Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Toronto By Stone

Costello has done many bit parts in films and TV since the late 70's. His first was as Earl Manchester in AMERICATHON - a barely seen 1979 John Ritter comedy. Appearances followed in likewise obscure works like the British one seasoner sitcom Scully, as inept magician Rosco de Ville in the film NO SURRENDER (both by Alan Bleasdale), and rounding his '80's acting oeuvre out was a cameo as Hives the Butler in Alex Cox's (REPO MAN) odd thin-tie punk opus STRAIGHT TO HELL which had a bevy of cult musicians in small parts (Joe Strummer, Courtyney Love, members of the Pogues and Circle Jerks, etc.) These appearances were way under the radar mind you, Costello was heading towards the mainstream in the 90's starting with:


The Larry Sanders Show
(HBO, 1992-1998) Garry Shandling's satirical talk-show within-a-show featured just about everybody in the business doing exaggerated versions of themselves and Costello was no exception. He appeared first in an episode in the third season - "People's Choice" (aired: 7/20/94). In one of his long time backing band's (the Attractions) last TV appearances, Costello performs "13 Steps Lead Down" complete with "Radio Radio" coda before storming out of the studio leaving a trashed dressing room behind in reaction to bad back stage treatment.

The next appearance in "Everybody Loves Larry" (aired: 11/13/96) - also titled "Duchovny's Crush - Hank's Lemon" - involves Elvis selling a supposed classic car to Sanders' co-host Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) which turns out to be a lemon - man, I love stating the obvious. While he performs a beautiful solo acoustic "Little Atoms" from "All This Useless Beauty", Hank dons glasses in a weak attempt to mock Costello.


SPICEWORLD
(Dir. Bob Spiers, 1997) I've already written about this cameo before in the post "20 Great Modern Movie Cameos" - so I won't go on about it again.

AUSTIN POWERS : THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (Dir. Jay Roach, 1999) Because of his vintage brand of swinging pop Burt Bacharach has appeared in all three AUSTIN POWERS movies tinkling the ivories in a downtime romantic setting. Since it coincided with Bacharach's collaboration with Costello "Painted From Memory" - it was expected that Elvis would show up to sing to Burt's accompaniment. Elvis said of the scene: "It's the 1960's, not to give away the plot, but in some sort of magical way we end up in the 1960's doing a song." (Late Night With Conan O'Brien 11/23/98) Austin Powers (Mike Myers) breaks that ole fourth wall by introducing Elvis and Burt as if they were his guests on a talk show and they do a smooth (mimed and lip synched of course) rendition of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again". Austin attempts to woo Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) by way of Comical dancing as the song flows.


200 CIGARETTES
(Dir. Risa Bramon Garcia, 1999) The soundtrack to this late '90's take on a 1981 New York New Year's Eve is filled with what they used to call New Wave (Blondie, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Ramones, etc.) so of course Elvis would not only be heard with his definitive cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" but also appears in a cameo as himself. After a night of mishaps and drunken revelry Janeane Garafolo wakes up to find Elvis's glasses and she realizes she slept with the man in question.

PRISON SONG
(Dir. Darnell Martin, 2001) As big an Elvis Costello fan as I am I was not aware of this film until I began this post and am surprised that it has him playing 2 roles - Public Defender/Teacher. Again I'll defer to the mighty Wiki - "The film was originally intended to be a full-fledged musical, but this tested poorly with audiences, so most of the musical numbers - except the most essential to the story - were cut. This helps explain the mysterious appearance of Elvis Costello in two roles in which he does very little."

3rd Rock From The Sun
(NBC 1996-2001) The final episode (aired: 5/22/01) of this beyond silly sci-fi sitcom starring John Lithgow had the family of aliens holding a farewell bash. They hire Elvis Costello who still in full crooner mode sings "Fly Me To The Moon". I guess this could confirms a lot of pop pundits belief that Costello is the punk rock Sinatra.

The Simpsons (1989-forever) Of course this would be mentioned here - I mean, have you met me? In the episode "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation" (aired: 11/10/2002) Homer goes to a Rock 'N Roll Fantasy Camp run by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Brian Setzer and yep, our man McManus as instructors. When Costello tries to discourage the guitar as instrument of choice to the aggressive students, Homer storms his tent calling him "nerdlinger" and knocks off his glasses. Elvis exclaims "my image!"

