Jamming

April 11, 2019

Kath sat against the cool stone of the mini storage place on Elm Street. In the late afternoon, the sun had shifted so that she was now sitting in the shade. A kind stranger had gotten her a cool drink so she felt revitalized, ready to keep playing her guitar for the people. Her case was once again open in front of her, already jangling from the morning’s tips. She had pocketed some to encourage people to keep donating to her cause. The morning had been alright but she needed to keep going.

She was tooling her way through an acoustic version of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. It had attracted some attention but it was a bit too hot out for anyone to linger to listen. The best she got was a few dollar bills, some quarters, some thumbs up, and one very good set of metal horns. It was not bad for a workday in the summer. She wondered how long she would have to play before taking shelter from the heat once again. She hoped she could go the distance.

A piece of paper fell into her case as she was starting into a Cat Stevens medley she had put together. The piece of paper was not green. Kath stopped playing and, out of curiosity, she leaned over to pick it up. She unfolded the sheet and saw that it was sheet music. She was a little confused. She looked up and saw a tall, thin man with wiry hair and big glasses. Before Kath could even open her mouth, the man spoke.

“Can you sight read?” the man asked.

“I can,” Kath said patiently. “I’m actually classically trained.”

“Are you very proficient?” the man asked, narrowing his eyes as he scrutinized her.

“Again, I’m classically trained,” Kath said. “I’m pretty good if I say so myself.”

“This needs to be played with absolutely perfect precision,” the man said. “No mistakes. ‘Pretty good’ is not good enough.”

“Did you want me to play this?” Kath asked. “What is it?”

“Only if you are sufficiently proficient,” the man said. “You’re not a spy, are you?”

“Who are you?” Kath asked, laughing a little bit.

“I don’t see how that matters,” the man said. “Can you play it? Perfectly?”

“My name is Kath,” Kath said and stuck her hand out to shake hands. “Some people call me Kath Kat. And you are?”

“Can you play the song or not?” The man asked.

Kath paused for a moment and stared at the man. “And you are?”

There was another long pause.

“Fine,” the man said. “You may call me Edgar.”

“Nice to meet you, Edgar,” Kath said. “So you want me to play this song? Is it special?”

“More than you realize,” Edgar said, pushing his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose.

“Did you write it?” Kath asked.

Edgar’s eyes narrowed again. “You never answered whether or not you are a spy.”

“I’m a music major,” Kath said. “and I’m not a spy.”

“Fair enough,” Edgar said. “I suppose whatever you said I could not verify your claim. Things have progressed and I must test my hypothesis. Before you ask, it is too complicated to explain.”

“Fair enough,” Kath echoed. “So should I play the song now?”

“Begin the experiment,” Edgar said. “Whenever you are ready, of course.”

Kath grinned and shook her head before taking a deep breath. She scanned the notes on the page and looked for any surprises or tricky bits. It was all surprises and tricky bits. This was unlike any music she had ever played before. For a moment, she wondered if she was proficient enough. She shook it off and arranged her fingers and began to play. She gave her all into and out of her guitar came strangely beautiful discordant music. Each note reverberated through her being and the air around them. She could almost feel the pressure waves from each and every note.

She wondered how other people on the street might be reacting to the weird music. She looked up and saw Edgar hurriedly writing on a pad of paper he had fished out from a pocket. He looked excited. She looked to her right and saw a tall shadowy being walking on two legs, Edgar stepped out of its way, snapping pictures of it with his phone. She saw a bird with two sets of wings swoop by, plucking a cockroach off the side of the building across the street. The building seemed to be covered with cockroaches. To her left was another group of those shadowy figures. The landscape around her seemed to flicker and change like static on a television set. She reached the bottom of the page and stopped playing and it all stopped. It was just a normal city street again.

“What the hell was that?” Kath asked. She stood up and looked around wildly.

“The other dimension,” Edgar said. “The experiment worked!”

“Um,” Kath said. “What does that mean?”

“Please come back to my lab,” Edgar said. “We have to keep going.”

“Sure,” Kath said. “I guess I can’t just walk away from that. I’m inviting a friend, though. No offense.”

“None taken,” Edgar said. “They’re not a spy, are they?”

Kath shook her head with a laugh. “No.”

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Into the Woods (American Playhouse 1991)

April 10, 2019

I have always been a huge fan of folklore and fables. Grimm and Perault are iconic favorites of mine and I often seek out any adaptation of the work that I can get my hands on. There is a lot out there. I remember being read all of the stories and then reading them myself when I was old enough to read. Each of these stories has elements of fantasy, magic, and danger. Part of what sparked this interest was getting into Disney early on. Of course, the Disney versions were the safe versions. When I got a little older I discovered how dark the original stories really got. It makes sense as many of the stories were inspired by the famous Black Forest in Germany which is a huge, thick and dark forest. I was fascinated by the darkness mixed with the happily ever after, the light and the dark. Every fairytale felt kind of like Halloween in that way. Late in my college days, I actually took a literature class studying fairytales, again mostly focusing on Grimm and Perrault. I was interested to learn even more about different versions of each story and how they connected to each other. Like the connections between The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and the Tiger’s Bride. It remains fascinating and I like to see it riffed on in pop culture (see Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Fables).

