Tales from the bargain bin: An embarrassing obsession

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The Folk Years: Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone (Time-Life). CD set found for $2.99 at Goodwill.

The first time I saw The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap fame in their guise as a 1960s folk trio), I laughed so hard I had an asthma attack. But I also had an overwhelming sense of deja vu. The Folksmen were a deeply sourced spoof of the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, seminal, earnest folk groups of the pre-Beatles era. This was some of the earliest music I remember hearing on my parents’ radio and hi-fi, along with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Brothers Four. How dead-on an imitation was The Folksmen? Take a look.

Kingston Trio:

The Folksmen, from A Mighty Wind:

And here are the Limeliters, circa 1981, singing the obvious model for “Old Joe’s Place,” “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.”

For the full Limeliters/Folksmen comparison, this nine-minute European TV performance is pretty much a condensed version of A Mighty Wind. Enjoy, ye of stout heart!

Born on Saturday Night Live, the Folksmen were later resurrected in Guest’s underrated 2003 mockumentary A Mighty Wind, which chronicles the making of a public-televison reunion concert of the group and their ’60s folk scene compadres the New Main Street Singers (read: New Christy Minstrels/the Rooftop Singers) and Mitch and Mickey (Ian and Sylvia).

I should explain at this point that I’m obsessed with A Mighty Wind. I will watch that movie anytime, anyplace. This Is Spinal Tap is considered the masterpiece of the Guest/McKean/Shearer oeuvre. But I rate A Mighty Wind almost as highly because it nails the specifics of a less popular genre just as flawlessly. If you’ve ever seen the strangely watchable PBS Pledge Break special Folk Rewind starring John Sebastian (please tell me I’m not the only one who can’t look away), then you’ve seen just how right A Mighty Wind got everything about the music, the personalities, the gentle, well-meaning mindset of the people who performed and consumed this godawfully polite aural Cream of Wheat.

And I speak as one of them. Like many white kids in metropolitan and suburban areas on both coasts in the late ’50s-early ’60s, I grew up with folk music, or rather, a steam-cleaned, relentlessly smiley version of folk music, as part of daily life. I listened to Pete Seeger’s children’s albums (but not his overtly radical stuff), sang black spirituals like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with no context at Jewish summer camp and endured the dreaded group-singing of “Erie Canal” and “Goober Peas” in elementary school. Hellishly cheery easy-listening folk tunes like “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers and white-washed folk exotica like the Calypso-ish “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” by the Serendipity Singers were Top Ten radio hits. (Where did the Lumineers come from? Here’s your answer.) In one universe, Bob Dylan was kicking folk music’s slumbering ass, energizing it with a protopunk’s spirit. In another, there was … this crap. I bet the killjoys who shouted down electric Dylan at Newport really dug this stuff. They deserved it.

Given all of this, you can probably imagine my fiendish delight when I came across Blowin’ in the Wind and Yesterday’s Gone, two discs from the eight-disc 2002 Time-Life CD set The Folk Years in a Goodwill crawl. Sixty songs in all, encompassing some of my most beloved/hated folk-mush ever, including “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down,” “Walk Right In,” the Sandpipers’ supremely dorky version of Pete Seeger’s “Guantanamera” and — YES! — the Limeliters’ “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” Now I can guffaw through my very own A Mighty Wind/Folk Rewind in the privacy of my home, whenever the spirit moves me!

I know, I’m being harsh. Even the blandest of this music had its purpose. Without it to learn from and, ultimately, rebel against, we might not have had Dylan, or the skiffle-bred Beatles, or the trailblazing British electric folkies Fairport Convention.

This Time-Life set (the half I own, anyway) does a good job of charting the evolution of folk B.D. (before Dylan) and after. Dylan’s influence is all over the Blowin’ in the Wind disc, even if he isn’t (the lone Dylan track, “Boots of Spanish Leather” is on disc 7, which someone must have grabbed before me). After the mostly quiet acoustic tracks on disc one of Blowin’ in the Wind, the crystalline opening electric guitar chords of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” kick off disc two like a wake-up jolt of caffeine right to the bloodstream. Whoever segued the Byrds into the Kingston Trio’s smugly snoozy version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” has a wicked sense of humor. Two songs later, there’s the peerless Dylan interpretor Johnny Cash making “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” into a Johnny Cash song, and, you know, I think this was $2.99 very well spent.

