Archive for the ‘music’ Category

Formula for Pajama Game, my newest movie-related obsession:

Mix together . . . 

  • One part each Bob Fosse choreography and “Workers Unite” message:
  • One part each butch Doris Day and Bonnie Raitt’s dad:
    • One huge part pixie show-stealer Carol Haney (more on her in a moment)
    • Stir well, add steam heat.

    I didn’t know anything about Carol Haney before seeing The PJ Game.  She had a close working relationship with Bob Fosse and Gene Kelly, appearing in virtuosic (but minor, sometimes uncredited) dancing roles in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, as well as in Kelly’s On the Town, Summer Stock and Invitation to the Dance.  She was also a choreographer in her own right, with Broadway shows Funny Girl and Flower Drum Song to her credit.

    The 1957 film version of The Pajama Game gave Haney her first major movie role as Gladys, the secretary to the boss of the Sleeptite Pajama factory – a role she originated on Broadway three years earlier.  When Haney first appears on screen, she sports a short, Jean Seberg-meets-Peter Pan haircut.  My first thought was that she – or the directors – were trying to make her look like Shirley MacLaine, who had already appeared in three films (including the high-profile Hitchcock film The Trouble with Harry and Best Picture winner Around the World in Eighty Days) before PJ Game‘s release.  Turns out it was the other way around.  Haney was directly responsible for MacLaine’s rise to stardom, in a turn of events worthy of the “Chorus Girl Becomes Star Overnight” kind of headline:

    Still, I’m glad Haney wasn’t replaced in the film – she steals every scene she’s in, particularly in my favorite bit from the movie, the busy, dizzy “Once a Year Day”.  I watched the film on July 4th, and I can’t think of a musical number that better captures a summer party in small town U.S.A.  Haney’s Gladys at first refuses to dance, then (about 2 minutes into the clip below) reluctantly comes up with a couple of quirky moves that become the motif for the whole number.  It ends in a pure gleeful frenzy, with her signature move serving as the song’s exclamation point.  

    Here’s a Muppet Show version, just because:

    Sadly, Haney died at the young age of 40.  Her role as Fosse muse/dancer was later filled by Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like her.


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    Songs for my mother

    For Mother’s Day, a new banner with a frame from my favorite film, The Long Day Closes.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with my mom, but I can’t think of movies about mothers without linking mine with this film.  Directed by the British film-maker Terence Davies in 1992, The Long Day Closes is ‘about’ Bud, a young boy and his family in 1950’s England.  But the film really has no traditional plot, taking instead the form of loosely structured vignettes that wander through four primary childhood spaces: home, school, church, and the cinema. Sometimes, one scene dissolves right into the next.  At other times, walls literally slide away like theater curtains, exposing a family dinner tableau.  So the film is about childhood, yes, but also about memory of childhood, and the triggers for certain episodes the mind chooses to retain.  For Davies, the triggers are movies and music, and often music from movies.  One critic called the film a “Proustian musical” arguing that Davies uses music and film to call up memories in the same way that Proust uses madeleine cookies and tea.

    The movie’s opening credits are accompanied by a static shot of a bouquet of roses and a Boccherini waltz. At the end of those credits, we hear other sounds of the beginning of a movie (the fanfare of the 20th-Century Fox logo), then snippets of dialogue about the beginning of a film.  Through all of this, we see the dilapidated ruins of row-houses, then the worn, exposed interior of one particular house.  Then, as we transition from the ruins of the present day (meaning adulthood, maturity, skepticism, loss of innocence) to the glories of the childhood past, the rain-damaged staircase of the house is restored to its bright, warm, comfortable state, and we see Bud as a boy (ourselves as our childhood selves), sitting halfway up the stairs.  And we do all that to the strains of Nat King Cole’s “Stardust”, and that is when I always start to cry.  There’s something about Nat King Cole’s voice that takes me to my mother.  And “Stardust”, with its lines about “the music of the years gone by” and “a song that will not die”, takes the boy in The Long Day Closes to his own mother.

