Monday, June 19, 2017

Retro Soul is Alive & Well in New Haven

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - photo by John V
Soul music has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. Performers like Charles Bradley, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, and Alabama Shakes have mined the era of Stax, Muscle Shoals and Motown to bring us essential new music that is steeped in the classic soul tradition. One of the prime examples of this modern soul renaissance is the Alabama based St. Paul & The Broken Bones, who performed at New Haven's College Street Music Hall Sunday night. The band is touring in support of its excellent 2016 release, Sea of Noise. The show was magnificent: this outstanding band offered a sensational set, featuring their powerhouse sound, which is an enthralling mix of soul and rock, touched up with more than a dash of R&B. It's a potpourri of retro soul with a modern feel.

St. Paul & The Broken Bones - photo by John V
Lead singer Paul Janeway, who’s a fiery mix of Otis Redding, Al Green, and Wilson Pickett, owned the venue as he danced, jumped and slid his way across the stage. His passionate vocals on songs like “I’ll Be Your Woman” and “Sanctify” transported the audience and lifted us to new heights with their intensity. This was a show jam packed with high points, including one of my favorites, a stellar rendition of “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” one of the band’s signature songs, from their 2014 debut, Half The City. But the night wasn’t just about touching our emotions. Janeway and the band also got our hips moving with can’t stand (or sit) still takes on “Flow With It” and “Call Me.” This extraordinary group kept us grooving as we twisted and swayed for the entire evening. This was a night for singing and dancing along.

Kudos to this remarkable cadre of musicians, who include Browan Lollar on guitar, Al Gamble on piano, Jesse Phillips on bass and Andrew Lee on drums. The three-piece horn section, featuring Allen Branstetter on trumpet, Jason Mingledorff on saxophone and flute, and Chad Fisher on trombone, provide a rich and gritty backdrop that’s essential to the group’s success. Holding it all together is Janeway, who is truly a force of nature, with limitless reserves of energy, with a voice that is simply astonishing; he testifies, soul-ifies and funk-ifies everything he touches. This is an incredibly tight unit that knows how to hit those grooves perfectly, and they match their leader every step of the way. By the time the band wrapped up the show with a four-song encore, they’d shook the foundations, raised the rafters and torn the roof off the place with their superb performance.

Shovels & Rope - photo by John V
Opening act Shovels & Rope delighted the crowd as well. Real life couple (and gifted multi-instrumentalists) Michael Trent and Carey Anne Hearst’s obvious joy at playing together was truly infectious. Their rollicking sound is an Americana-fed mix of country, folk and rock. Songs like “Birmingham” and “O Be Joyful” definitely captured the audience’s attention. Their set also included the lovely “The Last Hawk” a tribute to Garth Hudson of The Band, and “ Missionary Ridge” an evocative retelling of a Civil War battle. Thanks to amazing sets from both bands, it was an extraordinary evening. Special thanks to Paul Janeway for giving a shout out to New Haven’s signature food: pizza, during his between song comments. If you get the chance to see either Shovels & Rope or St. Paul & The Broken Bones live, run, don’t walk to your local music venue. They are absolutely worthy of your attention. Here are links to St. Paul & The Broken Bones performing "I'll Be Your Woman" and Shovels & Rope taking on "Birmingham"

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Early Elton Resurrects A "Madman"

Early Elton, the brilliant band who pay tribute to the music Elton John performed on tour with Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray during 1970-72, returned to the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One on June 8. I’ve been attending their shows for several years now, and this group never fails to knock my socks off with their incredible live shows. The last time I wrote a review of the band, I mentioned I was running out of superlatives to describe just how good they are. Well, these guys just keep getting better every time I see them, so I’ll try to think of a few new ones. Friday night’s show was nothing short of spectacular. I'd expect nothing less from these superb musicians.

Early Elton - photo by John V
The first set featured Elton’s 1971 album Madman Across The Water in its entirety. Madman is an intricate, masterfully produced album with amazing and powerful songs, including “Levon” and the classic title track. But some of the songs on that disc have a massive sound, which includes choirs and orchestra. How do you scale that down for Early Elton’s trio setup? You do what this phenomenal band does for all of their performances: carefully research by listening to live recordings, demos and bootlegs to get a feel for how Elton, Nigel and Dee made these tunes work in a live trio setting. Allowing for some terrific solos to showcase this group’s stellar musicianship, these songs sound exactly as they would if you’d gone to see Elton during those trio shows in his early days.

The Madman Across The Water set was incredible. Of course, the band knocked it out of the park with “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon,” songs they perform regularly. But I really dug the fantastic versions of deeper cuts like “Razor Face” and “All The Nasties.” Their rendering of “Indian Sunset,” one of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s most evocative songs, was nothing short of magnificent. The marvelous Jeff Kazee on piano and vocals, the tremendous John Conte on bass and vocals, and the awe-inspiring Rich Pagano on drums and vocals, dazzled us on every song. This was a remarkable performance of the Madman album, and if the show had ended right there, we could have all gone home happy. But there was another memorable set of music to come.

