George Martin, the dapper, classically-trained music producer who helped to guide the Beatles from obscurity to being the most influential rock band of all time, died recently in his sleep at the age of 90; Martin also collaborated with performers as diverse as Jeff Beck and Cheap Trick. Read the full article about George Martin here.
Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at the Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. It tells the remarkable true story of attorney James B. Donovan, who represents a Russian spy, and later negotiates a complex trade between the Superpowers, bringing home an American pilot. Read the movie review on our Film & TV Page.
Thursday Review‘s Kevin Robbie tells the story of how The Beatles played at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1965, overnight changing the way rock and roll fans would see live music, and in the process putting on the most famous outdoor concert ever held. Read the full Music Page article by clicking here.
Thursday Review offers up a subjective list of the six funniest, laugh-out-loud movies, and why these films are classics in their own ways. Follow the link to our Film & Television Page for more, and let us know if your own list differs from ours!
Thursday Review examines the long life of actor Leonard Nimoy; his portrayal of Spock in the Star Trek series made his face an icon of television and one of the biggest names in science-fiction. How Star Trek became a sensation; Article here: Leonard Nimoy, Rest in Peace; February 28, 2015; Thursday Review.
Thursday Review’s Stuart Boggess examines the pop performance stylings of Bruno Mars; music that is both classic and timeless, as well as appealing to new audiences; Music Page article: If You Don’t Believe Me, Just Watch; Thursday Review; February 23, 2015.
Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at two recent movies, The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley) and The Theory of Everything (starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones); science biographies are cool again, even if those films are occasionally thin on actual science. Read the review here: Science Guys on the Big Screen; Thursday Review.
Thursday Review features editor Earl Perkins looks at the 2015 Winter Dance Party, an annual music fest held each year to honor the legacies of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who died on February 3, 1959, when their Beechcraft Bonanza crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa on its way to Fargo, North Dakota. Read the Music Page article: Buddy Holly & the Winter Dance.
The masterpiece sequel The Godfather Part II celebrated its 40th birthday last month; Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton takes a careful look at the film’s legacy and impact, while also examining director Coppola’s other project from that same year, a sleeper called The Conversation, starring Gene Hackman and John Cazale. A look at how both motion pictures changed our worldview; read more: Francis Ford Coppola’s Best Year: 1974. Or go to the Front Page of Thursday Review.
It may be the worst movie to have ever received this much advance attention or publicity. And in the end, it may have been at the center of the costliest corporate data breach since the great Target retail hack of 2013. Was all the fuss over The Interview worth it? And where does Sony Pictures go from here? One in a series of articles about cyber-security and freedom of the press: http://www.thursdayreview.com/TheInterviewSonyHack.html
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton examines Pulp Fiction as it reaches its 20th anniversary, a transformative and game-changing film which fractured the ossified rules of Hollywood at the time. The movie also gave actor Bruce Willis redirection, made a star out of Samuel L. Jackson, and harkened the return of John Travolta in what became the most famous comeback in Tinseltown history. Read the full article at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/PulpFiction20.html
By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor
Liverpool, England was the epicenter of a vibrant music scene in 1961. At many venues around the city, groups and solo acts played to lunchtime crowds as well as late-night audiences. The performances were noted for the eager musicianship and the wide variety of musical sources, though nearly all of them were all-out rock-and-roll oriented.
Rock had become the music de jure in Liverpool after the passing of the skiffle craze. Skiffle was popular for a few years because in order to play it, a group did not need formal instruments. Because England was still under wartime rationing, money was in short supply as well. Skiffle music could be produced with washboards, buckets and homemade guitars which cost little or nothing to make, utilizing materials laying around one’s house. Liverpool was one of England’s major port cities and the crews of foreign ships which took cargo in and out of the port brought with them various cultural influences. American ships brought in music, largely in the form of LP record albums which the merchant seamen often sold at record shops throughout the city. The records brought the music of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran as well as blues and jazz. As rock replaced skiffle, budding groups began incorporating all these influences into their repertoires. Some, of course, did this more successfully than others.
There were approximately 300 rock bands in Liverpool in the autumn of 1961. One of the most popular groups was called The Beatles. The group had gone through different names and identities (The Quarrymen, The Beat Brothers) while trying to establish itself as a major force on the local music scene. The Beatles played all over Liverpool and once performed in front of an audience of under ten people. They were becoming well-known in the city for their frenetic style as well as their volume and sheer energy. People were recognizing that the group possessed an undefined “it” factor that was setting them apart from other groups. Although they were the most popular band in Liverpool by late 1961, they were still unknown outside of their home city. Their ambition, talent—and lunchtime encounter—would soon propel them into the stratosphere.
During their early years, the Beatles performed and developed as musicians without the aid of proper management. At various times they had been managed, loosely, by Mona Best, the mother of their original drummer, Pete Best. Allan Williams, the owner of two Liverpool dance clubs, also booked performance dates for the Beatles. Williams’ business interests kept him from full-time management but he also considered the group unreliable because of their chronic tardiness to gigs. Their career depended on a dedicated, full-time manager.
One venue at which the Beatles frequently played was the Cavern Club, located at 10 Mathew Street. The Cavern opened as a jazz club in 1957 but was purchased by Ray McFall in 1959. Under McFall’s ownership, Bob Wooler was hired as the compere and the cavern became a rock-and-roll venue. Wooler began booking more prominent acts and he raised the Cavern’s profile. The club also became known for its raucous lunchtime sessions. Wooler welcomed the crowd by announcing “Welcome Cavern dwellers. Welcome to the best of cellars!” The space occupied by the Cavern had been an old cellar.
One of the groups booked at the Cavern was the Beatles. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had played at the Cavern in 1958 as the Quarrymen, when the venue was still a jazz club with a limited rock program. The Beatles first appearance at the Cavern was February 9, 1961. They had returned from three months in Hamburg, Germany, honing their craft and developing their stage presence. They were building a reputation as great live performers and regularly packed the Cavern’s lunchtime sessions. Standing room only became the norm.
On November 9, 1961, Wooler announced the presence of a visitor to the Cavern. Many in the young crowd recognized Brian Epstein, the operator of NEMS (North End Music Stores), a family-owned business in Liverpool, on Great Charlotte Street. The young people who frequented the Cavern also liked to hang out in the NEMS store, listening to the latest records, many of which were by American artists. Epstein took pride in being able to acquire records considered difficult to find, or obscure, so his store was popular with music fans.
Brian Epstein was 27 years old when he met the Beatles. He had worked successfully for several years in the family business but had become bored and restless. Epstein was looking for something different in his life and he had just crossed paths with the Beatles. According to Beatles lore, Epstein first heard of the Beatles when a teen-ager named Raymond Jones walked into NEMS and requested a record—“My Bonnie,” by Tony Sheridan, featuring a backup band called the Beatles. Sheridan was a musician and guitarist from Norwich, England, who had gained popularity in Hamburg, Germany. Sheridan had been offered a contract by German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. “My Bonnie” was recorded in June, 1961, and on the record’s label the Beatles were identified as the “Beat Brothers.” However, the Jones story may not be entirely true. The Beatles were already creating a buzz among Liverpool youth by the fall of 1961, so it’s reasonable to assume Epstein had heard other conversations about them in his store.
