Saturday, September 28, 2013

Make "The Friedkin Connection"

William Friedkin, the talented director behind such films The Exorcist (1973) & To Live & Die in L.A. (1985), has recently published his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection. It’s a great read about his life in the movie business. He sticks to discussing his professional career, after a brief history of his formative years in the book’s early pages. Starting out as a director of documentaries & television shows, Friedkin charts his path working on films like The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968) & the 1967 Sonny & Cher vehicle Good Times. He’s open about the his frustrating experiences on these early projects, which were not very successful. Then we get to his Oscar winning classics The French Connection & The Exorcist. The bulk of the book focuses on these two films; Friedkin goes into great detail about the productions, and the challenges he faced making both films. For The French Connection, he was still considered a newcomer, even though he had directed several films previously, and faced numerous battles with studio heads over the film’s budget & shooting schedule. On The Exorcist, there were numerous bumps in the road in bringing the novel to the screen, including dealing with the controversial subject matter, and getting the right cast & crew together. There are fascinating behind the scenes details about both movies. These stories are the best parts of the book, and offer real insight into the moviemaking process.

Friedkin is candid about his successes & failures, and owns up to his own faults when relationships with his collaborators turned out badly. Another film extensively covered is 1977’s Sorcerer, an expensive remake of the classic French film The Wages of Fear (1953), which spiraled over budget & out of control during production. It later flopped at the box office, though it has had a bit of a critical re-evaluation in recent years. There’s also a section on the controversial film Cruising (1980), a murder mstery set in the world of gay sex clubs, which starred Al Pacino. Despite his candor, there’s no mention of two notorious failures, Deal of The Century (1983) and  The Guardian (1990), both of which were troubled productions that turned out badly. One weakness of the book is that there’s less focus on the second half of Friedkin’s career; his later films are given much shorter shrift, though there are still some interesting anecdotes, especially regarding To Live & Die in L.A. What some readers may find surprising is that Friedkin later had success directing operas, collaborating with the likes of Placido Domingo. In the final portions of the book he does talk about his home life, discussing some personal health issues & his fourth marriage, to studio head Sherry Lansing. A few more words about his personal life would have been welcome, since he’s very open about it in this portion of his life story. He also focuses on two recent film projects, both based on plays by Tracy Letts, Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2011). This is a well-written, honest & entertaining read, especially if you’re a fan of Friedkin’s work as a director.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"History Of The Eagles" Soars


The Eagles flew out from the shadows of serving as Linda Ronstadt’s backing band to become rock superstars. They had a string of hits, including “Take It Easy, One of These Nights, and Take It To The Limit.” They hit their peak with 1976’s Hotel California, one of the most successful rock albums of all time. Then the cracks started to show, as internal conflicts, too much partying & the pressures of fame began to unravel the band. The group broke up in 1980, but resurfaced in 1994 with an MTV special, album & eventual tour called Hell Freezes Over. They’ve reunited on and off ever since. The two part documentary History of the Eagles charts their meteoric rise, fall & eventual reunion. 

The film is filled with great behind the scenes footage, photos & performance clips from throughout the group’s career. In addition to interviews with current & former band members, there are also appearances by Ronstadt, Jackson Browne & Bob Seger. Part One traces the band’s beginnings through their split in 1980, and Part Two charts the road to their reunion and comeback. The band (including Don Henley, Glenn Frey & Joe Walsh) is remarkably candid about the good times & the bad times that occurred during the group’s heyday. The guys are open (and intense & emotional) about their opinions, and sometimes (especially in the case of the often prickly Frey) don’t always come off in a positive light. And it’s interesting to see what former members like Bernie Leadon & Don Felder (who wrote a tell-all memoir about his tenure in the band) have to say about their time in the group.

The Eagles, whose Greatest Hits, Vol 1., 1971-1975 was named the best selling album of the 20th Century by the Recording Industry Association of America, have an amazing body of work and History of the Eagles reminds us of their enduring legacy of classic songs. But it also gives us a glimpse of the band’s current lineup, which now includes Felder’s replacement, guitarist Stueart Smith. There's also footage of the group working on their most recent disc, 2007’s Long Road Out of Eden. I wish there were some complete vintage performance clips featured as extras, but there is a bonus disc included (on both the DVD and Blu-ray versions) with an hour’s worth of performances from a 1977 concert at the Capital Centre, though it’s not the complete show.

Director Alison Ellwood has done a remarkable job with this film; the three-hour plus running time of the documentary gives her ample time to really tell the band’s story, though Part One is a good deal longer than Part Two. This is a fascinating chronicle of the rise, fall (and return) of one of rock’s most memorable groups, and if you’re a fan of the band, enjoy ‘70s rock or the country rock genre, the film is essential viewing. The movie originally aired on Showtime, but is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkYZrcJzY-M and a vintage performance of “Take It Easy” : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZwFmNmB0OQ.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kurt Baker's Excellent "Brand New Beat" is Power Pop at its Best


Regular readers of this blog know of my fondness for power pop music. Well, thanks to the syndicated radio series Little Steven’s Underground Garage, hosted by Steven Van Zandt, I’ve discovered another artist who’s a prime example of the genre. Little Steven’s show always showcases a “Song of the Week,” and he recently featured Kurt Baker’s “Weekend Girls,” a tuneful blast of pop rock sunshine. It led me to check out Baker’s 2012 release, Brand New Beat. It’s a fantastic album that will appeal to fans of 70s & 80s artists like The Cars & Elvis Costello. The album kicks off with the rocking “Hit The Ground,” and from then on it’s track after track of power pop excellence on songs such as the electric “Partied Out,” the fine ballad “She’s Not Sorry,” and the bright summer love tale “She Can Do It All.” You’ll hear echoes of Marshall Crenshaw, Cheap Trick, The Beatles & The Beach Boys in the sparkling harmonies, catchy lyrics and jangly guitars, on songs like “Everybody Knows" & the all out rocker "Qualified." There’s even a touch of the pop punk sound of The Ramones, another group Baker cites as an influence.

The production & arrangements are excellent, and the band (including producer Wyatt Funderburk on Guitar & Bass, Kris Rodgers on Keyboards, Geoff Palmer on Rhythm Guitar and Adam Cargin on Drums ably backs Baker on every track. The sound of vintage pop rock is captured perfectly on this great disc. Brand New Beat is a terrific set of “pure pop for now people,” to borrow the title of a Nick Lowe record. This is a great release by an artist whose music deserves to be heard. If you’re a power pop fan, a classic rock fan, or enjoy any of Baker’s influences, this Portland native (formerly of the band The Leftovers) will have your toes tapping and your hands clapping. Baker also has several EPs available, including 2012’s Want You Around and his awesome debut, Got It Covered (2010), a fantastic set of covers featuring the artist’s own power pop favorites, including terrific versions of Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind,” Rick Springfield’s “I’ve Done Everything For You” and The Vapors “Turning Japanese.” Highly recommended.

Here are links to videos for “She Can Do it All,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jjq5vLoYack & “She’s Not Sorry” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODmul0cLYiw from Brand New Beat, and “Cruel To Be Kind” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBArHrEei5U & “I’ve Done Everything For You” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzrFvg79KU8 from Got It Covered.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Celebration of Batman's TV Adventures

A book that celebrates the campy Batman TV show? If you’re part of a certain age group, your first exposure to the Caped Crusader was likely the original broadcasts (or syndicated reruns) of that action-filled, pop art 1960s seriesThe show originally ran from 1966-68, and starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. The show amped up the humor quotient, but young viewers didn’t care as they loved the fights between Batman and Robin and the colorful villains like The Joker and The Penguin, the numerous Bat-gadgets and the cliffhanger style endings, leaving our heroes in the grip of a seemingly inescapable death trap at the end of Part 1. Adults enjoyed the satirical aspects of the show, the tongue in cheek dialogue, and the gallery of famous guest stars who were featured as villains, including Julie Newmar as Catwoman & Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. And in a sort of reverse synchronicity, the comics published by DC at the time began to reflect the style of the TV version of Batman.

During the original run of the series, Bat-mania was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. But the fad started to fade during the show’s second year, and even the addition of Yvonne Craig as Batgirl for the third and final season couldn’t halt the declining ratings. After the show’s cancellation, the comic book Batman returned to his darker roots courtesy of writers like Dennis O’Neil & Steve Englehart and artists like Neal Adams & Jim Aparo. While the show gained new fans in reruns, some people looked down on the series and scorned its spoofy tone. In the 1980s and 90s, groundbreaking graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and Tim Burton’s films brought the onscreen character closer to its original persona, and the TV show seemed like a distant memory that many chose to deride. DC all but disavowed the show.

A book called Gotham City 14 Miles: 14 Essays On Why The 1960s Batman TV Series Matters seeks to change all that. It’s a group of articles by comic book professionals, writers and journalists who see the TV series as a valid interpretation of Batman, and look to honor its contribution to the Dark Knight’s history. It’s an enjoyable read for fans. There are articles on the unique style of the series, a comparison between the TV episodes and the comics that inspired them, and a look at the 1966 feature film version of the show. Some of the standout pieces include: long time comics writer Chuck Dixon’s “Known Super-Criminals Still At Large: Villainy in Batman,” Robert Greenberger’s “Bats in Their Belfries: The Proliferation of Batmania,” and Michael Johnson’s “Gotham City R&D: Gadgetry In Batman.”

The essays are written with obvious love and appreciation for the show, and its lasting impact on the Batman's legacy. Dixon (who wrote a lot of  “serious” Batman stories in the 90s) admits to dismissing the series at first, then coming around to recognize its charms. Guides to the show’s episodes and its music are featured as appendixes. I grew up watching reruns of the series, and while I’m a fan of the “darker” Batman, I also appreciate the TV show on its own merits. I absolutely loved it in my younger days, and I appreciate it on a whole new level as an adult. This book brought back a lot of great “Zap! Pow! Bam!” memories. I mean, who didn't love that awesome Batmobile!? Or Ms. Newmar as the sexiest Catwoman ever?

Interestingly enough, the series has never been released on home video, though the 1966 movie version of the series is on DVD & Blu-ray. There’s no doubt that, love it or hate it, the series was influential, and this entertaining book is a great way to look back at the history of the show. Recently, DC Comics has begun to license collectible items related to the series, and is even publishing a new online and print comic called Batman ’66 featuring stories in the style of the show. The writer is Jeff Parker, best known for Marvel’s retro superhero series Agents of AtlasGotham City 14 Miles is recommended for comic fans, classic television fans & Batman fans. Here are links to the trailer for the 1966 feature film version of the show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whgBnumr3QQ, and the series' opening titles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uo94Z6Vm-ggand remember like the Caped Crusader says “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”

A well known blogger at 2013's ComicConn with his new car :)