    In two of the first scenes of the movie, Bud’s mother sings.  At first, she sings to herself (“If you were the only girl in the world . . .”) as she washes the dishes.  She probably knows that someone can hear her, but that’s not the point of her singing.  She sings because she has songs in her head.  She seems happy, but there’s a hint of melancholy in her voice.  And once she finishes, she gives Bud permission (and some money) to go to the matinee.  In a later scene, as Bud and his brothers and sisters come home from the fair, we hear a man sing “She Moved Through the Fair”.  Slowly, Bud’s mother’s voice joins the man, then he fades out until we hear just her.  She’s now holding Bud as she sings, and her voice seems to show even more wear, even more bittersweet experience.  Then her eyes well up with tears as she tells Bud that her father used to sing the song to her.  One song connects us from one scene to the next, from a mother to her son, back to her own father.  

    Bud is probably about ten years old, and the movie takes place in 1956 – pretty much my mom’s age, which explains why so much of the soundtrack seems tailor-made for her: besides Nat King Cole, we hear Doris Day with “At Sundown”, the Carousel Waltz from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Debbie Reynolds with “Tammy”, and several folk songs, usually sung unaccompanied.

    Sadly, the movie isn’t available on DVD, and there is no soundtrack CD.  (I bought a VHS copy ten years ago or so.)  So here, thanks to YouTube, a patchwork soundtrack to my favorite movie, for my mother.  Thanks, Mom, for giving me the gift of sweet memories, hummed melodies, and so many matinees.



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    Busby Berkeley’s heir

    Last night Frank and I watched 42nd Street, the 1933 Hollywood film with a cliché plot (newbie chorus girl fills in for diva actress at the last minute and becomes a star) and with stunning musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley, whose cinematic approach to the stage turned legs and chorus lines into a kaleidoscopes and pinwheels. One thing struck us: if you’ve seen the music videos directed by Michel Gondry, you’ll notice . . .

    . . . five things Michel Gondry learned from Busby Berkeley

    1. cut trains and buses open:

    42nd Street train

    Gondry train (Björk’s “Bachelorette”)

    2. Make faces (or anything!) into kaleidoscopes:

    42nd Street kaleidoscope

    Gondry kaleidoscope (Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”Gondry kaleidoscope clocks (Chemical Brothers’ “Let forever be”)

    3. Make pinwheels out of bodies:

    42nd Street pinwheel

    Gondry pinwheel (Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be”)

    4. Put people on turntable stages:

    42nd Street turntable

    Gondry turntable (Daft Punk’s “Around the World”)

    5. Gently swing your camera in and out of windows:

    42nd Street window

    Gondry window (Massive Attack’s “Protection”)

    None of these shots really do the films justice, particularly on point #5. But (gracias, YouTube!) here are the Gondry videos. You’ll have to check out 42nd Street on your own. As a bonus, though, I’ve included a clip from a really, really horrible film directed by Berkeley called The Gang’s All Here. You don’t need to watch the whole clip (in fact, it’s probably not good for your health), but please fast forward to the end, when all the faces start zooming in on polka dots. The stuff of nightmares!

    Björk – Bachelorette

    Chemical Brothers – Let Forever Be

    Daft Punk – Around the World

    Massive Attack – Protection

    Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (“The Polka Dot Polka”)

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    Friday night: Greece, via the Greek Orthodox Festival at Assumption Cathedral in Denver. Recommended meal: Σουβλάκι, σαγανάκι, and, as an digestif, ούζο. To see: the striking icons painted on the inside of the cathedral dome.

    Assumption Cathedral

    [My favorite thing to do at festivals that feature public dancing is to pick out the one person that seems to be in another world. Remember the aerobics TV show in the ’80s – spoofed here by SNL – with three effort levels (high, medium, and low)? Well, among the 30+ people dancing on stage at the festival, one man stood out as the clear ‘high level’ participant. Extra gestures, non-required twirls, even a little love triangle involving a woman and another man. It wasn’t clear how that love triangle was supposed to work.]

    Saturday night: Japan, via the Cherry Blossom Festival in downtown Denver. Recommended meal: Eat before you make the trip to the festival. We had 寿司, in keeping with the evening’s theme. [For some reason, this event closed up all of its food booths before 7pm, perhaps in an effort to give us the impression of arriving at a foreign city early in the morning with the hunger that jet lag produces? The participants in this festival’s dances were mostly of the ‘low effort’ ilk. Some didn’t even look like they were dancing.]

    Sunday night: Africa (mostly Uganda), via a performance of the African Children’s Choir. Recommended meal: we didn’t really do African that night, but Frank could cook you up some delicious gunja (no idea if that’s how it’s spelled) from Central African Republic: spinach stew with a peanut sauce.

    [These performers were all decidedly in the ‘very high effort’ category. Seriously. These children, some of whom never stopped smiling during the 90-minute concert, were like Energizer bunnies on Red Bull. Their best numbers, like this one, as performed on American Idol, were traditional African songs. The Celine Dion arrangements – I’m not kidding – didn’t do much for me.]

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    (almost) summer shows

    The first day of summer (today, officially) always sneaks in way too late, kind of like a chronically tardy student. It only seems fair to call it summer if it fits the profile, regardless of the calendar date. Daytime temperature in the eighties? Check. Nice cool breeze in the evening? Check. Cats staying out late at night (and hiding inside during the day)? Check.

    For example: Frank and I managed to go to three outdoor, big-name concerts – summer events, to be sure – before spring ran out. So here’s my report.

    May 15, Red Rocks Amphiteatre: Björk. The most exhilarating concert I’ve attended. The ‘what will she wear?’ factor is compelling enough to make her shows memorable, but Ms. Guðmundsdóttir (see here for Icelandic naming practices) is much more than a swan dress. (Or, in our case, a tribal-looking shawl thing with raccoon-eye makeup.) And she brought her all-female Icelandic brass choir along with her. Not many can claim to have done that.

    June 10, Red Rocks: True Colors Tour: Cyndi Lauper, Erasure, Debbie Harry, The Dresden Dolls, and the Cliks. Hosted by Margaret Cho. We weren’t originally planning on going to this, but we bought tickets from some friends who had extras. First confession: I’m not a fan of “gay culture”. I think it often divides instead of uniting. (This tour, in conjunction with the Human Rights Campaign, supports GLBT rights.) Second confession: several times I was moved to tears during this concert, mostly while looking around at the faces of hundreds of people who have known hurt and exclusion, and who also know, hopefully, the joy of being included, and of loving and being loved. Erasure was amazing, by the way. Mostly for nostalgic, sophomore-year-of-high-school reasons. Other highlights: Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and the Dresden Dolls. Major lowlight: Debbie Harry, what are you thinking? (Or what are you on?)

    Last night (June 20), Denver Botanic Gardens: Madeleine Peyroux and Josh Ritter. An attorney at Frank’s work offered these up yesterday, free and last minute. Beautiful setting, weird stage (we saw mostly the back right sides of both artists), lovely night. I gotta say, though, that I think Madeleine Peyroux would be a much better fit in a smoky jazz bar. And she didn’t sound nearly as Billie Holiday-ish as she does on recordings. Josh Ritter, though, was great: funny, charming, personable.

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    Here are some things that have made me laugh lately. It’s a good medicine, laughter. So if you’ve got the sniffles or the snuffles or the gruffles or the griffles, click on a few of these.

    • I can has cheezburger? I won’t try to describe it.
    • Penelope from SNL. I’m slowly growing out of the Saturday Night Live demographic, but Frank and I have recently fallen for Kristen Wiig, the latest in a long series of talented female cast members:
    • Nuns singing the Hallelujah Chorus:
    • Pachelbel Canon deconstructed:
    • Deciphering the lyrics of Anglican hymns:

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    Unsinkable Mali

    Here’s to Mali!

    Why? As my sister Annie mentioned, my brother Chris will be doing a two year Peace Corps stint there. Like most Westerners, I had limited knowledge of Mali. Frank, who did his first Peace Corps assignment in Central African Republic, filled me in a little bit, and as both of us are wont to do (I’m a big fan of ‘wont to do’), we immediately looked up everything we could about it. One of the best places to look for the cultural highlights of a particular country is the UNESCO World Heritage Centre website. UNESCO designates certain sites all over the world as “World Heritage Sites”, and it turns out that Mali has several. After looking at a few pictures, I think Frank and I will make serious plans to visit while Chris is there. Check out this mosque in Djenne:

    Djenne Mosque

    Djenne Mosque

    The other thing we realized after saying “Mali” a few times, was that we have a couple of really great CDs of Malian music, including Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Mali”, The Beach Boys’ “Malifornia Girls” and “Mali Hai” from South Pacific. Seriously, though, the Putumayo “Mali” CD is great, as is Mali Music, a collaboration between Damon Albarn (British musician) and Malian musicians.

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