The Folk Years also excels at conveying how the folk movement brought world music, part of that Mad Men-era tentative dip into suburban multiculturalism, to white middle-class American homes for the first time. If you’re of my vintage, I bet there was a Harry Belafonte album or two in your parents’ hi-fi cabinet. Belafonte’s beautiful “Jamaica Farewell” is included here on Blowin’ in the Wind, and his indestructible “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” is on Yesterday’s Gone.

Blowin’ in the Wind also contains a live recording of Pete Seeger doing “Guantanamera,” complete with his educational spoken interludes explaining the song’s origin as a poem by Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti. It’s an important piece of political folk music. But, forgive me: besides making it impossible to watch PBS pledge programming or old Limeliters videos without falling into shrieking laughter, A Mighty Wind has also ruined educational spoken interludes about Hispanic history for me — see Christopher Guests’s epic downer of a Spanish Civil War ballad “Skeletons of Quinto” in A Mighty Wind.

I bought The Folk Years only partly as a snort. There are folk-pop songs here that I loved on AM radio as a kid, and continue to love now, even in their unfashionableness: “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” written and sung by the exquisite Gale Garnett, the winsome pop-ified cover of Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind” by We Five, “Someday Soon” by Judy Collins. And there are some crucial ’70s folk/pop/country hybrids — Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” are two — that take your breath away with their emotional depths.

But while I’m happy to finally have many of these songs on CD, my chief motivation in pouncing on this Goodwill treasure wasn’t to complete my collection. It was pure, gooey nostalgia — for these songs that create sense memories of early childhood,  for how my dad used to think the Kingston Trio’s “Charlie on the MTA” was the cleverest song ever to hit WBZ-Boston’s airwaves. But mine is a nostalgia combined with an unsentimentalist’s horror of nostalgia. And maybe that’s the snarky quirk in my character that compels me to see the humor in the unabashed sincerity and unconscious elitism of the palest of these performances, and in tributes like PBS’s Pledge Break folk specials. In all of the above, I think, the creators of A Mighty Wind are my kin.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

 

Alan Rickman: A deep dive

AlanRickmanPictures

Most people have seen Alan Rickman in Die Hard, the Harry Potter movies, Love Actually. In Sense and Sensibility and Galaxy Quest. On The Tonight Show doing hits of helium with Jimmy Fallon.

But Alan Rickman had a long career, and he was game for pretty much anything. As someone who has spent the past 25 years or so in the throes of Rickmania, I’ve seen it all. Here’s a deep dive into some of You Tube’s choicest Rickman obscurities and oddities.

The Four Yorkshiremen. In 2001, Rickman, Eddie Izzard and British TV comedians Vic Reeves and Harry Enfield recreated Monty Python’s immortal “Yorkshiremen” skit at the Secret Policeman’s Ball, held in London to benefit Amnesty International. When Rickman delivers his first line, a huge roar goes up from the arena crowd and Izzard ad libs, “I think Jesus has just come in.”

Revolutionary Witness, “The Preacher,”  1989

Rickman and British playwright Peter Barnes were close friends and frequent collaborators. This short TV film is part of a series of monologues written by Barnes to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I know, sounds like a rollicking good time. But I promise, you’ll be hooked from the moment Rickman, as Jacques Roux, a revolutionary and churchman, opens his mouth. This is one of his greatest, most magnetic performances; if I had to choose one video to explain why Alan Rickman mattered, this is it.

Music video, “In Demand,” 2000

The Scottish band Texas’s video has become the stuff of legend among Rickmaniacs. Enjoy.

Girls on Top, “Four-Play” 1985

Girls on Top was a British sitcom written by and starring Tracey Ullman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders (later of Absolutely Fabulous) and Rickman’s protege, American comedian Ruby Wax. Always ready to help out his friends, Rickman donned a blinding white disco jacket to guest as a Greek con man.

“Plots and Proposals”, Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings, 2000

British comic Victoria Wood, another of Rickman’s friends, wrote a blisteringly funny spoof of Jane Austen in particular and BBC period dramas in general, then got Rickman to essentially send up his Colonel Brandon role from Sense and Sensibility. There are many familiar actors here, including Imelda Staunton and Richard E. Grant, and they all do a bang-up job of keeping a straight face through exchanges such as, “Fetch me my writing mittens, I have letters that will not wait till the warm weather.” “Could you not stick your hands in your muff?” Rickman manages to get through his scenes with Grant without breaking up, but only barely.

Victoria Wood, “All Day Breakfast,” 1992

Rickman proves what a good sport he is in this short send-up of TV morning shows.

“Play,” written by Samuel Beckett,  directed by Anthony Minghella, 2001

And now for something completely different. Rickman, Juliet Stevenson and Kristin Scott-Thomas play a man, his wife and his mistress, squabbling out Beckett’s venomous lines in double-time, while crouched in large urns with their faces painted into a state of decomposition. I didn’t get this play until I saw it performed in this video. Rickman believed that no playwright was too “difficult” to communicate to an audience, and if it was, the actors hadn’t done their jobs.

Painting with Light, in-house commercial for Turner Classic Movies

Rickman talks about his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, while drawing with a light pen in one of a series of ads TCM was running in the early ’00s.

“Dust,” a short film by Ben Okrent and Jake Russell, 2014

Rickman was generous with his time and mentorship, often appearing in young filmmakers’ projects just for the asking. In this film, which also stars Jodie Whittaker, he is a silent, menacing and unshaven presence, but wait — there’s a twist.

American Cinematheque Salute to Bruce Willis, 2000

That time Alan Rickman did stand-up comedy as the host of a prime-time TV awards special. And you know what? He killed.

Closing credits, “The Search for John Gissing,” 2001

Rickman donned Peter Sellers glasses and a wardrobe of impeccably cut suits to play the title character in this uneven screwball comedy by director/writer Mike Binder. The ensemble cast performed a dance routine over the closing credits. Rickman, who idolized Fred Astaire, may not have those kinds of moves, but he throws himself into the dance like a hyperactive kid, wholeheartedly abandoning himself to goofiness. There are no traces of the intimidating antagonist, Thinking Woman’s Crumpet or distinguished thespian here. It made me laugh to see it again, the day after his sudden and heartbreaking demise. I hope he’s dancing wherever he is.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Truly, Madly, Deeply

 

©Guardian
©Guardian

He was an actor of elegance and menace. He looked and sounded like nobody else. He hit the Trifecta of perfect screen antagonists: Hans Gruber, the prototypical charming European bad guy of Die Hard; the Sheriff of Nottingham, rock star as pantomime villain, in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; and Harry Potter’s inscrutable nemesis Severus Snape, that solitary conundrum. After a relatively late start (he was pushing 30 when he was accepted to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art),  Alan Rickman forged a distinguished career as a stage actor, movie actor, director, mentor and, finally, a most unlikely member of the gigantically-grossing Harry Potter movie franchise, which he likened to being in the Beatles.

But I’m not here to write Alan Rickman’s obituary. I’m here to tell you a different story. The death of this particular actor has hit a lot of women harder than you can imagine, because Alan Rickman wasn’t just an actor — he was our secret celebrity boyfriend.

The voice, like deep, dark molasses. The gangly, awkward beauty. The forbidding, intriguing hawklike profile. From the moment I saw Alan Rickman on screen as a ghost in Truly, Madly, Deeply, gazing at his leading lady Juliet Stevenson as if there was no one else in the universe, I was a goner. I was pregnant at the time, and I thought, maybe it was my hormonal state. Uh-uh. My Rickman thing stuck, for years. Sometimes it flamed brighter than others, but it was always there, simmering on a low flame. For a while, I thought I was alone, until a friend mentioned Alan Rickman in passing and I thought I detected a little something extra in the way she caressed those four syllables. I was right. She had it too. We passed a VHS tape of Rickman in “Murder, Obliquely,” an HBO film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, back and forth to each other across the country, sharing our celebrity crush like a couple of pre-teens mooning over a copy of Tiger Beat.

There was a name for our affliction, but I didn’t learn it until the Internet came along. It was called “Rickmania,” and women had suffered its pleasures ever since he first slinked onto the stage as the silkily decadent Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1986. Lindsay Duncan, his costar in the play, famously remarked that people were leaving the theater wanting to have sex, “preferably with Alan Rickman.” One British newspaper columnist tagged Alan “the thinking woman’s crumpet,” which was a nice bit of validation and reassurance for us grown-up women with satisfying real-life relationships who nonetheless inexplicably, sheepishly, fancied a bit of Rickman on the side.

