I’m Gonna Show You the Best in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Packing a multitude of history, culture, stories and trauma into a single “day in the life” of a legendary blues entertainer is just one of the brilliant tricks Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom pulls off.

Director George C. Wolfe is most famous for his theater work, and the film is an adaptation of August Wilson’s amazing play. Not a single shot or moment is wasted in the film’s 94-minute runtime. Wolfe brilliantly uses classical cinematic language to transmit backstory and history in a matter of seconds. Witness the opening scene of two black people running through a swampy woodland, representing the multitudes who escaped the bondage of slavery only to live in constant fear and more oppression, and ultimately entering a giant tent where Ma Rainey is bringing down the house. Later in the film there’s a definitive shot from underneath a Chicago train rattling by that transitions seamlessly into Ma Rainey and her band nailing the recording of the titular song. Here we see people in constant movement, migration, darting from danger, surviving, finding a voice…an escape. But the blues was more a reflection of life than an escape, and it’s in those claustrophobic theatrical moments when the band banters in the dingy basement rehearsal room about their lives, their traumas, and their place in this messed up world where Wilson’s voice sings the loudest and clearest. It is there where the tensions rise leading to a shattering denouement, and a chilling closing scene of pain white-washed, talent stolen.

Of course, all of this is a stage for the exorcism of performances. Viola Davis as Ma Rainey is earth-shatteringly good, with the actress showing us again (like she did in Fences) how comfortable she is digging so deep down and spookily into not only Wilson’s words, but also the spirits of generations of traumatized but boldly resilient black women. She’s matched, and some might say even overshadowed, in a way, by the late great Chadwick Boseman as the showy, troubled trumpeter Levee Green. Davis makes you feel every word Ma Rainey speaks or sings, but Boseman’s portrayal of Levee’s family tragedies nearly brought me to tears.

All the key players have their moments to shine: Davis kills it when her Ma Rainey explains why she puts such demands on her white manager. Glynn Turman breaks your heart when his Toledo waxes poetically about how the United States is a stew, and black people need to realize they are just the leftovers before they can do a damn thing about anything. And then the coup de grace is Boseman, calling upon another man’s god to actually do something for once, channeling some of the deepest hurt and personal pain I’ve ever seen painted on the screen. One can’t help but wonder, knowing now how terminally ill he was when he filmed this, if he wasn’t asking god “Why?” himself. Interplaying with them all is the seemingly stalwart, but desperately passionate when he’s triggered, Cutler played expertly by Coleman Domingo.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is as advertised. Merging music, stage, and screen to teach us about history and pain in a reflection from the past onto our own deeply troubled times, it’s the very best film as an artistic medium has to offer. It’s timeless. Timely. Essential.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

What Got Me Through 2020

A year like no other, 2020 negates the traditional “Best of…” year end lists when it comes to movies, books, music and art. Instead I’ll leave you with a simple sampling of what spoke to me the most. Whether it was through escapism or reflection, here is what got me through this helluva year…

This Film: Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and THAT CLOSING SCENE!

Completely transportive and oozing art in all the best French ways, I said of Celine Sciamma’s searing tale of once-upon-a-time forbidden romance…“Once the tension breaks in the later third of the film, some of the novel magic disappears, but the closing coda is one for the ages, echoing literary allusions from earlier in the film, showcasing the women’s resolve even after parting, forging their own ways in their own way and culminating in that scene at the orchestra that is among the best closing scenes of any film in recent memory…”

This Music: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and let me tell ya something, ladies, ladies, ladies…

Has there ever been a more serendipitiously timed release than when Fiona dropped this bomb (leaving shrapnel permanently embedded in me) at the height of the Spring Pandemic Lockdown? Gobsmacked upon its release, I said…Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…”

This Photograph:

At the height of the civil unrest and heated protests in the summer, Julie Rendleman’s photograph of ballerinas Ava Holloway and Kennedy George striking a pose in front of a graffitied Confederate monument in Richmond, VA spoke a thousand words.

This Book: Overboard by Ivy Ngeow

This indie novel came out of nowhere. I met the author on Twitter and I downloaded the book on a lark…and this globe-hopping thriller miraculously checked all my boxes. I swooned…

“Like Christian Petzold’s film Phoenix and Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, identity, amnesia, and transforming oneself hang over the proceedings like a pall. Ngeow’s spin on the themes, however, are decidedly modern and channeled through technology and interior design. Her characters foolishly build protective walls around themselves with their possessions and hobbies, often unaware of their true selves and how others perceive them through the veils of technology and language. Ngeow’s sardonic wit and voice echo back to the best of Graham Greene. And much like Greene’s work, Overboard, finds that delicate balance between thrilling entertainment and keenly observant literature inundated with the slippery complexities of human behavior. Overboard is a modern, novel masterpiece. An absolute must-read.”

This HBO Limited Series: The Undoing

Oh, man, where do I even start? The first episode seemed like it might be just another Gypsy-style tawdry therapist-with-bad-boundries psychological melodrama, but it quickly pivoted into a murder mystery, legal thriller, and domestic drama all rolled into one. I loved every aspect of it: the strange accents, the Euro-pall hanging over the Manhattan setting, director Suzanne Bier’s eyeball piercing cinematography, the emo-acting, the David E. Kelly elitism, all the histrionic twists and turns. It turned into the best thing HBO has done since Sharp Objects and a perfectly entertaining distraction from all the post US election drama.

Special Shout-outs to…

  • The binge-worthy laughs of Schitt’s Creek and The Good Place, two shows my wife and I probaby would’ve never watched otherwise but happily binge-watched during the pandemic.
  • Laurie Metcalf – the unsung hero of character-driven comedy. We just discovered the exceptional (and painfully funny) Getting On, and her work on The Conners (which has re-emerged from the ashes like a modern day Norman Lear sitcom) has been exceptional as always.
  • The recently discovered novels of Ru Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) and William Gay (The Long Home and Provinces of Night).
  • The HBO docu-series The Vow…oh the fuckery of Keith Ranier, may he rot in jail forever (and he will).

List Compiled by D. H. Schleicher

Fiona Apple Has Released the Perfect Album for Quarantine with Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, from the incomparable genius that is Fiona Apple, dropped yesterday, and I instantly downloaded it to listen to while catching up on work emails late Friday afternoon. As excited as I was about it, and as much as I’ve always loved Apple from the time both of us were teens and she released Tidal, nothing could prepare me for how brilliant the album would be. I, of course, started to babble about it on social media, re-listened to favorite tracks in the evening, posted a review on Amazon, and swam in my thoughts well into the sleepless night. Was it Fiona’s lyrics or the Venezuelan food or the normal quarantine panic keeping me up?

The bulk of the Amazon review has been integrated here, but reflecting a day later, I wanted to collect my thoughts and provide more context.

I have many fond memories of listening to Fiona Apple’s sophomore album When The Pawn… self-quarantined in my college dorm room thinking deep, deep thoughts. It was a landmark album. “Get Gone” and “I Know” remain amongst my favorite songs of all time. The album I could listen to straight through tomorrow and it would seem as fresh as that first day I listened to it in my dorm room.

Fetch the Bold Cutters arrives over twenty years later to a world under quarantine, and it too is a landmark album. It is the perfect album at the perfect time. Apple recorded it in her own self-quarantine with only a select few friends and bandmates (and dogs, barking seemingly on cue at the end of one track) at her home over recent years, reflecting deeply (as she always does) on her life, relationships, career, fears, wants, and forgiveness.

Like When the Pawn… Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays straight through true and true, not a wasted track. It’s all at once angry and joyous, polished and raw, soulful and angsty, defiant and willful, dark and tragic and funny and honest and blithe. There are themes of self-care, female empowerment, speaking up, acting out, messing up, surviving, and thriving. Her stories, her songs, her words, they are hers but also ours. She is speaking about our times, not as a passive witness, but as a tortured participant crawling through the muck, learning, growing, and trying to pull some of us out of it with her…if only we would listen…

Ladies, ladies, ladies…she sings…yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.

Another track, “Relay”, which apparently has been tossed around since Apple was a teen, seems like an anthem for all this is wrong with the world today. Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch she echoes over and over.

Originally slated for an October release, Apple convinced the studio to release this in April because why wait when the world is under a global pandemic shutdown? People need music, and escape, and we need to be allowed to think deep, deep thoughts. A lot of the professional reviewers are marveling at the experimental rawness, but I found it to be more polished and refined than advertised. It certainly is playful with percussions, happy accidents and background noises, but it all gels and her voice sometimes screaming and sometimes whispering and barely there, still sounds great and classically trained more often than not. What I loved the most is the dark sense of humor and the emotional vulnerability of her lyrical wordplay. Apple is at her most cunning and clever…and this is a masterwork. This is by far her best since When the Pawn…and perhaps the apex of her long gestating craft.

My favorite tracks:

  • I Want You To Love Me
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Ladies
  • For Her
  • Drumset

But there is something to savor and reflect on in each of the rich, complex, surprising tracks.

A real treasure in these strange, strange times.

Written by D. H. Schleicher

Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

When in Doubt Think about Ghosts

“When in doubt, think about ghosts.”

This is what director David Lynch told actor Russ Tamblyn while shooting a key scene for the original Twin Peaks in an attempt to get the right reaction. And it worked. I vividly recalled that scene, and man, Russ Tamblyn was all kinds of spooky looking, obviously thinking about ghosts.

It’s these great little tidbits that make Room to Dream such an enjoyable, and often weird, read for fans of surrealist extraordinaire David Lynch – a man who seems like he must have had a tragic, horrible upbringing to be able to tap into such pain and darkness, yet seemingly didn’t (by any account, his or another). Here is a man who had a Norman Rockwell upbringing only to obsess over the seamy underbelly of the white picket fence world he both loved and railed against.

The semi-autobiography has alternating mirrored chapters (it is eerily its own doppelgänger) about the same events  – one from the point of view of David Lynch’s friends, family, and colleagues and then one from his point of view. It is long and rambling and very detailed. Though none of the back-stories on the productions of his films were previously unknown to me, someone who has studied and read about Lynch for decades, I especially enjoyed those walks down memory lane to Philadelphia and the Eraserhead days. The meat of the book is in those delicious little tidbits and the altered views of what happened…Lynch sometimes disagrees with (or doesn’t remember) what the others say happened. Continue reading

My Favorite Film Scores

It’s been two weeks since I experienced it in the theater, and I still can’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk out of my mind.  It’s the best film of 2018 and one of the best of the decade, by the way.  I encourage you to see it in a theater with someone you love and then tell everyone you love about it.

One of the big reasons it continues to haunt me is Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary score.  The themes he created (especially “Eros” and “PTSD” and “Hypertension”) ear-wormed their way into the ever-present background music of my mind, and when they work their way to the forefront…Barry Jenkins’ images, James Baldwin’s characters, the performances, and most importantly, the feelings all come rushing back.  When I first heard “Eros” in the theater in the context of a poignant love scene, I instantly thought, “This might be one of the best film scores of all time.”  Then there was “PTSD” like a hammering heart building up to a panic attack in the background of that scene where Fonny’s friend, fresh from prison, slowly reveals his thoughts on his brief stint in prison and the worst part of it…the fear.  It’s echoed later in “Hypertension” when a racist cop harasses Fonny and Tish outside an Italian market.  You feel the fear not just through the characters, but through Britell’s music.  I knew right then, indeed, Britell had composed something for the ages.

My favorite film scores often mirror (and elevate) my favorite films.  They can’t be extracted from the context of the film they help breathe deeper life into.  When I hear the music in my head, images and feelings from those beloved films rush through me.  Memories from my life at the time I first saw the film, or from ensuing years where thoughts of the film or revisits punctuated pain, joy, and transitions often mix with the memories of the film.  All of it forming a rich tapestry or sound and images and feelings. Continue reading

Going to Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you.  It’s a magnificent episode.  So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words.  Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!

The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.

Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff.  Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd.  Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable FeastContinue reading

Every Little Stitch of Alma and Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire.  Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair.  Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.

Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius.  Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for.  But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.

We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen.  We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville).  Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress.  In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes. Continue reading

I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

la-la-land-mia

“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

The L’s Have It

It’s official, when it comes to the music on my iPhone, “L” is the best letter of the alphabet.

The Letter L

Not only do three of my favorite songs EVER (the Goodfella‘s inspiring Derek & the Dominos version of “Layla”, Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and The Eagles “Lyin’ Eyes”) begin with the letter “L”, but my “L’s” are also a completely stress-reducing mix of weirdly juxtaposed but oddly complimentary tracks that make any traffic jam, jam.  It also makes me realize I am very, very tragically white.

Here’s the complete song list: Continue reading