Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Rita Chiarelli Speaks About the Making of ‘Music From The Big House’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place on June 13, 2012.

Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli made a special appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the documentary “Music From The Big House.” Directed by Bruce McDonald, it follows Chiarelli as she goes inside the Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary to perform with inmates who share her love of music. Chiarelli’s appearance was part of her tour with the documentary which has her traveling to 60 cities in 70 days for post-screening Q&As and performing the blues, and she blew us away with what she had to say as well as her music.

Moderating the Q&A was Richard Matson of Matson Films, the company distributing “Music from the Big House” in the United States. His first question for Chiarelli was how she managed to persuade the prison to let her in, and she said she had to be “very charming.” She admitted to having many meetings with the warden and other prison officials in Louisiana and managed to gain their trust over time. Putting it very bluntly, she said, “They let me in… and they also let me out.”

One audience member asked why the documentary was shot in black and white, and Chiarelli said cinematographer Steve Cosens originally shot it in color. However, it was decided later on to take the color out as everyone thought this was really how the movie should be seen. The way Chiarelli says she saw it, black and white “carried the story more” and made it “truer to its meaning.”

Chiarelli also added how the whole documentary was shot in just two and a half days and that everything done “was a first take.” Everything we saw on screen was “totally how it went down.”

Another person asked why the prison had so many African-Americans and young men incarcerated there. Chiarelli responded that 80% of the population in Louisiana is black and added “whatever that speaks to, that’s what’s going on.” She also said the laws in Louisiana are “very strict” and that it is the only state in America which still operates on the Napoleonic Code which allows more in the way of judgment calls than anything else.

One thing I wondered about, as did others, was why the crimes these inmates convicted of and serving time for were listed at the end of the documentary. We don’t know exactly what they had done to be behind bars while watching, but we do get hints at times of what landed them there. Chiarelli stated this was done so we “wouldn’t judge them before meeting them.” She and McDonald wanted us to meet the inmates first, get so see them in their present state and show how their love of music elevated their souls, and then we got what she called the “nitty gritty” of their crimes.

Chiarelli said she found it hard to ask the inmates what they did as it felt “rude to ask.” Her hope was they would eventually “open up by choice” and they would trust her and the filmmakers to tell their story.

Chiarelli finished her evening at the Aero Theatre by performing some songs from “Music from the Big House” live, specifically “Rest My Bones” and “These Four Walls” which she wrote after the making of the documentary was completed. She certainly has a great set of pipes on her, and her passion for blues music is beyond measure. It is this same passion which is shared by the inmates onscreen, and it makes for one of the most exhilarating musical documentaries you could ever hope to see.

‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

Beyond The Lights is Not Your Average Showbiz Movie

I walked into “Beyond the Lights” expecting it to be some sort of manipulative soap opera which aimed to be “The Bodyguard” for a new generation. What I got instead was a showbiz story which felt surprisingly genuine in its emotions and intentions. It does have that familiar ring of two people from opposite walks of life coming together, but the way their relationship evolves throughout proves to be very entertaining to watch.

When we first meet Noni Jean, she’s a little girl performing in a talent competition and singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” which leaves the audience in a state of awe. However, when the judges award her a runner up prize, her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) angrily takes her out of the auditorium and orders her to “chuck” her trophy in defiance. The way Macy sees it, being second best counts for nothing in a world where you need to be number one.

We then move to years later when Noni, now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is on the verge of stardom after having won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t released an album yet. But after retreating to her hotel room, we come to see how much the pressures of fame are bearing down on Noni as she sits on a balcony ready to jump. Coming to her rescue is police officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) who pulls her back from the edge, literally and figuratively speaking, and two quickly get lost in each other’s eyes. What happens from there is easy to guess.

Initially, Kaz feels somewhat betrayed when Macy pays him off to publicly say Noni did not try to commit suicide, but Noni warms up to him quickly as she can tell he sees something in her others do not.

While they may come from different worlds, Kaz and Noni are going through similar issues. Her mother Macy has been grooming her for stardom ever since she was little, and she has helped turn Noni into the kind of woman every man wants or at least fantasizes about. As for Kaz, his police captain father David (Danny Glover) is grooming him for public office, something he does in fact have ambitions for. However, when you look into Kaz’s eyes, you wonder just how serious he is about politics or if he really wants a different path in life.