Fair warning, before seeing this movie I had already seen the 2014 Disney version starring Meryl Streep. I remember it fondly and I do listen to music from it now and then (mostly “Agony”). I thought it was a good movie but I remember people freaking out about it before it came out. I have known plenty of people who had a great love for the stage version. When I worked at a regional theater in New Jersey, I met quite a few people who had done the show either in high school or college. It seemed to be one of Sondheim’s more school-friendly shows as the subject matter is accessible and there are a lot of characters to get a lot of kids on stage. Later, I met a guy who was absolutely obsessed with the show because he had been in it and seen it so many times. He was the one who I witnessed worrying about the Disney version. Sometimes it can be tough for people to anticipate an adaptation of something they love. For me, it is exciting because I am not so strict on following the original story or format. From what I understood, the Disney version changed a lot from the original but kept a lot of the show’s spirit which I think is the most important part. Also, they got a good singing performance out of Meryl Streep which was in doubt after Mamma Mia.

The first thing I noticed was how the production values were beautiful. This makes sense as that is what I did for a living for a while. The sets kind of looked like a book where you flip open panels to see different scenes. There were a lot of things that seemed to be done poorly on purpose for comic effect. It felt like something you would see in stage versions of Monty Python sketches. A lot of credit to The American Playhouse which put on this production. The lighting and special effects are really beautiful. They did a good job of lighting the actors while also giving the show a dreamy, shadowy feel. This matches the comedy of the show. The show feels funnier than the movie version mostly because it involves actors playing to the audience and getting immediate feedback. One of the biggest production differences that made an immediate impact was the narrator. In the movie version, they had one of the characters as the narrator. Here, the Narrator is an omniscient character outside of the story so we get more from him. They also kept the Witch and the Mysterious Stranger separate which makes a bit more sense in the end.

The actors did a really great job as well. I would be remiss if I did not start out by paying homage to one of the great queens of stage musicals by mentioning Bernadette Peters. She has developed a reputation as a legend for good reason and she does justice to the role of The Witch, a great archetype from folktales. Though villainous, she has great comic timing. Tom Aldredge plays the Narrator and he has a great dry wit to him. I had to look him up at intermission because I thought he might be David Straitharn and that is definitely a compliment. Chip Zien plays The Baker and he is lovably goofy and pathetic. Joanna Gleason plays The Baker’s Wife who is a great foil for Zien and she has a beautiful singing voice. Chuck Wagner and Robert Westenberg play the two princes and they are just as goofy and vain as they should be. Danielle Ferland plays Little Red and she is great at being the petulant little brat. Ben Wright plays Jack well as a poor, simple young man with a kind heart.

Overall, I loved this production. While the Disney version was definitely good, they cut out a lot to fit in under a two hour running time and to simplify the story. It feels like they also cut out a lot of the really charming and funny parts. This version felt funnier. In turn, it made the dark parts of the show even darker but less depressing. That was my one complaint about the Disney version now that I think of it. This show felt like a lot more fun. I also felt that this version had rougher edges which were natural for a live performance. Still, that is what we love about live performances. I can now see exactly what people saw in this show.

 

(Written on 4/6/19)

Halestorm

April 9, 2019

I love the band Halestorm and this is just going to be me raving about them for a little bit. They are a hard rock outfit that got their name from their frontwoman Lzzy Hale. What drew me to the band is how pure and awesome Lzzy’s voice is and how much it gets me energized especially backed by a rock band. Her brother Arejay is on drums, Joe Hottinger is on guitar and Josh Smith is on bass guitar. They have four albums out but they also have a few cover albums that they put out so if you want a hard rock version of Bad Romance or Get Lucky, you’re in luck.


What Were You Expecting?

Expectations can be a vicious part of our everyday lives. Disappointment and vindication both come from expecting something and either getting it or not getting it. We can definitely build fantasies in our heads that can create a lot out of a little. In this song, “It was just one kiss”. One kiss can send a person’s mind reeling and get them making all sorts of plans. This is important now that we are finally learning to respect women (thanks #MeToo) as we need to examine our expectations and keep them reasonable. It is alright to wish and hope but you need to be realistic and communicate with the object of your affections.


Miss the Misery

I actually think about this song when I think of ending any relationship and it also makes me think of MBMBaM a lot. When we break up with somebody or we end any relationship with somebody we are close to, it hurts. However, every single time I find that I still miss it even if it was painful. It is important in those moments that we keep in mind that we do not miss that person. We miss the way that person made us feel. Positive or negative, they elicited passion inside of us. As the McElroys say, we have a hole in our lives shaped like that person who is now gone. It is something important to remember so that we do not quickly go back to somebody who is not healthy for us. Not to mention this is a real banger of a song.


Rock Show

This one is just a pure ode to rock in general and specifically to women in rock and women who are fans of rock. It is an anthem to the girl in the middle of the crowd who is getting high on the adrenaline of a good rock show. It also throws some love to the girl who dreams of becoming a rocker like Lzzy Hale. The dream is possible and worth having.