The second half of the night kicked off with a rocking “Take Me To The Pilot” and included a stunning take on “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” from Honky Chateau. The set also featured breathtaking performances of several cuts from Tumbleweed Connection, my personal favorite of Elton’s albums. These songs are always a highlight of Early Elton’s shows, and on this night, the tremendous versions of “Son Of Your Father” and “My Father’s Gun” were no exception. The evening wrapped up with an audience sing along on the classic “Your Song” and the encore: a mind-blowing, bring the house down “Burn Down The Mission.” Early Elton rocksKazee’s terrific keyboards, Pagano’s powerful drumming and Conte’s intense bass, combine with their emotional vocals for an unforgettable night of music. The band is doing more shows this summer, so get out there and catch them live! If you’re a fan of this period of Elton’s music, they are a must see. For more info, you can go to their site at, or visit their Facebook page.

John Conte & Rich Pagano - photo by John V
Early Elton Set List - 6/9/17
Set 1 - Madman Across The Water
Tiny Dancer
Razor Face
Madman Across The Water
Indian Sunset
Holiday Inn
Rotten Peaches
All The Nasties

Jeff Kazee - photo by Gilda Caserta
Set 2 - Fan Favorites
Take Me To The Pilot
Rocket Man
Country Comfort
Son of Your Father
My Father’s Gun
Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters
Border Song
Grey Seal
Your Song
Burn Down The Mission

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some Came Running: Dean's Finest Hour?

Dean Martin was a multi-talented performer who had great success in music, movies and television. In his film work, he often portrayed characters that aligned with his onstage persona of a charming, affable ladies man, with a self-deprecating sense of humor…and a drink in his hand. For example, you may remember the four movies where he played swinging superspy Matt Helm, which were certainly an influence on the Austin Powers series featuring Mike Meyers. Or you might recall Ocean’s 11 (1960) and Robin & The Seven Hoods (1964), light-hearted romps designed to show off the easy-going camaraderie of Dean, Frank Sinatra and their Rat Pack brethren. Maybe you love the seventeen films he did with his comedic partner Jerry Lewis. But Martin also proved his mettle in movies like The Young Lions (1958), which displayed his ability to succeed in more serious dramatic roles. Martin was one of those actors, like Robert Mitchum, who made it look easy when giving memorable performances in their films. They almost didn't seem like they were acting, but left an indelible impact in their wake.

One of my favorite Dean Martin roles is his portrayal of card shark Bama Dillert in director Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 drama, Some Came Running. Based on a novel by James Jones, the film co-stars Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a WWII veteran and failed writer, who returns to his Indiana hometown, with a kind-hearted gal named Ginny in tow. Dave is still bitter about some past conflicts with his older brother Frank, and he’s not exactly welcomed home with open arms. One person who does befriend Dave is Bama, a gambler with a “live and let live” attitude. The two men start playing in card games together, and Bama invites Dave to move in with him. Ginny, who is in love with Dave, is brushed aside when he meets Gwen French, a local woman impressed by his writing. Dave sets his sights on Gwen, much to his brother and sister-in-law's chagrin. Frank doesn't want Dave (and his bad reputation) to disrupt his social standing.

The cynical and embittered Dave tries to romance the reluctant Gwen (she inspires him to continue with his writing) and work through his personal issues. His relationship with his self-righteous brother continues to be strained. Dave does form a bond with his niece Dawn, but that situation backfires when a secret about her father is revealed. Meanwhile, Bama becomes a sort of big brother, conscience and sounding board for Dave. Both men end up having altercations: Dave with Ginny’s jealous and violent ex-boyfriend, and Bama with another gambler who accuses him of cheating. Bama is stabbed and ends up in the hospital, where he learns he has diabetes. He's advised to curb his hard-drinking lifestyle, though the news doesn't slow him down much. Ginny’s unrequited love for Dave continues to grow, and her steadfast devotion to him leads to tragic results.

The film is a fascinating portrait of the sanctimonious attitudes and prejudices that lie just beneath the surface of small town America. Dave’s brother Frank resents his return, and he looks down on his sibling's association with "losers" like Bama and Ginny. The elegant Gwen ultimately rejects Dave because he doesn’t “fit in” with her social circles. She also doesn’t care for what she perceives as his lowlife friends. In truth, Bama and Ginny are more genuine, and more loyal, to Dave than anyone else he encounters. The film's ending only accentuates this point: Dave’s friends are much better people than the supposedly upstanding citizens of Parkman, Indiana. There are parochial attitudes and a real sense of darkness (plus a host of secrets and lies) beneath the surface of this seemingly innocent town. This definitely isn't the world of Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver.

Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin in Some Came Running
Director Vincente Minnelli’s carefully coordinated color scheme, as well as his expansive use of the CinemaScope frame, adds immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness and visual style. Just look at the scene where Dave first encounters Bama. We see his ubiquitous hat before we actually meet the man. The hat will become a signature part of his character. He only removes it at a key point late in the film. During the filming, Sinatra reportedly clashed with Minnelli over the director's methodical planning and meticulous style, but Some Came Running is a great looking and richly detailed film. The carnival sequence at the film’s climax is simply stunning.

The acting is phenomenal, with Sinatra doing some finely nuanced work as the world-weary Dave. The excellent supporting cast includes Arthur Kennedy as Frank, and Martha Hyer as Gwen, the object of Dave’s affections. But for my money, this film belongs to Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin. In one of her best early roles, MacLaine is simply luminous. Ginny may feel she's not good enough for Dave, but her love for him comes from an honest and pure place. While she may not be as “respectable” as the well-heeled Gwen, she’s ultimately shown to be more loving and sincere. It’s a part that garnered MacLaine her first Oscar nomination, thanks in part to a suggestion from Sinatra about changing a key scene from the novel for the film's finale. Arthur Kennedy and Martha Hyer also received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, Dean Martin should have gotten a nomination for his fantastic work as Bama. 

Martin is terrific as the amiable gambler who is skilled at much more than playing cards. He’s also a sharp-eyed observer who sees the world for what it is. He knows Dave’s attempts to fit into so-called “polite” society are doomed to failure, and tries to warn him. Dave is angry at the world and rails at what he feels are its injustices, and unfairness to him. Bama accepts things the way they are, and tries to enjoy life. He'd rather have a good time than fight a losing battle against the posers and hypocrites of the world. Bama knows that particular deck is not stacked in his (or Dave's) favor. Working for the first time with Sinatra, Martin has a natural camaraderie with his co-star (and real life friend) which beautifully defines their characters’ onscreen relationship. Martin's effortless charisma shines through in every aspect of the character. I think it's one of his finest performances.

Following his role in Some Came Running, Martin would also do excellent work in a pair of films released in 1959: as the alcoholic deputy "Dude" in the Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo, and portraying a blacklisted film director in Joseph Anthony’s drama Career, which once again co-starred Martin with MacLaine. Dean Martin continued to work in films, television and perform onstage until the 1980s. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 78. If you’re only familiar with Dean from his more comedic roles, you might be surprised by his solid work in Some Came Running. But whether you're new to the film or have seen it before, it’s essential viewing. Here's a look at the original trailer, which really doesn't do the movie justice, but is typical of its era:

This post is part of the Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon, hosted by Samantha, my fellow blogger over at Musings Of A Classic Film Addict. I'd like to thank her for including me in the Blogathon! To check out the rest of the entries, please follow this link: Thanks for reading!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Jacques Tourneur's World of Shadows

Jacques Tourneur
Director Jacques Tourneur helped define two of my favorite film genres: film noir and horror. Tourneur got his first taste of the movie business when his father, French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur, moved to the US to work in the movie industry. They later moved back to France, but Jacques returned to the US in 1934. While working on the 1935 production of A Tale of Two Cities, he met Val Lewton. It was an occasion that would change Tourneur’s life. When producer Lewton was putting together a crew to make a series of low budget thrillers for RKO, he asked Tourneur to join his team. Their collaboration resulted in Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (both released) and 1943’s The Leopard Man, three of the best horror films of the 1940s. These movies helped re-invent the look and feel of horror films. Tourneur, Lewton and the rest of their crew used shadows, light and sound to suggest that the greatest terror of all might be lurking in the characters’ own psyches. Tourneur was instrumental in helping shape the visual language and style of these films. Their success got him promoted to helming "A" pictures for RKO, such as 1944’s Experiment Perilous, starring Hedy Lamarr, and the 1946 Western Canyon Passage.

Robert Mitchum & Jane Greer in Out of the Past
In 1947, Tourneur directed Out of the Past; perhaps the most archetypal film noir of all. The story concerns Jeff Bailey, who owns a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California. He’s dating a local girl named Ann, and seems content with life. But his past comes calling in the person of Joe Stefanos, who works for gangster Whit Sterling. Whit needs Jeff to do a favor for him. It’s the only way Jeff can make up for some bad choices he made on a previous assignment for Whit. It seems that Jeff, Whit and Whit’s girl, Kathie, have a very complicated history. Jeff agrees to do the job, hoping it will free him of both Whit and Kathie once and for all. But Jeff gets caught in an ever-tightening web of deceit, lies and murder. And since this is noir territory, there isn't likely to be a happy ending.

That’s a brief summary of the complex plot of this quintessential noir, which features Robert Mitchum at his cool, sardonic best as Jeff and Kirk Douglas, who’s quite effective (and icily menacing) in an early role as Whit. Then there’s Jane Greer as Kathie, one of the most beautiful, calculating, alluring and deadly femme fatales ever to grace the screen. It’s one of the most memorable triangles in the genre. This top-notch cast gets to utter some razor sharp (and quotable) dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High for the screen. The film’s visual palette tells the story as much as the characters and their actions. The twisty structure of the narrative includes a lengthy flashback sequence; it’s an unforgettable viewing experience. Tourneur used the techniques he honed in his work with Lewton, and brought them to brilliant new heights in the film. If you're looking to watch a movie that truly radiates the essence of film noir, look no further than Out of the Past.

In many ways, the film is a story of obsession: Kathie’s with Jeff, Whit’s with Kathie, and Jeff’s longing to have a peaceful life with Ann, the normal girl from a small town. It’s the stunning look and visual motifs of the film that helps brings this theme across, courtesy of director Tourneur and master cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had worked with Tourneur on Cat People. The lighting of Greer’s entrance as Kathie is one of the most famous scenes in all of film noir. Several other memorable set pieces, including a fire-lit sequence in a mountain cabin, bring out the true essence of Kathie’s dark side. You can almost see (and feel) the tendrils of Jeff’s fate closing around him. After the triumph of Out of the Past, Tourneur continued to direct films in a variety of genres, including Berlin Express, The Flame and the Arrow, and Great Day in the Morning. Then, the director made another visit to the ominous world of subdued terror, and the darkness within.

