knowledge, music, and the arts. His familiarity with the classics of cinema and theater and his in-depth study of a work’s time period led to many an authentically based production. He dabbled in film and became a successful movie and television producer-director in his own right. Zeffirelli was responsible for two fine Shakespearean screen adaptations, The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Romeo and Juliet (1968) with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. A third adaptation, Hamlet (1990) with Mad Max action star Mel Gibson in the lead, proved to be less durable.

We now come to what I feel is the Met Opera’s pièce de résistance: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in a new production by James Robinson, with set designs by Michael Yeargan (a known quantity at the Met for many a season), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (also well known), lighting designs by Donald Holder, projections by Luke Halls, and choreography/dance numbers by Camille A. Brown. This is a co-production that first appeared at the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, and later at English National Opera in October 2018.

The Met Opera’s new production of The Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ (Photo: Met Opera)

Boasting of a Wagnerian weight as well as length — and not just because of its music and choruses, but of individual performers and astounding production values — the opera Porgy and Bess (make no bones about it, this is an opera) is, first and last, an almost impossible work to pull off.

That it came from the pen of George Gershwin, one of Tin Pan Alley’s most beloved composers of popular songs and Broadway standards, and his lyricist brother Ira continues to astonish and delight. The wealth of melody, the depth of characterizations, and the understanding and love both Gershwin and original authors DuBose Heyward and his wife Dorothy brought to this endeavor take one’s breath away. I fondly remember the 2012 Broadway revival, with a cast starring Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Allen Grier as Sportin’ Life, and Philip Boykin as Crown. It bowled me over!

Following in the footsteps of Leontyne Price, Leona Mitchell, Grace Bumbry, and Clamma Dale will be soprano Angel Blue as Bess. Her Porgy will be sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens (he of the clenched teeth). Owens has his work cut out for him — and some fairly big shoes to fill, what with memories of William Warfield, Robert McFerrin, Simon Estes, and Willard White still lingering in the air. The other cast members (in a VERY large cast) include Golda Schultz as Clara, Latonia Moore as Serena, Denyce Graves as Maria, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Alfred Walker (a fine Wotan and Titurel) as Crown, and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson will conduct the orchestra in what many musicologists refer to as the American Die Meistersinger.

It Always Sounds Better in French

Scene from Berlioz’s ‘La Damnation de Faust’ (Photo: Met Opera)

I am mildly disappointed that the February 8 broadcast of La Damnation de Faust will be given only in concert format. Although this is how Berlioz originally conceived for his work to be performed, the original 2008 production was a worthy attempt at a modern, technologically advanced concept.

It’s that once-in-a-lifetime digital showpiece, made up of a five-level metal scaffold divided into 24-screen cubicles (shades of that ridiculous Machine for the Met’s bungled Ring cycle). Director Robert Lepage’s MTV-style production values (with projection designs by Nelson Vignola and “Goethe-era” costumes by Karin Erskine) actually works. The online Met Opera guide states the reason for the concert performance as due to “unanticipated technical demands of reviving the Met’s staged production, which proved to be impossible to accommodate within the company’s production schedule.” Oh, well, our loss.

There’s a halfway decent cast, however, ready to do justice to this stirring piece. Mezzo Elīna Garanča has been tapped to sing the role of Marguerite, with high-flying tenor Michael Sypres as Doctor Faust and bass Ildar Abrdrazakov as the sinister Mephisto. Edward Gardner will lead the Met Opera forces from the pit and from the stage. This concert reading should prove interesting.

Jules Massenet’s Manon, based on the same Abbé Prévost source novel as Puccini’s strictly Italianate slant on the story, will be heard on February 15 in another of those prerecorded performances (this one from October 26, 2019). A Laurent Pelly production (he staged the same composer’s Cendrillon, which takes a typically Gallic angle to the Cinderella fairy tale), the sets were designed by Chantal Thomas, costumes by Monsieur Pelly, lighting by Joël Adam, choreography by Lionel Hoche, and associate direction by Christian Räth. Maestro Maurizio Benini will direct from the podium for this one.

A young (perhaps a shade too young) and talented cast will be headed by soprano Lisette Oropesa as Manon, tenor Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux, Italian tenor Carlo Bosi as the old roué Guillot de Morfontaine, Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as Manon’s cousin Lescaut, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as De Bretigny, and Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as the Comte des Grieux. Both the Massenet and Puccini versions are episodic in nature. It would be most instructive for listeners to compare their efforts to an earlier one, composed in 1854, by Daniel François Esprit Auber of Fra Diavolo fame (are you listening, Met Opera management?).

Lisette Oropesa (in the purple dress) in Massenet’s ‘Manon’ (Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera)

No repertory house worthy of the name could ever neglect the next radio entry: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro, in the broadcast of February 22. Based on the second of three plays by the Marquis de Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro (its English title) was the first to be written and staged for the opera. The first play, Le Barbier de Séville, or The Barber of Seville, was set to music by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and subsequently by Gioachino Rossini in 1816.

The third play in the trilogy, La Mère Couple (The Guilty Mother), has a more checkered history. A version by Darius Milhaud premiered in France in 1966. However, American composer John Corigliano, with librettist William Hoffman, were commissioned by the Met to create The Ghosts of Versailles in English. This elaborate two-act piece had its world and Met premiere in 1991. It was partially based in part on The Guilty Mother. Topping that, there even exists a later version of The Marriage of Figaro or The Crazy Day, composed between 1799 and 1800, by the Portuguese musician Marcos Portugal.

To this heady mixture, we add the radio cast: Romanian soprano Anita Hartig sings the Countess, German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is Susanna, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa is Cherubino, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick is Marcellina, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień is the Count Almaviva, Czech-born bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is Figaro, and Italian basso buffo Maurizio Muraro is Dr. Bartolo. Cornelius Meister leads the orchestra and chorus.

Leaping Lizards, It’s Leap Year!

George Friedrich Handel’s Agrippina is the next item up on February 29, in a production originally created by the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels and adapted by the Metropolitan Opera. Another Met premiere, it will be headed by mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role, joined by soprano Brenda Rae as Poppea, mezzo Kate Lindsey as Nerone, English countertenor Iestyn Davies as Ottone, baritone Duncan Rock as Pallante, and British bass Matthew Rose as Claudio. Another Brit, conductor Harry Bicket, will conduct. The production is credited to Sir David McVicar, with sets and costumes designed by John Macfarlane, lighting by Paule Constable, and choreography by Andrew George.