Why Alan Rickman? I’ve asked myself that for years. Maybe it was his other-ness. He wasn’t movie-star handsome. His voice and his accent were singular and a bit affected. He wasn’t low-hanging fruit, that’s for sure. You had to appreciate subtlety to appreciate Alan Rickman. And once you did, you found that he was a big, deep Bronte novel of a crush. No other actor could go from utter stillness to pouncing leonine passions like Alan Rickman. Consider the way suave Hans Gruber (really, Valmont with a gun) leaps at Holly McClane near the climax of Die Hard, when she suggests that despite his bespoke suit and political terrorist pretensions, he is just a common thief: “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!” Or the way his refined Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility suddenly betrays the depth of his feelings for the gravely ill Marianne, begging her sister to, “Give me an occupation Miss Dashwood or I shall run mad!”

He was never very effective playing average Joes. That beguiling, larger-than-life presence begged for a waistcoat and breeches, a Goth wig and a cape; period dramas and fantasies were where he looked like he truly fit in. And we wouldn’t want him any other way, really. Imaginary boyfriends shouldn’t be ordinary, and Alan Rickman was decidedly not.

Rickmania was a persistent bugger. It struck without warning and before you knew it, you were bidding for obscure British radio plays on eBay and watching a lot of bad movies, of which Alan was the best thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Close My Eyes, an impenetrable British indie film in which Rickman has a small role as the husband of a woman who’s having an affair with her brother. (The brother is played by Clive Owen, and I’ve fast-forwarded over him to get to Alan, which is saying a lot.) When you’re a Rickmaniac, you catalogue his movies by shorthand and CME was a  “good hair role”. Listen to me: There was no actor more handsome than Alan Rickman was from 1988-1992, preferably in a good hair role.

As a first-wave Rickmaniac, I was fortunate to have been able to see him in his prime, in real time. I got to watch Sense and Sensibility in a movie theater (good hair role, a bit pouffy, lightened to the color of a Palomino’s mane), and gauge the Rickmania intensity level by the low murmurs that bubbled up out of the dark whenever he appeared on screen. I got to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and imagine him as Snape, before he was even cast as Snape. And Snape is the reason Alan Rickman in middle-age gained his most unlikely Rickmaniacs, adolescent girls who fell under the Potion Master’s spell. Speaking of Snape, I was sure I outed myself as a Rickmaniac when I wrote this tentative little piece about Harry Potter adult fan fictionof which I was reading a lot. That piece turned into a longer, kinkier essay called “To Sir, with Love” that was collected in the anthology Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which turned into a whole book.

For a long time, Alan Rickman was my secret muse. And I’m not the only one. I met some funny, great, talented women on Alan Rickman fan boards who have become dear friends. We came for the hair porn, we stayed for the companionship. And now we’re virtually holding hands and consoling each other because the crush we shared is gone.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

Chasing Amy

 

Detail from foyer image of "Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait" (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)
Detail from foyer image of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)

Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.

There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”

The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.

It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that  school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.

And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex;  a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.

But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy;  your heart aches with the loss of her.

The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.

Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.

But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.

In the notes, Ottinger writes,  “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”

While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?

Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music;  that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.

Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?

I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?

The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy. 

Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.

There are gorgeous moments in the movie;  in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.

The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).

Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.

Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.

Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success —  invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)

As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.

While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put her daughter’s bulimia down to “a phase.” As we know now, Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in the movie — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.

After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”

(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Amy is playing in theaters now.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Courtesy HBO
Courtesy HBO

I always thought Robin Williams bore an uncanny facial resemblance to the double masks of comedy and tragedy.  With his prominent nose skewing toward his prominent chin, he could go either way, and he took you along with him, whether into the blazing, manic hilarity of his stand-up, or the unforgettable cry of grief that ends the 1986 PBS “Great Performances” film of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”

Williams was a genius of comedy, agile, fearless and riffing at warp speed;  his 1980’s stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show, hosting Saturday Night Live and HBO specials were watershed moments in the era when comedians became rock stars. But his funny movies never quite did his rapid-fire, inventive, anarchic comic spirit justice, maybe because the camera always caught the hint of the tragic mask peering through. On film, he was better suited to serio-comedy, like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning Vietnam, or drama leavened by a flash of gentle humor (his Oscar winning role in Good Will Hunting). Ironically, the movie that really “got” Williams, that knew what to do with him, was one in which his own face didn’t appear — Disney’s animated Aladdin. Watching the blue genie is like mainlining the purest distillation of  Williams’ sly, exuberant mischief.

