Monday, March 17, 2014

"Some folks die for songs, that's how they know they belong"


Wednesday, February 26th, 2014, at the New Beverly Cinema, minor history took place. It was the night I launched something that I'd long dreamed of doing, probably since the first time I took an obscure VHS tape to a friend's house: a branded, personally curated screening series, complete with a celebrity guest. While in my past, I had made plenty of booking suggestions to theatres, emceed plenty of screenings, and even done Q&A's with big names, this was the first time that, in effect, I was not just selling the films, but myself as part of the draw as well; attempting, in my middle age, to establish a relationship with the moviegoing public as a trustworthy tastemaker. And much like, say, the first public performance of a struggling new band, it was a very good show, just a shame more people weren't there to see it. This essay, and the essays that are intended to follow after future screenings in my series, will not so much recap the evening itself for someone who could or couldn't attend, but present a deeper explanation on the films presented and how they tie together, so that said reader may, in effect, be inspired to seek out the films and recreate the combo on their own, and [crossed fingers] be inspired to attend a future one.

Sig Shore's THAT'S THE WAY OF THE WORLD has always held an enormous place of fascination in my heart, from the very first time I spotted it in its original "big box" videocassette release in a rental store's clearance rack: Harvey Keitel, AND Earth Wind & Fire, in a movie TOGETHER! - why have I never seen this, and why don't I own this? Expecting kitsch value upon my first viewing, I was pleasantly surprised to find a compelling (if occasionally melodramatic) indictment of the budding homogenization of music through corporate and criminal influence in the '70's, and more importantly, one of the best nuts-and-bolts depictions of how a talented producer can take a terrible-sounding song and, with all the possibilities of the studio, turn it into something that, while still annoying, can hold its own amongst all the other infectious friendly pop that made AM radio every artist's goal for decades. I still own that big box release, and tracked down more copies of that VHS to give to friends with similar sensibilities to mine. When it finally got a DVD release in the late noughties, I would tell people to Netflix it, back when that service, you know, actually carried rare DVDs.

THAT'S THE WAY OF THE WORLD tells the story of Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel), a successful and respected producer for a A-Kord Records, whose efforts to launch EWF (renamed "The Group" in this film) are thwarted by the label's executives and the organized crime figures they're beholden to, who force him to produce a wholesome family trio, The Pages. His resentment builds as he learns that all the company resources will be going to The Pages, and both he and The Group, bound by exclusive contracts, will be unable to go elsewhere in the meantime. However, he begins to take a shine to the trio's legitimately captivating lead singer Velour, who reveals to him unsavory secrets about the real Page family dynamic, inspiring him to make a startling series of personal decisions that will affect everyone's futures.

"Music is my life. It's important to me. It's important to people. I mean, if it's good, it can give people some hope and some relief from all the shit in this world. And it can make them feel good, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. And that's what I wanna do. And I'm gonna do it."

Craig Zobel's GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, meanwhile, snuck up and surprised me for different reasons. I was familiar with Zobel as one of the creators of my then-favorite (and still beloved) Flash-animation website, Homestar Runner, along with brothers Mike and Matt Chapman, but I had not been aware previously that they were all classmates and collaborators with an exciting group of filmmakers emerging from University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a collective which included David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Jeff Nichols. Knowing little about the plot besides the obvious subject of music, and intrigued by the casting of Pat Healy, who I'd seen in bit parts, with Kene Holliday, who I'd grown up watching on "CARTER COUNTRY" and "MATLOCK," I went in blind, and discovered one of my favorite films of an already jam-packed 2007, one of the best movie years in recent memory. I had not yet made the connection that star Healy and I had already met, when he appeared as a contestant on "BEAT THE GEEKS" (an episode that, until now, few knew had been taped on September 12, 2001), but this connection and my love of his film begat a great friendship, which came in quite handy when I asked him to be my inaugural guest for the debut of Cinema Tremens.

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND concerns itself with the practice of "song sharking," where aspiring musicians pay upfront money to a record company that promises professional studio recording and promotion to radio stations, but rarely deliver anything more than a few cheap CDs. Healy is Martin, a guileless new recruit not fully aware he is working for con artists, while Holliday plays Clarence, an experienced smooth talker who may be cognizant of the scam, but is solely concerned about earning his commission after years of hard living. As they work their way through small Southern towns, the team quickly become the company's top salesmen. But when the younger idealist gets sincerely excited about one unusual artist, a teenage girl with a "New National Anthem," he begins to see the depths of the company's corruption firsthand, which challenges his self-image and threatens the already fragile stability of himself and his partner.