Frasier (NBC Sitcom 1993-2004) Maybe a contender for the best Costello cameo - the man appears, not as himself for a nice change, as Ben - a coffee house folk guitarist with a heavy Scottish accent. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) take immediate offence at Ben taking up performer residence at Cafe Nervosa in the episode "Farewell, Nervosa" (aired: 4/22/03). Costello is hilarious as he performs exaggerated amped up versions of "Wild Rover","Tie Me Kangeroo Down", and especially when he announces that he's selling CDs (not his own recordings - mind you) outside during a break in his performance - "10 dollars is still the best price for 'Quadrophenia'!"

DE-LOVELY
(Dir. Irwin Winkler, 2004) Credited as "musical performer" Costello appears back in crooner mode on stage at a costume party singing "Let's Misbehave" in this somewhat surreal Cole Porter bio-pic. Though he's given a few close-ups, Costello is mostly seen in long shots or heard in the background as Porter (Kevin Kline) and his wife Linda (Ashley Judd) have a plot-point moment.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS : THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY
(Dir. Adam McKay, 2006) From reports he filmed this cameo in one day and it shows - he didn't have any actual lines of dialogue. There were just shots of him having tea with Mos Def at Will Ferrell's title character's rival driver Jean Girard's (Sacha Baron Cohen) mansion. Too many Costello songs to fully note have been in movies over the years but HIGH FIDELITY (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1999) must be singled out because it was named after a Costello song (see also LESS THAN ZERO AND CLUBLAND) and it had "Shipbuilding" featured on its motion picture soundtrack. Now on to the show:

Elvis Costello and the North Carolina Symphony @ Booth Amphitheatre, Cary, North Carolina Sept. 13th, 2007

"Me doing a romantic song is like Steve Buscemi playing the George Clooney role in a movie."
- Elvis Costello introducing "She" 9/13/07

The best concert I've ever seen was Elvis Costello and the Attractions on the "Brutal Youth" tour in Raleigh on June 19th, 1994. I was a casual fan up to that point but witnessing the man's vocal range and attention to melodic detail made me a hardcore fan. Since then I've collected his many discs and absorbed his many styles but always preferred the rocking stuff. Well the prospect of Costello singing with an orchestra might have raised my eyebrows at first but there was still the possibility that the man under any circumstance could still rock.

Rock he did - viciously strumming an acoustic guitar he and longtime Attraction/Imposter cohort pianist Steve Nieve offered up a number of Costello classics ("Accidents Will Happen", "Green Shirt", "Veronica") that pleased the audience but the real focus of the evening was the embellished arrangements of the more challenging genre exercises of his canon. "Watching the Detectives" was given a complete workout with mighty percussion and sax involvement and the obvious but still vital "Alison" had a significant rephrasing and affecting as Hell addition of Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" added in its coda.

Costello bantered with the audience in a casual and amusing manner even when mentioning "the war" - he brought that up when introducing his Oscar nominated (for COLD MOUNTAIN) song co-written with Allison Krause "Scarlet Tide" and of course when performing Nick Lowe's immortal "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding". A song that I stupidly didn't even anticipate - the gorgeous Chet Baker arranged "Shipbuilding" fit the agenda beautifully as well. I know I'm not alone in my rocking preference - when Costello mentioned his album with the Brodsky Quartet - "The Juliet Letters" he got scant applause but a mere reference to his co-writing a song with Paul McCartney got people to roar. The bottom line whatever the genre, arrangement, or setting is - the man can seriously sing. You have to see him perform live to fully appreciate that I believe because the man's pipes can't be contained on a CD or in your iPod's earphones. So yeah, when it comes down to it - the man rocked.

Postnote - for a complete setlist of the show go here.

Okay! Thanks for indulging me for my birthday week pop music in the movies postings. Next time out - actual recent movies in theaters and on DVD. Stay tuned.

More later...