Mz. Hyde

This is actually the first song that I heard that led me to seek out the album “The Strange Case…” which is my favorite album so far and is probably the album that led to more mainstream play for the band. This song is about the duality of people. We change ourselves to suit different situations and we actually do it pretty easily. For example, I am totally different at work than I am with my friends. I am different again with my family. Even among different family members, I can shift the parts of my personality that I show. We do this to please people and to protect ourselves. Also, this is hands down my favorite of their songs.


I Am The Fire

I like a lot of songs like this. The song asks “Am I strong enough?” and then answers that with a resounding “hell yeah!”. These songs always get me pumped because they have so much energy. Lzzy’s wailing cries sound like a battle cry and it is hard not to respond to that. It reminds me of stuff like Dorothy’s “Missile”. In fact, Halestorm has a lot of these types of songs. “Freak Like Me”, “Daughters of Darkness”, “Bad Girl’s World”, and “Here’s To Us” just to name a few. Telling your audience that they can be just as badass as the band and that we are all in this together is a great message.


Vicious

Another song about being a badass. Halestorm is so good at that. “What doesn’t kill me, makes me vicious.” It is a great reminder not to mess with people because they might mess with you back. Be kind. If we are all kind then we can all party together.


Shatter Me

Yeah, this is just a bonus song because it only features Lzzy. It’s so good, though.

 

(Written on 4/5/19)

The Gorillaz

April 8, 2019

I first became aware of the Gorillaz when they debuted their first single in late 2000. I first heard it in music video format at the tail end of music videos being a mainstream sort of thing. (With YouTube, they have come back a bit but younguns don’t know about MTV and VH1 back in the day). I was immediately taken by this song even though it took me a while to remember the name. The single was called “Clint Eastwood” and I loved the merger between the brass instrument samples, the dub influences, the electronica, the hip hop flair, and the rock vocals. This was all accompanied by some really awesome animation which made it probably my favorite music video of all time. At the time, I thought this might have been a one-shot thing. I loved the music and I looked forward to more singles but the animation was probably not going to be a thing. Little did I know that the animation was going to be their gimmick. The animation continued and we got actual lore produced by these new rocking cartoon characters.

The Gorillaz are a band founded by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett. Albarn was doing great with Blur but he wanted to do some more experimental stuff but did not seem to want to be the face of another band. That brought in Hewlett who, among other things, was the creator of Tank Girl and a master at a particular art style. The idea of the band is that Albarn is a mainstay but any musician or guest can rotate in and perform on any track or album. The first group was Albarn, Mike Smith, Cass Browne, Simon Katz, Miho Hitori, and Dan the Automator but there have been over two dozen musicians that have been part of the band at one point or another and that does not count guests. This has led to an ever-evolving sound as new musicians and new ideas are introduced to the band.

But there is even more than that. Jamie Hewlett’s contribution is to help make these cartoon characters into almost living breathing people. Part of that is his excellent artwork and character design. He made four distinct characters that each look interesting. Then, after a few singles were released, they actual animated skits where we got to know the band members better. That meant that actual voice actors were hired and we got to see these cartoons actually talk to us and each other. We learned their backstories. The lead vocalist is 2-D, a young British man who has blank eyes due to being in two different car crashes. The bassist is Murdoc, a satan worshipping conniver who put the band together. The lead guitarist is Noodle, a Japanese girl who speaks little English but is a guitar prodigy. Finally, there is Russell, the band’s American drummer who has the power to channel spirits. These spirits are usually how they explain the guests on their albums.

Eventually, the band got popular enough that they had to figure out how to do live performances. At first, they would have the live performers behind a screen and images from the music videos playing on the screen. At one point, they just had the live performers appear on stage with only a skit from the protesting cartoon characters as an explanation. Finally, technology caught up and they were able to do some performances with the characters projected as holograms. This has definitely led to some awesome and memorable moments. As with their sound, they continue to evolve their presentation both in live performances and in their music videos. To date, there have been six albums, three side albums, several EPs, and a bunch of tours. Every album they have ever put out is that rare album that I can listen to all the way through without skipping and they all have several songs that I absolutely love.

Funny story, I was actually so obsessed with this band that I researched their first album for an actual research paper. In my second semester in college, I was in an expository writing class with a focus on writing research papers on Pop Culture. My early papers in the class were actually based on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch. The final paper that I wrote was a thirty page paper on Joe Sparks, The Chipmunks, and The Gorillaz. I explored the idea of musicians who would perform through cartoon characters instead of showing their faces. My theory was that they did so in order to allow more artistic freedom. If they performed through a brand instead of their own image, they did not have to adhere to their previous style. I wish I still had a copy of that paper because I would definitely post it here but I loved exploring the different themes. I ended up interviewing Sparks after sending him a draft of the paper but I wish I could have interviewed Albarn and Hewlett for the paper but I was just some punk kid trying his best.

(Written on 4/2/19)

The Filí

April 6, 2019

Conor woke up on the bus with a start. He instinctively clutched his guitar closer, a habit he had learned from sleeping in shelters and on the street. When you had something that could earn you money, you did not let it out of your sight and you never let go of it. Of course, those days were long gone now. Instead of falling into a restless sleep on a cot or a stack of cardboard boxes, he had fallen asleep on the band’s comfortable tour bus. As lead singer, he had his own little room on the bus. He had his own house by the beach back in California. Life had changed for the better thanks to music. He had gone from being without family or friends to being part of a band, a new family. He tried not to take it for granted. There was a knock at the door and he hurriedly pulled on a t-shirt and swept his hair back.