Like other aspiring groups, the Beatles were seeking fame and fortune. In the early 1960’s, that meant securing a record contract. However, the British music scene was dominated by acts signed out of London. Although the Beatles were well known among Liverpool youth, they were unknown in the rest of Britain. They believed their career would stagnate, and they would never break out of Liverpool, unless they secured proper management.
Brian Epstein had seen NEMS business grow to the point that his father, Harry, was considering expanding it and opening additional stores. NEMS’ record departments were booming, largely due to Brian’s hard work and business acumen. The Epsteins were sitting on a potential retail empire. Brian worked diligently at NEMS largely out of family loyalty and expectations and could be called a successful, up-and-coming businessman. Nevertheless, Brian felt that his life was stagnating. He had grown up beset with insecurity and struggled with his identity. As an adolescent, Brian had begun struggling with the fact that he was attracted to boys. By the time he was twenty, Brian had admitted to himself that he was homosexual. By throwing himself into the family business, he tried to please his parents and find a way to be “normal.” Success at NEMS failed to alleviate Brian’s inner conflicts or unhappiness. He was looking for something else to do with his life. Once Brian met the Beatles and saw them perform, he decided to take a gigantic leap of faith.
Brian was attracted to the impulsive, restless nature of the performances he witnessed at the Cavern, as well as the reckless spontaneity he witnessed in the onstage presence of the Beatles. It was an image wholly opposite his own buttoned-down life and Brian was mesmerized. By early December, 1961, Brian decided to offer himself to the group as their manager.
The first formal meeting occurred on December 3 in Brian’s office. Bob Wooler had accompanied the Beatles as a friend and unofficial advisor. The Beatles were nervous but anxious to hear what Brian had to say. At first, they engaged in small talk, with Brian telling the group how much he enjoyed their performances and complimenting them on the local interest in “My Bonnie.” Eventually, Brian got to the point and offered to manage the group. He gave the appearance of being noncommittal and encouraged the Beatles to think about his offer, which contained nothing specific as of yet. The Beatles were highly flattered that someone successful and well-connected like Brian Epstein took an interest in them. They realized this might be the break they needed.
When Brian informed his parents of his decision to dive into management of a pop group, they were not only skeptical, but also upset, especially his father. Harry Epstein regarded it as a harebrained scheme that would ultimately come to naught. Brian’s mother was more optimistic, but she also realized that the young Brian probably could not be talked out of it. Brian told his father that he would continue to work at the store while acting as the Beatles manager on a part-time basis. It was largely through Brian’s efforts that NEMS had grown to become one of the biggest musical retail outlets in England.
Further meetings between Brian and the group occurred on December 6 and 10. The Beatles decided as a group to accept Brian’s offer of management. They had already begun to trust him and they were confident that Brian could open the necessary doors to ignite their career. But there was a slight hitch in the plan; three of the group’s members—Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best—were underage, so any management contract they entered into needed the consent of parents. Pete’s mother, Mona Best and George’s parents, Harry and Louise Harrison, were enthusiastic from the beginning and gave their consent quickly. Paul’s father, Jim McCartney, was skeptical, but eventually gave in to Paul’s pleadings. Having always harbored misgivings about her nephew’s chosen career as a musician, John’s aunt, Mimi Smith, was also deeply skeptical. As his guardian, her biggest fear was that Brian Epstein would eventually lose interest in the Beatles, and John would be cut adrift. However, John had turned 21 in October, so he could legally sign a contract on his own—without permission of his aunt.
The Beatles signed a management contract with Brian Epstein on January 24, 1962. According to the document’s terms, Brian would receive 10-15% of the group’s income, depending on how much they earned. Brian would undertake to manage their business and financial affairs, as well as their tour schedule. His primary goal was to land the group a proper recording contract, but as a secondary task he had to free them from a few constraints left in place by a contract they had signed with Bert Kaempfert back in Hamburg during the brief period when the Beatles with associated with Tony Sheridan. Once those legal issues were resolved, Epstein began promoting the group aggressively, and he soon secured an audition for the group with Decca Records at their West Hampstead Studios on January 1, 1962.
Members of the group were thrilled, but they were also nervous and filled with self-doubt; would their presence, infectious energy, and natural charisma onstage transfer to acetate? Nevertheless, the group performed fifteen songs during a one-hour “artist test.” The numbers were a representative cross-section of the upbeat songs the group played during live performances.
But, upon conclusion of the audition session, Decca’s immediate response was “we’ll get back to you….” Decca offered what would become one of the most famous rejections of all time by intoning that “guitar bands are on the way out.” The incident seemed to pose the question: Where would the Beatles go from here?
Still, Epstein remained tireless, and in February—only a few months after the Decca rejection—Epstein brokered a meeting with producer George Martin, and the boys were soon signed to EMI’s Parlophone Records. Martin sensed something special in the band, and in June 1962 put them into a recording studio—where the first order of business became replacing drummer Pete Best with the more accomplished Ringo Starr, at that time a member of Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. If Pete Best was the weak link musically, Ringo was that missing bit of chemistry that rounded out the group’s energetic sound and stage personality. New drummer in place, the Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” on September 4, 1962. Two months later, at EMI’s Abbey Road recording studio in London, the Beatles recorded “Please Please Me,” a song Martin predicted with uncanny accuracy would rocket to number one.
“Please Please Me” became the title of their first album—a collection of songs released in spring 1963. Among those tunes was the catchy “She Loves You,” a song which would move quickly to number one in the U.S. and the U.K., and would set an all-time sales record by selling an astonishing 765,000 copies in only four weeks. Weeks later, it would become the Beatles first million seller, the first of more than a dozen chart-toppers in those early years, and the start of a run of number one hits that would break every record in musical history.
Epstein’s lunchtime encounter with the Beatles—in that former wine cellar—changed the trajectory not only for a young, ambitious band manager and an up-and-coming rock and roll group, but redefined the concept of the “guitar band” so easily dismissed by the music executives at Decca.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The vast majority of science fiction writers, producers and directors—along with all the detachments of set designers, cinematographers and lighting designers—face a simple, yet inescapable conundrum: Stanley Kubrick forever changed the template for sci-fi on the big screen. Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s masterful, sweeping novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey raised the bar for sci-fi, then, deftly set it permanently in place.
Just as no screenwriter or director can fully escape the rules of gravity set down by Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather, no director ventures into the world of science fiction without some degree of homage or outright obedience to Kubrick’s vision. Deviate or disregard those canons if you like, but expect the risk factor to increase exponentially—as was the case with the increasingly unpleasant and pointless Alien sequels in a franchise that should have ceased after number two; likewise, with the Predator brand, each film becoming a little more absurd.
The stand-alones can be worse—Event Horizon, for example, which backfired despite great ensemble casting and what appeared for the first 20 minutes to be a great plot. Prometheus was even worse: Ridley Scott and unlimited, dazzling digital special effects did not prevent the movie from becoming the biggest rehash of previously tread visuals and themes from the vast Ridley Scott portfolio. Avatar, while sumptuous and layered and filled with gorgeously-executed effects, likewise failed for its lack of originality: Dances With Wolves meets The Abyss, or something like that. James Cameron poured all his known tricks into one colorful epic, and the result at times is pure boredom, with brief moments of visual originality and genuine beauty.
