Movie Review: Hairspray (1988)


Title: Hairspray
Release Date: February 16, 1988
Director: John Waters
Production Company: Stanley F. Buchthal | Robert Shaye Production
Summary/Review:

I’ve never watched a John Waters film and this seemed like a good entry point. I”m going to have to work my way up to the one featuring coprophagia.  Set in the early 60s, the film is set around a local Baltimore teenage dance show, The Corny Collins Show,  with a regular cast of teenagers ominously called the council.  “Pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake, before she was in the vanguard of sensationalist daytime talk show hosts) auditions and earns a spot on the council.  Tracy is well received by most of the cast and audience, but snobby Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick, well before she created an earworm about graduation under the stage name Vitamin C) targets Tracy for abuse.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) begins dating a Black classmate, Seaweed (Clayton Prince), who introduces Tracy to his mother Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs (legendary R&B artist Ruth Brown) and the dance parties of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods.  Tracy sees the injustice of segregation and begins to use her fame to try to integrate The Corny Collins Show.  The movie does have a bit of a “white savior” narrative, but I felt that the movie was very honest about racism in a way you don’t usually get in nostalgic movies about teenagehood.

Waters’ quirky style and visual flair helps make the movie entertaining and accessible while being quietly subversive.  The cast is also great.  Divine and Jerry Stiller play Tracy’s working class parents while Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono are Amber’s ambitious stage parents.  And their are cameos by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora which is something that could only happen in the 80s. It’s hard to believe a movie could bring together such an odd cast for a “message movie” that’s nevertheless delightfully weird.  The music is great too, and all the different dances done by the council make me realize that the kids dancing on TikTok today have a strong heritage.

Rating: ****1/2

Song of the Week: “Good Times” by Jungle


As the summer approaches the end, it’s time to party with the retro-soul sound of “Good Times” by England’s Jungle.

Song of the Week 2022

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Album of the Week: Renaissance by Beyoncé


Album: Renaissance
Artist: Beyoncé
Release Date: July 29, 2022
Label: Parkwood Entertainment
Favorite Tracks:

  • ALIEN SUPERSTAR
  • BREAK MY SOUL
  • MOVE (feat. Grace Jones and Tems)
  • HEATED
  • THIQUE
  • ALL UP IN YOUR MIND
  • SUMMER RENAISSANCE

Thoughts:  I’m not going to say much because who hasn’t already said everything about Beyoncé?  But this is an exuberant new album of dance tracks that gets more thrilling as it goes along.

Rating: ****

Album of the Week 2022

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  • Petrol Girls – Baby

Song of the Week: “This Hell” by Rina Sawayama


Rina Sawayama – “This Hell”

Rina Sawayama, a Japanese-British singer-songwriter, released the first single from her upcoming sophomore album Hold the Girl. “This Hell” is a celebratory 80s-style dance pop track with a country twang.  Despite the upbeat mood of the song, the lyrics deal with important topical issues.  Sawayama states:

It’s an important song for me given the human rights that are being taken away from minorities at a rapid rate in the name of traditional religious beliefs, more specifically I was thinking about the rights being taken away from the LGBTQ community when I wrote this song. When the world tells us we don’t deserve love and protection, we have no choice but to give love and protection to each other. This Hell is better with you. – The A.V. Club

 

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Song of the Week: “On My Way” by A La Una (feat. Kimmortal)


A La Una – “On My Way” (feat. Kimmortal)

Vancouver-based Kimmortal raps over a bombastic soundscape provided by the Toronto duo A La Una (formerly DATU), who create modern Filipino music with electronic sounds.

Song of the Week 2022

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Album Review: One More Saturday Night by The Halluci Nation


Album: One More Saturday Night
Artist: The Halluci Nation
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Label: The Halluci Nation
Favorite Tracks:

  • “It’s Over”
  • “NDN Kars (Remix)”
  • “The OG”
  • “Collaboration ≠ Appropriation”

Thoughts:

Formerly known as A Tribe Called Red, The Halluci Nation are a duo of Tim “2oolman” Hill and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas, First Nations artists who mix electronic sounds with traditional indigenous musical styles.  They originated their sound at Electric Pow Wow club nights in Ottawa and have continued to wow me with their albums and singles over the years.  On this latest release they are joined by many guest artists and venture into different styles like hip hop, dubstep, and R&B, although the electric pow wow remains at the base of it all.

Rating: ***1/2

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Album Review: We Will Always Love You by The Avalanches


Album: We Will Always Love You
Artist: The Avalanches
Release Date: December 11, 2020
Label: Modular
Favorite Tracks:

  • “We Will Always Love You”
  • “The Divine Chord”
  • “Interstellar Love”
  • “We Go On”
  • “Wherever You Go”


Thoughts:

20 years ago, the Australian electronic group made one of the most amazing albums of all-time, the sample-filled “plunderphonics” of Since I Left You. Then they disappeared for 16 years only to return with an uneven follow-up album (albeit with some magnificent individual tracks), Wildflowers, in 2016. Now after a relatively short 4-year gap, The Avalanches are back with a much-anticipated third album.

This work feels more down-tempo than previous works without songs like “Frontier Psychiatrist” or “Because I’m Me” to jump out and grab you. The most prominent samples on the album include low-key acts like The Roches, The Alan Parson Project, and The Carpenters.  The album also features a boatload of guest artists whose vocal interplay with the samples and electronic tracks is seamless(featured artists include Sananda Maitreya, Vashti Bunyan, Blood Orange, Rivers Cuomo, Pink Siifu, Denzel Curry, Tricky, Sampa the Great, Leon Bridges, Johnny Marr, MGMT, Clypso, Neneh Cherry, Jamie xx, Kelly Moran, Cornelius, Karen O, Kurt Vile, Mick Jones, Cola Boyy, Perry Farrell, and Orono).

The underlying theme of the album is outer space and how it is a metaphor for the distance between people. A photo of Ann Druyan, director of the Voyager Golden Record project and producer of the tv show Cosmos (both projects she worked on with her husband, Carl Sagan) is on the album’s cover. The final track, “Weightless,”  features the beeps of the message to the stars from the Arecibo radio telescope (and SETI gets a featured artists credit). The album was recorded before the collapse of Arecibo earlier this month so it serves as an unintentional obituary for another senseless death in 2020.

This is a beautiful album and gets better with each listen as my ears uncover the onion-like layers of the songs and the album as a whole.

Rating: ****

 

Performance Review: The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice


The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice
December 26, 2019 at 3 pm
Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA

Each year the Christmas Revels adopts the music, dance, and storytelling traditions of a different world culture (in addition to some annual Revels traditions). Every so often that theme comes home and focuses on American cultures.  If you’ve been reading my Revels reviews for a while, you’ll remember that I participated in the Revels chorus in 2009 when it had an American theme. Ten years later, I’m fascinated to see another Americana performance from the audience.

I’ve long had an idea for a Revels performance set on the stoops of a row of tenements in an American city in the 1920s/30s. Immigrants from various parts of the world (Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, China, etc.) and African American migrants from the South could come together and share their cultural songs, stories, and traditions of the winter season. 

This performance isn’t quite my imagined Revels, but it does come close! Set during the Dust Bowl/Depression era, a radio station host (Steven Barkhimer) offers guidance to a man named Johnny Johnson (Jeff Song), who is lost his memory and his direction. Johnny travels the country experiencing various American cultural traditions and repeatedly meeting a mysterious woman (Chris Everett-Hussey).

I always say that you don’t go to Revels for the plot. But in recent years they’ve been working on their narrative threads more, so this year’s story feels like a reversion to thinner storylines of the past. It also doesn’t make much sense. Needless to say the song and dance are great so it doesn’t need much else.

Several numbers from the 2009 show are revived in new settings, including:

  • A Shaker circle dance
  • Cherry Tree Carol – illustrated as a “movie” the cast watches
  • Children, Go Where I Send Thee – one of several numbers featuring the excellent vocals of Carolyn Saxon.
  • Longsword Dance to the Southern tune “Sandy Boys.”

Old time music is provided by Tui and Squirrel Butter on several numbers. Ana Vlieg Paulin provides a wonderful solo on “I Wonder as I Wander.” And long-time master of ceremonies keeps the audience on key and on in rhythm. My favorite numbers include:

  • “Dark as a Dungeon” – featuring tired coal miners walking through the audience to return to their families.
  • “Old Grandma Hobble-Gobble” – the Revels Children play a game with storyteller Bobbie Steinbach.
  • Sing-a-long with “I’ll Fly Away.”
  • The gospel of “Trouble All About My Soul.”
  • Medley of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken/This Land is Your Land.”

Performances of the Christmas Revels continue until December 29, so see it if you get the chance. And even if you miss it, mark you calendar for the 50th anniversary show in December 2020.

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Classic Movie Review: Stormy Weather (1943)


Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson.  Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films.  So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.

The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career.  How loose?  The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War.  In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI.  So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.

The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers.  I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots.  The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.

Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues.  They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company.  Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk).  Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!

It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers.  There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface).  But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 26


Best of the Left :: Why Prison Abolition is not Nearly as Scary as it Sounds

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Virtual Choir

Radiolab :: Birdie in the Cage

WBUR :: Anthony Martignetti And That Famous Prince Spaghetti Ad, 50 Years Later

Dolly Parton’s America :: I Will Always Leave You

You Must Remember This :: Disney’s Most Controversial Film

The Memory Palace :: Late One Night


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: