Thursday, June 14, 2018

It's All About Ray...Lamontagne

My latest piece for the wonderful arts & entertainment website Culture Sonar takes a look at the very talented singer-songwriter Ray Lamontagne. You can check it out by following the link below the photo. Feel free to use the search function to check out my other articles! Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Sounds of "Muscle Shoals"

The best stories, whether they’re fact-based or fictional, give you a true sense of their place and time. That's one of the strengths of the fascinating music documentary, Muscle Shoals, which was originally released in 2013. The film gives us an in-depth look at the Alabama town where two well-regarded studios have given us classic music by Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander and many others. It’s also the story of producer Rick Hall, a fascinating man who survived quite a bit of personal tragedy and went on to open the celebrated FAME studios. Hall was a determined, driven man, who changed the shape of his own destiny, as well as the lives of many others. He gathered together a talented crew of studio musicians that came to be known as the Swampers, who became the backbone of the “Muscle Shoals sound.”

For many of those interviewed in the film, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood and reggae icon Jimmy Cliff, the town and its atmosphere have as much to do with the sounds they created and recorded there as the music itself. They all talk about the special energy of the place, and how being there affected them. Many artists found that the trajectory of their careers were changed by recording in Muscle Shoals, including Aretha Franklin, who was having trouble finding a sound on record which matched the intensity of her live shows. Until she headed to Muscle Shoals, and did a session with the Swampers for the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and her career changed forever. That’s just one of the classic tunes that were recorded at FAME studios.

Another interesting fact brought out by the film is that many people thought the Swampers were black, due to the funky, R&B laced grooves they were creating; in fact, they were mostly white. But they were playing and recording with many black artists at a time when the civil rights movement was at its height. Hall points out that there were no color lines in the studio, and everyone got along with each other. The Swampers became one of the most in demand backing groups in the business, even attracting the attention of Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, who eventually brought them to LA to play on some sessions there.

That success caused a rift with Hall, and the Swampers eventually broke off and founded their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. They became just as successful in their own right, and the town found it now had two studios producing memorable music by Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan and many others. The film is filled with excellent performance clips, and that footage, coupled with the intimate behind the scenes stories, really make the movie worth viewing. There’s also some interesting background on Lynyrd Skynyrd, who made some of their first recordings in Muscle Shoals, and famously name checked the Swampers in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Muscle Shoals is about a remarkable town, an amazing group of people and the wonderful music they made. The story of Rick Hall (who passed way earlier this year) the Swampers and the songs that sprang from this celebrated location is essential viewing for rock and roll fans. The film was produced and directed by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier. Along with Standing In The Shadows Of Motown20 Feet From Stardom and The Wrecking Crew,  this is one of the best recent documentaries about the people “behind the music” I've seen. The movie is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and for online viewing at various sites. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Saturday, May 19, 2018

An Offbeat Coming of Age Story

Every once in a while, I like to champion a little known film which may have escaped the notice of most viewers. This time out, I'm recommending a little movie called Son of Rambow (2007), a film by writer-director Garth Jennings & producer Nick Goldsmith, who also teamed up for the big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Son of Rambow is the story of two British school kids: Lee Carter, the requisite bad boy, and Will Proudfoot, a quieter and more introverted young man, whose family belongs to a strict religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Due to his family’s beliefs, Will is not allowed to watch TV or see movies. When the two boys become friends after being thrown together by circumstance, Lee invites Will to star in a movie he’s making, inspired by First Blood (1982), the first cinematic appearance of RamboAfter seeing the Sylvester Stallone action film at Lee's house, Will agrees to participate in the project.

Bill Milner & Will Poulter in Son of Rambow
The two boys work on the film using video equipment they secretly borrow from Lee’s older brother, who’s something of a bully. Will hides their activities from his widowed mother, who’s struggling with her decision to leave the Brethren, and start a better life for her family. The boys' ideas for the movie become even more ambitious, and the rest of the school, including some French exchange students, become involved in the project. Lee intends to enter the finished movie in a young filmmaker’s competition. As their friendship grows stronger, both Will & Lee will find themselves tested, as their personal lives interfere with the film they're making. Both boys must grow up a lot faster than they thought. Can their friendship survive this experience? Will the movie get finished, and will anyone get the chance to see it?

Son of Rambow is a charming, likable story with a gentle and quirky sense of humor. In some ways, you can compare this film to the character driven, whimsical stories of director Bill Forsyth, who wrote and directed Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983)Son of Rambow is a coming of age story that has some genuine laughs, a few tears and it still manages leaves you smiling at the end. The movie gives you a real sense of the 1980s timeframe in which the story is set, with believable and relatable characters. The cast is very good, with both Will Poulter as Lee and Bill Milner as Will giving wonderful performances. I highly recommend checking out this film, which is based on writer-director Jennings and producer Goldsmiths own childhood experiences in the 1980s. This is one of those "under the radar" type of films you'll definitely enjoy, and find yourself recommending to friends after seeing it. Son of Rambow is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A "Fantastic" album from Elton John

Here's a link to my latest article at Culture Sonar, the marvelous arts and entertainment site. It's a retrospective piece on one of Elton John's best records, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which wasn't just an album, it was an event. You can read all about it by following this link: Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Lost In Space" Arrives on Netflix

A family of space explorers board a ship called the Jupiter 2, as they begin a mission to start an Earth colony at Alpha Centauri. Along the way, they encounter some deadly detours, courtesy of a powerful robot and a crafty saboteur. Sound familiar? The baby boomers among you will recall this as the basic setup for creator-producer Irwin Allen’s beloved television series, Lost In Space, which featured the adventures of the Robinson family. The original show ran from 1965-1968, and gained a whole new group of fans through syndicated reruns. The series was rebooted as a 1998 feature film, which was somewhat successful at the box office, but strayed a bit from the original concept, and alienated many longtime fans. In 2004, the WB network produced a pilot for a new series, entitled The Robinsons: Lost In Space. The project was directed by action maestro John Woo, but it never aired, and the series wasn't picked up by the network.

Now Netflix has produced a new version of the show, and it’s an enjoyable, old-fashioned science-fiction tale, written by Matt Sazama and Burke Sharpless. This time around, the Robinson family is part of a larger mission ship, the Resolute, which is filled with colonists searching for humanity’s new home after a disaster has caused the Earth to experience serious environmental issues. An alien vessel attacks the Resolute, and those aboard are forced to evacuate to a nearby planet in their smaller craft, which are called Jupiters. While stranded there, the Robinsons and their fellow travelers must survive in a hostile alien environment, and contend with the machinations of a stowaway who’s appropriated the identity of a doctor named Smith. Oh, and there’s also a huge alien robot who’s befriended young Will Robinson; but this particular robot has a dark side.

Molly Parker as Maureen Robinson (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)
The cast is headed by Molly (House of Cards) Parker, who is terrific as scientist Maureen Robinson. Toby (Die Another Day) Stephens plays her husband John, here recast as a former Navy Seal and, in a gender switch on Jonathan Harris’ iconic (and comic) villain from the original series, actress Parker Posey portrays the sly and scheming Dr. Smith. Also aboard are Ignacio Serricchio as pilot Don West (whose character is reinvented here as a con man and lovable rogue) and Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall and Maxwell Jenkins are the Robinson kids: Judy, Penny and Will, respectively. The family’s relationships are interesting and the young performers are quite good, never slipping into that annoying kid mode that has plagued many shows of this type. The series is extremely well cast, and while some reviewers have taken exception to Posey's offbeat performance, I think she's quite effective as the manipulative Smith, who will go to any lengths for self-preservation. In fact, Posey and Parker have some great scenes together in during the season.

The ten episode revival pays homage to the original in ways that will delight fans, but also goes off in some intriguing new directions. One of the best things about this revival of Lost in Space is that it’s a fairly straightforward space adventure saga, and it's quite entertaining on that level. The show offers enough action, narrow escapes, plot twists and turns and likeable characters to interest viewers seeking an old school science-fiction story. The show also retains the family friendly vibe of the classic series. The special effects and production vales are impressive, and the excellent direction by genre vets such as Neil Marshall and David Nutter guide the solid cast through their paces. I tried to stay relatively plot and spoiler free for this piece, so you can enjoy the show (and discover its merits) on your own. Lost In Space is definitely worth seeking out for fans and newcomers alike. The series is currently streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Keep Reading “Keep Watching The Skies!”

Does the phrase Klaatu barada nikto evoke fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still? Can the mere mention of science-fiction films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island EarthThem! and The War of The Worlds bring a smile to your face? Then there’s a book on the subject you simply must read. It’s the late Bill Warren’s incisive, thoroughly researched study of the genre: Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The book focuses on films produced between the years 1950-62, the first golden age of the sci-fi movie. Originally published in two volumes in 1982 & 1986, the updated & combined “21st Century Edition” was released in 2009, and is still in print. This massive tome covers everything from bona fide classics such as It Came From Outer SpaceInvasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet to less honored (but still enjoyable) titles like Invisible Invaders, Devil Girl From Mars & Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Warren grew up during the time of many of these films original release and he saw many of them on the big screen, and has remarkably sharp recollections of them. He offers a personal (as well as historical) perspective regarding each film he reviews in the book. While his criticisms of some of the genre’s less successful efforts can be a bit harsh, his informative and illuminating writing is a delight to read. His passion for these movies is infectious. Warren’s extensive coverage of these films includes a wealth of facts on actors, directors, screenwriters and crew members, along with detailed information about production history, script changes and even discusses alternate versions of the films. Each movie gets its own entry, in alphabetical order, and there are several helpful appendices offering further information that’s not featured in the main volume. There are also some great illustrations, photos and film poster reproductions featured throughout the book.

While it’s length (over 1000 pages) may seem daunting, it’s the kind of book you can savor a little at a time; you’ll find yourself moving throughout the book to read about your own favorites, and then returning to check out some more entries on films you may not have seen. Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties is an indispensable guide to one of the most enduring of film genres. If you’re a fan, you’ll truly appreciate Warren’s insightful and entertaining analysis of these movies. While you may not always agree with his assessments, you’re sure to learn something new about these films and the people who made them. The book is available in a print edition, as well as an excellent, affordable e-book version, which is the one I used to prepare this review. Highly recommended. And remember, as Scotty the reporter said at the end of 1951's The Thing "Keep watching the skies!"

Saturday, April 7, 2018

H.G. Wells Rocks (No, Really...)

Here's another piece I did over at Culture Sonar, the fantastic arts and entertainment site. This time, it's all about a landmark record combining H.G. Wells, rock & roll and..... Richard Burton? Couldn't happen, you say? Well, it did back in 1978 with the release of the double album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of The Worlds, a rock opera that featured Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. Read all about it by following the link below the image.