Basically, Kaz and Noni are trying to fulfill the desires of their parents, and we have caught up with them as they have long since played a role they feel society wants them to play. In the process, they have lost touch with what they really want out of life, and we follow them as they go through a much-needed period of self-discovery. Watching these two evolve and change from start to finish is deeply involving and, even if the conclusion is never in doubt, we revel in their personal triumphs.

I am not at all familiar with Mbatha-Raw or her work as an actress, and she gives an extraordinary performance here. She is mesmerizing to watch as Noni begins to shed the public persona which has been foisted upon her, and it allows the frightened child inside of her to come out into the open. Also, she has a show stopping moment where she sings “Blackbird” by herself onstage, and you cannot take your eyes off of her for a single second.

Parker also puts in a strong performance as a well-meaning man who respects the law, wants to help people and who has, as his shirtless scenes will attest, spent a lot of time in the gym like any cop should. Looking at the actor’s past which had him involved in political activism, charitable work and working as a wrestling coach, you get the sense he was born to play Kaz. As he wades deeper into Noni’s world of fame, Parker shows Kaz to be someone who keeps his head above water and is not easily seduced by the closed-off world of show business. But there’s also no doubt that the chemistry between him and Mbatha-Raw is very palpable.

Kudos also goes out to Minnie Driver who takes what could have been a one-dimensional stage mother from hell and turns her into a complex character who is far more vulnerable than she lets on. We come to see how Macy has never had it easy, and she is eager for Noni to have everything she never had. But as much as she cares for her daughter, Macy also comes to realize her determination to make Noni a star speaks more about her ambitions than anyone else’s. Driver is a powerhouse as she lets us see how Macy has been wounded by others who had no faith in her when she was young, and it becomes understandable why Macy wants to beat everyone at their own game.

“Beyond the Lights” was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood whose previous films include “Love & Basketball,” “Disappearing Acts” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” I regret to say I haven’t seen those films, but I am certainly willing to see them now based on the work she has done here. Prince-Bythewood succeeds in giving us a showbiz tale which actually feels grounded in reality. The atmosphere at the award shows and parties Noni attends feel authentic, and they never seem like a spectacle to be easily laughed at. She also gives us a number of complex characters who struggle to survive the high pressure world of fame and fortune where people have everything and nothing at the same time.

I also have to applaud Prince-Bythewood for sticking by Mbatha-Raw when studios were insistent on getting a bigger name cast in the role of Noni. Perhaps a music star would have done a good job here, but they also would have brought an enormous amount of baggage with them which would have had an unintentionally negative effect on this movie. Mbatha-Raw has the advantage right now of not having this baggage, and that makes her performance all the more enthralling as a result.

Sure, there are some soap opera dramatics here and there and certain moments do not ring true, but “Beyond the Lights” really did prove to be one of the big cinematic surprises of 2014. It is also another film to add to the list of worthwhile romantic movies. Just as this particular genre looked to be burning out, the movies coming from it are getting so much better. I’m starting to like these kinds of movies again. What’s wrong with me anyway?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Click here to check out the video interviews I did with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker which I did for the website We Got This Covered.

Phil Joanou on How He Came to Direct U2: Rattle and Hum

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Filmmaker Phil Joanou was at New Beverly Cinema when the theatre showed two of his films: “Three O’Clock High” and the U2 documentary “Rattle and Hum.” While most of the evening was spent talking about “Three O’Clock High” as it had arrived at its 25th anniversary, Joanou did take some time to talk about how he was hired by U2 to direct their first music documentary (or rockumentary if you will). The story ended up becoming one of the strangest and funniest ones told on this evening.

Joanou was busy doing post-production on “Three O’Clock High” when his agent got him a meeting with U2 on the day before the band had to leave America for Ireland. They had already interviewed a number of directors already, but Joanou said they hit it off to where they asked him, “can you come to Dublin tomorrow?” He said sure, but he had to call the producer of “Three O’Clock High” to explain why he had to leave post-production on a little early. The producer apparently was not too happy about this sudden opportunity, but Joanou got to go anyway.

Once in Dublin, Joanou said U2 interviewed him for five days about directing “Rattle and Hum.” Where the story goes from there is not what you might expect as the band kind of left him hanging.

Phil Joanou: They would take me to a friend’s house and then Bono and Edge would leave and I would have dinner with the husband and wife. After that they took me to a wedding and they left me there as well. I’m there in Northern Ireland and I’m all by myself at an Irish wedding and I’m like, okay great! I don’t know anyone here. I had to figure out how to get home. So, they would do weird things like that to me. They’d drop me off at a bar and leave me. This went on for five days!

