Sunday, September 27, 2009

All That Jazz Singer

Some screenshots courtesy

I am absolutely powerless to stop myself from what I’m about to declare to the blogosphere. The movie “The Jazz Singer” is a classic.

Sure, you’re probably thinking…you mean the famous 1927 film, one of the world’s first “talkie” motion pictures, where Al Jolston sports blackface and croons “Mammy”?

Nope. I’m talking the 1980 version starring Neil Diamond. Yes, I said the 1980 version with Neil Diamond.

Yes, I do realize that this is a movie that was unapologetically panned. Among the many bullets it took, it was the first to ever win a “Razzie” award (Diamond himself won one for Worst Actor.) In his mean spirited review, Roger Ebert said, “there are so many things wrong with this movie that it threatens to become a list” and claimed that Diamond was too old for the part (Ebert for some odd delusional reason believed that he was supposed to be portraying an adolescent, not an adult man in his late 30s who was finally fulfilling one of his life dreams.) There’s at least one clip on YouTube that I know of that was posted for the sole purpose of poking fun at the film and collecting nasty comments. Even costar Lawrence Olivier was rumored to have disliked the film so much he refused to see it, called it a “piece of shit”, and was overheard at a restaurant spewing diatribe about the director, which was picked up by the tabloids (he subsequently wrote a long apology to co-director Richard Fleischer.)

To which I all say poppycock. This movie is a delight, and is certainly much better than many other films that starred a well-known singer (Madonna’s “Shanghai Surprise”, Phil Collins’ “Buster”, Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” and most of Elvis’ movies come to mind.) I should point out that I’ve never seen the Jolston original or the peculiar 1952 version that starred Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee. I’ve also only seen clips of the 1959 TV movie version starring Jerry Lewis, so I can’t compare it to any of these previous films, but Ebert can go stuff his mouth with jujus for all I care. In fact, I loved this film so much I watched it two nights in a row.

Diamond defended the movie, saying that the story of a man caught between following his dreams and obeying the wishes of his traditional father resonated with him. He stars as a Jewish cantor with the unfortunate name of Yussel Rabinovich (his stage name is the much more palatable Jess Robin.) Jess is married to his childhood sweetheart and sings in the synagogue to please his old school father, played by Lawrence Olivier. Unbeknownst to dear old dad, Jess has been writing music for some time for an African-American group that he is friends with, and one night he is talked into filling in and performing for a missing member, as long as he disguises himself as black.

Yes, Diamond does appear in blackface – albeit very briefly. He looks so ridiculous trying to pass himself off as African American that you can’t help but laugh. It isn’t lost on the audience, either – when a guy finally notices that he’s really white, all hell breaks loose and the quartet ends up in the clink. When Jess’ father comes to bail them out, he peers at Jess through his Coke-bottle glasses and asks, “It isn’t hard enough being a Jew?”

Jess is pretty much stuck in a stale marriage to Rivka (also known as Rivie), who we later learn has known Jess since childhood. They have little in common – Rivie thinks that being married to a cantor is the greatest thing since sliced bread, loves moping about in clothes that look like they came from Dustin Hoffman’s “Tootsie” wardrobe, and wants very little to do with Jess’ aspiring musical career. Jess gets a phone call from Bubba, a member of his musical group, who is now in L.A. Bubba has given a tape of Jess’ recordings to a man in the music industry, and a rock singer is now interested in recording a version of Jess’ song “Love on the Rocks.” He tries to talk Rivka into coming along, but she stubbornly refuses.

It’s while in L.A. that Jess’ whole life changes – he meets the spunky Molly, (played by Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s daughter) who becomes his manager and pulls strings that help his star on its ascent into showbiz fame. She also becomes his girlfriend after Rivka finally comes for a visit and despite watching Jess wow a large audience, decides being married to a music man is just not for her – unless he’s a cantor in a Brooklyn synagogue.

At this point I don’t want to give anything else away, although the movie’s plot is certainly predictable. It's not a perfect film by any means, and even I will admit some scenes are too melodramatic, such as when Lawrence Olivier is in such anguish over Jess' new life, he rips his shirt (well, if I were alone with Neil Diamond, I'd rip my shirt, too.) You have to remember, however, that the movie was made in 1980 – a time when most mainstream films didn’t splatter us with the “f” word and heavy nudity, so yes, there are some delightfully corny parts. One of my favorite moments is a cute montage showing Jess and Molly’s budding romance – a walk arm in arm along the beach, Molly mistakenly serving Jess a ham (a big no no!), them collaborating and making funny faces in the studio, and a ride on a tandem bicycle. The cynics on YouTube, of course, have posted it to poke fun out of this piece of early 80s cheese. I happened to find the sequence quite sweet.

But then again, I’m a Neil Diamond fan, and if you like the man and his music, then you will love this movie. Diamond wrote all of the music (except for the traditional Jewish songs, of course) that he performs in the film. The movie’s soundtrack sparked a few hits – “Hello Again”, “Love on the Rocks” and the “America.” The other songs are probably not among his strongest compositions, but they’re certainly enjoyable for fans: “Summerlove”, “Hey Louise”, “Songs of Life”, “Jerusalem”, and “You Baby!” If you are a fan, then the triumphant ending – with Diamond performing “America” in all his blinding blue and white sequened splendor – will make you want to get up and dance!

Despite the flak the movie took, it actually earned more at the box office than several other movies that went on to Oscar nominations, including “Raging Bull”, “The Elephant Man”, and “Tess.” The song "Love on the Rocks" was nominated that year at the Academy Awards for Best Original Song, but it lost to "Fame." For the life of me I can't figure out why the brilliant "America" wasn't nominated instead.

Sometimes, however, moviegoers don’t want heavy downer dramas or thought provoking films that present a moral lesson. Sometimes we just want to be entertained, and “The Jazz Singer” certainly did that for me. A nice story, good music, a happy ending…and Neil Diamond – what more could you ask for?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Do You Believe in Plagarism?

Plagiarism: such a vulgar word and ambiguous term when we're talking about music, especially 20th century pop. There have been numerous lawsuits against musicians (usually by other musicians or record companies) claiming that they copied a previously released song. Poor George Harrison was accused of (and later fined for) unintentionally copying the melody of The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" in his hit "My Sweet Lord." In this case, I personally don't think the two songs sound alike enough to cry plagiarism. But earlier today, I discovered two songs that have a portion so similar to each other, I had to listen to one several times in disbelief. They are an unlikely couple: Huey Lewis and the News' "Do You Believe in Love" and Electric Light Orchestra's "Sweet Talking Woman."

First of all, I want to make it clear that I love Huey Lewis and the News, and I'm in no way accusing them of plagiarism. But my discovery is kind of ironic considering Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. over his 1984 "Ghostbusters" theme, claiming that it sounded very similar to the News' "I Want a New Drug." The case was settled out of court, but according to Wikipedia, Parker later sued Lewis for talking about the case on a VH-1: Behind the Music special.

So here's what I are the opening lines in ELO's Sweet Talking Woman (which was released in 1977):
"I was searchin searchin on a one-way street,
I was hopin hopin for a chance to meet."

And here are the opening lines to Lewis' Do You Believe in Love (released in the early 80s):
"I was walking down a one way street
Just a looking for someone to meet."

Yeah, I know lyrics don't mean much; however, the melody and notes during this portion of the ELO song is clearly the same as Lewis' song. I mean, they're eerily similar. Here are some YouTube clips if you want to listen and compare them:

Let me know what you think - is it just me...or just a coincidence?

The Unhappy Disco Brother

Normally a garish album cover like this would make a great candidate for my Bad Cover Art of the Day feature. However, I actually think it's a stupendous cover thanks to the gentleman in the front row who has his arms crossed and is not even looking at the camera. The scene reminds me of those professional family photos where one kid decides no one can make him participate. Clearly, this guy is having one bad day...or he really has his panties in a huge wad over having to wear a yellow striped jumpsuit. Why so glum, brother? You know Neil Diamond would've been rocking that outfit.

Heatwave, by the way, was a 70s disco/funk band that had a top ten hit with "Boogie Nights."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Leaving On a Jet Plane

Phots courtesy

There have been so many celebrity deaths this year that I've noticed that my fellow retro bloggers have stopped mentioning them. I did, however, want to recognize Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary for two reasons: 1st, I have recently become a P, P and M fan and second, my mother thinks that I look like her (which would make us a good match for the Separated From a Past Life feature if I can find two good photos that are close enough.) Travers was 72 and lost her battle with leukemia.

A few months ago I watched a nice documentary on the trio's career on PBS; I am sure because of this timely news it will be reaired. What I find most remarkable about their career is the fact that the three of them remained friends right up until the very end, and had only recently stopped performing when Mary got too sick. We all know that many bands in the 60s, 70s, and 80s lasted for only so long before busting up over personal issues. To the best of my knowledge, Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers never had any major dramas. They also sang beautifully, put out some darn good music, and brought attention to social issues. And they gave us a song that was a euphemism for pot - Puff the Magic Dragon!

Here's what Peter and Paul had to say about Mary on the group's website:

Peter Yarrow: "I have no idea what it will be like to have no Mary in my world, in my life, or on stage to sing with. But I do know there will always be a hole in my heart, a place where she will always exist that will never be filled by any other person. However painful her passing is, I am forever grateful for Mary and her place in my life."

Noel Paul Stookey: "i am deadened and heartsick beyond words to consider a life without mary travers and honored beyond my wildest dreams to have shared her spirit and her career."

It is sad, but the music shall live on.