The last of the three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, Così fan tutte (“So Do They All”), will be heard on March 7. Harry Bicket leads a cast that includes Australian soprano Nicole Car as Fiordiligi, Italian mezzo Serena Malfi as Dorabella, soprano Heidi Stober as Despina, Kansas-native tenor Ben Bliss as Ferrando, the Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Guglielmo, and Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley as Don Alfonso. The opera will be given in Phelim McDermott’s colorful, Coney Island-inspired production, with sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Laura Hopkins, and lighting by Paule Constable.

Phelim McDermott’s production of Mozart’s ‘ Cosi fan tutte’ (Photo: Met Opera)

A welcome and much needed new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (or The Flying Dutchman) will set sail on March 14. Starring robust Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as the titular brooding Dutchman, this will be another of French director François Girard’s insightful efforts (his brilliantly realized Parsifal from a few years back is considered a milestone in the annals of Met productions). John Macfarlane is once again tapped as set designer, with costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by David Finn, choreography by Carolyn Choa, aided by dramaturg Serge Lamothe.

The supporting cast includes German-Italian soprano Anja Kampe as Senta, Japanese mezzo Mihoko Fujimura as Mary, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik, American-born tenor David Portillo as the Steersman, and German bass Franz-Josef Selig as Daland, Senta’s father. The electric Valery Gergiev will attempt to batten down the Met Opera Orchestra’s hatches for this run.

We move from tragedy to comedy with Rossini’s take on the Cinderella tale, La Cenerentola, which should curry favor with radio listeners on March 21. It will be heard in the Cesare Lievi production that boasts storybook sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò, lighting by Gigi Saccomandi, and choreography by Daniela Schiavone. We’re expecting some dazzling coloratura displays from a cast that spotlights Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Angelina (the Cenerentola of the title), Mexican bel canto specialist Javier Camarena as Prince Ramiro, baritone Davide Luciano as Dandini, bass Maurizio Muraro as Don Magnifico, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Alidoro. The conductor will be James Gaffigan.

It’s so rare to have two Massenet works in the same season. So we’re heartened that Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Werther, based on Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, will take to the airwaves on March 28. The sets and costumes are by Rob Howell, with lighting by Peter Mumford, production design by Wendall K. Harrington, and choreography by Sara Ende.

Two of the company’s biggest box office attractions will be featured: Polish tenor Piotr Beczala takes on the part of melancholy poet Werther, while mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, in a change of pace from her usual comedic assignments, portrays his lady love, Charlotte. As her husband Albert, we’ll hear French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, and as the Bailiff, British baritone Alan Opie. Fellow Canadian, maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, will be in the pit for this not-to-be-missed event.

In a similar tragic vein, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice will be presented on April 4 in another recorded performance, this one from Fall 2019. Mark Wigglesworth will lead the Met Opera forces in director Mark Morris’ modern-esque adaptation of the centuries-old tale of the Greek minstrel Orpheus. Mezzo Jamie Barton will take over for Stephanie Blythe (the original creator of this part) as Orfeu, with Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong as Euridice, and South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park as Amore. Allen Moyer designed the sets, noted fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi supplied the costumes, James F. Ingalls the lighting, and Mark Morris will once again provide the choreography.

Production of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ (Photo: Met Opera)

More tragedy to come in our next outing. Puccini’s perennial shocker, Tosca, steps up to the broadcast plate on April 11 in still another of Sir David McVicar’s many Met productions. This one has replaced the critically reviled Luc Bondy version. It will star Russian diva Anna Netrebko as the (ahem) parapet leaping Floria Tosca, tenor Brian Jagde as her lover Mario Cavaradossi, German baritone Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia, and baritone Patrick Carfizzi as the Sacristan. French maestro Bertrand de Billy will preside. The sets and costumes were created by the ubiquitous John Macfarlane, lighting by David Finn, and movement director is Leah Hausman.

Verdi gets short shrift this season, with only three of the master’s works on the agenda. Nevertheless, we look forward to the April 18 broadcast of Simon Boccanegra, one of Verdi’s more somber efforts. Headlining the cast is infrequently heard Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez as the Doge Simon, soprano Ailyn Perez as his long-lost daughter Amelia, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as Gabriele Adorno, Russian bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Fiesco, and Azerbaijani baritone Elchin Azizov as the conspirator Paolo. Carlo Rizzi will take hold of the baton in this Giancarlo del Monaco production. Sets and costumes are credited to Michael Scott, with lighting by Wayne Chouinard.

The last gasp of Italian grand opera, Puccini’s fabulous Turandot, takes over the microphones on April 25. Franco Zeffirelli’s tribute to faux chinoiserie will feature Swedish prima donna Nina Stemme as the Icy Princess Turandot, Italian tenor Marco Berti will belt his high notes to the rafters as the Unknown Prince Calàf, Abkhazian-Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava will plead her case as the slave girl Liu, and bass James Morris will lead the final procession as the deposed King Timur. Maestro Carlo Rizzi will be back in the pit. Zeffirelli provided the set designs, with costume designs by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and choreography by Chiang Ching. This is probably the Met’s most extravagant display of sheer gaudy production values.

A rare jewel among jewels is our next-to-last broadcast: Leoš Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, sung in the original Czech language. It will be heard on May 2 in director Sir Jonathan Miller’s production, with sets and costumes provided by Robert Israel, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. Lothar Koenigs returns to lead the company in what promises to be a special afternoon of robust singing and emoting. The first-rate cast stars soprano Susanna Phillips in the strenuous title role, with Daniela Mack as Varvara, the great Dolora Zajick as the imperious Kabanicha (Mother-in-Law), Pavel Černoch as Boris, tenor Štefan Margita (heard a few seasons back as a vocally lithe Loge in Das Rheingold) as Tichon, tenor Paul Appleby as Vaňja Kudrjaš, and British bass Sir John Tomlinson (an excellent Wotan and Wanderer in his day) as Dikoj.

Janáček’s music has the jarring abrasiveness of a Prokofiev, the disturbing dissonances of a Shostakovich, along with both their penetrating sonorities — especially in the brass (listen to his remarkable Sinfonietta for a sampling of his accomplishments). I’m still waiting for the Met’s management to put on one of the composer’s most attractive and, in this day and age of concern for our environment and the natural world, most timely works, the opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

Last but least, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda wraps up the season on May 9. Part of the Tudor Trilogy devoted to British royalty (along with Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux), Maria Stuarda will feature German diva Diana Damrau in the title role, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Queen Elizabeth, tenor Stephen Costello as Leicester, Polish baritone Andrzej Filończyk as Cecil, and Italian basso Michele Pertusi as Talbot. Maurizio Benini will conclude his workaholic tenure with this piece. Sir David McVicar is again credited with this production, along with John Macfarlane providing the sets and costumes, Jennifer Tipton in charge of the lighting, and Leah Hausman leading the dancers through their paces.