Robin Williams’ death has sent the Bay Area (where I live) into deep mourning. He was a long-time resident of Marin County, he worked the San Francisco comedy clubs (often unannounced), he was a regular out and about, at Giants’ games and rock concerts (I lost count of how many times I saw him at Springsteen shows) and lending his talent to just about every worthy cause in town. Right now, I can’t imagine San Francisco without him.

That such a large-hearted life-force was struggling with private despair and demons is almost too tragic to bear. So let’s end this on a laugh, and let the comic mask be the one we remember best.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

25 Reasons Why I Hate “Love Actually”

love actually

1. I hate that Love Actually isn’t really a movie. It’s a glib super-cut of barely formed characters, rom-com cliches, director-screenwriter Richard Curtis’s patented emotion-yanking sap and a mob of British actors you know and love from other, better films. It’s sort of like a Doctor Who Christmas special, with the frantic London-at-holiday-time sentimentality and the trying too hard. Except the Doctor Who Christmas special is usually redeemed by rampaging Cybermen or Daleks, either of which would have greatly improved Love Actually.

2. I hate that Love Actually is set in London, my favorite city in the world, but the visual style consists of  tourism-board shots of all the usual landmarks and it ends up looking like these people live in a London theme park. Again, Cybermen, Daleks, maybe a few Weeping Angels . . . Is that too much to ask?

3. I hate that many people I know think Love Actually is a good movie and when I say that I hate it, they accuse me of being an anti-rom-com sourpuss. Me, who stops and watches It’s Complicated at the drop of a remote!  Look, it’s not that I hate all romantic comedies. I just hate this romantic comedy.

4. I hate the shameless, pandering reference to victims of 9/11 in Hugh Grant’s opening voiceover: “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love.” Nothing like tenderizing your audience’s feelings — like taking a mallet to a tough piece of skirt steak — right out of the gate. Well played, Richard Curtis.

5. I hate that Love Actually has become a Christmas classic. You want to see a true Christmas classic? Track down Holiday, a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind 1938 romantic comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. And then, if you still prefer Love Actually, then you deserve Love Actually.

6. I hate that ever since it oozed forth from the Working Title laboratory in 2003, Love Actually has spawned a shit-ton of star-stuffed holiday-themed rom-coms: The Holiday (not to be confused with the Katharine Hepburn movie above), Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve. [2015 UPDATE: Love the Coopers] [2016 UPDATE: Mother’s Day] And their ad campaigns all mimic the red and white color scheme and multitudinous cast shot that adorned the posters for Love Actually. The ads for Curtis’s 2013 Christmas entry, About Time, even featured the words “Love Actually” above the movie title, in the Love Actually font.

7. I hate the Love Actually font.

8. I hate the big, thudding “message scenes” that suddenly burst through the rommy-commy fog to scold you with obvious homilies about the perils of taking people you love for granted and not seizing the day. In Love Actually, it’s Emma Thompson quietly sobbing to “Both Sides Now” when she learns husband Alan Rickman is cheating on her with his secretary. And lonely Laura Linney losing her shot at cute co-worker Karl Nolastname because she has to interrupt their date to go calm down her institutionalized brother.

9. I hate that Curtis sticks lonely Laura Linney with a crappy downer of a storyline, yet still makes her show gratuitous boobage.

10. I hate that the characters are so sketchily drawn and the editing so choppy, it’s unclear what some of these people do for a living and how they’re related to one another. Quick, without Googling: Why are Colin Firth and Laura Linney at the wedding together? What kind of company do Alan Rickman, Laura Linney and “Karl” work for?  What the hell is Karl’s last name?

11. I hate the Alan Rickman-Emma Thompson storyline. If you’re going to fall back on ye olde “married man has midlife crisis and sleeps with secretary” plot, you had better make it interesting in a way we haven’t seen a million times. The only interesting person — actually, the only person — in this triangle is Thompson’s Karen. The secretary (“Mia”) is a cliche of a vamp. And Rickman’s Harry is scowly, weirdly prim and so impenetrably aloof that it’s hard to give a crap what he does or doesn’t do with either woman. Some advice? Rickman was in another movie that has become a modern holiday classic, a little something called Die Hard – maybe you’ve heard of it?  There is more storytelling panache in one frame of Die Hard than in all of Love Actually. Plus, (the much younger) Rickman’s Hans Gruber is everything Harry is not — alert, electrifying and sex on a stick. Merry Christmas!