After all this craziness, U2 came up to Joanou and said, “alright, you can do the film.” Joanou said that to this day he still does not know what the criteria was for them hiring him, but he described making “Rattle and Hum” as being an “incredible experience.” Looking back, he described the Irish rock band as having taught him so much while being on the road and in the studio with them.

“Rattle and Hum” was greeted with a critical backlash when it came out as critics accused the band of being too grandiose and self-righteous. Watching it today, however, is a different experience as “The Joshua Tree” tour, as it is presented here, feels far more intimate than any tour they have done since. The musical numbers are exhilarating to watch, especially in black and white, and their journey through the American music scene gives us a number of unforgettable moments. But moreover, it was especially great to see it on the big screen for the first time in many years. Concert movies like these really need to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

Anna Kendrick on Playing Beca in ‘Pitch Perfect’

Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

She has been a fixture of the “Twilight” movies and got an Oscar nomination for her role in “Up in the Air,” but now Anna Kendrick gets one of her biggest roles to date in the musical comedy film “Pitch Perfect.” In it she plays Beca who aspires to be a famous Los Angeles DJ but is instead made to attend the college her dad teaches at as he does not approve of her career choices. While there, she comes in contact with the school’s all-girl singing group known as The Bellas and in the process becomes its newest member. Kendrick talks about how she went about preparing to play Beca and of what the singing rehearsals were like.

The screenplay for “Pitch Perfect” was written by Kay Cannon, and Kendrick said she found it to be “so unbelievably surprising and subversive.” Just when Kendrick thought she knew where the script was going, Cannon ended up doing something which completely surprised her. When talking about Beca, Kendrick described her as a loner who is the audience surrogate for the craziness which ensues in this movie.

“You get to be kind of repulsed by this aggressively geeky world at the beginning of the movie and then fall in love with it while Beca does,” said Kendrick. “The interesting thing to me about the idea of a character that on paper is supposed to be what really ‘cool’ is, when you bring it to life, breaking her down and making her seem less cool, because that’s when I think the audience really connects with her. I don’t think you can just say, ‘Hey audience, this is a cool character so you’re supposed to like her.’ For me, I fall in love with characters when they’re out of their element or are uncomfortable and you really feel for them in a knee-jerk sympathetic way. So, I had a lot of fun trying to make Beca less cool. It’s fun to take a girl who fancies herself a little bad-ass and kind of embarrass her.”

For Kendrick, the role of Beca also allowed her to revisit her musical theatre days where she started out as an actress. She sang onscreen before in the movie “Camp,” but being the lead in “Pitch Perfect” made her understandably nervous as this was something new for her. Still, her love of singing and dancing made the experience of making this film all the more fun.

“One of the things I was really insistent on was that whenever I’m singing alone in the movie, I’m singing live on set,” Kendrick said. “Because I think something is a little bit lost in the recording studio, and frankly I’m just not good in the recording studio, like I don’t know how to do that. I think I’m just… I’m used to singing in front of people and singing in a recording booth was a little isolating and sterile. So, I was looking forward to the days when I got to sing live. Somebody would just blow a pitch pipe and then I would do the thing.”

Kendrick also confirmed she and the other actresses in “Pitch Perfect” did go through sort of an acapella boot camp, but it wasn’t as bad as it may sound. It consisted of singing rehearsals, and the only real problem after a while was the shoes everyone wears for the performances proved to be very uncomfortable. They were told by the production team how their shoes were “like sneakers,” but Kendrick made it clear “they’re like heels is what they’re like” and everyone ended up getting some serious blisters.

Of course, “Pitch Perfect” did have its drawbacks for Kendrick especially when it came to singing pop songs like “The Sign” by Ace of Base over and over again. After having sung this song so much, she hopes to never hear it again as it now haunts her dreams. She did, however, look at singing Miley Cyrus’ song “Party in the USA” as being important to Beca’s evolution in the film.

“I think that scene was brilliant because it’s such a painfully corny song that Beca should hate, but it’s a telling moment,” Kendrick said. “Is she going to pretend to be too cool for school, or is she going to go along with it and bond with these girls? I love that she’s willing to embarrass herself out of love for these new friends that she has.”