In all, a diverse and stimulating season, with much that is old and much that is new. It remains to be seen if its promise will be fulfilled.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Six) — British Period Two-Point-O

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ (2003)

Batten Down the Hatches, Boys!

When last we left the eclectic Mr. Depp, he was caught up in cocaine smuggling in the 2001 movie Blow. Sent to Otisville Federal Correctional Institute for a goodly number of years, his character — a potbellied, older-but-wiser George Jung — experiences a vision of his grown up, high-cheek-boned daughter Kristina Sunshine (Jaime King) paying a visit to him in prison.

As the pair hug each other tight, George has a flashback in which police carry his little girl (Emma Roberts) from their home after he’s been busted for possession of illegal drugs. In another, his estranged spouse Mirtha (Penélope Cruz) sits down to speak with George via the prison’s phone system. But she purposely drops the phone’s receiver on him, as does Kristina Sunshine when it’s her turn to talk to daddy.

In the concluding episode, George walks hand-in-hand with Kristina, who fades away to nothingness as the prison guard tells him it’s time to pack it in. Turns out she was nothing but a dream. And the moral of the story? “Ain’t no ‘Sunshine’ when she’s gone” (my apologies to Bill Withers), with or without the darkness.

Close family relationships have been at the center of Depp’s cinematic output from the start. The most prominent of which (Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, and The Brave) have emphasized the ties that bind an individual to one’s brood. However difficult it may be to break those ties, the family unit stays intact. It remains the focal point in such crime-based dramas as Donnie Brasco and Nick of Time — even Sleepy Hollow — or the pseudo-sci-fi incongruities of The Astronaut’s Wife.

Family, of an entirely different sort, would take over the main section of Johnny’s next projects. As a matter of fact, the very term “family” and what it meant to be a contributing member of one underwent a drastic re-modification.

Perhaps reflecting the changing attitudes of American society as a whole and the notion of what comprises the so-called “modern family unit,” Depp’s personal relationships with his own children, and to children in general, had a profound influence on how he would approach such box-office bonanzas as Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But before he reached that critically-acclaimed stage, Depp agreed to don dreadlocks and braids, to cap his teeth with fake gold trimming, and to assume the bawdy carriage and boozy aspect of a stoned-out rock ‘n’ roller, in what would become his most lucrative film venture yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is shipwrecked on a deserted Caribbean islet with Elizabeth (Keira Knightley)

The first picture in the (gulp) “ongoing” series, the nautically predisposed Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, set the unwavering course, so to speak, for Hollywood’s obsession with franchises. It was followed three years later by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) — the best of the bunch — and the subsequent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007).

As far as we can measure, this money-generating mania (what in motion-picture parlance is referred to as a “cash cow”) began, more or less, with the runaway successes of the Wakowski siblings’ cyberpunk series The Matrix (starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishbourne) and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, trailed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man action epics (with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst), as well as the earlier The Fast and the Furious (the team of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Michelle Rodriguez).

What made the faux saltiness of the Pirates of the Caribbean brand of adventure stories — an essential chapter in Johnny’s British-period outings — so entertaining to both critics and public alike? That’s hard to say.

It had been some time since a pirate picture would translate into profits for penny-pinching movie studios. Their heyday had come and gone in the late 1940s and ‘50s (the best example being Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate), with a fitful smattering of efforts thereafter that dotted the cinematic seascape, to include such titles as Swashbuckler (1976), The Pirate Movie (1982), The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986), Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island (1995), Brian Henson’s Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and Disney’s animated Treasure Planet (2002).

After having taken a bath at the box office with the gimmicky Treasure Planet, a half-hearted science-fiction take at a swashbuckler resurgence, industry mavens expressed alarm that the Disney Studios, in conjunction with megabuck producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Armageddon, Remember the Titans, Pearl Harbor), would revisit the time-worn story line — in this instance, basing a script (by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) on Disney’s eponymously titled theme-park ride. Tackling another such high-sea saga was a risky venture in their view (with or without an eye patch). Ah, but money speaks louder than words.

Action sequences galore (under the purposeful direction of Gore Verbinski), lush location shooting on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean (where else?), along with a full-blown symphonic film score by Hans Zimmer (with borrowings from his previous hit, Gladiator), and a plethora of mindboggling stunts and special FX, dominated this initial entry.

Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, l.) on deck with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, r.)

And the plot? I knew you’d ask me that question! Let’s say the story is so hopelessly complicated, so overblown, and so lumbering and elephantine that it took two subsequent sequels to untangle and resolve — and not to everyone’s gratification.

The principal “character” (and we use that term loosely) is that of Captain Jack Sparrow, a slightly effete, slightly tipsy, and incessantly scheming buccaneer with a penchant for pretentious dialogue and dark eyeliner. He also has a one-track-minded obsession with women and rum. Despite his unsavory nature, Sparrow is a delightfully daffy personification: quick-witted and beguiling, he can outsmart, out-think and out-maneuver any number of His Majesty’s Royal Guardsmen, not to mention the entire British Fleet. What Sparrow has going for him is his ability not to be taken seriously.

As the roguish Jack, Depp drew upon his earlier enactment of Hunter S. Thompson, the whacky gonzo journalist-turned-writer we first encountered in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To that performance, he added the slurred speech patterns of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who makes a cameo appearance as Sparrow’s papa, the Keeper of the Pirate Codex, in 2007’s At World’s End.

Johnny’s part, as originally conceived, was in the upstanding “action hero” mold. Always looking to bring a sense of novelty to whatever he did, Depp decided to embellish the character with his own tongue-in-cheek twist. Michael Eisner, who headed Disney at the time, took one look at the rushes and was not amused. “He’s ruining the film!” Eisner was quoted as saying. Johnny was unperturbed by the comment. His response was reported to be: “You either trust me or give me the boot” (pun intended). Eisner decided that too much had been invested in the production to make any changes at that point.

As one producer once came to a similar conclusion concerning the late actor-producer-financier Robert Evans’ own modest beginnings in movieland: “The kid stays in the picture.”

Instead of walking the plank, Depp took his character’s license to offend by the horns and allowed himself a bit of leeway: He turned the fey Captain Sparrow into a one-man side-show. The main event, then, took shape in the evolving (and evermore contrived) relationships between Elizabeth Swan, Will Turner, and James Norrington, with Jack occupying the inner-and-outer fringes of comic relief. He would later take up this same methodology for his original, deadpan take as Tonto in Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

The large supporting cast highlighted the diversity inherent in practically all of Depp’s features, with the Pirates series being no exception. Among the talents deployed were those of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as the ghostly Captain Barbosa, Keira Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham) as the highborn Elizabeth Swann, Orlando Bloom (Legolas in The Lord of the Rings) as love-smitten swordsmith Will Turner, Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as the snooty Lt. Norrington, Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as Governor Swann, Kevin R. McNally as Mr. Gibbs, Lee Arenberg as the bald-pated Pintel, Mackenzie Crook as loose-eyed Ragetti, and Zoë Saldana (Uhura in the Star Trek reboots) as female pirate Anamaria.

