Detroit’s Music Museum: Hitsville: USA

Motown - Ted Eytan

photo: Ted Eytan, creative commons license

If the button for your car radio’s Oldies’ station is shiny from use, there’s a travel stop for you in Detroit.  The Motown Museum’s headquarters and studio, Hitsville, USA, contained in two connected American Foursquares at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.

Once success arrived, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., had offices and operations departments in seven houses he owned on both sides of the street, later expanding into a ten-story office building, and eventually moving his whole operation to Los Angeles in 1972. But these buildings are the original home of the Gordy family, as well as the enterprise that created the soundtrack of the 1960s and 19970s: Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5, and so many more.

Gordie’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards recognized the importance of this original spot and founded the museum in 1985. When Gordy lived there, local kids who had a musical idea were welcome day or night, under the theory that “you can’t put a time limit on creativity.”

Gordie recruited a backup band from Detroit jazz clubs, that became legendary as the Funk Brothers (fantastic documentary about them: Standing in the Shadow of Motown). Likewise one of his girl groups, the Andantes, served as backup singers on dozens of iconic records, from “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” to “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Gordy wanted music and lyrics that were upbeat. “Part storefront church gospel, part jazz joint on a Saturday night, part street corner symphony,” that was the Motown Sound.

Though many Motown performers became major stars, they started as neighborhood kids. They knew each other from living down the block or around the corner, and many of them weren’t out of high school yet. Gordy set up an “artist personal development” program for them, headed by talent agent Maxine Powell, who taught grooming, poise, and social graces, to give these young people the polish that would support their success.

Museum visits are conducted by tour leaders in small groups and include a brief film plus an opportunity to sing in the legendary Studio A, where so much great music was created. The costume display, sample records, and photographs of those early days are amazing, though your tour group will move ahead before you can begin to read all the captions!

Score

Score, musicThe heart of many a memorable motion picture is the musical score that presages, enhances, and evokes emotions as the story unfolds.

In Score, a new documentary set for wide release in May, filmmakers Kenny Holmes and Matt Schrader feature leading film music composers—including John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, Quincy Jones, Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat—who describe the extraordinary artistry and execution in crafting a memorable score.

“Whether they’re talking about their contemporaries or the greats of yesteryear, the composers express a profound admiration that’s born of an intimate understanding of what makes a work groundbreaking or indelible,” wrote Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter.

The documentary begins with the silent film era. To drown out the distracting sound of a film projector, theatres hired a pianist or organist to convey the action or emotion. That changed with the debut of King Kong in 1933, featuring the RKO Studio Orchestra and a score by Max Steiner.

Orchestral music became a fixture in filmmaking when Bernard Herrmann, a CBS staff conductor, met Orson Welles in the late 1930’s. He wrote and arranged scores for several of Welles’s radio series, including War of the Worlds, then followed Welles to Hollywood, where he wrote the score for Citizen Kane, which premiered in 1941.

Herrmann also is known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, for whom he wrote the scores for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. When you recall the frightening shower scene with Janet Leigh in Psycho, you likely will “replay” the piercing violin sound Herrmann used to augment the horror.

The tempo changed in the 1960’s when filmmakers turned to rock and roll tracks and other source music for such iconic films as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.

The next big shift was the reintroduction of the studio orchestra —most notably by legendary composer John Williams. Williams is credited with reviving the interest in and use of orchestral musicians and large recording studios, such as Abbey Road in London, for his inimitable sound.

Finally, the film shows how today’s composers are turning to unusual instruments—tribal, traditional—and to digital composition and production for their inspiration. One composer said that if the score gives him goose bumps, he knows he’s hit the mark.

The film most recently received a Directors Choice Award for excellence in filmmaking at the Sedona International Film Festival (SIFF). In a Q&A at SIFF, Holmes remarked on their difficulties scheduling time with the busy composers, yet overcame a frequent obstacle for independent filmmakers—funding—by conducting a global crowdfunding campaign to help defray post-production costs.

Thanks to Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone for this guest post. She’s author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Yesterday in New York City—terrible weather threatening all day, and a one-hour train trip home transformed into a six-hour wait-a-thon due to downed wires. Trains packed to bursting!

All that couldn’t dampen my enthusiastic endorsement of the Rolling Stones exhibit at Industria, a show venue in Manhattan’s West Village near the south end of the Highline (775 Washington Street, entrance on 12th), on view until March 12.

Seeing Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and the others throughout a fantastic 50-year career tickles a lot of memories. One of the themes of the show is how they—Mick and Charlie, especially—recognized early that there was more to “show business” than their music. As a result they involve many of the arts and artists in their work. Alliances with folks like Andy Warhol and top set designers, graphic artists, and fashion designers led not only to innovative, memorable album covers and shows, but also plenty of interesting material for this exhibit!

The music gets its due, as well. You see a recreation of one of their favorite studios, lyrics as they wrote them in a notebook, and, if you’ve ever picked up a guitar, the display of many beautiful instruments they’ve used over the years and their comments about them are fascinating.

An early apartment is recreated (you wouldn’t want to live there), and the show ends with a 3-D movie. “Satisfaction,” indeed.

Up on Our Housetop

Naughty or Nice

photo: Mobilus in Mobili, creative commons license

What with new snow on the ground in parts of the country, there’s a remote possibility you can tolerate another morsel of Christmas. Below find the sum total of my non-culinary creative output for late December! I wrote it for the children in our family—Lincoln (age 8), Indiana (almost 7), and Irving (age 5), plus their mom, Alix (age redacted). Sing it to that familiar holiday tune!

“Up on Our Housetop”

First comes a present for Mr. Lincoln
A Chemistry Set? What was Santa thinkin’!
Next thing we know, a big explosion,
Police cars, fire trucks—what a commotion!
(Chorus: Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go,
Ho ho ho, who wouldn’t go-o
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.

Next is a talking doll for Indie,
She’s so pretty she names her Cindy,
But all Cindy says is “Wash up!” and “Clean!”
And Indie says she’s just too mean!
(Chorus)

Then there’s a deck of cards for Irv,
Boy, that Santa’s really got some nerve,
Irv plays so well, he’s never beaten
And Lincoln says, “It’s ʼcause he’s cheatin’!”
(Chorus)

Last there’s a present for Alexandra,
Oh, what’s this? It’s a movie camera!
She films all the toys that have caused such tears
And writes Santa, “Please do better next year!”
(Chorus)

(Applause and pass the hot toddies.)

Santa Claus

photo: Bill McChesney, creative commons license

La-La Land

La La Land

Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling dancing in La-La Land

Opening scene: stalled traffic. A Los Angeles freeway at the dreaded standstill. Every car blasting a different aural vibe. What next? Road rage? Coughing fits? Valium-popping? Instead, you get the voice of one driver, smooth as honey, singing loud and clear. She climbs out of her car and starts to dance. Soon everyone is out of their cars—singing, dancing, skateboarding on the Jersey barrier. In other words, once traffic starts again, you’re in for a different kind of movie ride!

That’s a joyful suspension of disbelief moment there, true to the conventions of the movie musical. West Side Story is the only movie I’ve ever seen multiple times in the theater, each time wishing, hoping, praying that when Chino appears at the end with his gun, he’d bring along some different outcome. I recall a youthful knucklehead dismissing the film as unrealistic. Yeah, right. You either go with it you don’t. In the case of La-La Land, I did and hope you will.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has put together a film (trailer), in which each musical number grows organically from the action on-screen. The music is more than just pleasant, with some memorable tunes.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are excellent in the leads roles and effective songsters for the style of their numbers. The dancing seems mostly theirs too. And they really sell it. Two strivers want to make it in tinseltown—he as a jazz pianist, she as an actress. Will they reach their dreams? Will their relationship survive the journey?

It may be a ride you’ve taken before, but it’s a smooth one. And, according to Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, it’s “a filmmaking trifecta—it hooks the heart, the eye, and the mind” that he says is even better when viewed the second time around.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences, 89%.

Do I Need Your Love, Babe?

eight-days-a-week, Beatles, Ron HowardThe new Ron Howard hit documentary about the Beatles, Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (trailer), is a love letter to the musical group and the exuberance of youth. Using sometimes grainy footage of early performances up through the final live performance at Candlestick Park (and the final-final live performance for a few people, including unsuspecting passers-by, from the roof of their recording studio), the Beatles as a phenomenon still amaze. They not only had a brutal tour schedule in this period, 1962-1966, they transformed the music industry and changed the culture through their truly overwhelming and unprecedented worldwide popularity.

That popularity led to nearly riotous conditions for their concerts and forced promoters into using stadium venues for the first time. They just couldn’t risk the hordes of disappointed fans in a conventional, smaller-capacity concert hall. It also forced the band away from stage performances, where they made their money, and into the studio where they could actually hear themselves think. Right. They were musicians.

For a long time and during this intense period, they were also very good friends and colleagues. The members were strengthened by their closeness, always having each other to rely on. In an archived interview, George says something like, “I always felt sorry for Elvis. He didn’t have that. It was just him.” If a decision had to be made, they all made it, including the decision not to play in segregated venues in the United States, a provision included in their contracts.

It was 52 years ago that the Beatles’ first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event watched by nearly 40 percent of Americans. They came on the scene during a tumultuous time here, amidst civil rights and Vietnam War protests, and only a few months after the assassination of President Kennedy. And while the boys appear sweet and lively in these old clips, there’s that clap of nostalgic pain, too—knowing what happened later and knowing what was lost, including youth itself.

They were So Young when crushing fame and amazing music happened to, around, and within them. That they managed themselves with such grace is astonishing. Ron Howard and producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles’ recording producer George Martin) have done a great job in creating a film to introduce a new generation of fans to the group. Recent interviews with Paul (looks old!) and Ringo (looks great!) bring out new information and insights, and a worldwide call for footage from people who took their film cameras to the concerts brought lots of new visuals with a startling sense of unstaged immediacy.

And there’s lots of head-filling, memory-sparking music too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 86%. In theaters and streaming on Hulu.“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins

Simon Helberg, Meryl Streep, & Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins

Based on the true story of socialite, arts patron, and would-be coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, this Stephen Frears movie (trailer, with a nice feature afterward) is a perfect summer entertainment. Even though practically everyone other than her doting, doddering age-peers recognizes how truly awful her singing is and how bizarre are her costumes, the movie nevertheless is persistently upbeat and goodhearted.

Florence is generous and kind and, while it’s clear she’ll never be the singer she thinks she is, in Meryl Streep’s wonderful characterization, you don’t hold her delusions against her. Streep is supported by Hugh Grant, in a wholly sympathetic portrayal of Florence’s unfailingly supportive husband, St. Clair Bayfield, a handsome actor seven years younger than Florence in real life.

I fell in love with her pianist, Cosmé McMoon, as played by Simon Helberg. McMoon starts his new gig as her accompanist with great enthusiasm and the promise of a much fatter wallet, and when he hears her sing, his growing shock and bewilderment is priceless.

The only mean-spirited skunk in the whole film is New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson. His headline after Florence’s 1944 Carnegie Hall appearance called her the world’s worst singer. Nice opening credits, great classic cars, love her beads!

As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says, “there are no wrong notes in this film,” and the audience loved her “so-bad-it’s-good” performances, and you will too!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 86%; audiences 77%.

Sing Street

Sing Street

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo & Lucy Boynton in Sing Street

A charming movie from Ireland about a half-dozen Dublin boys at the Synge Street Christian Brothers School who start a band (trailer). We sort of know this story. We’ve sort of seen it before. But the freshness of the acting make it fun all over again. Conor Lalor (brilliantly played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a new student at the school and the adolescent boys there plan to make his life miserable. Life at home is bad, too, with his parents fighting and splitting.

A real place, the Synge Street CBS has a long history, and this movie takes place in a time of pupil loss and relatively low achievement (a line in the credits mentions that the school is “not the same place” it was in the 1980s, when the film is set). The first scene of Conor in his new classroom shows the elderly priest who is their teacher, hearing aid dangling, writing on the blackboard with his back to the pupils who are creating holy hell. The principal steps inside and the students stand to attention. The principal glances at the board and points out to the teacher that in this class he is to teach French, not Latin. Teacher: “French. How modern.”

The school’s Latin motto “Viriliter Age” (“Act Manly”), is translated by Conor’s older brother as “Rape your students.” In short, the school is chaos. Conor channels his creativity toward writing songs and creating the band, Sing Street.

These musical ambitions have a lofty goal: impressing the older teen girl, Raphina, who stands near the school every day and claims to be a model. If she is a model, and if he has a band, she can star in his music videos! Simple. The fact that he mostly carries it off is wondrous, resulting in a feel-good movie about a collection of near-misfits who make music work for them.

The band’s songs are by Gary Clark, lead of the 1980s British band Danny Wilson, and it’s good. We don’t know how Conor hears it, but what he sees in terms of music video potential is the pole star he’s determined to follow—and take Raphina with him.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating, 97%; audiences, 96%.

I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light, Hank WilliamsThe recent biopics of jazz musicians Chet Baker and Miles Davis (haven’t seen it yet) have been dinged for being impressionistic, improvisational, jazzy and showing only a limited period of their subject’s lives, in the case of Miles Ahead, 1979. With I Saw the Light (trailer), about country music legend Hank Williams, written and directed by Marc Abraham, we see the perils of the conventional treatment.

It’s a too familiar formula. Although this one skips over the difficult childhood and lacks the manager-as-ripoff-artist, we do have the rocky rise to stardom, wild success with 36 Top Ten singles, the lure of alcohol, drugs and dames, and missed shots at redemption—the whole gloomy self-destructive spiral. Truthfully, because Hank Williams died at age 29, his didn’t really have much chance to have a significant story arc to his life, which suggests something other than a chronology might have worked better. Instead, we have a movie that critic J. Olson says is “flatter than a silver dollar pancake.”

That fundamental problem is not redeemed by top-notch acting and the music. Tom Hiddleston (a Brit, no less) is a believable Williams—charming, uninterested in what people think of him (maybe he should have been)—and Hiddleston sings all the songs, which apparently were filmed live. Elizabeth Olsen is his wife Audrey Mae, tired of watching him lose the struggle with his demons and miffed he doesn’t support her singing career. She’s cute, but she’s a truly awful singer. Bradley Whitford plays Williams’s supportive manager, Fred Rose, and the guys in Hank’s band seem like the real thing, too.

Williams had a congenital back problem—a mild form of spina bifida—that may have made him prone to injuries. In any case, the injuries sure contributed to the development of chronic back pain, which explains that slight waist-bend in the movie posters, and exposed Williams to all the hazards associated with self-medication.

If you love country music, you’ll enjoy this film, even though you know the ending. If you’re not a fan, you know the ending too. This film makes the efforts to break out of the mold in the Baker and Davis films that much more appreciated.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 19%; audiences, 51%.

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke, Chet Baker, Born To Be BlueEthan Hawke stars in this beautifully acted portrayal of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker during his prime. Know that the film (trailer) treats the facts of Baker’s actual biography, as one reviewer said, more like a chord chart than a score and riffs from there. What is true-to-life is that Baker was an only child, born on a lonely ranch in Yale, Oklahoma, and went on to have numerous relationships with women and a long-term relationship with heroin.

Musically, he was a progenitor of West Coast Swing, but always had his eye on the New York scene, with the mantra: “Look out Dizzy, look out, Miles. There’s a little white California boy coming for you.”

An accident when Baker was 12 caused him to lose a front tooth, after which he had to re-learn to play the trumpet. That was a mere warmup to the effort he had to put in after his drug dealer pistol-whipped him and knocked out all of his front teeth, destroying his embouchure. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from heroin. He thought it made his playing better, and he was all about his music.

While Baker had a great talent for improvisation and sustaining a melodic line, he had no talent at all for being happy. After one important comeback milestone, his manager (Callum Keith Rennie) asks, “Would you try to be happy for more than ten seconds?” This line provides the ironic overlay to the choice of title for the film, one of Baker’s big hits. Hawke did the films vocals; the trumpet playing was by Canadian trumpeter Kevin Turcotte.

Written and directed by Robert Budreau, the movie has an opening scene that shows how a girl he picked up after a performance casually introduced him to heroin, and he didn’t say no. This scene turns out to be part of a movie being made about him and whether such a significant life event happened in such an offhand way, we don’t know. The insertion of black and white scenes, some of which may be from the movie (which was never finished) or from his memory, plays with the order of events, especially early in the film, an improvisational approach to history that mimics jazz music itself.

Although Baker does get clean for a several years as he is recovering his playing ability, a return to heroin remains a risk in the music business. As his parole officer says, “You go into a barber shop and sit in the chair long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” Still, his parole officer, his girlfriend—the delectable Carmen Ejogo (playing a composite of several women)—his manager, and many musicians wanted him to succeed, including Dizzie Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan. Miles Davis, notoriously prickly, was not a fan, and we’ll get a chance to get his side of the story in the biopic with Don Cheadle, coming soon.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 84%.