On the surface, “Pitch Perfect” looks to be a sort of “Glee” wannabe and cheesy beyond repair, but so far audiences have fully embraced it as a very entertaining movie. Kendrick has already left us with a number of terrific performances, and her role as Beca is yet another noteworthy addition to a resume which will continue to grow.

SOURCES:

Jen Yamato, “Anna Kendrick On ‘Pitch Perfect,’ Singing Onscreen, And How Being ‘Aggressively Dorky’ Paid Off,” Movieline.com, September 26, 2012.

Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, “Anna Kendrick Talks PITCH PERFECT, Singing Live on Set, Interacting More on Twitter, Her Love of Reddit, and More,” Collider.com, October 5, 2012.

Sharon Knolle, “Anna Kendrick, ‘Pitch Perfect’ Star, On ‘No Diggity,’ ‘Fraggle Rock’ And Ace Of Base,” Moviefone.com, October 4, 2012.

Soundtrack Review: ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance’

Die Hard 3 soundtrack

Anyone remember the RCA Victor release of the “Die Hard with a Vengeance” soundtrack back in 1995? That release was a joke and an unforgivable one as well. It did have some of Michael Kamen’s music score on it as well as a couple of rap songs which I’m not sure were in the movie, and some symphony pieces by Beethoven and Brahms which are not in this movie at all. It was as if RCA just wanted to throw any kind of soundtrack together so they could cash in on this sequel’s expected success, and what resulted was a travesty which any true soundtrack fan would be right to despise.

Well, it took over a decade, but La La Land Records has finally given “Die Hard with a Vengeance” not only the proper soundtrack release it deserves but an expanded one which contains two discs of music. In addition, it also comes with an informative booklet written by Jeff Bond who discusses how this “Die Hard” movie differs from the two which came before it, and it looks at how Kamen came to develop this particular score. But the great thing about this soundtrack release is it forces you to listen to Kamen’s music more closely in a way we didn’t previously.

When I first saw this sequel, I wondered if Kamen had actually bothered to create a new score for this “Die Hard” adventure. Many of the music cues sounded like they came from “Die Hard” and “Die Hard 2,” and it was hard to spot any new musical themes throughout. Listening to the La La Land Records release, however, makes you realize Kamen did not just simply throw something together. Much thought went into this particular score as it presents a somewhat darker John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) than what we have seen previously, and it also captures the joyful qualities of the heist movie that “Die Hard with a Vengeance” is meant to be.

Among the pieces of music I was thrilled to hear on this soundtrack is “Taxi Chase” which has McClane and Zeus Carver (played by Samuel L. Jackson) driving through a populated park in New York in an effort to catch a train before it explodes. “Taxi Chase” sounds unlike any music Kamen has previously composed for a movie with all its urban percussion. In the booklet, Bond quotes Kamen on this cue as it is one of the composer’s favorites which found its inspiration from his living in Manhattan.

“A lot of it (the movie) takes place on the streets I inhabited,” Kamen said. “I was trying to figure out what music to put there and I remembered that Needle Park is just up the street, and all you ever hear is bongo players and people driving past, and that’s why that cue is all native percussion. We’re using drums and drum loops and the normal accouterment of a modern recording studio – even a live drummer from time to time.”

This soundtrack not only contains music which was not on the original release, but also the music which was written for the movie but not included in it. Bond writes how director John McTiernan removed a number of Kamen’s cues from the movie, but Kamen wasn’t bothered by this too much because he was very collaborative and agreed with many of the changes McTiernan wanted to make.

And yes, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” which opens the movie is on this soundtrack as well, and it has never sounded better.

When it comes to these expanded soundtracks, I usually say how they have never looked or sounded better. With La La Land Records’ release of “Die Hard with a Vengeance” though, that’s a given as the original release was put together before Michael Kamen even had a chance to finish his score. While it may not have the same exhilarating or emotional sweep as his score for “Die Hard 2,” what Kamen has put together here is great and highly enjoyable to listen to. This release also forces you to realize Kamen was never out to just recycle his own work in the way the late James Horner was often accused of doing.

Sadly, this proved to be the last “Die Hard” movie Kamen scored before his death. Marco Beltrami later took over composing duties for “Live Free or Die Hard” and “A Good Day to Die Hard,” but the music Kamen created for these films will live on forever.

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT HOW YOU CAN PURCHASE THE “DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE” EXPANDED SOUNDTRACK.

John Lennon Lives Again in ‘And Now It’s All This!’

And Now Its All This

In March of 1966, John Lennon was quoted by Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave as saying The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Looking back at this piece of history, I find it hard to disagree as, by then, the whole world seemed to have embraced those four lads from Liverpool as girls were screaming endlessly when they performed in concert and passed out in large numbers. At the same time, religious leaders, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan, came down hard on the band, particularly on John, once this comment was published, and it became one of the main reasons why the band stopped touring altogether.

The subject of whether or not The Beatles were more popular than God is the key point of “And Now It’s All This,” a play written by Trevor Boelter which is now being presented as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 28, 2019. It should be noted that this play is actually the second act of a three-act play Boelter wrote called “Kenwood,” and this act follows Lennon during the years of 1965 to 1966 when The Beatles were at the height of their fame. It focuses on when Lennon made his infamous remark and of the reaction elicited, and we watch as this period in his life comes to inform the peace-loving musician and anti-war activist he eventually became.

When John Lennon (played by David Foy Bauer) first appears, he is reveling in the amazing success The Beatles are having as he gets up close and personal, and we are talking very personal, with Maureen Cleave (Stephanie Greer) during an interview. When he tells her how the band is more popular than Jesus, it really sounds like an offhand remark which he never intended for anyone to take seriously. In a sense, you cannot blame John for saying this as even he points out how we never see screaming teenage girls ripping the clothes off of the Pope. Nevertheless, once Maureen publishes her article, the damage is done and religious figures do nothing to hide their fury.

From there, the play moves ahead to July 1966 when The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein (Spencer Cantrell), is under tremendous stress to calm down the furor over John’s remarks which have resulted in many death threats even as the band is about to go on tour. As beloved as The Beatles were, and still are, there was a time when some despised them quite strongly as their allegiance to Jesus trumped everything else in their lives. Indeed, this makes the play seem timely as those same people continue to defend Jesus based on an all too literal meaning and even in the face of facts.

Anyone who knows Mr. Boelter knows he is as big a fan of The Beatles as I am of Eeyore. Even though “And Now It’s All This” is technically a work of fiction, there is no doubt of how thorough he was in his research of the band and, even more so, of John Lennon’s life. He has been studying the history of this band ever since he was 12, he hosted “Jasper’s Beatle Hour” while a student at Cal Poly, and he even interned on Chris Carter’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” radio show on 95.5 KLOS FM. At some point in the future, I expect him to have his own show on The Beatles Channel on Sirius XM.

What is especially interesting about this play is how it examines the effect his offhand remark had on his life and career as we watch him transition from being a spoiled brat to becoming the peace-loving individual he was destined to become. This transition is made all the more convincing thanks to Bauer’s terrific performance as he inhabits the iconic singer to where he can never be accused of doing just a mere impersonation of him. More importantly, the actor makes us see John as a man instead of as an icon who remains infinitely popular decades after his tragic death.

Directing this play is Matt Duggan, the same man who made the terrific science fiction film “Inverse” and who recently released his first novel called “Ostraca.” With it being part of The Hollywood Fringe Festival, Duggan has to make do with a small theatre with an even smaller stage and a handful of props as do the other shows being performed in this particular venue, so he keeps his focus on the actors and the connection they have together on stage. Not once does he let the energy drop as the action moves from one period of time to another as we listen to news reports of what was going in the world back then such as the Vietnam War. It is perfectly paced and never drags for a second.

Speaking of the actors, they are all outstanding. In addition to Bauer, Stephanie Greer is a standout as Maureen Cleave, a role she originated when this play made its world premiere in England. Greer is an infectious delight as she delivers her lines with precision timing and makes Maureen into an ever so clever character who refuses to be easily intimidated.

Spencer Cantrell is excellent as Brian Epstein as he could have easily played this role for laughs but never does. The actor captures Brian’s exasperated state quite vividly as he struggles to gain a foothold over the controversy which threatens to damage The Beatles’ reputation forever, and its hilarious at times to see him struggle with the most mundane of things. At the same time, he makes us see how tough his job is, and being a manager can at times be a thankless job even though it is an important one.

Even Boelter himself shows up here as Reverend Deluxe, a fire-breathing preacher bent on making John Lennon see that Jesus died for his sins. Heck, he almost steals the show with his inspired performance as he captures the zealous nature of someone so dedicated to God to where they are blissfully ignorant of their own hypocrisy. Just watch as he orders his parishioners to burn all the Beatles memorabilia they have on him even as he invites them to buy any of it left over.

“And Now It’s All This” has been selected as a “Pick of the Fringe” selection and rightfully so. It runs only 50 minutes but still manages to say a lot about John Lennon during its brief running time. It is full of laughs and heartbreaking moments, and I am eager to see where Boelter and Duggan will take the material from here. I caught up with Boelter following this performance, and he did say he is planning to stage the full three-act play in the near future, and I look forward to checking it out when he does. But while this play may act as a teaser for a bigger one, it is a must see even if you are not a fan of The Beatles.

By the way, if you are not a fan of The Beatles, why?

“And Now It’s All This” has its next and final performance on Friday, June 28, 2019 at The Complex Hollywood in The Dorie Theater off of Santa Monica Boulevard. Click here to find out how you can get tickets.

Music Review: ‘Music’ by Madonna

Madonna Music album cover

After the memorable introspection of “Ray of Light,” Madonna headed back to the dance floor with “Music.” It’s a throwback of sorts to her first few albums as she gets her listeners excited about her just like they did when she made her breakthrough into popular culture. While she works with her “Ray of Light” producer William Orbit on a few songs, Madonna’s chief collaborator here is Mirwais Ahmadzaï, a French producer, songwriter and one of the leaders in progressive electronica. Together, they create an album which stands on its own from what its predecessor, and it proved this queen of pop music has yet to run out of inspiration.

The title track has us hooked instantly as she celebrates the power of music and how it brings us all together. This is Madonna at her most upbeat, and the song’s tempo never lets up. She’s out to dance up a storm with her “baby”, which made sense since she became involved with film director Guy Ritchie whom she would later marry (and later divorce). Many out there will continue to scream out how Madonna’s music career is all but finished, but from the start of this album she lets you know this is not the case, and how dare you think otherwise.

With William Orbit, she worked on three of the album’s songs: “Runaway Lover,” “Amazing” and “Gone” (which was also produced by Mark “Spike” Stent). “Runaway Lover” is a dance tune fueled by a propulsive beat which sounds so different from anything on “Ray of Light.” Neither artist is focused on achieving musical perfection this time around, but are instead determined to let their emotions and passions flow out without any attempt to quell them for the benefit of the easily bothered.

On “Amazing,” both Madonna and Orbit get introspective as she becomes enraptured by a lover she can’t quite tear herself away from. Through the electronica, we go through the tumult of emotions we experience when we find that one person we feel is meant for us. With “Gone,” she sings with sheer conviction about how she will not compromise herself by selling out or abandoning what she was brought up to believe in.

With Mirwais, she finds a new musical direction, and two follow up the title track with “Impressive Instant.” This album could have easily peaked with the first song, but he and Madonna increase the tempo and get our adrenaline running even faster with this dance track. Still, not all of Mirwais’ contributions to Madonna are confined to the realm of electronica. He captures Madonna in a moment which feels purely honest with “I Deserve It.” However you perceive Madonna as an artist or a person, she makes us believe she deserves that one loving relationship which had long eluded her.

On “Nobody’s Perfect,” Madonna makes us see she is perfectly aware of her own flaws and that she’s just doing her best. Even with all the fame she has acquired through decades of work, there’s still a part of her which is never fully satisfied. Mirwais does even better with Madonna on “Don’t Tell Me” as she is pleasantly defiant against those who attempt to crush her desires. Madonna is determined to live life on her own terms regardless of what others think.

But the album’s best song is “What It Feels Like for a Girl” which deals frankly with the men’s shameful misperceptions of women. Whereas some feel a girl being a guy is no big thing, a guy being a girl just seems flat out wrong to so many and for no justified reason. Opening with dialogue spoken by “Antichrist” actress Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film “The Cement Garden,” Madonna confronts this senseless contradiction head on. But instead of being overly aggressive like the music video it inspired, she and Mirwais create a really beautiful song that gets to the issue by giving us a soothing melody which puts us in a euphoric state. Not once does she try to bang us over the head with how absurd our attitudes to sexual orientation are, but instead make us see those absurdities in a rather calm fashion.

With “Ray of Light,” Madonna set the bar very high for herself, and it felt like her next album would not even compare. But she has constantly surprised and enthralled us throughout her career, and “Music” proves to be a strong follow up containing memorable songs and strong introspection. It’s not better than its predecessor, but it remains one of her best albums from the first decade of the new millennium. Almost 20 years after its release, it remains as tuneful as ever.

‘The Black Album’ by Metallica – Welcome to the 1990’s!

Metallica Black Album cover

For many including myself, the 1990’s seemed like the beginning of the end. What was once fun and vibrant in the 80’s had quickly become corrupted and forever broken at the dawn of a new decade. The innocence we felt from the 80’s faded before we even knew it, and we were stuck in a world which reeked of corruption, was full of people I did not want to be around, and I found myself constantly wanting to escape my surroundings and doing so with no real success. In other words, I was in high school back then. The 90’s began with me graduating from junior high, and my journey from there continued on into the adolescent hellhole known as high school. The world became much darker at that point, and so did my taste in music.

Somewhere in my brooding alienation, I came to discover Metallica. I had heard of the band, but their self-titled 1991 release, better known today as “The Black Album,” represented their breakthrough into the mainstream, and it gave them an even bigger audience than they had already. Some called them sell outs for taking this route, as they previously eschewed filming music videos for playing concerts instead. Regardless, “The Black Album” was a thunderous heavy metal masterpiece which laid waste to all the rock and roll albums released at the time. While they may have rocked even harder on “Kill ‘Em All” and “Masters of Puppets,” you could hardly call this a soft record as the band was not about to lose its thunderous power. With producer Bob Rock, they put more structure into their music, and they didn’t just let songs spiral out of control the way they did on “And Justice for All.”

For me, listening to “The Black Album” gave me a much-needed outlet for the bottled-up aggression I felt through the earlier part of the 90’s. It’s funny because back then I used to dislike heavy metal music because all the kids who picked on me listened to it all the time, and I figured it was the music which turned them into thoughtless pricks. When I listened to the CD for the first time, it actually scared me as the music was darker than the kind I typically listened to. I started to wonder if I had made a mistake buying it and if it would warp my fragile little mind. But the truth is the world around me, my realization of how things truly worked, and my endless frustration of feeling like I was never fitting into anything at my high school was doing this already. My dad, god bless him, was very impressed by the album, and he offered to buy it from me if I found I didn’t like it. Fortunately, I came to my senses as my friends were digging this album and talking about it endlessly. It was nowhere as harmful as the prudes of America would try to make it out to be.

Before you knew it, I was listening to this album all the time and reveled in its heavy rhythms balanced by its deathly solemn music. I became a Metallica fan instantly, and I still look forward to every album they make.

The album gets off to a perfect start with “Enter Sandman” which is about all the frightening things that go bump in the night. It was about preparing yourself as a child for all the horrible nightmares we expected to have, and of the monsters hiding in dark places. The song also served to define the tone of the album and what the rest of it would sound like; dark, ominous, and full of thrashing guitar riffs which would excite you to no end. With “Enter Sandman,” we were indeed off to never, never land.

I do have to tell you, however, that the music video almost kept me from buying this album. Seeing all those snakes slithering around the kid while he slept in bed brought back one of my most horrible dreams involving those slithery creatures. It says a lot about “The Black Album” that I still bought it despite the horrified reaction I had from witnessing the music video, and of things in it I did not see coming.

From there, we get “Sad but True,” which I originally thought was about an abusive relationship, and of the man who lays down the law in the worst way possible. I still think it is the most disturbing song on the album, but it grew on me quickly as you can look at it in different ways. Perhaps it is about that voice in our heads which we so desperately wanted to go away, but we ended up surrendering to it eventually. Either way, the lyrics James Hetfield wrote were more than backed up by the relentless guitar playing from him, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted. It’s a song which reaches into the dark side of your psyche, and it awakens you to the things we need to keep an eye on.

“Holier Than Thou” is classic Metallica as it represents the kind of speed metal they were are well known for. Lars Ulrich’s drum playing was matched by the relentless onslaught of the guitars dominating the song. If die-hard fans thought Metallica had somehow gone soft on them, this song showed how untrue this perception was. It sure gets my adrenaline pumping whenever I listen to it.

Then there is “The Unforgiven,” a deeply solemn song about how one man is beaten down both physically and mentally to where his spirit has all but disappeared. This same man spends the rest of his days trying to appeal to those he had such intense bitterness towards. I kind of look at this song as illustrative of the boiling pot I had in my high school, years which was all about fitting in and being seen as one of the cool people on campus. No one ever wants to be the geek or the one everyone picks on every single day. In the process of assimilating yourself into a crowd who you may not actually want to hang out with, we threaten to kill off those parts of ourselves which make us truly unique. When we realize what we have done to ourselves in order to be seen as “popular,” we may end up hating ourselves forever because of it. I may be going off on a tangent here, but this is what “The Unforgiven” means to me, and I bet it is one of Hetfield’s most introspective songs. It’s a tragic song about a life wasted, and none of us wants see our own life as a waste.

“Nothing Else Matters” was Metallica’s first attempt at a ballad, and it is one of their most successful. Most ballads from other heavy metal/rock & roll bands can come off as incredibly cheesy and so out of place in comparison to the kind of music we expect from them. But “Nothing Else Matters” is played from the heart, and there is nothing cheesy about it at all, thank goodness. It also reveals a part of the band and its lead singer which we had not seen before, and there is something brave about that.

“Don’t Tread on Me” seems to many like a pro-war song, and this made critics consider it the worst part of the album. Granted, a very good case could be made for that, but our initial impressions can often be deceiving. I prefer to see the song as an empowerment of the spirit we have, and of not letting others take you down for being who you are. In a way, it is the antithesis of “The Unforgiven.” It’s a song strongly embedded with undying pride, and it is one of my most favorite songs on “The Black Album.”

“Through the Never” and “Of Wolf and Man” are two great songs where the power of the music and lyrics is not held back or bottled up in any way. Both have a structure where you can easily see the beginning, middle and end, but there is still an unbridled fury which doesn’t stop when the songs come to their respective ends. I loved listening to these ones just before I ran at cross country events, and they kept me going as I was running long distance through 80 to 90-degree weather with the sun bearing down on me and no trees to give me shade to where I kept thinking about the cold water waiting for me at the finish line.

Two other songs which didn’t initially appeal to me as much were “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery.” Looking at them now, the music is great in both, but they are more powerful on a lyrical level. With “The God That Failed,” Hetfield looks at his loss of faith and his anger at feeling betrayed and lied to about so many things. If people paid more attention to the lyrics in these songs, they would see themes they can relate to. Even to this day, with the economy in this country still burrowing down into a deep dark hole, many question their faith and of what they felt they were led to believe in.

“My Friend of Misery” captures, even in the title itself, the life of a teenager. How we can be so miserable and upset to the point where we fall in love with our depressive state of mind. I imagine many adults feel this way as well, but I doubt that these feelings could feel anywhere as intense as they do between the ages of 13 and 19. Falling out of love with misery can seem impossible, but I guess it does help to look at the bright side of once in a while.

The album concludes on the propulsive notes of “The Struggle Within,” a fantastic finish to one of the best albums of the 90’s. The driving rhythms of the guitars and drums add fuel to the fire of the lyrics which practically yell out at the listener to take control of their life and to not get swallowed up in apathy. In an album that deals with the dark sides of life, this one lifts it up just enough out of the darkness to where you are not as down as you were a moment ago. The scariest thing about life sometimes is how we come to realize how way too complacent we have been in our lives when we should have done more to make things better for ourselves.

The band members of Metallica have a rather flippant reaction to what people think of their music and what it means to them. The way they see it, they are not trying to make any big points or statements, they are just writing songs. With their music, how one sees it is different for each individual listener. For me, the album was a dark journey which gave me an outlet for my frustrations through what felt like the worst of times, and it gave me a grand introduction to this band whose other records I would soon get a hold of.

Hetfield, Ulrich, Newsted and Hammett succeeded in giving us one of the most definitive albums of the 1990’s, and I would put it alongside Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” as the ones which truly defined this dark decade. It remains one of my favorite albums to this day, and listening to it again many years after its release makes me remember how it had a power few other albums of the time could match.

To close out this review, I wanted to include this quote from Marilyn Manson which came out of the documentary “Bowling for Columbine:”

“When I was a kid growing up, music was the escape. That’s the only thing that had no judgments. You can put on a record and it’s not gonna yell at you for dressing the way you do. It’s gonna make you feel better about it.”

What he said sums up what Metallica’s “Black Album’ means to me. It was an escape which was much needed when it felt like the whole world was coming down on me, and there was something empowering about it that kept me going even in my terminally depressive state. It’s albums like these which make me believe in the power of music.