Now, about that winding plot … It has something to do with Captain Jack’s attempts to take possession of his ship, The Black Pearl, from some mutinous rival privateers. Oh, and there’s also a mighty curse that needs to be broken. And a spectral crew to overcome. And a mind-of-its-own compass. And 882 pieces of eight, mate.

As I said: It’s complicated. And I’ll be damned if it’s not entertaining to boot (pun VERY intended!).

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

Depp up to the bar in ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’

From a side-show attraction, Johnny fixed his ever-watchful gaze on a violent, nausea-inducing contemporary sagebrush saga by Tex-Mex writer, director, producer, cinematographer, musician, and editor Robert Rodriguez.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico, an obvious ode to Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s grandiloquent spaghetti Westerns, in particular The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), was part of a trilogy of films by the enterprising Mr. Rodriguez that began with the low-budget, self-made El Mariachi (1993) and the ensuing slicker but no less ferocious outlaw epic Desperado (1995), the former starring Carlos Gallardo as the titular gun-toting musician and the latter with Antonio Banderas in the name part.

Banderas returned to the role in this outlandish sequel (Desperado was distributed, in fact, by Columbia Pictures, as was Rodriguez’s earlier creation). In Once Upon a Time in Mexico, El Mariachi is charged by CIA Agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands (played with typical self-reliance by Depp) with the killing of one of those corrupt Mexican generals one hears so much about. The general is played by Willem Dafoe. There’s also a revenge-themed angle to this setup that, for all intents and purposes, outdoes anything that came before.

Johnny Depp as CIA Agent Sands

Perhaps that’s the reason why the series faltered after Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Once upon a time in Depp’s movie career, he might just as easily have played the lead protagonist as he had the minor CIA sidekick. He could certainly fake a Mexican accent better than many native speakers could pronounce their own surnames (see his Don Juan DeMarco if you have any doubts). Still, Johnny’s fidgety nature preferred to let others have their moment in the hot desert sun, which is all to the good.

Our favorite sequences in this long, drawn-out shoot-em-up (which also stars Salma Hayek, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Rubén Blades, and Enrique Iglesias) happen to be: 1) Depp’s “conversation” in a fancy Mexican bar/restaurant with ex-standup comic Cheech Marin as Belini, which ends rather badly for poor old Cheech and the waitress serving them both; and 2) the CIA agent’s violent shootout with hitmen that is so blatantly outrageous and so ridiculously over-the-top that one is forced to laugh the whole sequence off. It’s almost too cartoony to take seriously.

The Secret Window (2004)

Depp as Mort Rainey, with John Turturro as Shooter, in ‘The Secret Window’

Johnny’s subsequent brush with the “law,” The Secret Window from 2004, was a dreary, offbeat affair. Based on a Stephen King novella, Secret Window, Secret Garden, it reminded one of a poor man’s Edgar Allan Poe psychological horror fantasy (“The Telltale Heart” would be what we had in mind), with some semi-biographical elements thrown in.

The basic premise involves an author, Mort Rainey (a stand-in for King, which is where the semi-biographical aspects come into play), trying to overcome his writer’s block by shacking up, all by his lonesome self, inside a log cabin in the woods (the movie was shot in parts of Quebec, Canada). Mort spends most of his time dressed in a bathrobe and lying around the couch while attempting to snap out of the doldrums.

One day, he’s visited by one of those tall and sullen strangers that seem to inhabit such woodland fright fests as these. The stranger’s name is John Shooter (a grim-faced John Turturro). He wears a big black hat (could he be the bad guy?), and he’s pissed off something fierce. Shooter accuses Mort of plagiarizing his murder-mystery novel. “You stole my story,” he declares, in a slow, portentous drawl meant to make Mort and the audiences’ skin crawl. That starts the plot a-rolling.

From there, we learn a little more about Mort as a person: that he really did “steal someone else’s story” a while back and published it as his own; that he wrote and published his own story two years before Shooter’s tale; that after confronting Shooter, the next night Mort’s dog is stabbed to death with a screwdriver. Yikes! Looks like this guy Shooter is (cough, cough) deadly serious about that plagiarism claim.

What’s an author with writer’s block to do? In Mort’s case, he reports the slaughter of his pet pooch to the local sheriff (Len Cariou). To prove that his story really did come first, Mort goes off to see his estranged wife Amy (Maria Bello) to retrieve a copy of the magazine where it was originally published. He also hires a former policeman turned private detective (Charles S. Dutton) to ferret out the situation with the lugubrious Mr. Shooter.

Mort (Johnny Depp) has a bout of cabin fever in ‘The Secret Window’

One thing leads to another and, as in all of King’s stories, the final “reveal” is both thought provoking and preposterous at one and the same time. The best parts of the picture are when Johnny is left alone, talking a blue streak to himself and sorting out in his mind (or what’s left of his sanity) as to what’s been going on. The ending, while not particularly shocking, is somewhat of a letdown but true, overall, to the story arc that’s been laid out beforehand (keep a close eye on the objects around Mr. Depp at the outset — they’ll come in handy towards the finish).

No spoilers here, folks. The best we have to say about this minor effort is the creepy music score by Philip Glass (The Hours) and Geoff Zanelli (which will remind viewers of Depp and Polanski’s The Ninth Gate), the steady directorial hand of veteran screenwriter David Koepp, and the fine location photography by Fred Murphy. All in all, a modest achievement for the always adventurous Johnny D.

(End of Part Six)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their faces; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter, and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time that was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis.

Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor spoke anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from street hustler, pimp, and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Lee and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in strict chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. More significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.

Both he and Lee could have fallen on their faces had they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense the passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly portrayed by soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-corner lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood.

The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon upbringing in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.”

He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when young Denzel started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life a living Hell. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. I promise not to reveal any more of the plot. So you’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a purer Hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics.

This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the U.K. in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer, and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working-class folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among others of their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come on. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

What’s Eating Johnny Depp? The Actor at Age 50: A Mid-Career Retrospective (Part Five) — The British Period and Thereabouts

Actor-musician Johnny Depp at the turn of the half century

Nice Work (If You Can Get It)

That old proverb about “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” could never be attributed to our eponymously titled, middle-aged thespian, i.e., the remarkably adept Mr. John Christopher Depp II, aka Johnny Depp.