“Come on in,” Conor said. “I’m decent.”

The door opened and Ella stepped inside. The band’s drummer was a rainbow of color, as usual, multi-colored hair and flashy clothes. “Decent?” She asked. “I suppose you are fairly decent for a rock star.”

“I do my best,” Conor said. “What can I do for you? Did you read through that notebook yet?”

“It’s always work with you,” Marta said. “You need to rest while you can before we get to the next town.”

“I don’t know how long this ride is going to last, Marta,” Conor said. “I need to get everything I can from it.”

“The ride is going to last at least as long as it takes to get some rest once in a while,” Marta said.

“So why are you here?” Conor asked. “If it’s not work then it means it’s not time for sound check yet either.”

“It’s mail call, you ass,” Marta said with a laugh and she tossed an envelope onto Conor’s bed. “Phil’s office is still going through the latest batch of fan mail but they forwarded this along first.”

Conor picked up the envelope which was already unsealed but he had gotten used to that. “Why’s that?” he asked. “What makes this one so special?”

“I don’t read your mail, jerk,” Marta said with a shake of her head. “But Phil said it was from family.” She shrugged.

“Family?” Conor asked and he looked at the front of the envelope. “Oh, it’s another one of these.” He smiled and tossed the envelope back onto the bed.

“One of what?” Marta asked. “Now you have me curious. Besides, you’ve never talked to us about family.”

“Because I don’t have a family,” Conor said. “I’m an orphan. I never really had anyone at least not for long.”

“I’m confused,” Marta said. “Who is this cousin then?”

Conor rolled his eyes. “She claims that she’s my cousin,” he said. “She spotted one of my tattoos on a magazine cover and swears that it could only mean that we’re family. It’s crazy.”

“But don’t you wonder if she’s right?” Marta asked. “You could connect with actual blood after all this time?”

Conor shrugged. “When I first read one of her letters I worried that she was only after fame and fortune,” he said. “Then after reading on, I realized that she’s crazy.”

“Crazy?” Marta asked. “Our lives are already crazy. What kind of stuff is in those letters?” Her face became concerned. Their band had not exactly achieved superstar status but they definitely dealt with their share of craziness.

Conor picked the envelope again and this time he slid the letter out of its envelope. The writing was done with a calligrapher’s hand much unlike the usual crazies who had wild or disturbing handwriting. At least, most of them did. “Get this,” he said. “She says the tattoo signifies an old, old group called the Filí.”

“How old?” Marta asked.

“Ancient,” Conor said. “And Irish. They traveled around and fought monsters. It sounded really badass when I first read it.”

“That doesn’t really sound like you,” Marta said. “The closest we have to that is Luke but that’s only in his video games.”

“Well, here’s the thing that fits,” Conor said. “The Filí was a group of traveling poets and musicians. They apparently used that as a cover to fight everything that went bump in the night.”

“Then why don’t we know about monsters?” Marta asked. “It seems like that would be front page news at some point.”

“The Filí used to sing about monsters and crazy stuff all the time,” Conor said.

“How metal,” Marta said with a grin. She threw up metal horns with both hands.

“Except nobody believed them,” Conor said. “So they just kept singing and people enjoyed the tales, few knowing that the supernatural things in the songs were real.”

“Weird,” Marta said. “So how did they fight monsters?” She leaned against the wall, completely interested now.

“They used magic,” Conor said. “and they drew that magic from music. Their voices and instruments could summon elemental forces and great power. I’m really not sure exactly how it was supposed to work. In a pinch, they just hit the monsters with something blunt or sharp.”

“So you’re saying there’s a chance that you could do magic?” Marta said a little too loudly. “If there’s even a chance of that, don’t you think she’s worth talking to?”

“I don’t know,” Conor said. “She said all sorts of things that sounded like they came from a fantasy paperback. She said I would see strange things that other people missed.”

“Have you seen anything?” Marta asked.

“Only what I would expect from sleep deprivation and malnutrition from eating out of a dumpster,” Conor said. “I think it’s all some sort of angle she’s working.”

“What’s that on the bottom of that letter?” Marta asked. “It looks like music.”

Conor held it up and looked at it and shrugged. “It is music,” he said. “It’s labeled ‘song of awakening’. Whatever that means.”

“Well, whatever I guess,” Marta said. “We should probably get something to eat before sound check. Put the guitar down and come with me and we’ll grab the rest of the band.”

“Sure,” Conor said and he laid the guitar on his bed. He stuffed the letter into his back pocket and followed Marta out of the bus.

(Written 3/28/19)

Empire Records (1995)

April 5, 2019

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. It is a historical area right by the Chesapeake Bay nestled in between Little Italy and industrial Canton. I was down there a lot because I was constantly running light and soundboards at a community theater down there. Before I could drive, I often had to wait for a ride at the end of the night and I also got dropped off early. One of the places I spent time at was a store right near the water called The Sound Garden (not to be confused with Soundgarden). I remember endlessly walking through and looking at the actual records, tapes, and CDs. At that point, I was mostly buying CDs because they were the best quality at a size I could carry in my backpack. I browsed a lot but I did purchase plenty. If I remember correctly, this was where I bought the first and second Queen Greatest Hits albums. It is also where I discovered The Who on my own terms. Most importantly, it was where I bought a Mary Prankster album which was a local band at the time and it is a band I still adore.