Only in recent years have the sci-fi writers attempted to challenge Kubrick’s monolithic laws of film gravity and attraction—by understanding and obeying those laws just as if they were in the physics classroom. And that brings us neatly to Alfonso Cuaron’s appropriately-named Gravity, which starred Oscar winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. What makes Cuaron’s masterpiece so masterful is its scrupulous adherence to—well—the laws of gravity, and all other manner of physics as well. Though some complained the movie was essentially a vertigo-inducing amusement park ride, its fidelity to scientific principle, while still infusing genuine action and thrills, made Gravity a joy.
The recent release of Interstellar proves that some writer/directors still have the cajones to challenge our minds while attempting—wherever possible—to not venture off the pages of that astrophysics textbook. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception; Batman Begins), Interstellar makes what appears to be a self-conscious effort to place itself on the same level—or close to the level—of Kubrick’s great 1969 masterpiece. It falls a bit short, of course, but what is surprising perhaps is how close Nolan comes to achieving the impossible: redefining sci-fi for a new generation of movie-goers. (By the way, I do not count George Lucas’s epic Star Wars among the players in this dogfight, since it stands alone very nearly in a class by itself—a genre which Lucas basically reinvented).
Interstellar starts out with a modest enough premise: for reasons unclear to most of humanity, crops are failing on Earth. Top soil is being replaced by dust, water is scarce, and few things other than corn are left to grow in barely sufficient quantities. Society in the United States and a few allies remains upright, but only marginally, and much of the planet is facing famine. Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey), our protagonist single-father, is, like almost everyone in the heartland, a farmer of corn. He is also a former pilot and one-time astronaut—handy skills, as it will turn out. Thanks to an antiquated military drone left wandering the skies, which crashes near Coop’s farm, and in large part because of what appears to be messages arriving in some paranormal fashion each day in his daughter’s book-filled bedroom (more about that later), he and his pre-teen daughter stumble upon a top secret NASA facility where scores of the best American scientists work around the clock to save the planet.
Now, take a deep breath: yes, screenwriters Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan have made things absurdly convenient at this point in the story (what are the odds that a skilled former astronaut would live two farms and a cornhusk toss away from an underground NASA workshop?). But the coincidences don’t end there: one of his old NASA colleagues runs the secret facility, where, among other things, scientists and engineers have constructed a massive rocket/transport/space-station whatchamacallit—stocked with supplies and ready for launch. All that’s left is for Cooper to say his goodbyes and convince his daughter that he’ll return from space on what already seems a long shot for humanity.
The good news is, once you’ve accepted all of this neatly arranged setup, things start to go well in the sci-fi department. Predictably, Cooper and his carefully picked team are sent into space with a sort of Hail Mary pass mission—find a hospitable place in which to restart/reboot humanity. But, as we all know from physics 101 and a hundred viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can’t just hop into your rocketship and speed off to an inhabitable world. Even those stars with demonstrable evidence of orbiting planets are an immense distance from our Earth—hundreds, thousands, even millions of years away. (Real-world example: it took a well-designed NASA spacecraft three years just to reach a comet right within our neighborhood, and now that it has arrived, its batteries have died).
So now things start to come together, science-wise. The trouble with the Earth’s crops, we understand, may have something to do with gravity, and gravity is being affected by the arrival within our solar system of what appears to be a wormhole—a passage through the space-time fabric which, NASA hopes, will allow a few select explorers to venture to a handful of star systems with planets that could, just maybe, meet the requirements of supporting human life. In fact, we learn, a few other missions have already been attempted using the newly-discovered portal through space. The gang at the secret NASA facility have no way to know for sure if any of the previous missions have succeeded; each one has been a gamble, each a roll of the dice that humans may survive in some distant place. Each mission has two optimal outcomes: astronauts return to Earth intact with news and data about a distant planet worth human attention; or, if things go wrong with the space-time deal—they become colonists; stay put on the new planet, and begin the human race anew.
Most of the explorers already sent on these missions are single, with few family members. In Coop’s case, he must make a decision: there is the profound risk that he will never see his two children or his doting father-in-law again.
Nolan works the angles of the space-time paradox well from this point forward. Like his mind-bender, dream-world movie Inception—in which a team must go into layers of shared dream states to engage in industrial sabotage—Nolan appreciates that some things are absolute, while others are not. Coop and his team are sent toward an area known to contain a black hole. Here, the laws of Earth-bound physics do not always apply, and the minutes and hours do not tick off at the same perceived rate as back home. A couple of hours spent on a planet covered in waist deep water, and a mishap recovering evidence of a previous NASA mission, roll more than 20 years off the Earth clock in less than 120 minutes. Now, Coop’s preteen daughter and teenage son are grown-ups, and Coop has already become a grandfather. Thus director Nolan bends time even as he bends the minds of his audience, and a subsequent roll of the dice to a planet inhabited only by one man, Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon), ends in near catastrophe and the partial destruction of the main spacecraft. Left with few options, and with decades rolling off their clocks back on the beleaguered Earth, Coop and his one surviving crew-member Brand (Anne Hathaway), must make the ultimate gamble—use the barely-imaginable space-time forces of the nearby black hole to attempt and end-run around failure.
Nolan smartly does not expect every audience member to have an elementary knowledge of wormholes, black holes, and orbiting bodies, so he closes the gap by employing reasonably well-presented, well-timed summations by Coop’s crew members and others. Far from slowing things down, these mini-lessons help to pin things together and clarify the risks these voyagers are taking at each new step.
Wormholes, as they are loosely called, are space distortions in which two disparate points in the universe are within striking distance because the universe itself—or some incarnation of it—can be bent or folded to create a shortcut. Black holes, as many readers already know, are the collapsed remnants of massive stars—places of extremely compact mass where gravity is so powerful it prevents everything (including light) from escape. Black holes are not visible in the conventional sense, but can be detected with certainty nonetheless since they bend the surrounding light in a manner known as gravitational lensing. Get close enough to a black hole and even time will distort; some astrophysicists believe that the intense power of a black hole will bend time relative to one’s proximity to the event horizon.
Nolan works well with these remarkable elements of the known and unknown universe, incorporating solid science with the not-too-fanciful to basically create a movie which obeys the laws of physics—at least as we understand them. Both Nolans—Jonathan and Christopher—burnished their understanding of space physics by collaborating with a real, bona fide Cal Tech astrophysicist, Kip Thorne. Thorne helped guide the filmmakers when it came time to give shape and life to the phenomena illustrated in the movie, most especially the black hole, which instinct and intuition tells us to avoid.
In the end—and not to spoil anything for readers—Cooper enters the black hole directly. It is his only chance of altering the time-space template in an effort to save humanity, and still preserve a tiny chance of seeing his family again. Once inside the full effect of the black hole, there is new clarity regarding the occasional “supernatural” events which had occurred on that sprawling bookcase in his daughter’s bedroom decades earlier.
But if Stanley Kubrick’s most consistent theme throughout his films was to illuminate the forces which dehumanize us, Nolan approaches the equation from the opposite direction. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously cold and chilling, especially in the middle sequences. For Kubrick, the paradox is that the proto-human apes are the most bonded and communal, whereas the technologically advanced space travelers of the future are so bled of humanity that they become almost mechanical. Nolan dismisses this thesis outright. Interstellar’s explorers are all-too-human in their fears, worries, doubts and emotions. Despite the risk to the mission and even to humanity, Cooper continually frets about the promise he made to his pre-teen daughter. Dr. Mann (Damon), has been fractured by desperation and loneliness as the only member of a team to reach his distant, frozen planet. In his emotional swell of desire to see his home again, Dr. Mann risks the lives of the others and nearly obliterates the mission. Brand (Hathaway) has a love interest among the colonists on still another of the planets where humanity might have a chance to start over. And at nearly every checkpoint along the way, all of the film’s characters question the balance between purest science and heartfelt emotion; between the human desire to explore and learn, and the equally compelling tug of family, community, love, and the primal instinct to further the species.
Interstellar is not to be confused with an action flick or a high-stakes thriller (though the ten minutes or so spent inside the black hole were edited for maximum tension and suspense). Like its predecessor, Gravity, Interstellar’s pacing is built around phases of routine and calm, punctuated by genuine danger and fear. Nolan lets the physics and science dictate the surprises and the timing.
But there are flaws on this point as well: the movie takes a painfully long time to get started, and during this prelude it provides only cryptic explanations of the condition of man and the planet to boot. It may be the only sci-fi movie ever to spend the first one third of its running time in corn fields, along dusty dirt roads, or in the principal’s office at the middle school. As a result, at close to three hours, the movie feels too long—unnecessarily long—though the interminable opening stages do give McConaughey ample opportunity to show us he is a great performer, even when trading off of highly skilled actors like John Lithgow (Coop’s father-in-law) and Michael Caine (NASA’s aging Professor Brand).
But for science fiction buffs, Interstellar is a solid winner—about an 8.5 or 9.1 on the scale of ten. Its digital special effects are dazzling and effective, and most importantly wisely deployed—rarely travelling over-the-top as might be the case with a clumsier production, or in the action-based blockbusters where the effects are the story. This care and prudence with the effects meshes agreeably with the “science” part of this sci-fi adventure to create a film worth seeing on the big screen (don’t wait for Netflix of HBO on this one). In short: Interstellar effectively melds real science, the mind-bending joy of sci-fi, and deeper questions about humanity and family into one neatly produced epic.
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By Kathryn Mineer, Thursday Review contributor
More often than not, the concept art for a movie is far more grandiose than the actual finished product. Character designs are simplified, color palettes are toned down, and all the more intricate minutiae seems to get lost altogether in the translation from artist’s vision to silver screen.
Jorge Gutierrez decided his animated film—The Book of Life—would not suffer a similar fate. Decreeing that his film would include all the “glorious art” that usually only sees the light of day in the “The Art of” type-books, or in those magazine articles featuring “what could have been” glimpses of storyboards, Gutierrez avoids compromise and surpasses expectations. The Book of Life is a feast for the eyes, filled to the brim with vibrant color, charming characters, and loving attention to every detail. It’s hard not to be captivated by this fast-paced tale set in the heart of Mexico.
The story starts out with two boys—Manola and Joaquin—who are both vying for the heart of their female friend, Maria. Two deities of the afterlife—La Muerte and her husband Xibalba—notice this and use their young love as the basis for a wager. Xibalba rules over the Land of the Forgotten, where departed souls with no one to honor them after their deaths waste away in misery. La Muerte reigns over the Land of the Remembered, a land of eternal celebration where those whose families honor the memories go to spend the afterlife in style. Tired of spending eons in such a depressing place, Xibalba bets that if Joaquin wins Maria’s heart, he will switch domains with La Muerte. Likewise, La Muerte bets that if Maria falls in love with Manolo, Xibalba will cease meddling in human affairs forever.
Not satisfied with just sitting back and watching, however, Xibalba tips the scales in his favor, gifting Joaquin with a medal that grants him near invincibility. When Maria returns from boarding school in Spain as an adult she finds that Joaquin has become a famous hero admired by everyone in town due to the medal’s influence. Manolo has also grown up, becoming a bullfighter as per his father’s wishes despite his own desire to be a musician. Both do their best to impress her and when it becomes evident that Manolo’s sincerity has charmed Maria over Joaquin’s ostentatious showboating, Xibalba intervenes, forcing Manolo to undergo various trials in the afterlife in order to return to the mortal world and be reunited with Maria.
The entire narrative is framed under the pretext of a museum guide using wooden figures to illustrate the tale to a group of children on a field trip and the movie definitely feels like it was made to appeal to children first and foremost. The characters are all heavily stylized and the plot moves at a fast—at times bordering on hyperactive—pace. The entire movie clocks in at 95 minutes, and while the filmmakers do pack in a lot of heart into those 95 minutes, at times the film felt more like a long episode of a television cartoon than a feature film, especially in regards to the comedy.
Many of the jokes relied on funny voices and slapstick to land the laughs, and many—in this reviewer’s opinion—missed the mark. Even though I wasn’t particularly wowed by the comedy, however, the visuals and the movie’s overall message certainly make it worth seeing. The story behind The Book of Life is a story about following your heart despite what others might expect of you and many of the characters defy the stereotypes of what they’re supposed to be. Manolo is a thoughtful, gentle hero who isn’t afraid to show his emotions, Maria is a fearless, strong-willed leader who never becomes a damsel in distress, and Joaquin – who easily could have become a typical jilted lover who turns on his friends – overcomes his jealousy to fight alongside them for what is right. Aside from its character depth, the film’s music also triumphs, featuring everything from traditional up-tempo Mexican dance to mainstream hits—at one point Manolo strums out a heartfelt cover of Radiohead’s song “Creep” on his guitar—all culminating in an absolutely breathtaking ending musical number.
The Book of Life’s true strength lies in its visuals above all else—it is a loving, immaculately detailed tribute to the rich color and culture of Mexico. In this way it is unlike many of the other animated CGI films that hit the market these days. Whereas many films are made with big budgets to make even bigger profits, The Book of Life is the result of an artistic vision and a dream made reality. It has a heart to it that makes it worth watching and definitely makes it worth the ticket price.
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By Thursday Review staff
Though the ruling was sealed and there has been little conversation—before, during, or after—a copyright and trademark case is making its way through the courts in California, a case with big implications for anyone thinking of imitating the famous fictional agent James Bond.
MGM and Danjaq LLC have sued NBC Universal (owned by Comcast) to force Universal to cease its development and production of a motion picture which will feature a high-ranking spy working for British intelligence. The fictional spy being developed by NBC Universal wears tuxedos, drinks dry martinis, drives snazzy sports cars, receives a “license to kill” from his handlers in London, and—in general—has all the other habits and attributes of the famous spy developed decades ago by novelist Ian Fleming, and parlayed over the years into perhaps the most famous film franchise in movie history.
The case now being heard in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is called Danjaq LLC vs. Universal City Studios. MGM and Danjaq, it seems, do not want to see other film and TV studios cash in on a very profitable, but closely held, creation.
The Bond series—which numbers either 24 or 25, depending on how one counts them—has grossed close to $2 billion just in American theaters over the years. Coupled with other rights—foreign distribution, television replays, likenesses, gadgets, toys, you name it—the overall impact runs closer to $3 billion.
NBC Universal argued in court that the case was a waste of time and money: not one frame of the proposed film has even been shot, the script is still under development and therefore subject to extensive changes, and NBC Universal would likely rewrite/revise the draft screenplay (written originally by Aaron Berg) to insure that neither MGM nor Danjaq LLC would be infringed upon by the movie. Further, Universal says it has not even concluded whether the film should be produced. NBC had made a motion recently for the case to be dismissed, but U.S. District Judge James Otero denied that motion.
Nevertheless, talk is fast and loose in Hollywood. Rumors of the Bond-like motion picture have been circulating for many months, and it has been readily apparent that MGM and Danjaq plan to protect the reputation of their favorite secret agent.
The bond franchise has not only been highly profitable, but it has also made stars of its dapper leading men. Among those who have portrayed the handsome, well-tailored agent: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig. There have been other James Bonds in films, but it get complicated (for example, most people do not know that Bond was first portrayed as an American, by actor Barry Nelson; and many more would be surprised to learn that David Niven also played Bond).
Comic knockoffs of Bond have proliferated over the years as well. Mike Myers’ classic send-up of British spies—Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery—spawned an entire subculture of London-based agent laughs and gags. Johnny English, portrayed with the sort of deadpan aplomb only possible by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson, wears nifty black tuxedos, drives expensive sports cars, and seems to know which end of the gun is which. But English also causes almost as much mayhem and disruption as one would think possible in the intelligence services. Atkinson’s role also spawned numerous sequels.
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By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor
(Originally published Saturday, February 8, 2014):
Sunday, February 9th, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The event will be commemorated by CBS on Sunday (February 9, 2014) with “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.” The program will air in the same time slot, 8:00 p.m., as the band’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show. The salute will feature performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
As a child, I can remember sitting in front of our black-and-white television on Sunday evenings watching programs such as Lassie, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Perhaps the most popular Sunday evening program was the Ed Sullivan Show, the most highly-rated variety show in the history of television. “Ed Sullivan,” as the show was typically referred to, first aired in June, 1948 and ran on CBS until 1971. The show aired on CBS for its entire run in the era before cable television, and in an age when only three networks existed.
American culture in the early 1960’s was already coalescing around the family TV set. There were no electronic devices such as i-Pads, cell phones or video games to provide distractions. TV dinners were becoming more prevalent and families would often eat their evening meals sitting in front of the television set, only getting up to adjust the antenna, or “rabbit ears,” to improve reception. The kids might argue about whose turn it was to get up and change the channel because TV remotes weren’t in common use then, either.
Our culture was also more insular in the early 1960’s. The internet didn’t exist, international television wasn’t common and even trans-oceanic airplane travel was not as routine as it is today. There were fewer means for connecting people on a global basis. Other parts of the world were regarded as faraway, exotic or mysterious. In a sense, technology constrained our cultural horizons.
By early 1964, John Kennedy had been assassinated and Elvis had finished filming his fourteenth movie, “Kissin’ Cousins,” set for release in March. The death of President Kennedy and the transformation of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll into a singer of cheesy movie soundtracks disillusioned many American youth who began searching for new outlets for their energy and idealism.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom, British youth had found a new outlet for their expression in the form of four musicians from Liverpool. Calling themselves “The Beatles,” the band had recently exploded onto the musical and cultural scene in Britain, a society still emerging from the shadows of World War II. Rationing had been abolished only as recently as 1954 and there was a pervasive sense of national economic decline. Britain was trying to find its way in a post-colonial, Cold War world.
The Beatles’ rise from obscurity gave Britain a new relevance and ignited the latent energy of British youth.
1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” in the United Kingdom, sparked by an appearance on the BBC program “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The groups’ first record, “Love Me Do’” barely dented the Top 20 in late 1962. However, over the next few months, the Beatles became sensations with “Please, Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The last three songs were consecutive number one hits. The Beatles represented a fresh, positive sound and they wrote most of their own material, which was unprecedented in pop music. Their music was inspired by numerous influences from rockabilly to doo-wop to Elvis and Little Richard. They were inventive and eager in the recording studio and very charismatic as live performers. As for interviews, the group was quick-witted, funny and refreshingly down-to-earth, making them an instant hit with reporters.
During a dinner meeting in New York, in November, 1963, Ed Sullivan first met Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The meeting was arranged at the urging of Peter Prichard, an English theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as a talent evaluator. The impresario and the manager agreed that the Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th and again on February 16th, in a segment to be taped in Miami.
The appearance on February 9th was highly anticipated in light of the media blitz that surrounded it. The Beatles and Epstein arrived on Pan Am flight 101, which left London’s Heathrow Airport in a scene of pandemonium, complete with screaming girls straining against police barricades. At JFK Airport, the anxious crowd was estimated at approximately 5,000, not including 200 or so members of the media. Incidentally, the actual airplane which carried the Beatles, “Clipper Defiance’” was scrapped by the airline in 1977 in Long Beach, California.
After an airport press conference the Beatles were taken to the12th floor of the Plaza Hotel. They were greeted by another mob scene and indulged more journalists at another press conference in the hotel’s Baroque Room. Members of the group were thrilled to learn that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was now #1 in America.
At 1:30 p.m. the Beatles were whisked by limousine to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse for the appearance that evening. Mounted police were in place along the route to keep frenzied fans away from the limos. George Harrison was not present for this rehearsal due to a fever and strep throat. His sister Louise, living in Illinois at the time, had been flown to New York to tend to her ailing brother. Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George at the studio when the camera operators needed to test for angles and lighting. However, George was onstage with his band mates when the time came for the actual broadcast that evening.
When the episode aired at 8:00 Sunday evening, 60% of the television sets in the United States were tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, a figure representing an estimated 73 million people. As the show’s headliners, The Beatles took the stage in front of a studio audience of 700. Sullivan introduced the group as “these youngsters from Liverpool…” They opened their first set with “All My Loving” and closed it with “She Loves You.” In a briefer second set, the Beatles performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The youngsters from Liverpool had arrived in America and conquered it. Their success paved the way for the “British Invasion,” the wave of British bands whose popularity was ignited by the Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment in the Beatles’ legacy as the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, and forever linked the narrative of Ed Sullivan to the history of The Beatles.
It is a legacy that will endure as long as people listen to music.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published Sunday, February 2, 2014) Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor whose chameleon attributes enabled him to so successfully morph into the characters he portrayed that we often forgot he was acting, was found dead early Sunday in his Greenwich Village apartment. He was 46 years old.
Though not a household name in the sense that he occupied headlines the way Alec Baldwin or Sean Penn might, and though not chiseled with the sort of looks that brought him the brand of adoration movie fans might lavish upon leading men like Brad Pitt, Daniel Craig, Will Smith, Matt Damon or Orlando Bloom, Hoffman was instead what one would call an actor’s actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a rare quantity—which is to say he was the kind of actor who floats across the film radar screen maybe only a handful of times each generation.
Like John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon; The Godfather Part II) decades before him, Hoffman was unafraid to tackle the parts which required vulnerability, weakness, fear, self-doubt, even, at times, self-loathing. And in an age in which the Hollywood movie-making formula requires cocky self-assurance and bravado from its leading male roles (how many times has Tom Cruise basically played the role of Tom Cruise?) this meant that Hoffman was a true rarity, someone willing convert the looks and the tone and the voice that one might define as non-traditional into mainstream power. He demanded little of the camera.
Conversely, his skill was such that he could essentially reverse the dynamic, as he did with uncanny power in The Master, a film in which he plays the self-assured, charismatic Lancaster Dodd (an analog to the real-life L. Ron Hubbard if there ever was one in modern cinema), the leader of a fledgling quasi-religious self-help cult which specializes in “processing” its members to free them of collective memories and billions of years of accumulated pain and fear. Hoffman plays opposite Joaquin Phoenix, who takes on the manic role of the dysfunctional Freddie Quell, a troubled, bipolar alcoholic with heavy baggage. The complex waltz between the two characters is one of the most chilling—and compelling—ever forged in recent movies (a testament not only to Hoffman’s skill, but also to director Paul Thomas Anderson).
Anderson, a visual perfectionist who can said to share the cinematic DNA of Stanley Kubrick and, more recently, Terrence Malick, had worked with Hoffman before, and the young director knew he had something special. In Anderson’s atmospheric and dazzling period piece, Boogie Nights, and in the intensely cathartic Magnolia, Philip Seymour Hoffman emerges as a crucial, pivotal character, in each case absorbing and digesting wide swaths of emotional vulnerability, pain and insecurity.
In early films, like the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998) or Frank Hansen’s The Getaway (alongside Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger), Hoffman plays it for the sake of the leads, easily accepting the role of foil to the majors in key scenes. In Red Dragon he absorbed it all: a deliciously unlikeable combination of self-centeredness, narcissism, jugular-motivation, self-importance and tabloid trash hunger as reporter Freddy Lounds.
But by the time we see him in Cold Mountain, in 2002, easily working with gravitas and presence alongside Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, we realize that this guy has rivers—even oceans—of talent pent up behind that sturdy face and poorly-shaven mug. We realize that one day this actor might own this screen.
Then, Hoffman emerges with so much power that we lose track of who his is. He becomes the decade’s most notable movie changeling, an actor so easily able to change color and shape and density that we forget he is an actor. Charlie Wilson’s War and Synecdoche, New York prove that he is capable of almost anything on screen. He plays opposite Tom Hanks with such ease that we actually spend almost as much time watching Hoffman as we do Hanks—about as stupendous a performance as one can expect.
His complete transition from an actor named Philip Hoffman into the writer Truman Capote was total and inspired (for the movie Capote, directed by Bennett Miller). It may have been challenging work to remain in character for the role, but Hoffman made it look easy. The result was a film of remarkable, crystalline quality.
By the time he stars opposite Meryl Streep in Doubt, Hoffman had found his way to the Pantheon, playing the role of Father Brendan Flynn with such aplomb and believability that we accept without question that he is that Catholic Priest (just as we accept Meryl Streep in her role as Sister Aloysius, the school’s domineering, disciplinarian principal, and soon Father Flynn’s arch-nemesis in their escalating battle of wills).
Watching Hoffman in films like Pirate Radio and The Ides of March was to watch an artist at work—not by stealing the scenes, nor by chewing on the scenery, but by not calling attention to himself. In this sense, he worked at the opposite end of the spectrum from actors like Jim Carrey or Johnny Depp.
And watching Hoffman at work opposite George Clooney or Ryan Gosling (in The Ides of March), or Brad Pitt (in Moneyball) was also a way to remember that looks aren’t everything. Sometimes gravitas and skill come from something deeper, something more challenging—the special sort of inner metal that shatters exteriors and upends convention in a looks-obsessed world.
His loss will be felt deeply in the filmgoer’s flickering world.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
(Originally published January 18, 2014) For a score plus a century, motion pictures have been shot, edited, distributed—and projected onto the big screen—using film, typically 35 millimeter.
That tradition may soon come to an end as more film production companies and studios continue their transition to fully digital formats. In a move that promises to have historic importance, Paramount Pictures released a statement to all of its participating theaters that the recent comedy Anchorman II would be the last movie it would release on celluloid film stock. Industry experts suggest that as Paramount goes, so goes the rest of the Hollywood majors.
Paramount, like some of the other Hollywood majors such as 20th Century Fox, Universal and Walt Disney, has been slowly converting to digital distribution for several years. Last year several new releases were offered only in digital format to theaters, including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Three factors are now pushing the process of transition even faster.
One is theater conversion. Now that a vast majority of theaters, especially those who are part of the larger chains, have made the once-expensive upgrade to digital projection as an option, the studios feel they have less to fear from going fully digital. The major studios no longer worry about missing out on revenue from those few theaters still stuck with traditional projection methods. Unlike other technology advances (hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars, for example), this chicken and this egg have moved in tandem in their business model evolution.
AMC, for example, working closely with Sony, completed a costly three year transition of its theaters to digital at the end of 2012. Other major theater chains in North America, the U.K., Europe and Asia accelerated their conversions to digital at the end of the aught years, and now very few of the major theater companies have venues which still project using analog film.
The second factor is cost. Film—which was never cheap, even in the old days—is now greatly overpriced when compared to digital in cost per unit, and since fewer companies support hardware, maintenance, and supplies for film, the transition now seems unstoppable. Many theaters have converted fully to digital, and some are now installing satellite systems for direct beaming, or high speed digital platforms for direct downloads and uploads—distribution models that may reduce the cost of acquisition of a single movie to under $100. A traditional celluloid film could cost as much as $2500 per unit for delivery.
The third big issue is durability. Film is fragile and subject to costly forms of instant depreciation—including damage from breaks, scratches, heat and humidity, smoke, and a wide variety of environmental factors. Storage and maintenance of film is costly, and fraught with never-ending issues of deterioration. Digital distribution and projection bypass these problems and incur virtually no cost, except for computer hard drives and digital projection hardware.
This means that theaters have little reason not to embrace the new business model.
Digital motion pictures are typically cached in a file called a DCP (digital cinema package), which can range in size from 100 to 340 GB. This means that an entire movie for theatrical projection can be contained on something the same size as a few Blu-ray discs.
Furthermore, advances within the digital realm—lighting, shooting, editing, special effects—have advanced with breathtaking speed, and helping to usher in faster, more nimble ways to produce ever-more-elaborate big screen projects (and some film purists would argue that the new digital processes make producers and directors lazy, since special effects can now do the work or difficult filmmaking must cheaper). Digital shooting and editing is also easily embraced now by the independent and smaller filmmakers who would have once—in the recent past—found the costs prohibitive.
Also contributing to the business model’s success is the fact that most Americans now watch movies through services like Netflix, through cable operators and satellite companies, or via fully digitized formats such as DVD or Blu-ray. Conversion directly to these digital pipelines and formats is easy and relatively-cost free.
For these reasons, motion picture industry experts believe that the transition to all-digital distribution will go quickly within the next two to three years. Paramount’s decision was, in fact, inevitable, and industry experts now believe that 20th Century Fox, Universal, Warner Brothers and others will soon follow this path.
For those nostalgic about film, there are downsides. Some see digital distribution as the death knell for what remains of locally-owned, independent theaters, or the art house theaters which specialize in second-run or retrospective showings (examples: the San Marco Theater in Jacksonville, FL, and The Guild in Albuquerque, N.M.). And the conversion to digital may force some of the remaining indie and smaller theater franchises—those who cannot afford to make the transition to digital projection systems—out of business.
Still, many screenwriters and directors—as well as actors—bemoan the eventual loss of film, and many have joined in a group effort to maintain film. The preservation of tens of thousands of films now archived in the old format has become a priority for many who still view the craft of the motion picture as an essential analog and photographic art form.