With a rich bevy of diverse acting assignments before him, many as varied and sundry as stars half his age would absolutely die for, Depp remained at the forefront of the most-sought-after-screen-personalities category from the New Millennium onward.

Not all of Johnny’s cinematic endeavors were paved with gold, mind you. In spite of ever increasing budgets, exhaustive work schedules, stratospheric salary demands and critical brickbats, the still-popular film actor continued to impress reviewers and fans alike with his versatility and wide-ranging choice of projects.

Indeed, the time he spent in Western Europe, directly (and indirectly) correlated to his live-in relationship with the French-born Vanessa Paradis, certainly had a pervasive effect on how, where and when Depp would put in his next big-screen appearance.

Many of his choices were, for lack of a better word, “odd” or bordering on cameo and/or “supporting player” status. Still, nothing could stop the ever-striving JD from seeking out more satisfying challenges — something that would continue to occupy his hyperactive imagination for years to come and ensure a prominent spot on his expanding curriculum vitae.

‘Lasse, Come Home!’ — Chocolat (2000)

Johnny Depp (l.) helping himself to a treat from Juliette Binoche’s hands in Lasse Hallstrom’s ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

One of Depp’s better-than-average characterizations occurred in his next international film foray. Swedish movie director Lars Sven Hallström, more commonly known as Lasse Hallström, tapped Johnny Depp to appear in the whimsically themed Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by English author Joanne Harris. Lasse and Johnny had formerly worked together on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which had also placed an ensemble cast in quirky yet tantalizing situations.

Filmed on location in both France and England, Chocolat stars the amiable French actress Juliette Binoche as chocolatier Vianne Rocher, a sort of modern-day fairy godmother but without the magic wand and pixie dust. Instead of those standard accoutrements, Vianne uses sweets to charm her customers. In Binoche’s words, “Vianne sells small dreams and little comforts through chocolates.”

Featured as well are some familiar names as repressed village types, among them a dour-faced Alfred Molina as the killjoy mayor Comte de Reynaud, fabulous Judi Dench as the resentful landlady Armande, and Matrix alumnus Carrie-Anne Moss as her straight-arrow daughter Catherine. Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules), one of the few female film composers under-utilized by Hollywood at the time, wrote the starry-eyed music score.

Others in the cast include Lena Olin (reuniting with Ms. Binoche since their joint appearance in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the abused wife Josephine, hulking Peter Stormare as her menacing husband Serge, veteran actress Leslie Caron as a lonely widow, John Wood as the old geezer secretly infatuated with her, and America’s own charmer, Johnny Depp, as an accommodating barge owner named Roux with a faux Irish brogue.

Despite a misleading ad campaign showing Binoche feeding Johnny a bite-sized morsel (which implied a much larger part in the picture than he actually had), Depp’s short-lived contribution as Juliette’s gypsy lover is fleeting but significant enough to merit our consideration.

Blues Brother: Juliette Binoche listens to Johnny Depp as he tunes his resonator guitar in ‘Chocolat’ (2000)

By the way, Johnny’s guitar playing is for real and, according to director Hallström, it was the first time he played the instrument on screen. In addition, his little dance with Dame Judi is an absolute delight and rekindles fond memories of the Brando-Dunaway partnership in Depp’s Don Juan DeMarco.

In a 2015 interview for The Hollywood Reporter, Binoche admitted that neither Johnny Depp nor Alfred Molina liked the dark, tasty treat very much. In fact, Depp spat out his portion of chocolates after each of their takes, which goes against the spirit of the script’s premise. Ah, but that’s real life for you.

Indeed, this fanciful tale, billed as a “sinfully delicious comedy” (wink, wink) of a stagnant French village frozen in time, abounds in intimate side-stories. But over the “main course” of the feature, Binoche manages to change even the humorless mayor’s mind through her delectable confections. Which goes to show that sweetness and light make everything right.

Since the story takes place at Easter (as close to Christmas time as you’re liable to get), Vianne can be seen as the angel third-class Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, or at best one of Charles Dickens’ three ghosts. Which ghost would that be? Take your pick! Then ask yourself this question: Who can know the mysterious ways of whimsy?

From Hell (2001)

A deadly serious Depp as Inspector Abberline in ‘From Hell’ (2001)

From the unbearable lightness of dark chocolate, we plunge into the darkest recesses of the human mind. From Hell, a thriller loosely based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic-novel take on the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, was Johnny’s next venture.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, collectively known as the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), From Hell stands as the official start of what we like to refer to as Johnny’s “British period,” wherein the actor displayed an ersatz (yet perfectly respectable) English affectation in several big-budget pictures.

Prior to From Hell, Johnny participated in two minor features, specifically The Man Who Cried (directed by Sally Potter) and Before Night Falls (under Julian Schnabel’s direction, the fellow who befriended street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and who made a motion picture about him — see my review of that film: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/an-artists-life-for-me-ten-motion-pictures-that-ask-the-question-does-life-imitate-art-part-three/).

Another Anglo-French flick, The Man Who Cried is an operatically-themed work that re-teamed Johnny (fourth-billed from the top) with Christina Ricci, his co-star in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Sleepy Hollow. For yours truly (opera lover that I am), to hear actor John Turturro emoting as Italian tenor Dante and singing Nadir’s aria from The Pearl Fishers (voiced by true-life tenor Salvatore Licitra) is a bit hard to swallow.

In the biopic Before Night Falls, Johnny forgoes his heartthrob status to take on dual character parts: that of the transvestite Bon Bon (an unintended reference to Chocolat, no doubt) with that of Lt. Victor; opposite the Spanish Javier Bardem, who portrays gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. Viewers may be reminded of Depp’s wacky assumption of famed Golden Turkey Award winner Ed Wood (if you see the movie, you’ll know what we mean).

Javier Bardem (l.) has a falling out with “Bon Bon” (Johnny Depp) in Julian Schnabel’s ‘Before Night Falls’ (2000)

Depp’s skill at vocal mimicry came in handy in the above features, in that he successfully undertook a Romanian accent in The Man Who Cried, as well as a Cuban one in Before Night Falls. Beyond that, both films slipped off the radar as far as box-office was concerned. But the one that got them all talking again came direct From Hell (quite literally in fact).

You might call this a “slasher fest” or body horror-cum-murder mystery. However you see it, From Hell will curdle your hair. Depp takes the part of Police Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict who spends his off hours in a den of haze and smoke, with horrid “visions” of killings dancing in his head. He takes a personal interest (a little too personal, it turns out) in investigating what became known as “the Ripper murders,” due mostly to the brutal way the homicides of Whitechapel prostitutes were committed.