Oprah's Going MAAAAD

Harpo photo by George Burns

Hey my fellow crazy Mad Men cats and chicks out there, get your VCRs or DVRs ready for Oprah Winfrey's Monday show. Oprah's going groovy with a 60s themed show featuring Don and Betty Draper themselves (Jon Hamm and January Jones), plus a 60s decorated set. Audience members will be dressed in 60s threads, Oprah herself will be wearing a 60s inspired outfit designed by the show's wardrobe designer and best of all, Oprah is going to do her "Oprah's Favorite Things" list done 60s style. I'm not sure if this means people will be receiving gifts, but stay tuned.

Don't you so wish you could've been in the audience for this taping? Check your local listings for the time and channel in your area.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Bad Cover Art of the Day: John Denver

Sunshine...on my shoulders makes me happy
Sunshine...on John Denver's bare shoulders makes me cry
Shirtless...on some singers, is quite sexy
But a shirtless...John Denver just makes me ask why?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lovely Lucille Ball

She made us laugh for years, which is why it's easy to forget that Lucille Ball had a lucrative modeling career before "I Love Lucy." She was the Chesterfield cigarette girl at one point (the notoriety of which helped launched her acting career), and she also modeled at Hattie Carnegie's NYC dress shop.

Here's a smattering of modeling photos found on the Web of Lucille Ball including a Hoover vacuum cleaner ad and some glamorous fur shots that would make PETA bristle today. Funny, talented, and beautiful: you can't beat that combination.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Long and Winding Road Through London

I am back! London is a fabulous city, with so much to see and do and unlike some American cities, I felt pretty safe navigating around central London. Most of the attractions that I saw were beyond retro - you know, dating back to midevil times and earlier - but I did manage to do the Beatles London walking tour, which shows you where scenes from "A Hard Days Night" and "Help" were filmed, where some of the Beatles lived in London and of course, Abbey Road. Not exactly as thorough as a trip to Liverpool would be, but still interesting for even seasoned Beatles fans.

The tour is hosted by a short bloke named Richard who talks out of the side of his mouth with a very strong, Cockney-like accent which may or may not be an act, as I overheard him speaking on his mobile at the end of the tour with a remarkably different sounding voice. Anyways, it's all part of the experience, I suppose.

We started off at the Marleybone tube station, which is where the opening scenes of "A Hard Day's Night" were filmed, both outside and inside the station. From there we traversed though different neighborhoods whose names escaped me, eventually ending up in St. John's Wood. I didn't take pictures of every stop so here's a sample of what you'd see on the tour.

This is the Marleybone Register Office where Ringo Starr married Maureen Cox, and later where Paul McCartney married Linda Eastman. When Paul and Linda were married there the crowds of distraught fans were so overwhelming that they had to sneak into the building from the rear, near the kitchen and trash areas, and didn't look too pleased from the photo that Richard showed us.

This is the flat which was originally leased by Paul and Ringo, then Jimi Hendrix, and then John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were busted here for drug possession by Scotland Yard's bully detective Norman Pilcher, and his band of corrupt cronies. Pilcher's hatred of 60s rock stars led to drugs being planted in their homes. When the fuzz showed up to bust Pilcher's latest victim, the press would "coincidentally" be nearby to capture the ruckus. Lennon insisted years later that he never had drugs in the apartment at the time. Who knows, they may have just belonged to Jimi Hendrix, who got evicted for throwing too many wild parties.

Finally, we made our way to Abbey Road. I have to say the street in person did not feel like what I had expected. What you can't see on the album cover is the intersection just before the crosswalk. London drivers are pretty ruthless (I saw a few people nearly get rundown, and I'm not exaggerating) and crossing that street while trying to have your picture taken is pretty risky. Of course, when the Beatles shot the cover that day traffic was closed.

All in all, the Beatles walking tour was a good way to get a feel for the Beatles' presence in London, and recommended for any fan. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Here's the link for more information.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Vacation: All I Ever Wanted

The GoRetro blog will be dormant for about a week. In a couple of days, I fly across the pond to London for some much needed R&R. It's been a lifelong dream of mine to visit England, and I still can't quite believe it's really happening. I'll be visiting Stonehenge and at some point during my trip I also plan on taking a Beatles walking tour, which takes you into St. John's Wood to see where the Beatles lived and worked. Of course, I'll also be seeing the infamous Abbey Road and hoping to take lots of pictures. I'm sure some of them and perhaps some other retro related photos will make their way to this blog.

I also want to note that I hit a milestone this week with the number of followers who visit my blog: 25! I'm so grateful and flattered; thank you to all of you from the bottom of my heart. Admitedley, while I do some freelance writing on the side and love posting to my blog, it's not always easy for me to come up with snappy/funny dialogue and original observations on past pop culture...I get a lot of inspiration from visiting the pages of my fellow bloggers. I hope that taking a break will help rejuvenate me for more unique postings.

To help send me off, here's two travel related songs: "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary (and John Denver), and "Vacation" by the Go Gos. Ta ta for now, and I'll be back soon!

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