HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

This eagerly awaited (by me!) documentary tells some of Leonard Cohen’s personal story and an awful lot about his most popular song and how it came to be (trailer). The film was produced and directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and thankfully, a number of people interviewed and recorded Cohen through his long career—talking, singing, schmoozing—which gave the filmmakers a lot to work with. As a result, you hear Cohen talking about many personal and career issues over time, and you see how they are reflected in his journal entries, where he’s groping for the words that would turn into “Hallelujah.”

Over a period of years there were many false starts with these lyrics, and, ultimately, many versions, an estimated 150-180 verses altogether! Cohen’s deep spirituality was in part rooted in his Jewish background, but he also spent several years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. Lyrics written early on were quasi-religious “a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” At some point, he worked on more secular verses: “Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room; I’ve walked this floor.”

When the producers of the movie Shrek wanted to include the song in a melancholic moment, co-director Vicky Jenson says she “took out all the naughty bits”—tying to kitchen chairs and the like.

Amazingly, in retrospect, Various Positions—the album that contained “Hallelujah,” along with other memorable songs, including “Dance Me”—was rejected by Columbia Records, which refused to issue it. The producers found a small record label to bring out some copies, though meanwhile (if I caught this right) it was a hit overseas.

When artists like Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and others began singing “Hallelujah,” the song rose and rose in popularity. Film of Cohen’s overseas concert tour demonstrate that love of this song is practically universal. Why? To me, it had broad and timeless appeal because it operates on so many levels. The words are mysterious and open to interpretation, which appeals to the mind; its mix of broken-hearted sadness and joy speaks to the heart; the hymnlike quality resonates with the spirit, and some of the references are frankly libidinal.

Most appropriately, though I was becoming a little tired of the repeated excerpts of the song from different performers, the film ends with KD Lang’s version at Cohen’s memorial concert. That one, I would gladly have heard more of. (Here she is, in different performance.)

You might think one song is a rather slender reed to rest an entire movie on, and you’d be right. More interesting than “Hallelujah” was Cohen himself, who seems like a person whom it would have been be both a joy and a privilege to know. The interviews with a still-gorgeous Judy Collins, John Lissauer, the first producer of “Hallelujah,” and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a long-time Rolling Stone reporter who covered Cohen for decades, were fascinating. Bottom line: I’m glad I saw it!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 95%.

More info:
The Leonard Cohen website
David Remnick’s 2019 profile in The New Yorker, “Leonard Cohen and the Divine Voice

Broadway Babies

Two plays in two days hardly competes (except in price) with our five plays in four days sojourns at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival. Still, last weekend we were on the go!

The room in our hotel near Penn Station was technically larger than the bed, as long as you crabbed along sideways. We didn’t plan to spend much time there, so hardly cared, until the middle of the night when . . .

Our first stop was the Museum of Arts and Design at 1 Columbus Circle. In its exhibits on now–“Garmenting” and art jewelry–some of the jewelry could technically be worn. The garments, probably not (see the teepee dress). Afterwards we had some time to kill so sat a while in Central Park. After several big inhales there, it’s possible we were stoned.

Off to our first play: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes! If you’ve ever sat through a public officials’ meeting that’s struggling to stay on track, you’ll totally get the humor in the play’s first hour. A new member of the Big Cherry City Council is trying to find out what happened at a meeting he missed and why a fellow-councilman has mysteriously been removed. No one wants to tell him. Once they do, the last 15 minutes could be from another play altogether. On the whole, it was entertaining, well acted, and we were glad we saw it. (Tracy Letts is in it.)

Lovely dinner at Trattoria Trecolori on 47th Street, very crowded with the pre-theater seating, but quieted as curtain time approached. Husband Neil has a broken toe, so we couldn’t walk to the restaurant and decided to grab a pedicab. We’d never ridden in one. I think he’s at the bank now trying to negotiate a second mortgage. We chalked it up to a nice “experience,” which, on such a lovely warm evening, it was.

Sunday morning, we saw the special Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Really, really wonderful. Lots to like, including Maine seascapes you could drown in. As you probably know, he’s considered a greater artist with watercolor than with oils. On one occasion, he produced a watercolor, and when the buyer was told the price, he said, “But it only took you an hour to paint it!” “An hour to paint, a lifetime to learn how.” (Now you know my full repertoire of artists’ quips.)

Next up, the matinee of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. When the railway coach full of traveling salesmen appeared for the opening number, such an excited din arose, I thought I’d teleported to a high school football game somewhere in Texas. Then, when Hugh Jackman stood up at the rear of the train car, it was, wow, must be the championship game! Excellent singing, lively rendition of the score, choreography fresh and inventive, I liked the sets. The whole show is an exceedingly pleasant package.

During intermission, the drama continued in the long line for the men’s room. A belligerent man behind Neil complained loudly and incessantly, as if he were the only person who had to wait his turn. The usher tried to settle him down, but the man totally lost it. When Neil got back to our seats, he started to tell me about it, but I’d already heard the whole story from the two guys sitting behind us. Never a dull moment!

We topped all this off with a sushi dinner, made a 7:14 train. Arrived home, greeted by cats.

Weekend Movie Pick: Elvis

You’ll hear a lot of divided opinion about this movie. When the Washington Post reviewer said watching it was like spending two hours inside a washing machine, I was uncertain, and while I sorta see what she meant in my opinion, it’s terrific!

There’s a lot in there(trailer). There’s some fast-cuts and jumping around in place and time, but it’s not difficult to follow. The film comes at you head-on, just like those times. The late 60s had the Civil Rights movement, men on the moon, the British invasion, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, Woodstock. A Lot Going On. Society was changing, and the film captures that upheaval.

I am a big devotee of the American Song Book—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all of them. But as much as I love their music, it doesn’t bowl me over with nostalgia the way the songs of my growing up do. And in this movie, you hear a lot of them.

It’s also fun seeing Tom Hanks be given the chance to stretch his acting chops. No surprise, he’s brilliant as the manipulative, self-serving Col. Tom Parker. Elvis desperately needed a business manager who was on his side, but he’s hardly the first creative talent to be ruthlessly taken advantage of. (Leonard Cohen and Al Pacino are two others who immediately come to mind.)

Director Baz Luhrmann shot the film in an interesting way. He gets very close in on Elvis (Austin Butler) and shoots his face in a dreamy, idealized way that you might associate with female film actors of the 1930s. In other shots, he leaves no doubt about what aspect of Elvis’s performances were the main draw. The energy that Butler brings to the role will leave you breathless. Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla is quite nice too.

Of course, in the end, it’s a sad tale. Unlike the many biopics of musicians who get hooked on drugs, then finally suffer through recovery to have a much longer career, Elvis (like Judy Garland) never got past it and died at 42.

If you’re looking for an authoritative biography, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for the complete story, this isn’t it (though, apparently, there IS a four-hour version rattling around). This is an artistic interpretation of a life, and, inevitably, choices were made. But if you’re looking to be reminded of the roots of rock-and-roll and to have some sympathy for a musical change-agent, see it and decide for yourself. Who wants to be persnickety when the sheer entertainment value is so high? The credits are pretty spectacular too.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 78%; audiences: 94%.

Hear the Beat — Those Dancing Feet!

Just when you think Big Dance Numbers have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along came Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, the Academy Award-nominated (and commendable) new West Side Story, and the disappointing, but innovatively cast, Cyrano, all of which displayed innovative dance sequences. (I still get dizzy thinking of the dance/fight sequence in West Side Story, in which it seemed Tony or Riff—or both—would fall through the broken pier into the Hudson.)

Film historian Max Alvarez recently hosted a program on “filming the dance,” and how that has changed over the decades. When films acquired sound, the studios made a lot of quickie musicals to take advantage of the new technology, and persuade audiences they were the new thing. These films weren’t always good. But the studios had made a big investment in converting movie houses and equipment to accommodate sound, and they were determined to recoup. As a result, in 1929, the studios produced 50 musicals and in 1930, an astonishing 78! You’ll recall that the Gene Kelly movie, Singin’ in the Rain, is about the difficulties of the conversion to sound, and Max says it’s pretty accurate. (That movie is having its 70th anniversary this year.)

After the initial blitz of so-so products, movie makers became more discriminating about the form. In Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” the studio system was in full sway, and not only actors and directors, but songwriters and choreographers also had studio contracts. This made musicals economical to produce. Of course, early producers remained a little nervous about musicals. For one of his films, Darryl Zanuck put all the musical numbers at the end, so he could lop them off if audiences didn’t respond. Finally, the success of 42nd Street (1933) did a lot to assuage their nerves. Treat yourself with this Busby Berkeley number from the show. Glorious! Thrilling! Unforgettable!