Poster art for ‘From Hell’ starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham

True to form, the inspector falls in love with, and tries to protect, one of the targeted streetwalkers, Mary Kelly (played by a much-too-wholesome Heather Graham). And why were the Whitechapel hookers being targeted for execution? Well, if you believe the cockamamie theories put forth, they were all unwitting participants in a coverup perpetrated by Freemasons (what, those guys again?) to protect the libidinous Prince Albert, heir to the English throne and Queen Victoria’s randy grandson, from being caught with his breeches down. Shame, shame, shame, Uncle Bertie!

Robbie Coltrane (the giant groundskeeper Hagrid from the Harry Potter series) plays Abberline’s assistant, Sergeant Peter Godley, in good-natured, friendly-banter fashion. Mr. Coltrane uses his large frame to buttress Johnny’s slenderer figure. They come across as squabbling combatants à la Laurel and Hardy. Ian Holm (The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) invests the role of Dr. William Gull, a former surgeon and physician to Her Royal Highness, with just the right amount of highborn reserve; while Ian Richardson (Dark City) as Abberline’s superior officer is impatience personified, and perfectly capable of cutting anyone down to size with a mere look.

Much of the thunder was taken out of this newest screen version of old Jack’s tawdry tale — mostly, in our view, due to a previous trip down this same rabbit hole via the much better Murder by Decree from 1979. In that earlier incarnation, Sherlock Holmes (a perfectly cast Christopher Plummer) and Dr. Watson (a fumbling yet pensive James Mason) are assigned to investigate the Ripper murders and wind up implicating the usual suspects (Freemasons, Royal Family hijinks, etc.). We can take the comparison further with the recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as master detective and loyal cohort, respectively, where the recycled Freemasons plot gets skewered with an absurd sleight-of-hand angle.

In the Hughes Brothers’ grislier adaptation, which author Moore vehemently distanced himself from (with claims of their having turned the inspector into an “absinthe-swilling dandy”), the blood and gore quotient was turned up to 11. Somehow and despite the distasteful aspects to the story, both Depp and Ms. Graham managed to avoid the temptation of a tagged-on “happy ending” by a parting of the ways (oh, what sweet sorrow). Sadly, a disillusioned Inspector Abberline closes out his police career with one last shot of dope in a public bath house.

Any resemblance to Johnny’s deadly serious Inspector Abberline with his deft comic portrayal of the bumbling Constable Ichabod Crane is sheer coincidence. The two detectives are worlds apart in temperament and tone, as are Depp’s love interests in each. Incidentally, Depp uses a mild Cockney accent to underscore Abberline’s humbler background to that of the supercilious blue-blooded twits populating the upper-echelons of British society.

Blow (2001)

Johnny Depp as drug dealer George Jung in ‘Blow’ (2001)

What came out From Hell, and what many critics and reviewers drew from Johnny Depp’s performance, was his affinity for and attraction to ensemble work. Similar to fellow actor Denzel Washington (an older star whom we’ve also written about), but unlike his contemporary Tom Cruise, Depp much preferred to share the limelight with his fellow practitioners.

You can interpret that decision as either claiming the glory or spreading the blame, but Johnny was serious about taking a backseat to fame and fortune. He already had it, to put it plainly; let others have their turn.

This led to his next assignment, one most leading men would either give their right arm for or refuse to touch with a ten-foot pole. Directed by Ted Demme (filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s nephew), the movie Blow (also from 2001) sported an unusually unlikeable and unglamorized central figure for Johnny (in blond tresses, no less); that is, of 1970s cocaine dealer and drug smuggler George Jung.

One thing about this production that stood front-and-center from the rest was that Johnny would no longer need to hide his American speech patterns underneath a foreign accent. That would be left to the Latin participants, namely Penélope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Miguel Sandoval, Jennifer Gimenez, and others. Cruz, however, proved especially egregious in the part of Jung’s Colombian wife Mirtha, a shrill-toned shrew that, as the story progressed, became impossible to tame.

Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp & Jordi Molla party hearty in ‘Blow’ (2001)

On the other hand, reliable and complimentary support would come from the likes of the excellent Paul Reubens (the former Peewee Herman) as Derek Foreal (no, really, for real!), Jung’s middleman in La-La-Land; Cliff Curtis as Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel; a sullen Ray Liotta (GoodFellas) as Jung’s old man; and young Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) as Jung’s daughter Kristina Sunshine. This was a “reel” family affair (no pun intended).

Another, more important discovery was Johnny’s apparent concern for the downtrodden, i.e., the lowlifes, the miscreants, the so-called “scum of the earth” — people best left to wallow in their own misdeeds. This “empathy” for the down and out, for lack of a better word, would manifest itself on-and-off the screen in future portrayals that would bring the restless actor low box-office receipts but much professional satisfaction.

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

An Artist’s Life for Me — Ten Motion Pictures That Ask the Question: ‘Does Life Imitate Art?’ (Part Three)

Jeffrey Wright, David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper in ‘Basquiat’ (1996)

The battle for self-expression and the yearning that artists have, within themselves, to place their thoughts, their feelings — indeed, their very soul and essence — onto sculpture or canvas can be an all-consuming endeavor. How does one convey that which is so deeply felt, that internal longing to break free of one’s physical confines, and perpetuate a moment in time?

That is what transforms the merely good artists into truly great ones. But the quest to achieve that end can only lead to personal sacrifice. Sometimes, the sacrifice can be to one’s mental state; at other times, it can mean giving up one’s corporal ability to create; and still others may have to forgo their very lives for their art.

That is the price, to put it plainly, for artistic immortality.

Basquiat (1996)

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, to middle-class comfort. Upon quitting high school, he lived and worked on the Lower East Side — literally, in the streets — during the height and rediscovery of graffiti art and its equally viable cousins, street art and visual art.

His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and he was of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent. He was fluent in several languages, including French and Spanish. He rose to fleeting fame and fortune among the glitterati, as his participation in a highly publicized 1980 “Times Square Show” would make known. Yet he experienced a precipitous fall, as well as an early death, at age 27, in 1988 of a drug overdose.

His all-too-limited but event-filled life and career became the subject of the biopic Basquiat (1996). Did you say, “Suffering for his art?” Indeed we did! And Basquiat was a walking, talking textbook example of the suffering artist in form, shape, substance, and style. But did he SUFFER for his art? That’s a good question! According to Art History: The View from the West, Volume Two, “Although he was untrained and wanted to make ‘paintings that look as if they were made by a child,’ Basquiat was a sophisticated artist. He carefully studied the Abstract Expressionists, the late paintings of Picasso, and [the work of] Dubuffet, among others.”