Niall McGinnis & Dana Andrews in Curse of the Demon
Tourneur returned to Lewton-esque territory in 1957 with Curse of the Demon. The film stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist and researcher, who arrives in London for a conference. Holden becomes enmeshed in a series of deadly events after the death of a colleague, Dr. Harrington. His investigation into Harrington’s death leads him into conflict with Dr. Julian Karswell, a charming but sinister mystic. Harrington had planned to expose Karswell as a fraud. But Karswell appears to possess unearthly powers, and is the head of a strange cult. Holden’s a skeptic who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but as he delves deeper into these mysterious occurrences, his beliefs are turned upside down. As evil forces threaten him, Holden may have to accept that the supernatural is very real.

Dana Andrews gives a good performance as Holden, who resolutely believes only in what he can see, until his eyes are opened to a shadowy new reality. Peggy Cummins (who stole the show in the well-regarded 1949 noir Gun Crazy) offers solid support as Harrington’s niece, Joanna, who aids Holden in his investigation. But it’s Niall McGinnis who steals the movie as the urbane, suavely evil Karswell. In a way, Holden and Karswell are as obsessed as the characters in Out of the Past: Holden can’t see past the rational world until it’s almost too late, and Karswell believes his faith in the dark forces he serves will sustain him, no matter what. Curse of the Demon has some atmospheric sequences and good scares that recall the best of Tourneur’s work with Lewton. The significant difference here is that we do see the demon, at the beginning and climax of the film, so there’s no doubt that the threat is real. Some film historians have suggested that producer Hal E. Chester insisted that more shots of the monster be added to the movie over Tourneur’s objections. But in the context of the story, the creature’s appearance works, and is quite well done. In fact, the use of images, shadow and sound during the demon’s manifestations is vintage Tourneur.

The UK version of the film, entitled Night of the Demon, runs slightly longer, and features some additional scenes. Some viewers prefer the longer UK cut, others prefer the US version. I think both are effective in their own way, though the UK version gives Niall McGinnis more of a chance to shine in his role as Karswell. Both versions of the film are available on a “double feature” DVD released by Columbia/Tri-Star in 2002. Whatever version you choose to watch, the film is an excellent chiller that showcases Tourneur’s unique talents. He would go on to direct several more feature films, including the enjoyable 1963 horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors, featuring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Tourneur also worked behind the camera in television, directing episodes of series like The Twilight Zone and The Wild Wild West. He passed away in 1977, but left behind an impressive body of work that has influenced filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Mario Bava. If you're new to his films, Tourneur's oeuvre is worth a look, or if you're a longtime fan like I am, his filmography is certainly worth re-visiting.

This post is part of the "Favorite Director" Blogathon, hosted by my fellow bloggers at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Midnite Drive-In. I'd like to thank them for having me as part of the Blogathon. To view the other entries, and get more info, please follow this link: Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Let's Pay a Visit to "Corman's World"

Attack of The Crab Monsters. Rock 'n' Roll High School. Piranha. If any of these titles sound familiar to you, then you know we’re talking about the work of producer-director Roger Corman, long heralded as the “King of The B’s.” In the excellent documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, we get a comprehensive look at the history of this unique filmmaker. He's the man behind the original Little Shop of Horrors, who helped launch the careers of actors like Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, as well as directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Howard. Corman elevated the B movie to a whole new level with a combination of guts, style, business savvy and an eye for recognizing real talent.
Corman is legendary for completing films in record time and under budget, and always turning a profit. The documentary sketches a brief profile of Roger’s early years, and reveals how he initially produced a couple of profitable low budget films on his own. Then he signed a deal with B movie distributors American International Pictures. While at AIP, Corman found great success with films like Not of This Earth, The Day The World Ended and Rock All Night. These movies would primarily be distributed to drive-ins, where teenage audiences loved them. Focusing on that market, Corman put out one successful film after another, in a variety of genres. He often had actors double-up in roles either in front of or behind the camera. Corman perfected what came to be known as guerrilla filmmaking, shooting quickly, on location, and often without permits. He'd even use the sets from one film to complete another before he took them down!

In the 1960s, Corman cemented his reputation by producing & directing a series of stylish Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, most of which starred Vincent Price, including House of Usher (1960) and The Pit & The Pendulum (1961). These atmospheric movies were filmed in color and had higher budgets than the normal Corman fare. They remain well regarded to this day, and helped start an entire cycle of Poe-inspired films. Corman also branched out into other genres, including the biker movie. He directed The Wild Angels (1966) starring Peter Fonda (three years before Fonda starred in Easy Rider) and Bruce Dern. Fonda was also featured in the LSD drama The Trip (1967), which was written by Jack Nicholson, who had become a member of Corman’s stock company. After a falling out with AIP, Corman decided to form his own production company, New World Pictures, through which he released his films during the 1970s and 80s. New World's output included films such as Grand Theft AutoDeath Race 2000 and Battle Beyond the Stars.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011) features insightful interviews with many of the people who were hired and mentored by Corman, including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, David Carradine, and Pam Grier. There are also some remarks from famous fans like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. Of course, we get a few comments from Roger himself, and some clips from his films. And we learn a few other things about Corman, including how he worked to help important foreign films such as Fellini’s Amarcord and Bergman’s Cries & Whispers gain wider release in the US. This is a fun, informative, and at times touching portrait of a true outsider who succeeded in Hollywood despite the odds, and gave a lot of people their first breaks in the business. Everyone who talks about Corman in the film has fond (and often funny) memories of and stories about working with him, and it’s interesting to see Jack Nicholson get genuinely emotional during his interview. Corman received an honorary Oscar in 2009, and there is a clip from that ceremony included in the movie.