"I like this job. I like...I like the idea of this job, but the idea of it is not the same as doing it."

Opening with two lesser-known music dramas may not have been the strongest way to open a new programming series, but with Pat on the bill, I knew it would be the most distinctive and personal way, and his agreeing to appear meant an awful lot. Also, since my social orbit involves a large number of very excellent working musicians, in a way, I thought it would be a clever way of luring them to come to my premiere screening. Ya gotta know your audience, right? Well, it sorta worked...

THAT'S THE WAY received a much more positive reception than I had thought was likely from reading all manner of underwhelming reviews of the DVD and Blu-Ray releases. It was even more impressive considering that this, the only print available from the distributor (who themselves were rather amazed they possessed one!), was an edited-for-TV version under its rare alternate title SHINING STAR. (The differences I will detail later on) Thankfully, even in this compromised edit, people in the house were reacting to the same elements that I enjoyed my first time - Keitel's charm and confidence, the revealing performance by Cynthia Bostick (a lot of people asked me after the show whatever happened to the actress, which I sadly had no answer for), the elegance of the music (even the Pages' deliberately insipid song was composed by EWF titan Maurice White), and the look at a long-departed mid-'70's NYC (and brief L.A.) environment, long before, well, an all-new band of money men changed everything.

Frustratingly, there is little detailed information available about the making of this film. Director Sig Shore, now deceased, almost never discussed the experience, and most interviewers were more interested in his historical role of producing the two SUPER FLY films with Ron O'Neal. Screenwriter Robert Lipsyte, when you read his website biography, talks at length about his childhood, his background in sports journalism, and his multiple Young Adult novels, but doesn't even list this credit on his resume. The commentary track on the first DVD release with EWF members Verdine White and Ralph Johnson offers little insight from the band's perspective, since, as they mention, they go missing for almost an hour of the story; its omission from the current Blu-Ray is no great loss. And most other surviving alumni of the film have either not been located, or chosen not to comment. Which is a shame, because this film is chock full of incredibly interesting music-related contributors that add to its authenticity and its critique. Most have noted the cameos by legendary NYC radio personalities Murray the K and Frankie Crocker, but a little research reveals rich histories for other cast members. For example, playing a sardonic TV show host is big band musician, songwriter, and early San Francisco TV dance show host Dick Stewart, whose television program "KPIX DANCE PARTY" was one of the first to integrate its teen dancers, and gave early exposure to comedian Mr. Paul Mooney and actress Barbara Bouchet. In the somewhat overlong roller disco scene, there's Vy "Wonder Woman" Higginsen, the first black female prime time NYC radio personality, and first black female writer/producer/director of the longest-running Off-Broadway musical in American stage history, MAMA, I WANT TO SING - the autobiographical story of her sister Doris Troy Payne, writer/singer of the soul classic "Just One Look" and featured soloist on Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON album, who also appears in the film, as a wedding pianist! In what is surely metatextual intent, the personalities who are portrayed as attempting to elevate "The Group" are exclusively African-American and use their actual names, while those portrayed as complicit to the Pages' success are exclusively white and given fake character names, as if Murray the K and Dick Stewart wanted it made clear they would never endorse such pap in their real lives. Hiding under the credit of "Mike Richards" is director Sig Shore himself, playing a retired former record company president, who describes his decision to sell his label to the mob as a means to "avoid tsuris" and declares, "I don't have to worry anymore about breaking backs and selling wax." Since Shore began his career in advertising and releasing other people's films before making his own, it's quite possible he was transposing personal experience into his dialogue. Fun sidebar: Shore's son Steve appears briefly as a vagabond musician whom Buckmaster rebuffs, and playing an ambitious female "yes man" at the record company is Valerie Shepherd, who did double duty on the film as continuity director, and would go on to success as a producer in an even bigger hive of entertainment villainy, reality television!

The primary cast have a surprising amount of musical background as well. Co-star Bostick was Miss Kentucky of 1970, and her contribution to the talent portion of the Miss America pageant was singing "Life is a Two-Way Street" from the Broadway musical JIMMY. Bostick's real-life pageant experience lends extra sass to the running theme of the company swells referring to Velour Page and her wholesome image as "Miss America." Page family patriarch Bert Parks, of course, spent years hosting the Miss America pageant and singing "There She Is" to the lucky tiara winner, which means years before playing as "family" together, Bostick would be first-hand witness to Parks' warbling. And playing hedonistic brother Gary Page is grown-up child star Jimmy Boyd, who recorded "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" at age 13, along with other novelty songs. And while Harvey Keitel may not have had any signficant association with music, his training in piano would pay off not just in this film, where he sits playing alongside EWF producer/songwriter Charles Stepney (who tragically died soon after in 1976), but also in his highly acclaimed performance as conflicted music lover/concert pianist/mob collector in James Toback's FINGERS three years later.