The film that was based on his art and life starred the equally young and charismatic Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, The Hunger Games, Only Lovers Left Alive, and HBO’s Westworld), who gives a remarkable performance as the titular soft-spoken artiste. Wright is soooo good in the role that one quickly forgets that he is acting a part: we get to dislike, and almost hate, his self-destructive behavior as well as his imprudent lifestyle and damaging personal relationships.

A young Jeffrey Wright as the equally youthful Jean-Michel Basquiat in ‘Basquiat’

In fact, thirty years after Basquiat’s death an article appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Atlantic, entitled “The Enigma of the Man Behind the $110 Million Painting.” The subtitle of the piece posed the question: “Was Basquiat an artist, an art star, or just a celebrity?” We are still struggling with those labels to this day!

Since Basquiat’s untimely passing, the article goes on to state, the price for his works has “climbed steadily upward,” but that few of those “in the know” can explain its worth as art, or what exactly makes his art so valuable. The early fascination with his paintings and the undue praise heaped upon them has been deemed an over-exaggeration; that their childlike scribbling and so-called “primitivism” inaccurately (or unfairly) reflected the true substance and quality of the youth who created them.

Basquiat’s canvases, the author of the article Stephen Metcalf suggests, “were made by a young man, barely out of his teens, who never lost a teenager’s contempt for respectability. Trying to assert art-historical importance on the paintings’ behalf, a critic comes up against their obvious lack of self-importance. Next to their louche irreverence, the language surrounding them has felt clumsy and overwrought from the beginning. What little we know for sure about Basquiat can be said simply: An extraordinary painterly sensitivity expressed itself in the person of a young black male, the locus of terror and misgiving in a racist society. That, and rich people love to collect his work. We have had a hard time making these two go together easily. But so did he.”

Love it or loathe it, Metcalf’s harsh but earnest assessment of the artist’s work came many years after Basquiat’s East Village heyday. While providing some retrospective value, apart from this piece we must look closely at the film itself, which was made not eight years after Basquiat’s demise by one who knew him personally: director and co-writer Julian Schnabel. In doing so, we are faced with a decision: whether Basquiat was or was not “the real voice of the gutter,” as one of his many admirers declares; or simply a streetwise black youth who failed to develop his art beyond its nascent state.

Advertisements at the time of the movie’s release hinted that Jean-Michel Basquiat (according to a New Yorker press release) was “this generation’s James Dean.” I’m not so sure that’s an accurate depiction of the man. However, what this semi-fictionalized account seems to do is associate the artist’s fleeting connections to established pros, such as Andy Warhol and his crowd, with his abrupt success.

‘Basquiat’ poster art

In the film, when Warhol dies suddenly after a post-operative procedure to remove his gallbladder, Basquiat’s world starts to fall apart. In truth, let’s say that Basquiat had been doing drugs and freebasing cocaine more-or-less on a routine basis. While living on the edge, Warhol’s passing only pushed Basquiat further over the cliff.

To quote from Metcalf’s perceptive Atlantic article: “after he became famous, Basquiat went, in quick and ghastly succession, from sweet East Village magpie to café-society boor to dead.” The film follows this sad trajectory religiously and to the letter. What it fails to explore, in sum, was Basquiat’s effect on the overall art world; if his peculiar style of street art (one he rejected over time, and also tried to destroy) would result in a school of eager followers.

In real life, Basquiat could barely draw figures accurately. When he turned to fellow black performers (e.g., jazz artists Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie) and black athletes as models, the poignancy of his creations could finally be discerned. To equate or contrast what he freely drew with modern masterpieces (for instance, those of Pablo Picasso) does him a disservice. If anything, Basquiat was a uniquely raw talent, albeit a poorly developed one. Perhaps this very poverty inherent in his abilities became the very thing that made his work so accessible to the average Joe.

Directed and co-written by fellow Brooklynite Mr. Schnabel, who was also a painter and innovator and no stranger to the artistic milieu (he, too, profited handsomely from his work), the movie is replete with familiar faces in supporting roles. Among the talents involved are such bona fide scene-stealers as Gary Oldman as Albert Milo (a Schnabel stand-in), Michael Wincott as René Ricard, a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as Basquiat’s friend Benny Dalmau, Claire Forlani as girlfriend Gina Cardinale, Dennis Hopper as art collector Bruno Bischofberger, Christopher Walken as the Interviewer, Courtney Love as “Big Pink,” Tatum O’Neal as Cynthia Kruger, and of course the enigmatic David Bowie (wearing an atrociously ill-fitting wig) in a very individualized, fey take on pop-art specialist Andy Warhol, one of Basquiat’s mentors.

On a personal note, I accidentally ran into Warhol himself many years ago, in Midtown Manhattan, during the early-1980s. I remember his hair as stringy and bleached pure white on top; underneath, it was jet black. And Warhol was very tall and thin, with a pasty visage and spindly legs that seemed never to end. That Bowie captured his other-worldly look and distant, faraway gaze is a tribute to the late multi-talented musician.

Pollock (2000)

Marcia Gay Harden & Ed Harris in ‘Pollock’

Similar in content to Basquiat (that is, the rise and fall of a notable, and perversely original, American artist), this warts-and-all portrait of avant-garde painter Jackson Pollock in Pollock (2000) is a worthy film effort by first-time director and long-time screen actor Ed Harris.

The bald-pated Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss, Snowpiercer, HBO’s Westworld), who also starred as the volatile abstract expressionist, spared little in depicting the alcoholic rages of the gifted but deeply flawed, “clinically neurotic” artist.

Pollock developed a spontaneous style of painting known as “drip-technique,” which was variously described as “volcanic” and “full of fire.” He gained fame and a reasonable amount of notoriety in the 1940s for his brash, impulsive approach to modern art. That he took the art world by storm is an understatement. Today, Pollock is considered by many art historians to be an innovative but ultimately tragic figure.

His equally rocky relationships to family (he was the youngest of five brothers, all of whom abandoned him), and especially to the women in his life — among them, his long-suffering wife Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden, who copped a Best Supporting Actress Award for her role); and art collector and millionaire socialite Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris’ real-life wife) — were fraught with ups and downs and fueled by his exhaustive drinking bouts and manic-depressive mood swings.

Ed Harris as lookalike painter Jackson Pollock

Too, Pollock’s love-hate relationship with friends and close relations is captured in a particularly raucous Thanksgiving Day gathering, where the artist literally explodes with rage as he overturns the dinner table (with turkey and all the trimmings intact). All of which are exclusively captured by Harris and screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller. Jennifer Connelly played one of his lovers, the artist Ruth Kligman.

