Monday, April 29, 2019

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace
seen @ AMC Lincoln Square 13, New York NY

Aretha Franklin is gone, but her music will always be with us. There have been many 20th century vocalists of raw talent and uncanny skill, but Aretha was in a class by herself, fusing her gospel roots to rhythm and blues to create a pop sound unlike anything that came before, one that paved the way for Whitney and Mariah and Beyoncé and Adele and just about every pop diva of the last forty years.

In 1972, Aretha returned to gospel to record a collection of spirituals with a choir and a band at an LA Baptist church. The result was Amazing Grace, an album that became the biggest-selling gospel record of all time. There should have been an accompanying film, but it didn’t happen right away, for a number of reasons, until now.

This one wasn’t on my short list, although I had heard of it. I saw it with Ann, whom I’ve mentioned here before —Virginia’s friend who has since become mine, too. Ann’s original companion had to cancel unexpectedly, so she asked me along instead. Like Virginia, she’s a singer of classical music, or “early music,” as they call it — and watching this movie with her made me very conscious of the recent exposure I’ve gotten to religious music.

Over the past year-plus, I’ve watched Virginia perform in a number of choirs, in churches all over New York, singing hymns (as well as secular tunes) from the 17th and 18th centuries, and beyond. I remember thinking initially that this kind of music, stirring as it is, can’t compare to contemporary gospel. I was not raised Baptist, but I’ve certainly seen and heard enough to be familiar with how a typical black choir sounds: raucous, emotionally charged, electric. Both performers and audience are connected and the result is a physical, tangible thing.

The hymns found in early music, by contrast, are typically sung by a chorus that stands perfectly still, sheet music held under their noses, amidst the Gothic architecture of a church with high ceilings and gravid crucifixes (and watching them while sitting in uncomfortable pews!), all meant to impose the solemnity of the occasion and the Deep Meaning of Jesus Christ’s life and death and resurrection (if you believe in that stuff). I mean, seriously, you can’t even applaud after every song. I never know when I’m allowed to and when I’m not and that always bugs me.

Now some people might disagree with that simplification, and the truth is, I have enjoyed the services I’ve seen Virginia in — sometimes I imagine I can even pick her out amidst the chorus, and that always pleases me — but then I watch something like Aretha’s performance in this movie and the difference is like night and day. How can early music compare?

I asked Ann this question after the movie, and her answer was simple: she’s listened to early music long enough to recognize the beauty within it as a separate thing from contemporary gospel. She’s never sung gospel, knows she wouldn’t be able to, and while she recognizes how good it is, it doesn’t take away from her appreciation of the kind of music she prefers. That makes sense — I can listen to, Nine Inch Nails without it taking away from my appreciation of, say, Dusty Springfield — but I haven’t quite reached that point yet in this particular case.

You’d find it tough to disagree after seeing Grace. The 1972 footage, shot over two nights by Sidney Pollack, presents us with an Aretha quite different from the one we’re used to seeing. Decked out in white on the first night, walking down the aisle of the church not unlike an angel, she defers to the MC, the Reverend Doctor James Cleveland, who conducts the service with a combination of solemnity and showbiz hucksterism. On the second night, Aretha’s own preacher father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, speaks from the pulpit for a moment. At another point, during the performance, he takes a rag and pats his daughter’s face as she plays the piano and sings, which struck me as quite tender.

Aretha is one with the music. I don’t think you have to be a believer to sense the connection, though I wasn’t as moved as, say, Rev. Cleveland was during one point in the film where he has to sit down, his head in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion at hearing Aretha’s voice. The choir, which Ann said she was particularly thrilled with, not only supported Aretha but urged her onward during her best solo moments. Basically, every black choir cliche can be found here — the sweaty singers, the gesticulating conductor, the audience members going nuts — except it’s all real. And damn, Aretha was only 29 when she did this! Is it any wonder she was revered as a legend in her own time?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Bird Box

Bird Box
Netflix viewing

I first heard about Bird Box on Facebook. Friends would discuss something called “the Bird Box Challenge” and I, naturally, had no clue what they were talking about, nor did I care. I’m not the type to pursue every trend on social media. Then I discovered Bird Box was a movie, and I kept seeing memes of a blindfolded Sandra Bullock in a rowboat. Why hadn’t I heard of this movie that apparently has quite a bit of buzz?

Oh. Of course. It’s on Netflix.

These days, serialized television dramas drive social media discussion more than any one film, so to see this film not only generate talk, but to develop a life of its own beyond the film — especially a movie only available through a streaming service — says volumes about how movies have changed, and are changing. I seriously doubt the filmmakers anticipated how big a hit this would become, and it’s not like it was connected to a gimmick, like The Blair Witch Project, or spoke to a bigger social movement, like the recent gay romance Love, Simon, or was an overhyped genre blockbuster.

It was just this Sandra Bullock horror movie.

Thursday, April 11, 2019


seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens NY

Earlier this year we talked about the superhero formerly known as Captain Marvel, now called Shazam — one of the oldest active characters in comics history, with a wide and devoted fanbase. He was the first superhero to make it to the big screen. He and his supporting cast spun off a ton of merchandise at the peak of their popularity. When DC Comics acquired the rights to the character, he enjoyed a new wave of popularity in the 70s. A big reason why was his television incarnations.

Filmation was big on Saturday morning and weekday afternoon television in the 70s and 80s. While their animation style looks primitive compared to, say, Teen Titans Go, never mind the great WB adventure toons of the 90s, lots of kids from my generation remember them fondly. They also made live-action shows, and their first was Shazam!, in 1974.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Netflix viewing

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the first Netflix original film I've seen since I got the online streaming service for myself, and it comes for me at an appropriate time. You may recall Scruggs was a three-time Oscar nominee, including Adapted Screenplay, one of several Netflix films from last year to be feted, and that's starting to rub some people the wrong way.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Links: Disney-Fox special edition

So. Disney and Fox.

My reaction isn't too different from yours, I imagine: I'm not thrilled at Disney's monopolistic takeover of American pop culture and I fear this may not be the end.

The former's acquisition of the latter is a reaction to the rise of online streaming as a viable outlet for film distribution. The Mouse wants in on that — and once they launch their own platform for it this year, they will —but they also wanna stay competitive.

I guess at this point all I wanna say is this: if you're fed up with Disney owning everything, step outside your comfort zone and see what else is out there. The little guys, the properties without a budget, without a slick marketing campaign, will need our help to survive now more than ever. You don't have to settle for the same old thing if you don't want to — and obviously, this applies to way more than just movies and television.


This month's link roundup includes stories related to the Disney-Fox deal, none of which involve superheroes:

What the deal potentially means for you and me.

The layoffs are and will be massive.

A post-mortem on the beloved Fox 2000, a casualty of the deal.

Is Tim Burton's Dumbo an unintentional allegory for the deal?

Data tracking in the wake of the deal: are children at risk?


Ivan on streaming movies.

How Maddy got into silent films.

And then there was that time, as Le tells it, when Fred Flintstone wore a rubber suit in a monster movie.

Will the Amazon HQ2 controversy lead  to the end of New York State's film tax incentive?

A brief history of "white savior" films (including Green Book).

Barbara Stanwyck learned much about being a great film actress from Frank Capra.

Rudolph Valentino and the lifestyle he inspired.

Finally, thanks again to everyone who took part in the Richard Matheson Blogathon and especially Debbie for co-hosting with me.

Monday, April 1, 2019

QWFF 2019 part 2

Part two of my Queens World Film Festival report and while part of me feels a bit guilty over missing days, it's okay because I still saw some good movies.