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Tuesday, April 30, 2019

AMAZING GRACE - Aretha's Gospel Recording from 1972 Released as a Doc.

Arguably the greatest singer of the 20th & 21st C is Aretha Franklin who passed away last year.  Her musical legacy is nothing short of miraculous.  The just released film "Amazing Grace" is footage from a 2 day concert of Aretha Franklin's gospel album in January of 1972.  The recording was held in a Baptist Church in Watts. Sydney Pollack was the young director who went onto to highly successful career in the movie industry.  However, he notoriously flopped with this film when he failed to utilize the technology necessary to sync sound.  This did not stop Franklin's recording of the album that has become the best selling gospel album of all time.  (It also didn't derail Pollack's career.)  Technology has now restored the film to be presented as intended.  There's no mistaking the incredible gift Franklin possessed to sing and arrange music that is otherworldly and touches the soul.  Still, it's questionable why the film has only just been released after her death.  The answer may be found by observing Ms. Frankel and the seemingly strained interaction between her father, the Rev. C. L Franklin.  Not to take give too much attention to her egotistical father who took to the podium not only to sermonize but to subjugate his daughter's talents outside the realm of the Church.  At the time Franklin had 11 top singles and 5 Grammy Awards.  One can feel for Ms. Franklin and sense her incomparable grace & restraint while listening to her father preach.  When Franklin is singing, heaven and earth are swayed by the voluminous richness in her voice and her stirring renditions.  There are sublime shots of Franklin in her white glittered gown as sweat glistens down her face rejoicing while singing with abandon. The concert is held in the Baptist Church with the aid of Rev. James Cleveland and the S. CA Community Choir led by Alexander Hamilton.  The raw footage shows Pollack and film crew coming in and out of view.  The congregants oftentimes were moved to join in and the audience is carried along by their candid and intimate responsiveness.  The religious fervor is stirred to an ultimate pitch.  This film is testament to the miraculous talents Ms. Franklin possessed and the celestial aura surrounding her singing.  Whenever Aretha Franklin sings, she sings with the voice of an angel setting us free.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

HOME at the Berkeley Rep - Has Moments of Magic But Not Worth Leaving Home For

HOME created and starring Geoff Sobelle known for his absurdist works is an immersive absurdist production with many moving parts, literally.  This production at the Berkeley Rep appeared promising from the start with magical moments of ephemeral intrigue and musical performance by composer Elvis Perkins (Anthony Perkins' son.). Perkins musical compositions and performances were reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan's folks music and clever lyrics though difficult to decipher.  Thankfully, his lyrics are printed in the program and it's probably only a matter of time before he gains notoriety for his musical talents.  Perkins bookends the overly long One Act  which is packed with magic & ephemeral grace to start.  David Neumann's majestic choreography echoes Maya Angelou's sentiment "Everything in the universe has rhythm.  Everything dances."  Unfortunately the production unfolds into an annoying supercilious absurdist theater that throws in everybody and everything plus the kitchen sink and an overflowing crapper.  The overstuffed immersive structure with minimalistic dialogue implodes into disaster.  This dubious bifurcation is deeply disappointing after marvelous choreographic staging & lighting that casts a shine on the beauty found in the mundane. Overlapping lives simultaneously pass through unbeknownst to one another under the same roof.  Perkins live music gets plastered over by a recorded mixed bag of musical scores.  Bringing the audience onto the congested stage weighs down the production.  The actors misstep going into the audience to enlist people to elevate strung lightbulbs.  HOME really jumps the shark once separated trajectories connect within the framework of the house on stage and audience house members.  The grim reaper makes his rounds towards the end but by then the magic has vanished.   The saving grace comes from 2 eloquent interjecting prose that evokes nostalgia for one's own childhood home.  There is no place like home and nothing quite like HOME.  But after the mystifying foundation is set, the additional construct should be laid to rest.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

SOCRATES at the Public by Tim Blake Nelson - An Intellectual Powerhouse Production

Tim Blake Nelson is a character actor known for his roles in Coen Brothers films including "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" and "Brother Where art Thou."  He is also a director, filmmaker and playwright.  Nelson's brilliant & provocative play "Socrates" at the Public Theater will establish him  as a seasoned playwright.  The intoxicating historic biopic swiftly runs over 3 hours and stars the unconquerable Michael Stuhlbarg ("Call Me by Your Name) as Socrates.  This intense & well acted performance is saturated in sagacious pretext.  Historians have difficulties in accurately depicting Socrates life or teaching as he left nothing in writing and there is rare documentation of his life.  Nonetheless, Nelson has created a credible and deeply moving portrait of one of the most widely known & enduring figures of western philosophy.  The drama embodies elenchus thinking which is to question everything and offer logical refutation.  This impressive & explosive production is a master class of discerning how to think.  The ancient philosopher's wisdom is very prescient in today's political climate where our democracy is being tested.  The first-rate cast surrounding Stuhlbarg and clever staging make this a must see powerhouse production.  SOCRATES leaves a lingering cerebral impact.  "To find yourself, think for yourself."