For a time, the orchestra played, the singers sang, and dancers danced. Big soundproofed boxes had to be built around the cameras to dampen their noise. Today, none of that happens simultaneously, of course, as songs and music are recorded separately. Photographing dance sequences is almost a lost art, Alvarez says, because directors don’t trust audiences to follow the action, so they do a lot of quick cuts. It’s lively, but all the editing sacrifices something. Gene Kelly maintained that the use of a lot of fast cutting was simply to camouflage bad choreography. Even the sound of “those dancing feet” is added in post-production. There aren’t any taps on their shoes. Sorry.

Summer of Soul

You may have seen previews for the music documentary Summer of Soul (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) and think it looks worth seeing. Well, you’re right! There’s a lot packed in there, reclaimed from footage recorded during a series of outdoor concerts held in 1969 in Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park, now called Marcus Garvey Park (trailer).

Officially titled the Harlem Cultural Festival, the concerts took place the same summer as Woodstock. But while that event has a movie, soundtrack albums, and innumerable cultural references, the Summer of Soul was at risk of being forgotten altogether. For years, the filmmakers who captured the music and sound tried vainly to acquire funding for a finished film.

Finally, they sold the rights to producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent. They approached Questlove, co-founder of the hip-hop band The Roots, house band for Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” He was amazed at the footage of the Festival. Not only was it mesmerizing, he couldn’t believe he’d never heard of these concerts.

What’s to like? The music is terrific. Each week, the concert featured a different type of music—blues, soul, pop—and the performers ranged from gospel choirs and Mahalia Jackson to Motown’s Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and David Ruffin, to the Fifth Dimension, to the Staple Singers to Sly and the Family Stone and on and on. The concerts were organized and mc’d by singer Tony Lawrence, whom you may know as “The Continental Dreamboat” (pictured) and you can justify the price of admission just to see his outfits. 

While the music makes this a must-see, for those who lived through that era, the cultural touchstones are breathtaking. Especially interesting are the reminiscences of people—performers and audience-members—who were there and talk about what the festival meant to them.

The documentary cannot avoid the era’s significant social context, which so strongly reminded of how I felt at the time and my hopes for my country. Yes, it made me feel a little old.

Spectacular! And coming soon, the Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 98%.

Singing in the Theater

A new class under way at Washington DC’s Theatre J is on what to listen for in the songs of musical theater. It’s being taught by Felicia Curry, who in August will appear in Nina Simone: Four Women for The Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge, Massachusetts). Curry is a Helen Hayes Award winner (and nine-time nominee). Each week she’s guiding my zoommates and me through the deconstruction of a single song—reading the lyrics and hearing the music both without vocals and with.

A number of years ago, I saw the Tony-award winning Yasmina Reza play Art at Papermill Playhouse. Bear in mind that Art ran for 600 performances on Broadway and for eight years in London. So, a significant work, but maybe a stretch for Papermill’s bill, which at that time, anyway, tended toward lighter fare. At intermission, I overheard the woman sitting behind me say, “I like it when they sing.” While my first reaction was a bit of an eye-roll, I thought, “Wait a minute. I like it when they sing too.” We all do.

So how are we to think about the choices that make musical theater such a delight? There are choices about the lyrics, of course, the mood they establish and the literal (and figurative) meaning of the words. Are the songs integrated with the story’s action or just pasted in? You may wonder like I do how a song written for one musical can be lifted out and plopped into another story altogether. Then, the music. Is it in sync with the words—not rhythmically, but in tone? Add to that the choices the singer/actor makes, with the director’s oversight. Is the performer owning the meaning or just getting the tune right?

For our first class, Curry picked a truly meaty song—Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods (lyrics here). You may recall the hit Barbra Streisand had with this. Streisand really belted it out in a couple of places, but to me, the song is so full of actual and potential regret, it suggests a more wistful touch.

A couple of my favorite lines were “Wishes come true not free.” If you get your wish, there’s a cost. And “How can you say to a child who’s in flight, ‘don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?’” As parents, haven’t most of us felt the almost irresistible desire to hold on? It was a brilliant song to put in a play about fairy tales, because reading fairy tales aloud to children is (was?) such a universal of childhood. And they carry some pretty grim (Grimm) messages. The context is ideal.

Oddly, the song stumbled into its placement in the show’s Finale. Initially, it was a section of a long song near the end of Act I, which ultimately was cut, but the “Children Will Listen” portion was salvaged and molded into its familiar form. Theatre J continues to offer interesting and intimate classes for theater lovers. Hope to see you there!

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.

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!