Pollock was killed in 1956 in a car crash at age 44 near his Long Island home. The crash also took the life of Kligman’s friend, Edith Metzger (actress Sally Murphy).

The resultant Pollock project took up more than 10 years of Harris’ life, who immersed himself in the late artist’s painting style and milieu, even down to smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes much favored by Pollock. “Pollock said several times that he couldn’t separate himself from his art,” Harris indicated to Edward Hellmore of The Guardian. “Not knowing much about modern art when I began to read about him, it was much more his persona — his struggles as a human being — that was interesting to me.”

Significantly, Harris was urged by his own father to research the life of Jackson Pollock, who the elder Harris insisted bore a striking resemblance to his son Ed. Harris agreed wholeheartedly and to which we are all indebted. He devoured all the available material, especially the biography Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White. He even took up painting and mimicked Pollock’s drip technique in a studio he had built in his Malibu home.

Ed Harris (as Jackson Pollock) in ‘Pollock’ (2000, directed by Ed Harris) Photo: Photofest/Sony Pictures Classics

Discovering that he and Pollock had a lot in common — TOO much in common, it turned out, which included the imbibing of spirits — Harris made up his mind to not only act in the film but direct it as well. “It wasn’t intended to be my picture,” Harris mused at the time, “but I was so intimate with the material that I didn’t want to hand it over [to someone else].”

In the movie, Pollock’s “desperate need for approval” overwhelmed him at every point. When he finally achieved recognition, he felt even more isolated and desperate. “It wasn’t what he thought it would be,” Harris stressed. Fame is never what it’s cranked up to be!

 Overall, Harris’ film project is the closest we’ve come to fully capturing an artist’s actual working methods and technique. There’s a fascinating scene late in the movie that immortalizes the artist’s surly encounter with filmmaker Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), who tries to get Pollock to recreate his style for posterity. Pollock feels inhibited by his presence and is unable to “perform” before the cameras. It’s because of this encounter and Namuth’s resultant “action photo” of Pollock at work (reproduced by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, in 1997, as part of his series “Pictures of Chocolate”) that solidified Pollock’s reputation. 

In the same Art History: A View of the West, Volume Two tome (by University of Kansas Professor of Art History Emerita Marilyn Stokstad), we read that Pollock “experimented with spraying and dripping industrial paints during his studies with [the Mexican muralist David] Siquieros. He was also, according to his wife, a ‘jazz addict’ who would spend hours listening to the explosively improvised bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” 

In their mutual love of jazz and all things avant-garde, Pollock and Basquiat, although they thrived about thirty years apart, were both very much  of like minds. Another fascinating and somewhat overlooked connection point is the fact that both lead actors, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, appeared together in HBO’s acclaimed sci-fi series Westworld, as the android Bernard Lowe and the mysterious Man in Black, respectively.

Frida (2002)

Mexican mural painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) places his weary head next to that of Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) in ‘Frida’

Here is another cinematic biopic (with an appropriate one-word title) in the modern-day trend of presenting celebrated personalities and/or artists from the past as (quote) real people with real-life hang-ups, issues, and other so-called “defects” — to include (among them) bisexuality, alcoholism, slovenliness, and infidelity, along with radically opposing political viewpoints.

Not that any of these defects prevented them from realizing their artistic aims. It’s just that coming as Frida did on the heels of Ed Harris’ Pollock, the life and naïve folk art of famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — excellently portrayed on the screen by Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek (of Lebanese descent on her father’s side and a dead ringer for Kahlo); and helmed by veteran opera, theater, and film director Julie Taymor (The Lion King on Broadway, The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) — refuses to take wing.

Frida Kahlo & actress Salma Hayek as ‘Frida’ (Photo: Nick Harvey/REX/Shutterstock)

Produced as well as slaved over by the maverick Ms. Hayek (another bold and fairly historic move on Hollywood’s part) and featuring another of those “all-star” lineup casts, to include the likes of Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas, and Roger Rees, the film races along at a breakneck speed in an attempt to cover as much of Frida’s short yet significant artistic and personal life as it possibly can.

Certainly her on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with the womanizing, large-scale mural painter Diego Rivera (a particularly adept Alfred Molina, measurably more handsome than the real-life Rivera was reputed to be), her tryst with notorious Russian revolutionary and Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky (a bespectacled Geoffrey Rush), and her debilitating bus accident and subsequent ill health, are given only as much detail as a two-hour flick can allow.

Meanwhile, Frida sits and paints with her back strapped to a wheelchair. Her paintings and efforts at completing them dissolve, during the course of the picture, into actual scenes depicting major and minor events in her “reel” life.

Painting from life: Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

If there is anything going for this fast-and-loose biopic is the fact that Hayek bears an impressive and uncanny resemblance to the real Frida Kahlo. And, yes, the real Frida was a headstrong and driven force of nature — especially where it concerned her art and those numerous self-portraits in differing states of repose and/or native dress. Kahlo created a hugely individual style with little to no connection to Western European ideas or to the prevailing (at the time) Modernist trend.

Of late, the movie has achieved a significant degree of controversy chiefly for its distributor, Miramax, and the man holding the cash bag, Mr. Harvey Weinstein. According to published reports and various accounts, Ms. Hayek had accused Mr. Weinstein of demanding sexual favors from her in order to put up the financing her picture required. One of those demands involved a full-frontal nude sex scene with another woman (the aforementioned Ms. Judd). For his part, Weinstein has denied the accusations, although he only came through with the theatrical release upon the scene being filmed.

Another sex scene, this time involving Ms. Hayek as Frida and Mr. Rush as the nervous Trotsky, was purportedly inserted posthaste into the drama, but as part of the initial screenplay. In this instance, Kahlo’s bisexuality has stood in direct contrast to the alleged facts as they were known to have occurred. That Frida’s art thrived, despite the fact she was a woman invading and partaking in a so-termed “male profession,” stands as a tribute to her tenacity and fierce determination.

In comparison to the mixed heritage of Jean-Michael Basquiat, Frida Kahlo was born “of a German father and a part-indigenous Mexican mother,” which gave her work a distinctive footprint in both cultures. To quote once more from the thoroughly exhaustive and well-documented Art History: A View from the West, Volume Two, “The value of Kahlo’s art, apart from its memorable self-expression, lies in how it investigates and lays bare larger issues of identity.”

Scored by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (Ms. Taymor’s real-life husband), the concluding song, “Burn It Blue,” is performed by Brazilian songwriter and singer Caetano Veloso and Mexican-American singer-actress Lila Downs. Edward Norton, who plays a rather low-key Nelson Rockefeller, another art-loving financier who has the dubious honor of having destroyed Diego Rivera’s monumental Rockefeller Center-based mural, also contributed unofficially to the screenplay.

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes