Girl from the North Country

This Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre is a real treat for anyone at all a Bob Dylan fan. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, its slim but heartfelt story showcases more than 20 of Dylan’s songs, accompanying them with a small group of background musicians who let the words shine through. Though the eponymous tune is on the playlist, I somehow missed it, so here’s the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version for your listening enjoyment.

The songs from the 60s and early 70s hold up well, rather evenly balanced with more recent work. This isn’t a “best of” concert, so there were some less familiar songs too. A few get a gospel treatment, which blurred the words for my ears (in the second row), and of course, it’s Dylan’s lyrics that are so powerful. He is a Nobel Prize-winner after all!

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter 1934, “where the wind hits heavy on the border line.” There, the proprietor and residents of a down-at-heels boarding house, who seem to have been pulled straight from Dylan’s lyrics, face numerous and varied difficulties. Mostly poverty. The establishment is run by a hard-pressed Gene Laine (played by Jay O. Sanders). His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is in the early stages of dementia. While she may be a bit off and filter-free, she sees what’s going on better than almost anyone, and Winningham plays her beautifully. Their son Nick (Colton Ryan) is frittering away his youth and, when his girlfriend leaves him, his rendition of “I Want You” with his shyly pleading smile, is a heart-breaker.

Their unmarried daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), an African American foundling the Laines raised, is pregnant, and wrongly accused prison escapee and former boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) wants to marry her. This plotline provides the perfect opportunity to sing a bit of “Hurricane.” (You may have seen Scott as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway.)

There are more guests with heavy burdens, and ending with “Forever Young” provides an ironically upbeat note. All the acting is strong from the 13-member cast. The music is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and I liked the simple set with photographic backdrops, especially a bleak Lake Superior in winter.

Photo: Pixabay

Two Tasty Movies

Ramen Shop

Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.

In Search of Beethoven

The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.

Your Christmas Present

Christmas, holiday

“Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” –Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory – Hear it here.

See China’s incredible Harbin Ice Festival. How they do it!

“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.” Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face. —Charles Dickens, “A Good-Humored Christmas” Chapter 28 from The Pickwick Papers.

That Hanukkah holiday classic, “Chinese Food on Christmas.” Totally not politically correct.

“’Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.” –John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches.” See it performed here.

You know how the photos of Christmas cookies in recipes are always Martha Stewart-perfect? Take heart. Here’s a site with some of the ugliest cookies ever. You’ve got this!

Now I’m off to wrap last-minute gifts, to the accompaniment of this holiday classic from The Waitresses.

Back in 2020!! Happy New Year! Celebrate with these Dancing Fireworks from the Pyronale 2019!

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

Echo in the Canyon

In the brief musical moment of 1964-1967, Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills was the place to be. It was home to an astonishing number of California-based rockers, the vanguard of rock music’s California sound. And it was the pilgrimage destination of choice for British bands like, oh, The Beatles. Across an ocean and a continent, the two nation’s young musicians inspired each other. Meaningful lyrics, tight harmony, the 12-string . . .

Andrew Slater’s documentary about this era is a mishmash of different parts (trailer). Yet it manages to provide enough music and tickle enough memories to create a pleasing whole. It has  a modern-day concert recreating some of the music and coffee-table discussions about the concert; historic documentary footage of performances, television appearances, and in-studio recording sessions; current-day interviews with a good number of aging principals; and unexplained snippets of a 1969 French movie set in Laurel Canyon, Model Shop, mysteriously appear. As to the last, give Slater credit for an inventive, if baffling, bit of cinematic free association.

Handsome, low-key Jakob Dylan is the film’s interviewer and concert performer (along with Cat Power, Fiona Apple, and Beck). What’s so refreshing about Dylan is that when he asks one of the aging rock stars a question, he shuts up and listens to the answer. His singing voice isn’t great, but it’s plenty good enough, and with the concert’s songs featuring younger performers and today’s musical styles, it brings the music to a new generation.

The best parts of the film are the interviews and 1960s (mostly black and white) video clips of the original folk-rock stars in action—jamming at home, in the studio, on stage, and on television. The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield, the Beach Boys. OMG, the hair, the clothes, the polyester. But The Sounds are what blow you away again.

Wonderful interviews about the experience of living in and visiting Laurel Canyon with many stars, including: Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Michelle Philips, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty (in his last film interview, pictured with Dylan, above), Eric Clapton, and Ringo Starr. David Crosby explained that people are wrong when they say creative difference caused him to be booted from the Byrds. “I was kicked out because I was an a——” (an insight borne out by the preview for a new documentary about Crosby, shown prior to Echo).

This joins the group of excellent rockumentaries like The Wrecking Crew, Twenty Feet from Stardom, and Standing in the Shadows of Motown.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings: 93%; audiences, 91%.

Falsettos

Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

Rocketman

Think back—how many popular music star biopics have you seen that follow this arc: sincere artist’s unexpected (if inevitable) rise from obscurity to massive success, addiction to alcohol/drugs, shaky career trajectory, painful rehabilitation, ultimate triumph? Don’t any ascending stars watch these movies? Maybe it’s a comment on the how young people perceive their invulnerability. Or on filmmakers’ affinity for formula.

Rocketman, which covers Elton John’s early career, has those elements. Blessedly, it is not that movie (trailer). Writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher have accomplished something much more interesting and creative.

In the opening scene, Elton John (played brilliantly by Taron Egerton) strides down an empty hallway in full sparkly devil bodysuit, cape, cap, and horns and plunks himself in a chair at an AA meeting. “I know how this goes,” he says and enumerates his many addictions. The group leader’s probing returns him to his childhood where he picks out tunes on the piano by ear. Back in the support group, in costume, he wrenches off the horns.

He’s taken back to other earlier events, and each time he return to the group, another piece of his outrageous costume is gone. Clearly, he’s stripping off the trappings of his onstage persona to get to the man underneath. So much more effective—and emotionally resonant—than the overhead shots of poor Ray Charles writhing on his rehab bed. (I love a great metaphor!)

When John is finally able to embrace the sweet child he was, well . . . Whatever process the real-life John went through, it worked. He’s been sober for 28 years.

This movie doesn’t set out to be chronologically precise biopic and is not limited by that form. It’s a musical, with toe-tapping dance numbers and bracing energy. The filmmakers weave in Elton John’s songs with their remarkable lyrics where they fit in the development of the character. The friendship between John and his forever lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is an emotional core of this story. Other relationships may implode or fade, but Taupin, whom John met thanks to a complete fluke, has been with him for fifty years.

The film does not deny audiences the considerable pleasures of the Johns/Taupin music, which Egerton delivers with enthusiasm. Plus there were probably blood-soaked feathers on the floor as people fought for the job of costume director, which ultimately went to Julian Day.

Do yourself a solid, see it!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 91%; audiences: 88%.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

Bill Murray’s “New Worlds”

Otsego Lake

Otsego Lake; photo: Corey Seeman, creative commons license

Comedian and actor Bill Murray brought his “New Worlds” show, created in partnership with master cellist Jan Vogler, to Princeton last week. It’s an unusual, interesting, and often thrilling hour and three-quarters (trailer).

Murray reads excerpts from authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, accompanied by Vogler, Mira Wang on violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano. Murray sings, too—movingly on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and comically in selections from West Side Story. He dances with Wang in a tango by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola. Throughout, the music is sublime.

Murray and Vogler have created juxtapositions of text and music that are full of unexpected resonances. When Murray reads a lyrical passage about the beauty of Otsego Lake from The Deerslayer, the last of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Vogler plays Schubert. Both Cooper and Schubert loved nature, but that coincidence is amplified by the revelation that Schubert was reading the Leatherstocking tales on his deathbed.

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” accompanied an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim are on the raft, floating down the river at night, anticipating sight of the lights of Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be free. There’s a startling coordination of images of moon, river, the shore lights that are not Cairo, and “two drifters off to see the world”—and, certainly, “my huckleberry friend.”

The audience exercises its lungs in George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Murray to a musical arrangement by, of all the unexpected people,  Jascha Heifetz. That irreverent selection is counterbalanced later in the program by a powerfully moving version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”

Reviewer John von Rhein in Murray’s home-town newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says the actor has again reinvented himself “in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.” This unique and unforgettable show has many forthcoming dates around the country—and the world. See it if you can. And, if you can’t, Amazon will let you stream it.