Screenwriter Robert Lipsyte clearly knew the musical environment of the mid-'70's, and as such his script is full of punchy allusions to what he perceived as wrong with the climate. Keitel's character name of Coleman Buckmaster, combining a first name suggesting jazz greatness with a last name suggesting easy money, may be a little too on-the-nose, but makes its point. The squeaky-clean Pages may have been thought to be a slam on The Carpenters or The Osmonds, but the most-likely inspiration was probably The Cowsills, as their happy demeanor and upbeat songs masked real-life abuse at the hands of domineering patriarch Bob Cowsill, a virtual blueprint for the dysfunction revealed within the Pages. Their mobbed-up liason, played by perpetual TV heavy Michael Dante, is named Mike Lemongello, which just has to be a direct mocking of easy-listening singer Peter Lemongello, whose LOVE '76 album made history by amassing high sales exclusively through direct TV marketing; if it ain't, that's some psychic-level nomenclature! And when the unlikely-named Velour confesses to conflicted producer Buckmaster her impoverished childhood, and her scheming willingness to stay aligned with an older man she despises, Lipsyte may very well want us to think of another unlikely-named girl urged by her mother to ankle for dollars first: Bobbie Gentry's immortal "Fancy."

Meanwhile, Sig Shore's direction is not the most dynamic or well-paced, but there are just enough touches to demonstrate his comfort with this discomforting environment. In an early scene where Buckmaster delivers cocaine to his addicted father (played by Scorsese regular Murray Moston, who would work with Keitel in six other movies), they converse in the piano repair shop where the parent, described as a former jazz artist himself, is now reduced to working; two generations of gifted musicians forced to facilitate lesser talents. (I wonder if this setting had any influence upon the creation of Keitel's character in the aforementioned FINGERS?) When Buckmaster describes his producing plight to his girlfriend (played by Francesca DeSapio, young Mama Corleone from THE GODFATHER PART II) at a Japanese restaurant, his dialogue about the current music business model is lain over footage of the chef rapidly cutting steak; a nice juxtaposition of artists being viewed by the industry as just so much meat to prepare and devour. And in one short scene in L.A., Velour and Buckmaster read a less-than-favorable review in an outdoor restaurant, and just over their shoulder, across the street, you can see the original Schwab's Drugstore on Sunset Blvd., where apocryphal legend would dictate future stars could be found, but rarely were. These moments help set the mood of harsh reality that the film's title wants to reinforce.

Getting back to those weird edits mentioned earlier: The recent Scorpion Releasing Blu-Ray of THAT'S THE WAY contains an HD transfer of the edited-for-television version of the film, and a SD transfer of the original PG-rated theatrical version; due to numerous rights changes and element misplacement, the release print previously used for the older DVD had gone missing, and an interpositive, not initially identified as the TV cut, was the only material available for upgraded scanning. It runs three minutes shorter than the theatrical version, the most significant cut being a love scene between Keitel and Bostick that would probably be acceptable for prime time today (some sideboob, none of the infamous "Harvey Hashpipe"), along with some relooping or removal of swear words, and, inexplicably, moments such as Buckmaster asking whether a flunky will take an icepick to him (too violent a suggestion?) or his reply of "Well, let's eat," when his girlfriend angrily leaves a takeout lunch behind upon finding Velour home with him (too post-coital?). The 35mm print provided for the screening was not quite the same as the TV cut; you could almost call it a blueprint. Most swears were muted, but not relooped - in fact, a couple scenes had black slug in the middle of them for a few frames, suggesting these were going to be edited with new lines. Also, while "shit" was always muted out, instances of "bitch" were left in! In any case, people got a few chuckles out of the sanitization efforts, but otherwise were very appreciative of this ultra-rare opportunity to see this projected on film in a theatre, even in a bizarre hybrid edit. And in turn, despite the drawbacks of both presentations, I highly recommend purchasing the Blu-Ray, which, if you click on the left image at the top of this paragraph, you could do right now.

"You know, Buckmaster, you are what's wrong with America today. You're supposed to be an artist. You're supposed to have soul. But you're just a schemer, like them. When the artists of a nation act like politicians, and businessmen, we can expect the decline of greatness."