Corman’s World was written & directed by Alex Stapleton. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. Both releases of the movie include “Extended Interviews” and “Special Messages to Roger” as well as the film's theatrical trailer. The extended interviews and special messages are delightful (including some further comments from Ron Howard & Martin Scorsese) and worth watching after viewing the main feature. If you’re a fan of genre filmmaking, you’ll really enjoy this look at the man behind such movies as Frankenstein Unbound, It Conquered The WorldGalaxy of Terror and Boxcar Bertha. Just watch out for The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes! Here's a link to the film's trailer:

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Music of James Bond.....Is Back

James Bond. The iconic character created by Ian Fleming has thrilled us with his big screen adventures since 1962’s Dr. No. But what’s the most memorable aspect of the films. The gadgets? The beautiful women? The action sequences set in exotic locales? Or is it the music, more specifically, the title songs? Andrew Curry, the mastermind behind the excellent albums Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock (saluting the rock and pop of the 70s) and Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion (paying tribute to British bands of the MTV-era 80s), now turns his attention to Agent 007’s musical legacy. Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007, features a talented group of indie artists providing their versions of the theme songs to every 007 film, including the two “unofficial” Bonds: “The Look of Love” from 1967’s Casino Royale and the title track from 1983’s Never Say Never Again. This Kickstarter funded release is another fantastic "don't miss it" album from the Curry Cuts label.

The disc features some faithful covers, including Lisa Mychol’s energetic version of “The Man With The Golden Gun” and Popdudes’ appropriately rocking take on “Live & Let Die.” But there are also some stunning re-interpretations, including Freedy Johnston’s lovely acoustic rendering of “For Your Eyes Only,” Jay Gonzalez’ nifty bossa nova reading of “A View To a Kill” and Big-Box Store’s pared down version of “Die Another Day,” which I actually prefer to the original. The great thing about these songs is that while they often reflect the era in which they were first released, these well-crafted tunes definitely lend themselves to clever re-imaginings. So we get to enjoy the George Harrison-esque guitar (and Roy Orbison style vocal) on Gary Frenay’s version of “Moonraker” and dig Jaret Reddick’s pop/punk ride through “Thunderball,” which toughens up the Tom Jones original.

I have to admit I was really excited for this project, as I’m a longtime Bond fan who remembers sitting down in front of the TV and watching the movies on ABC, and as I got older, heading out to see them in theaters. One thing that surprised me about this album is that it enriched my appreciation of songs which really didn’t make that strong of an impression on me when I first heard them. For example, “All Time High” from 1983’s Octopussy, was never one of my favorites, but the excellent version by Zach Jones on this album had me re-evaluating the song. Minky Starshine's groovy remake of "Never Say Never Again" definitely surpasses the so-so Lani Hall version used for the film in which Sean Connery returned to the role of 007. Identical Suns amps up the guitars on their excellent rendition of "Goldenye," originally performed by Tina Turner. And I really enjoyed Cliff Hillis’ interpretation of “Writing’s on the Wall,” from 2015’s Spectre, originally recorded by Sam Smith. Hillis offers a compelling alternate take on that Oscar winning composition.

I haven’t even touched on the excellent contributions from Brandon Schott, Ryan Hamilton, Look Park (featuring Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne) and Lannie Flowers, who gets the honor of providing his version of the classic “James Bond Theme.” All of the performers who worked on this album are clearly passionate about the music of 007, and it shows. As with the previous releases from Curry Cuts, I think you’ll be spinning this superb collection of music over and over, and discovering new favorites each time you listen. Whether you're a dyed in the wool Bond fan or a hip indie music aficionado, you'll really enjoy this record. It's one of the best releases of the year. Kudos to Andrew Curry, his team, and the artists who once again hit it out of the park with Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007. Here are links to the page where you can order the album:, the video for Lisa Mychols’ awesome version of “The Man With The Golden Gun”, and a very cool promotional video for the release:

Author's Note: To read my coverage of the previous releases from Curry Cuts, you can go follow these links for my thoughts on Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock, and Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fred Dekker's "Creeps" Thrills & Chills

What movie combines elements of the sci-fi, horror and teen romance genres, and throws in a hard-boiled cop straight out of an action movie as a bonus? That would be 1986’s Night of the Creeps. The movie opens aboard a spacecraft, where two aliens attempt to stop a third from launching something from the ship. Cut to a black & white scene on Earth in the late 1950s. A couple on a date at Lover’s Lane sees something fall from the sky, and the guy goes to investigate; he makes a discovery, but meets a strange fate. Meanwhile, an ax-wielding escaped mental patient stalks & kills the girl, despite the fact that a young cop (who has a crush on her) had earlier warned her & her date to go home. We haven't made it too far into the movie, and we're already mashing up the genres!