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Beatles Music In The Movies (Not their own movies, mind you)

"My dear girl, there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!" - James Bond (Sean Connery) GOLDFINGER (Dir. Guy Hamilton, 1964)As it has been well reported all over the internets the soon-to-be released ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (Dir. Julie Taymor, 2007) is fully comprised of Beatles music - all cover versions sung by the actors who all have names (Jude, Lucy, Lovely Rita, Jo Jo, Sadie, etc. - wait where's Michelle?) based on Beatles songs in scenes thematically suggested by Beatles material - yep, the Fab Four through and through. I know Beatle fans who are opposed to the project - and yeah it looks like it could be cringe-inducingly cheesy but I'll reserve judgement for now. In the meantime let's take a look at the Beatles music as it has appeared in soundtracks in the almost 40 years since they disbanded.

The catalogue is mostly owned by Michael Jackson who after famously outbidding Paul McCartney for ownership of ATV Music Publishing in 1985 has angered hoards of Beatle purists time and time again. First with his licensing of "Revolution" for the Nike spots of the late 80's and most recently for the currently running "All You Need Is Love" Luvs diaper ads. The use of an original Beatles recording in a movie can be incredibly expensive - that's why so many covers have appeared throughout the years. Even the Simpsons had to resort to using a sound-alike cover band for a HARD DAY'S NIGHT parody scene. Actual Beatles music has appeared sporadically over these last several decades but that have been some notable uses in the movies starting with :

SHAMPOO (Dir. Hal Ashby, 1975) Set in 1968 with a soundtrack full of 60's gold (Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, The Monkees, Simon & Garfunkel) 2 major Beatles tracks appear - “Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. I guess the rights weren't as expensive pre-Jackson era. Either that or Warren Beatty and Hal Ashby had more clout than previously believed. Check out this Shampoo Montage somebody made on YouTube to get some of the flavor of said film.

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (Dir. Robert Zemekis, 1978) There's more than a little of that coming-of-age in a single day AMERICAN GRAFFITI thing going on here. With the premise that the single day in question is February 9th, 1964 - the Beatles' Ed Sullivan American TV debut. An ensemble cast of teenage fans (including Nancy Allen, Wendie Jo Sperber, Bobby Di Cicco and Marc McClure) all scheme to get into CBS-TV Studio 50 to see the historic broadcast. The soundtrack of the film contains 17 Beatles songs (including "She Loves You" twice) and since, of course, none of the actual Beatles were involved - stand-ins were used as Wikipedia best puts it :

"Stand-in Beatle-look alike doubles, dressed in identical attire and holding the same type of musical instruments in a similar manner, were seen mimicking the group's performance of the song from that show while being shown on the stage floor, albeit from a distance so as not to see their identities, while the actual footage of The Beatles on The Sullivan Show of 02/09/1964 was revealed from the camera operator's point-of-view. These two elements were combined together, along with reactions from the studio audience to recreate a brilliant moment in time."
A brilliant moment in time indeed. Sorry, just became James Lipton there. Incidently the IMDb doesn't give credit to the stand-ins but this cool UHM post revealed that the "George" was filled in by monster mask-maker (he designed the Captain Kirk mask used in the HALLOWEEN movies), actor, and horror-movie director Bill Malone - seen above between director Zemekis on the right and an unknown "Lennon" on the left.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (Dir. George Roy Hill, 1982) In the opening credit sequence as "When I'm 64" plays a baby is bounced upwards into the clear blue sky in slow motion. McCartney's soothing nursery rhyme vocal is perfectly suited here to the baby's (Infant Garp credited to Brandon Roth - not to be confused with Brandon Routh - the new Superman) happy expressions. This may be the best and most original scene in the canon of Beatles-synched cinema. But, wait what about :

FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (Dir. John Hughes, 1986) After somehow commandeering a parade float in downtown Chicago to lip synch to Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen" Ferris (Matthew Broderick) gets down to the Beatles cover of Phil Medley and Bert Russell's immortal "Twist And Shout". The entire crowd dances as a marching band provides horns that weren't on the original recording. Despite the fact the song re-entered the charts at #21 that summer (also because of its use in the Rodney Dangerfield college comedy BACK TO SCHOOL) McCartney criticized the addition of horns to the track. Pretty picky Sir Paul - I mean it was a parade!

WITHNAIL & I (Dir. Bruce Robinson, 1987) Now is a good time to bring up George Harrison's Handmade Films. Formed in the late 70's to back Python related projects, Handmade made a handfull of interesting films in the 80's and 90's. One of the best was WITHNAIL & I - a hilarious cult classic mostly taking place around a country cottage with Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann at their tawdry best. At one point a portion of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is heard - it's safe to assume that since George was one of the producers it seems like this was probably given some kind of significant discount.

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
(Dir. Michael Moore, 2002) Can see why Moore would pay the extra buck to get the original song - no other would do the same job. As I wrote in a post about Moore's movies as a baby-boomer era hit song "The Beatles' 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' made an obvious point". Lennon's vicious vocal snarls in such a manner that benefits a montage of kids with guns, a blind man with an assault rifle, and a smattering of public execution-style killings.

Some Other Honorable Mentions in the Beatles Music in the Movies Sweepstakes :

COMING HOME (Dir. Hal Ashby, 1978) - "Hey Jude" and "Strawberry Fields Forever".

MASK (Dir. Peter Bogdanavich, 1985) Although the soundtrack in this under rated biopic about Roy L. "Rocky" Denis (played by Eric Stoltz) who suffered from a cranial enlargening disease was dominated by Americana like Springsteen, Bob Seger, Gary U.S. Bonds, and even 4 Little Richard songs - there were 2 seminal Beatles standards present - "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "Girl".

FIVE CORNERS (Dir. Tony Bill, 1987) "In My Life" plays during the end credits - again, Harrison's Handmade hook-up helped out. He was executive producer to be more exact.

PRICK UP YOUR EARS (Dir. Stephen Frears, 1987) - "A Day in the Life."

CAN'T BUY ME LOVE
(Dir. Steve Rash, 1987) Can't remember what song was featured in this one but man I bet it was effective!

A BRONX TALE (Dir. Robert Deniro, 1993) An impressive - obviously Scorsese influenced (as if that's a bad thing) soundtrack to Deniro's directorial debut includes the Kinks, Wilson Pickett, Miles Davis, various Rat Packers, etc. But the inclusion of the original "Come Together" gives it full cinematic cred.

So - that's all for now. One day I'll get around to the Beatles covers in the movies - especially since ACROSS THE UNIVERSE adds to the universe of soundtracks full of Beatles covers like the infamous flop - SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (I've given many shout outs to the Nathan Rabin's Year Of Flops series but particularly his entry on Sgt. Pepper's should not be ignored) and I AM SAM - a horrible movie but a good Beatles cover oriented soundtrack all the same.

More later...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Inland Empire Burlesque

“I was watching everything go around me as I was standing in the middle. Watching it like in a dark theater before they bring the lights up.” - Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) INLAND EMPIRE

I was surprised when I got the latest David Lynch film (released on DVD August 25th) from Netflix to see on the envelope that it was 172 minutes. Now, I've had a 'love/WTF?' relationship with the films of Lynch for a long time so I was a bit ambivalent about spending nearly 3 hours with Lynch's particular brand of operatic weirdness. It turned out to be more than that of course, because I re-watched many parts in a futile attempt to really understand what exactly was going on. As many critics have said really understanding it is not the point. It's supposed to wash over you or something like that. So let's let it wash:

INLAND EMPIRE (Dir. David Lynch, 2006)

Writing about a David Lynch film can be one of the most intimidating tasks a critic can have. No straight plot description or analysis can be made and working out character motives or the real from the imaginary will leave one’s mind tangled up in Jungian knots. But I’ll roll up my sleeves and at least put on the table what I could decipher.

One narrative thread emerges early on out of the chaotic kaleidoscope of dream like imagery.
It involves Lynch regular Laura Dern as an actress who accepts a part in what she and fellow actor Justin Theroux are told is a remake of a never completed Polish film named 47 – not completed that is because the two leads were murdered. After that premise is established the film disintegrates, or melts rather, into an endless seemingly random series of dream-like sequences.

In arguably the most abstract film-within-a-film in history the actors and the film itself become one another and the entire thing turns inside out and back again. Oh, and throw in a living room set with people with large rabbit heads with a laugh track and then another room with 60’s d√©cor in which 9 casually dressed women (models/prostitutes?) who after some simplistic girls-talk break out into a spontaneous but still choreographed dance and lip synch number to “The Loco-motion”. Oh yeah - there are also scenes interspersed from what looks like a orange-hued Foreign film. Whew! That’s the best I can do!


Dern (who co-produced) does probably her best work here and that’s saying a lot for a project that mostly appears to require her to run around re-interpreting Munch’s painting 'The Scream' in every actor variation there is again and again. Grotesque Fellini-esque extreme close-ups dominate, non-sensical soundbites seep in from every corner of the screen ("it had something to do with the telling of time" somebody says at one point - uh, thanks) and while it was filmed on digital video the film nicely lives up to Lynch’s previous aesthetics. One can not casually watch INLAND EMPIRE - that would be like casually visiting somebody in prison.

So when the question comes down to whether I liked or disliked it, well trying to figure that out feels like deciding whether to give "thumbs-up or thumps-down" * to a Rorshach test. I can only say I found parts of it intensely absorbing and I cared about what was happening even if I didn't always 'get' what was happening. Still it was a bit much and perhaps should have been edited down a tad. Of course though, that would probably be like cropping sections out of a Jackson Pollack painting.


*
"Thumbs up-thumbs down" is a registered trademark of Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

Okay! So while we are on the subject let's take a look at :

THE DAVID LYNCH REPARATORY COMPANY ROLL CALL

Jeanne Bates - ERASERHEAD (1977), MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

Frances Bay
- BLUE VELVET (1986), WILD AT HEART (1990), TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) : Also episodes of Twin Peaks (1990).

Laura Dern - BLUE VELVET(1986), WILD AT HEART(1990), INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

Brad Dourif
- DUNE (1984) , BLUE VELVET (1986)

David Patrick Kelly - WILD AT HEART (1990), TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) : Also (again) episodes of Twin Peaks.

Diane Ladd - WILD AT HEART, INLAND EMPIRE : Film fun fact - Ladd who is Laura Dern's real life mother has played Dern's mother in 4 movies. WILD AT HEART was the best of them in my book (or on my blog).

David Lynch himself - Starting out in one of his short films THE AMPUTEE in 1974 playing an "unable and scared nurse" (IMDb) Lynch has not quite been a Hitchcockian cameo player but has shown up from time to time. In DUNE he made an uncredited appearance as "Spice worker", he played FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole in the ill-fated TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME (Cole was a character he played in 6 episodes of the original TV series Twin Peaks), and though he cut himself out of LOST HIGHWAY he had shot some scenes of himself which he would have been credited as "Morgue Attendant". How fitting.

Kyle MacLachlan - DUNE (1984), BLUE VELVET (1986), TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992) Sure he's known these days for toiling in television on shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives after years of commercial movie dreck like THE FLINTSTONES and (gulp) SHOWGIRLS but back in the day MacLachlan was Lynch's alter ego go-to guy. Especially with the Twin Peaks TV series which peaked (pun intended) long before the prequel-styled movie. I guess that's when Lynch's and MacLachlan's association peaked as well. Sigh, those days will never be again.

Everett McGill - DUNE, TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME, THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999) : Also various episodes of Twin Peaks.

Jack Nance - ERASERHEAD (1977) , DUNE (1984), BLUE VELVET (1986), WILD AT HEART (1990), TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992), LOST HIGHWAY (1997) : One of Lynch's most valued players - Nance played the lead in Lynch's first full length feature ERASERHEAD and had a part in everything including many episodes of Twin Peaks TV series until his death in '96. His last film was LOST HIGHWAY.

Isabella Rossellini - BLUE VELVET(1986), WILD AT HEART : Rossellini dated Lynch from 1986-1991 making this entry a no-brainer.

William Morgan Sheppard - THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), WILD AT HEART (1990)

Harry Dean Stanton - WILD AT HEART, TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME, INLAND EMPIRE - Seems perfectly suited for the world of Lynch so it's nice to see him in IE. Hope he uses Stanton again.

Dean Stockwell - DUNE, BLUE VELVET - ditto.

Justin Theroux - MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001),INLAND EMPIRE - According to Wikipedia "some think he has taken the place of Kyle MacLachlan as director David Lynch's doppelgänger/Protagonist" but yet again there's that dreaded [citation needed] - damn you non-source referencing Wikipedia contributors!

Jack Walsh - ERASERHEAD, THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Grace Zabriskie - WILD AT HEART, TWIN PEAKS : FIRE WALK WITH ME, INLAND EMPIRE

That's enough Lynching for now.

More later...