The real hit of the evening, however, was GREAT WORLD OF SOUND, and all the better since Pat was present to get all that love first hand. In his introduction and post-show Q&A, he spoke about the film's origins from director/co-writer Zobel's own father's time working for a questionable music operation (he subsequently served as a consultant), as well as the most striking element of the film: scenes of actual unsigned musicians, unaware of the fictional circumstances, auditioning for Healy and Holliday improvising in character, being flattered and cajoled into purchasing their production package. (All artists were immediately debriefed and given the choice to opt in or out of the film, and their music was properly licensed.) Healy pointed out that there was an even mix of ordinary people, professionals hired by the producers to act out certain scenarios with the stars, and a few fully scripted scenes, but all of these encounters taught him important lessons for his own acting career. He also praised Holliday's inspiring ease at smooth talking all the "marks" in the film, as well as creating scenes on the spot that the filmmakers quickly scrambled to catch on camera.

After dozens of scene-stealing appearances in other projects, Healy's headliner turn as Martin in GREAT WORLD still remains a great revelation, depicting a man who feels compelled to do something of substance with his life, but never sure what it should be. At the film's beginning, he blankly talks of his transitory experience in radio to a very indifferent interviewer (prolific indie player Robert Longstreet), who clucks, "Constant motion is the new laziness," and ropes him into working for the record company with a variation of the same spiel Martin will soon ladle upon musicians. In his first lunch with Clarence, he describes how all his previous activities were based on the activities of his girlfriends. His current girlfriend Pam ("ONCE UPON A TIME" star Rebecca Mader) seems to be the primary breadwinner, making various cutesy handmade craft novelties, and they are barely scraping by, as they are depicted in one scene merging their CD collection so that duplicates can be sold back, and in another she refers to cutting up their credit cards. Martin grows initially infatuated with the concept of "discovering" talent because, as he compares to his girlfriend's crafts, he can "help people get their stuff out there," but that becomes problematic when he makes the naive decision to invest his own money in the aforementioned "New National Anthem." And when he discovers this project has been effectively sabotaged by the third-party studio crew, who waste the family's payment on excessive recording time allowing "no budget" for pressing CDs, trying to regain his moral compass only leaves him and Clarence stranded in Indianapolis with no money to return home. He is a man who can make himself be anything, but ultimately, he cannot figure out who the hell he is.

The screenplay by Zobel and George Smith is, much like Lipsyte's for THAT'S THE WAY, very well-researched in its otherwise obscure subject. It's established early that the activity of this record company, while unscrupulous, is not illegal, as the clients do receive something for their money, no matter how shoddy; contemplating a potential artist getting a stack of demo CDs reminded me of the Coen Brothers' INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, when the titular character has only a large box of unsold LPs to show for his foray into the market. Besides his father's input, Zobel borrowed heavily from the writings and history of DJ/record producer Shad O'Shea, a minor hero from my hometown of Cincinnati: at one time he owned the Fraternity Records label (the main rival to King Records, where James Brown was signed), ran the studio where Midnight Star recorded hits like "No Parking on the Dance Floor", and has the distinction of being included in Rhino Records' first WORLD'S WORST RECORDS compilation, for the epic anti-counterculture polemic "Goodbye Sam". Reportedly, O'Shea was courted for the role of manipulative Great World of Sound president Gary W. Shank, but may have objected to playing a heelish character that would cast aspersions on his own legacy in music. (Clips from one of his training videos are intercut with new footage of actor John Baker as his surrogate). Besides music, it also understands inane business culture, with scenes of tedious "role-playing" exercises and how someone raising valid complaints can be marginalized by being mocked for his negativity. Co-producers the Chapman Brothers, who put "fhqwhgads" into the cultural dictionary, even created a very funny website (still active!) made to look exactly like it was put together by a fogey with no computer experience and a cheap online template. Sewiouswy, click all around it! Sign the guestbook! And just try to use the "Turn Music Off" function!

Considering that the GWS model of promising musicians are those with the best bankbook, the music featured in the film is actually rather good. Many of the amateur artists went on to modest regional careers after being featured in the film, even playing concerts in tandem with screenings. In these audition vignettes, to parlay the pageant metaphor from Ms. Bostick, I was reminded of the talent segments from Michael Richie's SMILE, where the girls in competition grow more endearing even as its made all too apparent some really lack skills. Meanwhile, frequent David Gordon Green soundtrack composer David Wingo, taking a break from his primary band Ola Podrida, creates both atmospheric score for the lonesome climates our antiheroes traverse, and is responsible for the actual composition of "New National Anthem," his haunting rendition playing over the closing credits. While some may wonder whether Martin is delusional thinking lyrics like "Don't mess with me, don't mess with me / Don't nobody mess with me" could be in a hit single, I'll certainly spend more time singing them than I will "Joy joy joy every day," no matter how better looking Velour Page may be.

"Fuck fair! There ain't no fair, there ain't no deserve! There is earn, and there is TAKE, motherfucker! These people we see, they wanna change they life because of they talent. You think this motherfuckin' country runs on talent?...I'm gonna do down to that airport, and I will convince that bitch sittin' behind the counter that she sound like Dionne motherfuckin' Warwick if it's gonna get me a ticket home! That's what I'm gonna do!"

While I had long imagined playing these two films together, after watching them in succession the same night, it really struck me how well they meshed, since they both involve elements such as family acts, patriotic songs, talent vs. money, etc. Over a post-show dinner with actress Shay Astar and musician/producer Chris Price, Price suggested that the first film depicts how money men blew up the original music industry, while the second shows the aftermath, with smaller men foraging for scraps in the ruins left behind. And he's absolutely spot on. The first film features executives crowing about how they will tell the public what is a hit, the second opens with someone spray-painting a record gold, driving the point home. In the '70's milieu of THAT'S THE WAY, record companies only sign and compensate artists they think will sell; by the '00's of GREAT WORLD, they sign everyone who has cash to pay them, with a dubious comparison to colleges who take in more students than they expect will successfully complete their studies, openly admitting that the business fuels a few good artists by fleecing poor ones. A-Kord Records promises millions in revenue to their business partners; potential GWS employees are supposed to be impressed by a supervisor's bank balance of $13,876.33 - "Think those numbers will get you through lunch?"

What both movies also grasp too well is racial distrust and division. Buckmaster increasingly loses the patience and faith of The Group as the lily-white Pages take up his time, as his supervisors find all manner of politically correct ways to all but say they don't want to be in the black music business. Meanwhile, Martin and Clarence initially try to be loose and jocular about race in their partnership, but Martin's first world problems are in stark contrast to Clarence's obligations and bouts with homelessness, Clarence privately tells black clients derogatory fiction about Martin in his absence to gain their trust, and after losing a black teenager's investment (and his) in the "New National Anthem," Martin tries to atone for it by putting the brakes on hard-selling a white female applicant. Relationships have not improved in the 30 years between these stories, the participants just find new ways to take advantage of the disparity.

Finally, both movies feature ostensibly "happy" endings that only a scorpion could appreciate, leaving their respective protagonists free from a bad environment, but at the cost of their moral codes, though the specifics will be left for you the viewer to discover.

And if you've made it this far, you can go ahead and tell all your friends that you were present that evening in spirit. This screening and this post-mortem have been a wonderful experience in discovery and insight, and I thank you for joining me. Let's do this again soon, like at the end of the month.

Might as well go out on a song:

In the wars when the wars were still going, going strong
Weren’t nobody in the wars who was living very long
Asked my teacher why folks die
She said some folks die for songs
It’s how they know they belong

Songs for the veterans in their veteran caravans
Who know turtles are not terrapins
Still they have hope and it shows
Or at least hope that it snows
We all like it when it snows

Don’t mess with me, don’t mess with me
Don’t nobody mess with me
You think I'm kidding
I'm not kidding
Got my finger on the trigger
So get your ass behind the singer
I'm like Texas, I'm like Texas
I'm like Texas, only bigger

In the parks when the parks were still places we always loved
Still weren't nobody on the lawns who were staying there past dark
Asked my momma where folks was, she said she guessed they all gone home
That they'd all be back 'fore long

Songs for the catamarans and y'all with super bad Trans-Ams
For what you've done in your churches
And for what you've done in bars
It helps us stand up when its hard
Cause that's all that anthems are

Don't mess with me, don't mess with me
Don't nobody mess with me
There's no hittin'
There's no spittin'
I'm not kiddin'
There's no spittin'
Got my finger on the banner
On the starry spangled banner
Just like Texas you cant miss us
God and Texas, here forever

 

See you again March 26th at the New Beverly for the next Cinema Tremens double feature: Douglas Sirk's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION and Jean-Jacques Beineix's BETTY BLUE, with a special introduction to the latter film by my guest, writer/director Sacha Gervasi. Tickets on sale now!


1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece, Marc! I'd never heard of either film, but added both to my Netflix queue. Thanks for helping in the discovery.

    ReplyDelete