Fast forward to the 80s and we’re at Corman (yes, it's a shout out to B-movie king Roger) University, where good buddies Chris & C.J. are trying to pledge a fraternity so Chris can impress a pretty coed named Cynthia. While C.J. thinks it's a dumb idea, he goes along with the idea to support his friend. As part of their initiation the frat members ask them to steal a body from the university med lab and dump it on a rival house’s front steps. When our heroes break into the lab, they find a cryogenically frozen body (hey, it's the guy from the 1950s prologue!)….who apparently isn’t dead! Suddenly, dead bodies are getting up & walking around, possessed by alien parasites, and a tough cop named Cameron (who's dealing with a few demons of his own) has to help Chris, C.J. & Cynthia fight off the terror of the...Night of the Creeps! As Detective Cameron says in the film "Thrill me."

B movie veteran Tom Atkins (The FogEscape From New York) shines as Cameron, the tough as nails cop who wouldn't be out of place in a Dirty Harry movie. He gets the movies' best lines, including the classic: “I’ve got good news & bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.” When one girl asks “What’s the bad news?” His reply is “They’re dead.” The cast are all note perfect in their roles, including Jason Lively as Chris & Jill Whitlow as Cynthia. You'll also catch character actor David Paymer (Get ShortyThe American President, TV's The Good Wife) in a brief but noteworthy cameo. Everyone involved with the film obviously knew the tone & balance Dekker was trying to achieve. Night of the Creeps never gets too campy for its own good.

Tom Atkins takes aim in Night of the Creeps
Director-writer Fred Dekker grew up as a “Monster Kid” who clearly loved horror, sci-fi and fantasy films. He's a talented filmmaker, and the film isn't just a retread. Night of the Creeps is a well-tuned pastiche of genres, and there are many references (including character & place names) to famous writers & directors of fantastic films. If you're a fan of horror & sci-fi films from the 50s through the 70s, you'll find a lot to enjoy while watching this one. In addition to Night of the Creeps, Dekker directed & co-wrote another horror film from the 80s, The Monster Squad (1987), where a group of neighborhood kids face off against the classic Universal Monsters; it’s kind of like The Goonies meet Dracula & Frankenstein. These films are clever, affectionate homages to the fright flicks of the past. However, they're more than "B" films, though they fit squarely into that genre. These are solidly made, entertaining movies that old (and new fans) can enjoy.

There’s a lot of humor to be sure, but also good scares & a couple of darker moments as well. The movie is available on DVD & Blu-ray, and has some wonderful extras, including cast & crew commentaries and a making of documentary. The disc versions also feature the original ending, which Dekker reluctantly changed after a test screening. The theatrical ending is now included as part of the extras. As for The Monster Squad (a personal favorite of mine), the extras-laden “20th Anniversary Edition” from Lionsgate is now out of print (though used copies can be found online) but it has recently been re-released in a movie-only version by Olive Films. My review of that film can be found here:

Dekker's films were a little under-appreciated at the time of their original release, but have gained a cult reputation; they've spawned several revival screenings & cast reunions in recent years. I recommend checking out these movies if you're a fan of these genres. I think you'll find them both entertaining, with some likable characters & neat little moments that sneak up on you. Here’s a link to the trailers for Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Eli Wallach vs. "The Magnificent Seven"

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, sponsored by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For more details, and a list of posts, please follow this link: Thanks for reading!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is the fondly remembered Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. The movie has a wonderful cast, including Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. They’re members of a group of gunfighters hired to rid a small Mexican village of a bandit that has been victimizing them. But we don’t meet the title heroes until a bit later in the film. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Calvera, the villain of the piece, who’s vividly portrayed by Eli Wallach. He’s marvelous in this sequence, riding into the village and strutting around like he owns the place. And at this point in the story, he does own the place. Calvera starts lecturing Sotero, one of the village leaders, on why his life is so difficult. He has to provide food and shelter for his men. Since they're outlaws, he and his crew are on the run, and have to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s a tough existence, at least according to Calvera. When one of the villagers challenges him, he casually kills the man and reminds everyone he’ll soon return to pick up more supplies.

The villagers decide to take action, and hire Chris Adams (Brynner) to gather a band of hired guns to help them drive away Calvera. Chris warns them that once they go down this violent road, there’s no turning back. At this point that we begin to meet our heroes, who are played by a cast of rising stars including James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. What’s interesting is that after the opening scene, Calvera isn’t seen onscreen for almost an hour. But he’s always a presence. Everyone talks about him, and discusses what the'll need to do defeat him. We know that once he and his men meet Chris and his crew, sparks (and bullets) will fly. And they do, in a tense scene where Chris asks him to "ride on" and leave the villagers alone. But Calvera won’t be put off so easily. He and his men battle the “seven” in the first of several well-staged action sequences from director John Sturges.

Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach
Calvera feels, like many antagonists, that he isn’t a villain. He’s just taking advantage of the situation. He and his men need provisions, and the village is a means to an end. He believes our heroes are disrupting the natural order of things. It’s his view that “If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Calvera is a formidable, sly and menacing adversary, who isn’t above using a bit of guile to get what he wants. He tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Chris and the others to come over to his side. After our heroes are defeated and banished, it seems the bandit has gained the upper hand. But the warriors return and fight Calvera and his men alongside the villagers. “You came back…for a place like this…. a man like you….Why?” he asks, with his dying breath. Even at the moment of his defeat, he can’t understand why Chris & the others would return to aid these people. His question remains unanswered. 

Eli Wallach was a well-respected stage actor who made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956). It’s a testament to his talent that he holds his own against the star power of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of the cast. He makes an unforgettable impression as Calvera, in an energetic and intense performance that never slips over into parody. In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad & Me: In My Anecdotage, Wallach fondly discusses the movie, and tells some interesting stories about the production. The men who were hired to play his gang in the film ended up bonding with him. They all went riding in the morning before filming, and insisted on making sure his riding accessories and gun were in working order before he used them. Wallach also wore a silk shirt and gold rings, as he felt it showed what a bandit like Calvera would do with his ill-gotten gains.

Wallach appeared in many fine films during his long career, including strong roles in two other Westerns, How The West Was Won and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, where he stole the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The Magnificent Seven is an exciting film with a great cast, a literate script, and of course, that rousing score by Elmer Bernstein. The movie has spawned several sequels, a TV series and a recent remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. But none of the subsequent villains have been quite as distinctive, or as memorable, as Calvera. I re-visit the film often, and while I enjoy all of the wonderful performances in this iconic Western, Wallach's is indelibly etched into my cinematic memory. Here's a link to the trailer:

Sunday, April 16, 2017

20 Feet From Stardom: Powerful Voices Emerge From The Background

Ever wondered about those backup singers you hear on so many great rock & roll songs, like the magnificent voice rising up during The Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter”? Producer & music industry executive Gil Freisen did, and the result is 20 Feet From Stardom, a revealing 2013 documentary that covers the careers of several of these artists, including Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. The film includes interviews with these talented women, as well as appearances by Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger & Sting. It’s a fascinating look at the lives of some amazing singers, who were featured on songs that are now considered classics, like the Phil Spector produced “He’s a Rebel,” which features vocals by Love. Many of the artists profiled here became the “go to” session singers for many artists and producers of the rock era.

Several of the interviewees point out that the “hooks” we sing along with on many of these songs are actually the parts the backup singers performed. The artists who made use of these incomparable voices, like Jagger, Elton John, Sting & David Bowie, praise the added dimension these singers gave to their music. But the film also covers the dark side of the story. While Love sang the lead on “He’s A Rebel,” the record was credited to producer Phil Spector’s girl group The Crystals, who hadn’t even heard the song, and were on tour when Love recorded it. Spector actually pulled this trick with several releases, denying Love the success she could have achieved if the songs were released under her own name. Clayton, whose vocals on “Gimme Shelter,” were so memorable, unsuccessfully tried to launch a solo career, a problem which has also plagued some others profiled in the film, including Tata Vega & Claudia Lennear.

Lisa Fischer, who sang backup for Luther Vandross, and has toured extensively with The Rolling Stones, did have a semi-successful solo career, and is thankful for that success. She’s philosophical about the ups & downs of being a working musician. Judith Hill, the youngest of those profiled in the film, has been featured on NBC’s The Voice, and is currently trying to make the transition from backup singer to solo performer. The artists profiled all discuss the difficulty of going on that particular journey. The stories they tell are moving, insightful and revelatory. These singers have a shared history that helps bring their experiences into razor sharp focus. 20 Feet From Stardom is a look back at an important period in rock history; these indelible songs and unforgettable voices continue to influence today's artists. The movie features some incredible studio and live performance footage of these singers at work with artists like Vandross, Bowie and Ike & Tina Turner. The film climaxes with a wonderful cover of the Bill Withers classic “Lean On Me” sung by Darlene Love, Jo Lawry, Lisa Fischer & Judith Hill.

Directed by Morgan Neville, 20 Feet From Stardom has received many accolades, including the 2014 Oscar for Best Feature Documentary. It’s a must see movie if you are a music fan; if you don’t know who these singers are now, you certainly will after seeing this film. I’ve loved many of these singers for years, and I found the movie (and their stories) entertaining, illuminating & mesmerizing. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD, and is also streaming on some demand services. The disc version contains some deleted scenes, as well as an additional half hour interview with some of the film’s featured artists, conducted by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Author's Note: This month marks the 6th anniversary of John V's Eclectic Avenue. Thanks to all who've read, supported, and spread the word about the blog over the years!

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Marshall Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets: A Fantastic Double Bill at Stage One

Marshall Crenshaw and The Bottle Rockets
Marshall Crenshaw has been thrilling fans for several decades with his memorable sound, which encompasses pop, rock & folk. For his performance on April 2 at the Fairfield Theatre Company’s Stage One, he brought along some friends: the Missouri based alt-country powerhouse The Bottle Rockets. In essence, we got two incredible shows for the price of one. The Bottle Rockets kicked off the evening by tearing through a blistering set of kick out the jams, country-flavored rock. The set included several songs from their 2015 release South Broadway Athletic Club, including the jam band-esque “Ship It On The Frisco,” the allegorical  “Dog,” and the jangly “Monday (Everytime I Turn Around)”

Lead singer & guitarist Brian Henneman, drummer Mark Ortmann, bassist Keith Voegele and guitar master John Horton share the unique chemistry that allows them to sound loose and spontaneous, but simultaneously tighter than Ortmann’s drums. Everyone in the band got the chance to shine with some memorable solos, and you can see why this group is so well regarded for their passion-fueled live shows. Sprinkled throughout the more recent tunes were a handful of key tracks from across their 25-year career, such as “Kerosene” and the raucous “Indianapolis." Other favorites like the pulsating "Radar Gun" & the Neil Young-ish "Thousand Dollar Car" rounded out the set list.