When I was younger, I adored record stores the same way that I adore bookstores and comic book stores. While I never liked the social aspects of in-person shopping, I love browsing. I love getting absorbed into the potential of decisions. I remember fondly a record store that was in the Rotunda which was in walking distance from the house I grew up in. I used to walk there on the same trips that I walked to the comic book store, which was a little farther. Eventually, they were in the same place. I remember specific purchases. I remember the very first album I bought with my own money on my own was an Aerosmith Greatest Hits album. I remember the clerk smiled at my purchase and recommended that I “play it loud, man”. It made me feel like an adult and a peer. Earlier than that, the first album I ever had which belonged to me was Metallica And Justice for All… and my parents graciously let me play it in the car even though it was not their scene. I remember buying a Guess Who album in Towson. When I was really little, I remember my friend buying an MC Hammer album while I bought a Vanilla Ice album. We spent time bootlegging the cassettes for each other.

When I first saw a blurb on this movie, I saw it described as High Fidelity meets You’ve Got Mail. This is all wrong. This is somebody who just skimmed the synopsis and called it a day. Sure, it has elements of those two movies but it feels like neither of those movies to me. Both of those movies are romantic comedies to varying degrees. Empire Records is definitely not a romantic comedy. There is a romantic subplot but it far from being the actual focus of the movie. If I were to pick two movies that this movie is similar to, they would be The Breakfast Club and Clerks. The movie was an ensemble piece about a bunch of kids who work at a record store and their adult boss. They have a lot of fun, they get deep, they basically go through group therapy, and they get better than they started. A lot of it felt like the famous dancing scene from The Breakfast Club. There is a lot of high energy that shifts easily between angry and happy. I really appreciated the sense of humor the movie had. Everybody is comfortable with getting silly or sarcastic and everybody looks like they are really having fun. When things get deep, it hurts but it feels so relatable.

The sort of core of the movie is the boss of the record store played by Anthony Lapaglia as the only sane adult who is happy to let the kids play because the customers have fun with it. Liv Tyler plays the perfect, book smart girl who is about to go to Harvard. I knew girls like her in high school. Renee Zellweger plays her flirty, sexy best friend and she is a lot of fun which covers up a deeper pain. There is also Johnny Whitworth who plays the dreamy artist guy. Ethan Embry plays the loveable stoner screw up that we all knew back in high school and college years (or maybe still know). Rory Cochrane plays the odd zen and existential guy who I also knew in high school. My favorite is Robin Tunney who plays the punk girl who is sick and tired of the world, kind of goth and kind of metal too. Maxwell Caulfield plays an aging new wave musician who comes to the store for a signing. There are plenty of other great small roles but those are the main important ones. I really loved this cast and each scene was basically an excuse for them all to interact and either riff with each other or have deep, meaningful conversations.

Overall, I really loved this movie. I did not expect to be writing that on this review. The movie was scene after scene of relatable white teenage drama without getting too cheesy or over the top (at least not in a bad way). The movie also felt like a lot of good stories about mental health awareness and how our friends can be dealing with stuff that we don’t see. It also has a great eclectic soundtrack which makes sense since it is set in an independent record store. For one, I never expected to hear GWAR on a soundtrack especially not one that also has the Gin Blossoms on it. The fake new wave music video is priceless. I was also pleasantly surprised by Renee Zellweger’s rock and roll singing voice.

(Written on 4/2/19)

The Dragonsong

April 4, 2019

Akhona paced in the hall, the marble echoing under each of his steps, the claws of his feet clicking against the stone. He was nervous, far more nervous than he had been since he could remember. In fact, he did not really ever remember being nervous. He was part of the third generation which meant that he had never known any other world than this one. He liked his life, it was fairly peaceful. He was in training to be a knight like his uncle, a great warrior who protected the peace. He worried that that peace was now in danger. Which is why he was pacing. Finally, the door opened and his uncle, Mpendulo, stepped out into the hall looking very perturbed.  Akhona paused for a moment but he could not hold in his excitement.

“Uncle,” Akhona said. “What is going on? The palace is abuzz with rumors.  Please tell me.” He perhaps got too close to his uncle and had to be pushed back to give some personal space.

“Walk with me, nephew,” Mpendulo said and gestured for Akhona to follow before he started walking. Akhona hurried to keep up. “I apologize for having to exclude you from the meeting, you are not yet allowed to sit in the room during such conferences.”

“I know, uncle,” Akhona said. “I am still in training.” He lowered his eyes to the floor. He knew his place even if he longed for more responsibility, more acknowledgment. He was caught between respect and excitement.

“Yes, my young squire,” his uncle said. “And yet, I am not forbidden to fill you in on what I know.” Akhona looked up with a slow smile and met Mpendulo’s smiling eyes.

