Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday Film Pick- James Gandolfini in Romance & Cigarettes (2006)

“Two things a man should be able to do. Be romantic and smoke his brains out.”

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With the sudden and tragic death of actor James Gandolfini, America has lost one of its greatest and most improbably beloved performers. Traditionally Hollywood is not a place open to 6 foot tall, 275 pound, balding men who don’t even begin their acting careers until their late twenties. But when you’re able to do what Gandolfini did, to act the way he could act… those physical features soon become secondary, almost unnoticed in the emotional subtlety of his performances.

Most people will talk about Tony Soprano, arguably the most popular television character of all time, as the pinnacle of Gandolfini’s acting career. And they’ll be right to do so. It’s one of the most iconic and nuanced portrayals of a modern American everyman; murderous and immoral one moment, tender and lonesome the next, 100% emotional commitment every step of the way. There is not one false moment in the 86 hours of The Sopranos run. The show itself (and Mr. Gandolfini’s performance in particular) deserves every accolade and lavish compliment bestowed upon them.

But it’s not how I’ll remember the guy…

In the spring of 2006 I had the good fortune of attending the U.S. premiere of John Turturro’s comedic-musical masterpiece Romance & Cigarettes. It was one of the best theater going experiences I’ve ever had and left me gut hurt and out of breath from sheer laughter and heartbreak. The half slapstick/ half surreal story of an unfaithful husband trying to win back the affection of his wife and three troubled daughters (all to a soundtrack of classic lounge hits) was like nothing I had ever seen before. Adding to the incredible experience was a post-film Q & A with Mr. Turturro, who was even more charismatic and hilarious in person than any Coen character he’s inhabited on screen. Turturro described his love of the comedy musicals of the late 50’s and early 60’s, how he longed for the AM radio days of growing up in Queens, and how he wanted to tell a story about family. A big mixed up crazy family.

“I was originally trying to cast Bruce Springsteen”, Tuturro said of the film’s lead role, the loveable but adulterous schulb Nick Murder. “But outside of small cameos he never wanted to act in movies.”

Turturro turned to the next most iconic figure in New Jersey… James Gandolfini. Fresh from shooting the penultimate season of The Sopranos, Gandolfini was hungry for something different but didn’t know if he was offered the part because he was right for it or because he was Tony Soprano. “He said “It’s just because I am on the show” and I said “Well, your being on the show helps me economically but after you read it, I thought you were the perfect person for it.”

Gandolfini’s portrayal of Nick Murder turns his infamous Soprano character on its head. He’s no longer the tough as nails patriarch of an affluent and intelligent New Jersey crime family, but a beleaguered Dad in the doghouse of a working class, hilariously dysfunctional (sometimes mentally challenged) family from the other side of town. Despite his character’s last name, Nick Murder doesn’t kill (then again, Tony Soprano never sang). A man seeking romance in his dwindling years, Gandolfini’s Murder is prone to bursting into Engelbert Humperdinck songs and dancing in the street. Joining him in this hilarious romp is a cast so talented and universally loved that the obscurity of this film remains to me, a complete and utter mystery.

Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Mary Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, Aida Turturro, Bobby Cannavale, Eddie Izzard, Elaine Stritch, and Amy Sedaris. Oh yeah and Pagoda from The Royal Tenenbaums is a florist in it too.

While the film’s absurdist humor, elaborate musical numbers, and sudden third act shift into a heavy drama may have left some critics bewildered, no one can argue with Gandolfini’s performance. When his character leaves his mistress (Winslet), Gandolfini achieves a challenging feat; making the audience root for and plead right along with him for his wife (Sarandon) to take him back in her good graces.

“Would you give me one more chance? Please? I'll do anything! Anything! I'll give you anything! I love you. Maybe I don't know how to show it like they do in the movies or in books but I love. I have love to give.”

Gandolfini can beg like no one else and he’s never been more sympathetic. Not many actors can make a character that is so flawed still so loveable and so funny.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thunderbird Jam: Johnny "Guitar" Watson- Strike On Computers (1984)

Johnny “Guitar” Watson was a Houston, Texas born axe man who pioneered contemporary blues and funk guitar styling. Watson had an illustrious career spanning nearly 50 years, mastering guitar in his early teens by emulating his heroes T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown, and playing alongside contemporaries included fellow Texan Albert Collins and New Orleans own Larry Williams. But what sets Watson apart from them is his late career renaissance as a funk hero. While many other blues rockers from his time faded into obscurity or met a violent end, Watson exploded back into the mainstream in the late 80s with a new spin on his unique guitar playing, releasing a string of successful funk albums heavy on sexy, sweaty jams.

Bottom line… Johnny "Guitar" Watson was a gangster of love, a superman lover, and one baaaaad mama jama.

Or at least he listened to Bad Mama Jama. A lot.

In 1984 (two years after Carl Carlton’s unremittingly spun hit) Watson released an album called Strike On Computers. The title track was a note for note replication of “Bad Mama Jama” except slowed down a bit and with all new lyrics pertaining to the social and economic dangers of the computerized automation of America. If this sounds a little odd, maybe even tipped over into crazytown, it’s because it is. The even crazier thing is that the dude actually pulls it off!

Strike On Computers is arguably a better song than Bad Mama Jama. Instead of extolling the virtues of a well-built woman (which, trust me, Watson manages to do enough of as well), Johnny decided to make a catchy funk tune about a topic that people were largely ignoring. This was 1984… the most groundbreaking and popular advertisement was from Apple computers… a riff on Orwell’s Big Brother with a young woman jogging into a dystopian factory and destroying all we ever thought we knew about computers and technology. “They’re here to help you!” was the overwhelming sentiment. “The ‘PERSONAL’ computer.” was what they were selling. But more and more industrial jobs were automated out of existence, those that were left over were being outsourced to countries with cheap labor. With the popularity of touch-tone phones, when you called a customer service number you began to get the run around of robo-calls and menu systems. And it didn’t stop there, when you turned on the radio or went to the club, you were bound to hear music that required little to no human operation of instruments. This began the era of kids who had no fuckin’ clue how to play a guitar or sing a song, but managed to be hit makers anyhow.

Watson took a stand. Strike On Computers had to be made cheap, his resurgence was still in the making, so he recorded most of the song by himself playing nearly every instrument. The lyrics are pretty amazing...

For the benefit of you who thought I was through

Because you haven’t been hearing Guitar too much.

Something was wrong and that’s why your pal was gone

So just for you I did some research…

As my research will show, the music business (and all the businesses) are slow

And there is one thing I didn’t realize…

All them regular jobs, that you and I do, have ALL BECOME COMPUTERIZED.

Watson continues, utilizing the free form spoken word structure of funk (and computer tweaked vocal effects), to decry the Regan administration’s proposed “Star Wars” missile defense system, automation in American manufacturing, and the de-humanizing of popular music. It all manages to be a hell of a lot of fun, especially the last verse where Watson jokes about his craft, his art, his very namesake becoming obsolete.

Just the other day I had to go down to the music store

Cause I didn’t have any guitar strings left.

The salesman said, “Aw Hey, Guitar! I got just the guitar you need to see.”

PEOPLE! THE DAMN THING PLAYED BY ITSELF!

Johnny “Guitar” Watson would die on-stage, with a good old fashioned guitar in his hands 12 years later. His last words, “Ain’t that a bitch”, are as enduring and pertinent as the rallying cry…

“WE NEED TO STRIKE ON COMPUTERS!”