12. I hate that the script calls for Karen, who seems like a perfectly lovely, funny mom and wife (she is, after all Emma Frickin’ Thompson), to dress like a matronly frump. And worse, she keeps calling attention to her matronly frumpiness with low-self-esteem wisecracks; she’s like an Anglican Rhoda Morganstern. “The only clothes I can get into were once owned by Pavarotti,” she says to Harry when they’re back home undressing after the office Christmas party. This is after Harry has slow-danced with Mia right in front of her. It’s another sexist trope — the wife has “let herself go,” so, naturally, it’s all her fault when the husband’s eye starts to wander. In fact, I hate all the jokes about the weight of female characters in Love Actually. Colin Firth’s Portuguese-speaking love interest has a heavier and plainer sister who is treated very badly by the script. The Downing Street tea server who ends up falling in love with Prime Minister Hugh Grant is referred to more than once as “chubby” (she’s not). But then, this is the same Richard Curtis who named a female character “Duck Face” in his script for Four Weddings and a Funeral.

13. I hate the “quirky” “All You Need Is Love” wedding scene, where a brass band and choir pop up from the pews to serenade beautiful paper-doll newlyweds Keira Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who have no personalities and appear to serve no other purpose besides getting quirkily married, because somebody always has to get quirkily married in a Richard Curtis movie.

14. I hate with every fiber of my being the fact that three of the story lines revolve around men sleeping with younger women who also happen to be their employees.

15. I hate the goofball delivery guy who goes to America to get laid by chicks who dig British accents.

16. I hate that the goofball delivery guy’s stupid storyline remained in the movie, along with the pointless porn movie stand-in couple storyline, while a storyline about an elderly lesbian couple was edited out to cut down the movie’s running time.

17. I hate that, as a result, there is no same-sex or senior citizen love among the many permutations of love in Love Actually.

18. I hate the humble elementary school Christmas pageant that looks like it was put together by Danny Boyle as a dry run for the London Olympics opening ceremony.

19. I hate Mr. Bean’s belabored comedy bit in the department store as he wraps the expensive necklace that Harry will give his soon-to-be-mistress in exchange for sex. The audiences I saw the movie with (twice in its opening week — don’t ask) were rolling in the aisles at Rowan Atkinson’s fussy attention to detail and Harry’s increasing panic that Karen, shopping nearby, could return at any time. To recap: Harry is buying a necklace for a woman who is not his wife, because he is planning to sleep with her, upon which he will present her with the necklace. Any humor in this scene is rooted in Harry’s desperation to get the necklace wrapped and in his pocket before Karen comes back. Which means, any humor in this scene depends on us rooting for Harry to succeed with his infidelity against the twin obstacles of the irksome clerk and the perfectly lovely Emma Thompson. Har-har.

20. I hate the clumsy title. Shouldn’t there be a comma between “love” and “actually”?  I hate that this bugs me so much. I hate that nobody else seems bugged by it.

21. I don’t hate Bill Nighy. Do you hate Bill Nighy? WHAT KIND OF MONSTER ARE YOU?

22. I hate the Liam Neeson storyline because that creepy kid who plays his son is like a child actor grown in a test tube. Also creepy: Liam’s character’s wife is freshly dead at the beginning of the movie, but at the end of the movie, a mere five weeks later, he’s making goo-goo eyes at Claudia Schiffer.

23. I hate the supertitles that count down Christmas.

24. I hate the closing montage of what appears to be ordinary people joyfully greeting loved ones in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, while the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” plays on the soundtrack. It’s the easiest thing in the world to point a movie camera at heartwarming, hugging, weeping reunions and make an audience cry;  a chimpanzee with a movie camera in any airport arrivals lounge could do it. The Heathrow scene of Love Actually is one of the laziest, most manipulative bits of tear-jerking a major filmmaker has ever employed, and I begrudge Curtis every one of the tears I involuntarily gave up to him. I especially hate that Curtis used “God Only Knows” as the musical cue for the scene, because that song is as effortlessly, innocently heartfelt as the montage is putridly calculated. I hate that I now have to think about Love Actually whenever I hear “God Only Knows.” This is not fair!

25. I hate that Love Actually starts showing up on TV in September. I hate that I inevitably hate-watch all or portions of Love Actually at some point between September and January. I hate that hate-watching it has turned into one of my personal holiday traditions. Wait … do you hear what I hear? The Pointer Sisters singing “Jump (for My Love)”? Sorry, gotta go. Hugh Grant is about to shake some Prime Ministerial booty and, man, how I hate that stupid scene! I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013, 2015, 2016