“Is that so?” Akhona asked, easily keeping pace with his uncle. The question was tentative as his uncle did sometimes test Akhona by dangling a learning opportunity in front of him.

“It is up to a knight’s discretion to pass on information that might help in their mission,” Mpendulo said. “As my squire, I need you to know what I know in order to keep the peace. If you live in ignorance, you are of no use to me.”

“As you say, uncle,” Akhona said. “My eyes are your eyes, my claws are your claws. My mind is receptive to your teaching.”

“Thank you,” Mpendulo said. “It relieves me some to hear you say so. As golden dragons, we are often given the hardest tasks but there is nobody I trust more than family.” The two of them stepped out onto one of the palace’s balconies. With the additional space, the two of them changed shape from two-legged beings to their full dragon forms. Mpendulo paused and looked out over the beautiful land of Dragonia. It was a rich yet varied land due to the many energies of its denizens. Swamps, mountains, plains, forests, and more had been gifted to their kind to live in.

“Please tell me everything, uncle,” Akhona said. “The anticipation is killing me.”

Mpendulo laughed at that, savoring knowing and holding the power in the situation for a moment. “There is a rumor,” Mpendulo said. “It is a very believable rumor. A strong rumor that a faction is preparing the Dragonsong.”

“The Dragonsong!?” Akhona asked. “That is forbidden! So this faction wants to open the gate wide? They want to return to the land of elves?”

“Yes,” Mpendulo said. “At least, that is the easy assumption. As you know, many of our kind are content with living in this new land. However, others desire to return to our ancestral lands for conquest. Some have managed to slip back there on their own but such travelers are few and far between. With the Dragonsong, they could march on a world that is no longer ours.”

“But those who want to go are undesirables,” Akhona said. “Would it not be better to see them go?”

“We made an ancient promise,” Mpendulo said. “We must make sure they also keep that promise in order to make sure the elves and other races stay safe. It’s their world now. The elves, the humans, the gnomes, and so on.”

“I suppose you’re right, uncle,” Akhona said, backpedaling from his statement and puffing out his chest. “It is our duty and we must do it. We should do it. So how are they meant to do it? What is our first step?”

“Well, the first thing we know is that the song can only be sung from the throat of a small one,” Mpendulo said. “A halfling.”

“I’ve seen those things in books,” Akhona said with a shrug. “I cannot imagine how they would convince a halfling to open the gate.”

“Indeed. The rumor is that the black dragons are abducting halflings to study,” Mpendulo said. “They are taking them by force. Once they have figured out the halflings, I suppose they would find one among them who could change their form to suit their needs.”

“The ability to use our shape change ability to that level is rare, no?” Akhona asked.

“Yes,” Mpendulo said. “Incredibly rare. I’m almost more nervous that the black dragons have somebody with that much ability. I suppose anything is possible in this brave new world but that is for the scholars to figure out. Your sister perhaps.”

“Where do we start?” Akhona asked, both nervous and excited at the same time. He was still a young dragon, merely a hundred years old.

“We find isolated black dragons and we start trying to get information out of them,” Mpendulo said. “We work our way up the chain and we find whoever is doing this.”

Akhona cracked his knuckles and flexed his claws. “So we do this by force?” There was very real excitement in his eyes.

Mpendulo chuckled. “If we have to,” he said. “As always, if we can use or words instead, we will. We cannot be quick to strike when we can persuade or intimidate.”

Akhona took a deep, centering breath and tried not to be disappointed. “You are right as always, uncle,” he said.

Mpendulo actually fully laughed this time. “Not always, nephew,” he said.

(Written 3/26/19)

Carousel (1956)

April 3, 2019

Rodgers and Hammerstein are obviously legends in the genre of musicals. Even people who know very little about musicals would probably recognize that combination of names. I actually had a long history in working in theater but not as much experience with musicals. I worked on musicals during high school, designing the lights for several of them. When I went to college, it was a Meisner-based conservatory which did not focus on musicals, it focused only on acting. In fact, the first musicals I actually worked on professionally were a handful of musicals done for a Girls Jewish Summer Camp as a summer job during college. Then there were two original shows done with a group called Wombworks (my first professional writing credit). Finally, I worked on five different children’s musicals up in New Jersey and one horrible show called Always Patsy Cline. And yet, I did love musicals. I was taken to musicals from a young age, either at the Mechanic Theater in my hometown of Baltimore or going on trips to Broadway. I even saw Oliver! in London’s West End when I was thirteen.

But back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, specifically. The first show that I became aware of was Oklahoma! because I was just about to enter high school and I ended up attending a performance, standing room only. I was standing against the wall, enjoying the lively music when suddenly a character drew a gun and fired it. Because of where I was standing, he was pointing it directly at me and I think the actor and I scared the crap out of each other. I once performed in a church variety show, and the show was bookended by The King and I songs “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You”, the last being a song that I first heard when I saw Addams Family Values. I also reviewed State Fair here on this blog in the summer of 2016 and I remember enjoying it even though there’s not much meat to it. Sadly, I have not seen a lot of their other musicals as my high school focused more on Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter instead (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Obviously, the centerpiece of a movie like this is the music. As mentioned, all of the music is by Rodgers and Hammerstein and is therefore solid all the way through. It starts with a great waltz composed by Rodgers and just keeps going from there. Part of that good music is Shirley Jones who is basically the lead of the movie (or at least she sings the most songs). She has such a down to Earth beauty inside and out and also an inner strength. She also has a great singing voice, of course. Gordon McRae is the other star of the show. He is the smooth-talking, rough around the edges love interest. He has that sort of “hep cat” performance that reminds me of the Jets in West Side Story. The music and acting are all really good and it is hard to believe that this was not a hit and remembered as a classic. Even Richard Rodgers admitted that the musical did not really produce the number of hits their other musicals did. I mean, as I have already said, there is no opening song which is a big staple of musicals. The biggest hit is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which is the only song that I have heard elsewhere mostly from Jerry Lewis.

The story might also be a reason that the movie was not as big of a hit. Most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are pretty straightforward character pieces with catchy hit songs. This musical has supernatural and fantasy elements that definitely set it apart from a lot of their catalog. People probably like The King and I and Oklahoma because they want to see themselves in those situations. Mostly comical situations where life is fine and nothing is too threatening. In this movie, there is a strain of sadness throughout the whole thing and there are wistful fantasy elements. In fact, now that I think of it, this movie kind of reminds me of It’s a Wonderful Life. There is some messing around with time and life and most of the movie is just a story about life. While it is not a happy story, it is a hopeful story and I liked that. The story is mostly told in flashbacks which are an interesting way to go about it.

Overall, I liked this movie well enough. The music is mostly slow songs which are beautiful but not exactly my cup of tea. Slow songs mostly bore me and make me feel sad regardless of whether the subject matter is happy or not. There are some upbeat tunes but they feel like they are few and far between. Still, the movie is colorful and there are plenty of smiles. I can obviously see the appeal of the movie and I am glad I watched it. I wonder if it had been more famous if they cast Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland as they originally wanted to. In fact, the rumor was that Sinatra quit the production because Ava Gardner told him that if he did not fly to her in Africa, she would sleep with Clark Gable.

(Written on 3/31/19)

The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story (2009)

April 2, 2019

When Saving Mr. Banks came out in 2013, it renewed public interest in Disney history. It feels like back then, the public did not have as much backstage information as we do now. While I am not interested in that sort of information ahead of seeing a movie, I am intensely interested in all of that information. I especially enjoyed the movie’s depiction of the Sherman Brothers, two guys I did not really know about before the movie came out. The Sherman Brothers seemed like blue-collar guys who worked a long time at banging out songs for Disney and eventually for other studios. At the time, this documentary was suggested to me to learn more about them but I never got a hold of it. While I was looking at The Aristocats as a movie to watch this month and also after watching Mary Poppins Returns, my interest was renewed. Thankfully, streaming has gotten better and more accessible and I could now easily rent the documentary.

The Sherman Brothers spent the majority of their careers and in fact their lives working for Walt Disney. Among other awards, they won two academy awards both for Mary Poppins. However, even some huge Disney fans like did not realize how prolific they were. They are most famous for stuff like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Parent Trap, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh, and also the Disney park attractions It’s a Small World and The Enchanted Tiki Room. But the documentary stunned me pretty quickly by pointing out that they also wrote a hit song for Ringo Starr. Also, outside of Disney, they wrote the music for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Snoopy Come Home, and Charlotte’s Web. Those are just the cream of the crop selections. Their work together was so much more than that. They wrote hit songs, they scored whole movies and put a lot of the soul into very good films. They also did a bunch of stage musicals. However, they are most known for films and they still hold the record for most scored musical films. They also hold the record for most performed song of all time for It’s a Small World.

Their story is a reminder that, under the surface, Disney is not always the saccharine sweet world that appears to be. Two guys who worked together for most of their life ended up having a fractured personal relationship with each other even as their professional relationship flourished. Part of what made them successful was their clashing personalities. In fact, the two of them come off as two sides of the same coin to me. Dick Sherman was fairly manic and enjoyed more positive and optimistic songs. Bob Sherman was a little dourer and lowkey and had more of a traditional writer’s soul and embraced tragedy more. Maybe each was inspired differently from one of their most formative experiences, the US Army during World War II. Dick was drafted into the Army and spent his entire tour of duty working with the Army Glee Club and the USO and never even left the United States. On the other hand, Bob enlisted at age 17 and ended up getting shot in the knee and sent home with a Purple Heart and in a severe amount of pain.  He was one of the first American soldiers to walk into Dachau.  However, even if they did not like each other, they always pushed each other and supported each other.

The story of the two brothers is supported by the great production values I have come to expect from Disney. The first big thing is that they were able to secure the rights to most (if not all) of their music. That allowed them to underscore each little part of their story with a song from their vast music library. Much like the songs’ original purpose, the songs help tell their story in an emotional way. It also serves to astonish with how much they contributed to projects I knew about and ones I had never even heard of. It also highlights how much their songs were influenced by what they went through in their lives. Additionally, the movie was high profile enough to get big names to talk about how the Sherman Brothers influenced them. I was astonished to see John Williams pop up and comment on two fellow film composers, giving them a lot of credit for what American movies sounded like. Same goes for Randy Newman, Kenny Loggins, and Alan Menken. Of course, performers like Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews get to talk as their careers owed a lot to the brothers. Same goes for Hayley Mills who also benefitted from the brothers’ songs.

Of course, the center of this documentary are interviews with the brothers themselves. Both Bob and Dick were still alive when this movie was made and it is so good that they could get their story down on film in their own words. This was made possible through the efforts of their children who got together years into their own lives, feeling too much distance from each other because their fathers were estranged. Everybody involved was interested in telling a complete story, with both the good parts and the uglier parts. And frankly, the ugly parts could have been way worse. The story also makes clear how many lives the brothers changed with their music. Mary Poppins alone changed people for all time and is still changing people generations later. It also shows how infused they were with the Disney spirit and how much they influenced that same Disney spirit for the better. They attacked their work with enthusiasm and it really shows.

Overall, I loved this movie. The movie paced itself and told their story beat by beat without going over the top in celebrating two people that I could spend two hours gushing about. It is really inspiring to see how their minds and process worked. They really were compliments for each other, with the dark meeting the light and joining together for something great.  Their creativity came from conflict which is astonishing.  They created a lot of stuff for family entertainment but it had heart, soul, and intelligence.

(Written on 3/30/19)

The Aristocats (1970)

April 1, 2019

Except for a single dog when I was little, our family was always a cat family. We got our first cats while we were on a family trip to visit a Great Aunt who we were not particularly close with. I only really remember two trips. During one trip we got a Nintendo Game Boy and on another trip, my two brothers and I each got a kitten. Pretty strange now that I think back on it. I wonder if my parents were even notified ahead of time. Anyway, we were pretty young and we each got a kitten. We were not the most imaginative little kids so we named them Andrew (mine), Blondie, and Baby. Baby stayed with us the longest and was the only cat who left us due to natural causes. We had plenty more cats over the years. Hans, Everest, Velvet, and many more. Sadly, many of them ran away and more than one was hit by a car. We were city kids but we did not have the heart to keep them inside and they lived full lives before they met their untimely demises. Still, we really liked our cats and they loved us in the way cats do.

Anybody who reads this blog or browses my archives should know by now that I love Disney. Pretty much anything they do is up my alley. Even the less good stuff is more enjoyable than the output of other companies. This movie was one that I had missed during my childhood probably because of the way the Disney vault works. For those not aware, the Disney vault was a policy where Disney would only sell copies of their animated movies for a limited time before hiding them away again in order to drive up demand. Thanks to streaming, that policy has now ended. Anyway, I always loved the older animated films because of their use of accessible, commercial jazz and show tunes. Movies like The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, and Oliver and Company were a bit jazzier than the run of the mill Disney Princess film (not that those weren’t great too). When I saw that the Aristocats has more of a swinging jazz soundtrack, I wanted to check it out. It makes sense, this was the last movie with music written by the Sherman Brothers. (More on them tomorrow).

So the first thing I noticed was that they brought Maurice Chevalier out of retirement to sing the opening song during the opening credits. This is something akin to what Disney would do later by having Dr. John sing the opening song to The Princess and the Frog. The movie is full of great, memorable characters. The star of the movie is no doubt Eva Gabor. She and her sister Zsa Zsa had distinct accents that just immediately screams class and sophistication. Her kindness just shines through her voice. Phil Harris plays the alley cat who comes to the rescue. He has such a fun and laid back voice that I could have heard him talk much longer than he did. He is a Disney veteran as he was both Baloo and Little John. The three child actors did well. Their voices and animation made them really come to life as both kittens and children. The other big standout voice is Scatman Crothers who is doing a Louis Armstrong impression. Apparently,. Louis Armstrong was supposed to do the part but was too sick and Crothers filled in. Still, having Phil Harris, Maurice Chevalier, and Scatman Crothers in the same movie is a great musical achievement in itself.

The animation is really beautiful, not only for the time. While the technology back then was leagues behind where we are now, drawing talent never really changes. I had always thought that this movie was just standard fare, similar to the art style of movies like The Rescuers. However, a lot of the art direction looks like Toulouse Lautrec artwork I saw in the Louvre. I definitely saw some nods to earlier animation, though. For example, the cats look similar to Figaro of Pinnochio and Dinah of Alice in Wonderland. However, they do not look like Lucifer from Cinderella so maybe cats can be matched by alignment. An interesting theory. The art is paired up with some great music. As I suspected, there is some great jazz and some great show tunes each showing a different world. The jazz was inspired by greats like Louis Armstrong and Herbie Hancock and it is definitely very playful. The show tunes are more in the style of musicals like the Sound of Music, prim and proper but pleasant.

Overall, I loved this movie. It was a sweet little movie in the classic Disney style. There is just so much positive energy in the movie that it is hard not to smile. However, it is not too saccharine sweet like the Sound of Music. It just felt like a good movie with a pleasant story filled with pleasant characters. The villains are even more comical than cruel. It has so many cute moments and some genuine laughs that it earns. It shows that Disney always had a way about it, a tradition they continue to follow. All of it is tied together with great artwork, good music, and interesting voice actors. Well, except for the racist Chinese caricature.

(Written 3/29/19)


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