PLAY IT LOUD: INSTRUMENTS of ROCK and ROLL is the first major exhibit at a leading art museum consisting of musical instruments spanning the era of early rock & roll in the 50s & 60s through the 20th C.  The MET's musical instrument curator Jayson Dobney organized this show over 5 years along with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.   One may approach this exhibit with  skepticism of its significance alongside the halls of MET.  But there is plenty of awe to be found with regard to the iconic instruments and the legendary artists who performed them.   Starting with Chuck Berry's  guitar he first played "Johnny Be Good," the Everly Brothers guitar they recorded "Wake up Little Susie," Elvis Presley's original acoustic guitar, Jimi Hendrix's Flying V guitar used to record "All Along the Watch Tower," and Ringo Starr's drum set used on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Innovative instruments include John Lennon's 12 string guitar, Don Feldor's double neck guitar and early innovative synthesizers.  I found it interesting the exchange of instruments between the artists and whom the iconic musicians paid reverence.   The decimation of the guitars that was a destructive trend seems especially onerous; a wasteful use of instruments for showmanship.   Pete Townsend's smashed guitar from a pictorial spread by Annie Leibowitz lead to copies of this rebellious act just as Rock and Roll itself was one considered a revolutionary form of expression belonging to "a young generation."  More contemporary items include Prince's love guitar and images of Lady Gaga atop her piano.  This lady found the show subdued.  Row upon row of silent guitars gently wept.  And, without live performances this lady was not gaga for the stoic display of instruments which come alive only when being played.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Lucas Hnath's HILLARY and CLINTON Starring Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow

Playwright Lucas Hnath uncovers a universe with an unbeknownst conversation between Hillary and Bill Clinton during the presidential primaries in 2008.  The voyeuristic look into the couple's marital & political tribulations is riveting.  Many have wondered about the banter between Bill in his tumultuous term as President and during Hillary's run for the White in 2008.  Hnath's brilliant play "A Doll's House, Part 2" earned him the Tony for Best Play and a Tony for Best Actress for Laurie Metcalf who stars as the invincible Hillary.  Hillary's impenetrable persona revealed an unexpected crack in her carapace when confronted by a women during an informal Q&A in NH days before the state's primary.  The woman asked Clinton "How do you do it?" A softball question that elicited an uncharacteristic emotional response.  A teary eyed Clinton answered, "It's not easy - you know?"  Showing a softer more vulnerable side may have transformed her into a stronger candidate.  Hillary  won the NH primary despite polls predicting otherwise.  The simple but loaded question is volleyed about.  Why did Hill stay with Bill after his ignominious affair?  What motivated Hillary to run for the highest office and pursue public service?  What makes Hill and Bill tick as a team?  Was Hillary being strategic in staying by her husband's side?  Is Hillary power hungry or an altruistic patriot?  In Hnath's skillful hands, Hillary is seen as a relatable & complex individual with an omnipotent drive to be elected and a wife with ambivalent feelings for Bill (Tony & Emmy winner John Lithgow) whose indiscretions brought embarrassment and impeachment.  Hill's campaign manager Mark (Zak Orth) is adamant in keeping Bill out of the picture.  Still, she turns to Bill for support and when he arrives in the sparse hotel room, recriminations and frustrations soar.  Hillary wants to be out from under Bill's shadow.  Lithgow's Bill is a petulant egomaniac who doesn't want to be delegated to the sidelines or left alone.  Barack (Peter Francis James) makes an appearance in a cordial chess match with Hillary vying for position.  The acting is first rate and the sorry, not sorry repertoire is smart & humorous.  The universe where "Hillary and Clinton" co-exist is one with betrayals and reasonable actions.  The repercussions of what may have been and what actually transpired could fill a vortex.  What matters most in this amusing and exceptionally well acted play are the reverse images of the Hill & Bill we think we know.