Thursday Review will have more on this topic in the near future.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor
Tuesday, October 8, 2013: A couple of weeks ago in Dubai, at an elaborate eight-day festival event called the Dubai Music Week, Quincy Jones, now 80 years old, sat alongside Rod Templeton and Bruce Swedien at a conference called “The Michael Jackson Dream Team.” The festival drew over 24,000 visitors from all over the globe, most of them attending musical events and expositions located in the skyscraper-rich downtown area and in the Dubai World Trade Center. The “Dream Team” conference drew hundreds to a standing room only Q&A. The topic for two hours: the creative forces which brought together music engineer Swedien, songwriter and producer Templeton, and the legendary production and arranging talents of Quincy Jones, a man whose wide path through the world of contemporary music stretches from the glory days of Lionel Hampton, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, all the way into this century.
His collaboration with Michael Jackson—alongside Swedien, Templeton and many others—catapulted Thriller to the top of the charts and made it one of the biggest selling albums of all time (second only, in the 20th Century, to The Eagles Greatest Hits). When his record sales spiked again in the aftermath of his sudden death in 2009, Jackson’s Thriller nudged its way past The Eagles, making it the biggest selling recording…of all time…and the first to serious challenge and topple the previous record-holders of Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leaden, Joe Walsh and company.
There are a lot of firsts in Quincy Jones’ life.
In 1968, at the age of 35, he and songwriting partner Bob Russell became the first African-Americans to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their songwriting work on the film Banning. Jones was also the first black man to be nominated for an Oscar twice in the same year, and the first African-American to have won over 50 Grammy Award nominations. He currently holds the world record for most Grammy nominations won be any person, regardless of color, with a total of 79 awards and nominations.
Taken alongside his hundreds of other top awards and achievements, that makes Jones one of the most recognized and awarded musicians of the 20th Century…and, this century, in which he still wins honors. Jones has been inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame and the Jazz Hall of Fame, and, earlier this year, at the tender age of 80, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Some of his distinctive firsts are obscure though significant. In 1985 Jones was commissioned to compose the soundtrack to the Color Purple, making Jones the only other person other than John Williams to have scored a film for Spielberg in that director’s long moviemaking career.* And Jones is also the producer of what has been the single biggest selling record album of all time, Michael Jackson’s aforementioned Thriller, which, alongside a few of the Beatles’ biggest records and The Eagles Greatest Hits, holds nearly every major sales record for the 20th Century.
But perhaps most telling is this first: Jones, who at an early age discovered that the most painful truth about the music “industry” is that there is a critical distinction between music and the music business, scrabbled his way into an understanding of the business side of a creative world known for its wide disparity between artists and management. After a difficult stint in the early 1960s performing nightclubs and small venues in Europe, during which time he and he fellow jazz musicians hovered only barely above poverty, Jones returned to New York and set his sights on learning every aspect of the music industry. His relentlessly thorough, nearly obsessive interest in the details of managing and promoting music eventually paid off for him when Mercury Records’ Irving Green gave him a top job, and within a year promoted Jones to Vice-President A&R (VP for Artists & Repertoire), making Jones in 1964 the highest-ranking African-American in a major corporation not owned by African-Americans, and the first to reach executive VP status in a major company.
And Jones was hardly a hands-off corporate officer. His total immersion in the business of music as well as his passion for the creative process made him one of the most integral movers-and-shakers in the recording industry for decades, insuring that his musical voiceprint would be found in thousands of places in our collective memories of jazz, R&B, rock and roll, television scores and motion picture soundtracks.
Quincy Delight Jones was born in 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. By the time he was in elementary school he had already developed a love of music that was deep and comprehensive. Jones himself fondly recalls sitting in darkened movie theaters, listening in rapt attention to the musical scores to divine the identity and thumbprint of each composer, and carefully considering the effect of each musical theme on each scene in the film.
His father, a highly skilled carpenter and mechanic who doubled as a minor league baseball player, landed a job—when jobs were scarce—at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and, like thousands of other underemployed Midwesterners and Easterners, moved to Seattle. As a student in middle school and at Garfield High School, Jones’ musical talents quickly elevated him to the informal status of class musical composer and arranger, and by some accounts, he put together his first formally organized band when he was only 12, writing songs, and playing alongside a young Charles Taylor, already a legend with the saxophone.
It was in Seattle, when Quincy Jones was perhaps 13 or 14, that he met Ray Charles, a couple of years older than Jones, and himself transplanted to Seattle by way of Florida. Charles—who had overcome the limitations of his blindness by making music and sound his tool for success—immediately detected something remarkable in Jones and became his mentor, and they developed a friendship which kept them connected for decades.
Jones’ musical abilities—some self-taught, some natural—were so profound that he was able to win a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jones took a full load of classes, sometimes as many as ten per semester, immersing himself in all things music and working nights and weekends—as time permitted—in small nightclubs and strip cubs. Though he was by then a prodigy of nearly unparalleled ability, he would eventually drop out of college to pursue performing and arranging full time, working with jazz and R&B greats like Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Billy Taylor and Count Basie. At first he played horns alongside other soon-to-be-great names like Art Farmer and Clifford Brown. His musical skills were so comprehensive that Jones eventually became the conductor, horn player and manager of Lionel Hampton’s band in the 1950s, and travelled with the ensemble on a variety of tours of Europe and the United States.
While in France, the young Quincy also studied more music under the tutelage of some of the greats of the European jazz scene, which, in those days, attracted many of the best jazz and early R&B stars from the United States. But among his European mentors was Nadia Boulanger, a legendary French music instructor with teaching credentials at Juilliard, Longy, the Royal Academy of Music and the Yehudi Menuhim School, and the first woman to have conducted the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time Jones crossed her path, Boulanger had already taught Aaron Copland, Phillip Glass and John Eliot Gardiner. Under Boulanger’s guidance, the naturally gifted Jones gained a comprehensive formal knowledge of the craft of musical composition and arrangement.
Jones continued to perform and tour with Hampton and his orchestra, playing alongside trumpeters Eddie Jones and Reunald Jones, and continued to ramp up his knowledge and understanding of the larger world of music. And it was during this period of his life, often during severe economic hardship, that he began his transition into the business side of music. He took a brief stint as the director of Barclay Disques, the French component of Mercury Records, the first in a series of jobs in which he began to fine-tune his management skills with musicians.
Jones composed and arranged music for an increasingly diverse roster of entertainers and performers, working alongside Peggy Lee, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Leslie Gore, Ella Fitzgerald, his old friend Ray Charles, Count Basie and dozens of others. Jones composed the Grammy-winning song “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which became a Count Basie smash hit, and also wrote “Fly Me to the Moon,” which would become one of Sinatra’s biggest hits. Sinatra was impressed enough to ask Jones to become the conductor and arranger of his orchestra, which elevated Jones to—what was then, more-or-less—the top of the pyramid in terms of entertainment prestige and clout, and putting him on the fastest of the fast tracks to what would be his business success. In the mid-1960s Jones worked frequently with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr and others among what was often called the Rat Pack. The culmination of this association came in 1966 when he was commissioned to arrange and conduct the Count Basie Orchestra for Sinatra’s album, Sinatra at the Sands, one of the most memorable of Sinatra’s various live recordings.
Not long after he was promoted to his new role as vice-president at Mercury Records in 1964, Quincy Jones began to expand his interest in entertainment even further, parlaying that childhood love of film soundtracks into an even grander and more complex form of musical expression. During the early stages of principal shooting of the movie The Pawnbroker (which starred Rod Steiger) director Sidney Lumet sought out Jones’ formidable talents to compose and arrange the score for the film. Jones accepted, and began work on the compositions. The success of that evocative soundtrack—alongside the success of the movie itself—projected Jones directly into the world of filmmaking.
Even while maintaining his busy schedule of writing songs, guiding the musical progress of other performers, and producing music at Mercury Records, Jones worked continuously on motion picture scoring. He would go on to compose and arrange soundtracks for innumerable movies and television shows, including the films Banning, Cactus Flower, McKenna’s Gold, In Cold Blood, The Slender Thread, The Getaway, and of course The Color Purple, based on the book by Alice Walker. Lumet also commissioned Jones to compose and arrange the soundtrack for In the Heat of the Night, which starred Steiger and Sidney Poitier, and later, The Anderson Tapes, based on the novel by Lawrence Sanders and starring Sean Connery. Lumet’s Anderson Tapes—like his later Network—is considered by many film critics to be prescient, especially for its view of a world in which electronic surveillance is routine, and Jones’ score is evocative for its musical interpretation of such an era.
Jones’ deep association with motion picture scoring led him, perhaps naturally, toward television as well, and he left his thumbprint across decades of TV, including the famously infectious theme song to Sanford & Son. He also composed the theme songs to scores of other television programs, including Ironside and The Bill Cosby Show.
There was hardly any musical genre which did not ultimately draw his interest or his talent, and Jones managed to collaborate on a larger, wider, more diverse scale than perhaps any composer, conductor or arranger of the 20th Century, save for perhaps Alfred Newman and George Gershwin (and one can easily question whether those legendary composers truly exceeded Jones in diversity).
For the Baby Boom generation of any skin color, Quincy Jones’ headiest days began in the late 1960s, and early and middle 1970s, when his output of jazz, rock and R&B fusions hit their full stride. By that time his skill as a producer was unparalleled, which made collaborations with him solid gold—in some cases literally. Jones had one standing work ethic, which he posted, in writing, in the studio for all to see: check your ego at the door. This dictum was meant for performers, engineers, mixers and producers alike. His long training—formally or informally—as a member of various bands and orchestras, sometimes in adverse conditions, had taught him the extended value of musical collaboration. His compositions from that era attest to his skill, and include “Walking in Space,” “Summer in the City,” “Killer Joe,” “Body Heat,” and “Midnight Soul Patrol.” One of his greatest recordings was the collection Quincy Jones, I Heard That!!, a double album of 16 songs which exemplified his skill as both songwriter and master collaborator.
On his compositions ranging from roughly 1973 to 1976, Jones worked alongside some of rock and R&Bs greatest names, including percussionists Billy Cobham and Harvey Mason, keyboardists Dave Grusin, George Duke, Billy Preston, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Scott, guitarists George Johnson, Louis Johnson and Eric Gale, bassists Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, Chuck Rainey and Richard Davis, and vocalists ranging from Al Jarreau to Minnie Riperton, from Aretha Franklin to Marilyn Jackson. Jones also worked with nearly every A-list horn player, trumpeter and sax player on the music scene in those days, including Freddie Hubbard, Snookie Young, Buddy Childers, J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Dick Hixon, Wayne Andre, Phil Woods and Hubert Laws. The sprawling album Quincy Jones, I Heard That!!, the credits of which read like a Who’s Who of the jazz and R&B community, represented the high-water mark of his large group collaborative efforts, and opened up the path to the end of the 1970s and his next big phase.
Jones was commissioned to compose and arrange the soundtrack for the movie The Wiz, Sydney Lumet’s stylized retelling of The Wizard of Oz, complete with an all-African American cast and set against a New Yorkish urban backdrop. At the top of the star billing were Dianna Ross and Michael Jackson. During principal shooting, Jackson asked Jones for advice on who he should secure to produce his next album, and after much discussion—during which Jones gave Jackson the names of several producers he deemed compatible with Michael—they decided that Quincy Jones himself would make the right producer to handle what Jackson hoped would be the next major musical phase of his career. The result of that collaboration was Off the Wall, which was then, and remains now, one of the biggest sellers of all time. Off The Wall famously projected Jackson into the next phase of his dazzling musical career (Thursday Review lists it among the 12 must-have recordings from the 1980s) and some of its best songs, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” put Jackson on top of the world.
A few years later, Jones would again enter the studio with Michael Jackson to produce Thriller. Though the production at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles was expensive (the original budget was set at $750,000) and the recording painstaking, the dazzling collaboration between Jackson and Jones, each at the top of their game, would make music history. Released in November of 1982, Thriller included the instant hits “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the title cut, along with several other potent singles, and its sales soared quickly skyward. At the music awards in 1984, Thriller made history by winning an unprecedented eight Grammy’s (another first for Jones, as producer), and by the end of the 1990s it had managed to break nearly every recording industry sales record. By this point, Quincy Delight Jones had become arguably one of the most powerful and influential music producers of all time, and by the beginning of the 1990s his thumbprint could be found in virtually every venue of musical entertainment—rock and roll, R&B, jazz, music video, theme songs for television and major motion picture scoring.
But for Jones it is never about power, nor is it only about the money and the influence, or even the legacy per se. As far back as the 1960s Jones sought mechanisms to harness his success and channel his energies to social causes which caught his attention, including raising money to develop cultural centers and libraries to reflect African-American artistic influence. His interest in philanthropic ventures and global projects persists to this day, and perhaps nothing exemplifies that interest than what may have been his most elaborate and complex collaboration of all. In the middle 1980s, as drought and famine swept some parts of Africa, hitting most especially wide swaths of Ethiopia in 1985, Jones used his substantial clout to bring together scores of musical heavyweights for the creation of a single music video and song titled “We Are the World,” the profits from which were used to provide huge food relief projects for the stricken areas.
There were complaints—in the press, among many in the music communities, among political groups both left and right and in the U.S. and other countries: the song’s lyrics were largely self-aggrandizing, self-conscious and an elaborate celebration of Me Generation pathologies. Some media and political voices complained that the song itself—while well-intentioned—had little to do with anything other than its own glorification, and made little attempt to address hunger or the complex forces behind Africa’s famine. And in the end, there were all the predictable questions about whether the song’s financial success—or that of the eventual album—had any significant impact on the victims of famine in Africa.
Still, Jones, the master collaborator and producer, felt great satisfaction from the finished product, which may have been the most complex multi-talent endeavor ever attempted in the recording studio.
The song and the video, which had started as the brainchild of Harry Belafonte (and morphed quickly into an organization called USA for Africa), included appearances and vocals from Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Daryl Hall, Al Jarreau, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Huey Lewis, Bob Geldof and dozens of others. Within only three days of its release, the single had sold nearly 800,000 copies. It would eventually go on to become the biggest selling single of all time, giving Quincy Jones another first.
The mere fact that it was recorded at all, considering the substantial combined talent and the fragile, mercurial egos packed into the same room at the same time, is regarded by some to be miraculous. But, again, as each of those many famous musical faces entered the studio that day, they saw that familiar sign taped to the entrance: check your ego at the door.
*Regarding the issue of Jones’ compositional work for Spielberg on The Color Purple, some point out that technically Jones shares this distinction with Jerry Goldsmith, who scored one of the sequences in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Meaning there are two exceptions to the rule of Spielberg collaborating only with John Williams.
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