Marshall Crenshaw
After The Bottle Rockets wrapped up their set, there was a brief break before they returned to the stage to back up Marshall Crenshaw. He started off his portion of the night with a stellar version of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” Crenshaw then segued into a mix of more recent compositions such as “Red Wine” and “Television Light” along with staples like “Cynical Girl” and “There She Goes Again.” He was enthusiastic & in good spirits, providing strong vocals and some excellent guitar work. While the more well-known songs from his repertoire garnered the strongest audience reaction, there were other highlights during the show, including a lovely version of Grant (Husker Du) Hart’s “2541” and an incredible take on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” featuring stellar work from Ortmann & Henneman.

Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets have been playing together for several years now, and they shared a nice camaraderie during the show. The full-bodied backing of the group brought a tougher edge to Crenshaw’s music. Despite the passage of time, his well-crafted tunes definitely retain their wit, charm, and melodic hooks. The latter portion of the night featured a mini-set of Crenshaw’s classic power pop, from “Someday, Someway” to “Whenever You’re On My Mind.” The encore, a marvelous cover of Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” was a fitting coda to a great show, especially in light of Berry’s recent passing. Special thanks to the staff at the Fairfield Theatre Company; Stage One is a wonderful venue for live music, and this phenomenal evening was no exception.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Retro Movie: The Legend of Hell House

The haunted house thriller is a longtime staple of horror films, and 1973's The Legend of Hell House is one of the better entries in the genre. As the movie opens, physicist Dr. Lionel Barrett is asked by a wealthy man to conclusively prove (or disprove) the existence of life after death. He's given one week to investigate Belasco House, which is considered the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” The house was owned by Emeric Belasco, a notorious occult practitioner & murderer. Belasco went missing after a series of horrible events took place on the premises. No one has been able to explain the strange things that have occurred at this location, also known as "Hell House." Barrett’s joined by his wife Edith (Gayle Hunnicutt), as well as two mediums, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall) & Florence Tanner. Fischer was involved in a previous attempt to cleanse the evil energy from the house, which ended in failure. He’s still scarred by the experience, which left several people injured or dead. Fischer is wary of getting involved in this new investigation.

Roddy McDowall & Pamela Franklin
As the group tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the house, the supernatural forces within begin targeting individual members of the team. When Florence tries to communicate with the spirits in Hell House, she's first contacted, then attacked, by the unearthly presence. The ghost who speaks through her claims to be Belasco's son, but is that its true identity? Edith is also affected by the spirits in the house, but in a much more sensual fashion. She tries to seduce Fischer on two occasions while her husband is sleeping. Once she's aware of her actions, she's mortified. These incidents cause more tension within the group. Despite all of this, Barrett clings to the fact that there's a scientific explanation for these uncanny occurrences. Meanwhile, Fischer has kept his psychic power closed off since returning to the house. He has to decide if he'll once more open himself up to the danger there, in order to help the team. Can they solve the mystery of Hell House, and survive the experience?

"This knows we're here."
The movie is a bit less subtle in its horror and scare elements than previous haunted house or ghost stories such as The Uninvited or The HauntingBut it's a great deal of fun; it's kind of a cross between a Hammer film and a B-movie thriller from the Roger Corman era at American-International Pictures. In fact, James Nicholson, a founder & former partner of AIP, produced the film. The movie is well-directed by John Hough, who provides an eerie atmosphere, and builds a nice level of tension as the story moves forward. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and couple of nice twists and turns to the tale, courtesy of screenwriter Richard Matheson. The movie is based on Matheson's novel Hell House. There's also a subtle & nicely crafted electronic score by Delia Derbyshire & Brian Hodgson, which is ideally suited to the tone of the film.

The cast is wonderful; they achieve the perfect balance in their performances, never going too far over the top. The Legend of Hell House is a treat for Roddy McDowall fans; there’s nothing better than seeing him give his all in a juicy role like Fischer. He's outstanding in the film. Pamela Franklin is excellent as Tanner; she pulls off a difficult part very successfully. In an earlier role, she appeared in The Innocents (1961), the classic ghost story based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Clive Revill as Dr. Barrett & Gayle Hunnicutt as his wife Edith both have some nice moments, but this movie is really a showcase for McDowall & Franklin. Genre fans take note; look fast for Michael Gough, who appeared in several British horror films of the 1960s & 70s, and played Alfred in Tim Burton's Batman movies. He has a brief but important cameo in the movie. The Legend of Hell House is an effective, intelligently made chiller that should please discerning fans of old school horror. The film is available in a Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory, and as of this writing, is also streaming on Netflix. Here's a link to the movie's trailer: