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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007


When Hairspray is good, it’s fantastic. It radiates an energy and a joy that’s beyond infectious. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that the pleasure one derives from the first fifteen minutes of this movie should be made illegal, it’s so superbly addictive. On the other hand, when Hairspray is only mediocre, it’s…aw heck, who cares! In fact, whatever minor flaws this movie may have (and they’re barely recognizable against the sunshine daze) are frivolous in comparison to the triumph taking shape before our eyes. Fans of the John Waters original – more a celebration of youth and dance than race and social commentary – have worried that the Broadway version of the ‘60s Baltimore spree would forget what made the prince of puke’s PG perfection so much fun. Instead, this amazing musical has found its own level of exhilaration, and the delights are palpable indeed.


With some minor changes here and there, the story has basically stayed the same. Tubby Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) lives with her joke shop owning father (Christopher Walken) and laundress mother (John Travolta). She hates school, and along with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), she rushes home every day to catch the locally produced dance extravaganza, The Corny Collins Show. Among the series regulars are The Council, a group of talented teens that are supposed to symbolize clean cut American values. But under the surface, Station Manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer) is forwarding two private agendas. The first, and least noxious, is her daughter Amber’s future career. The other, more loathsome design, is the continued segregation of on-air programming. African Americans in the area only get one day a month on Corny’s show, and substitute host (and record shop owner) Motormouth Mabel (Queen Latifah) barely tolerates such treatment.


Anyway, Tracy’s dream is to be part of the show’s elusive clique, but her audition is nixed by Ms. Van Tussle. A stint in detention along with Motormouth’s son Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) improves the plump gal’s hoofing skills. Before you know it, she’s part of the Council, wooing the male star of the show (a teen idol wannabe named Link – Zac Efron) and getting into hot water over her views on integration. With the Miss Hairspray crown up for grabs, Amber’s mother will do anything to see that her child wins, and she comes up with several subversive plots to guarantee victory. But Tracy’s indomitable spirit, along with Mabel’s desire to stand up for her people lead to a march on the station, and an arrest warrant for our heroine. Naturally, it all comes down to the night of the big pageant. If Tracy shows up, she’ll be arrested. If she doesn’t Amber, will win the crown – much to the chagrin of almost everyone involved.


Bubbling over with entertainment effervescence and a wealth of award wining performances, Hairspray is the perfect example of cinematic synchronicity – flawless casting, amazing material, brilliant production design, stellar songs and directorial magic all rolled up into one big wad of motion picture cotton candy. Far more effective than Dreamgirls or Chicago, what has been accomplished here is nothing short of a miracle. For many, the last great example of this kind of effortless exuberance was Frank Oz’s adaptation of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s smash Little Shop of Horrors. There, as here, the combination of motion picture parts produced a movie musical engine that purred like a well creamed kitten…with just enough quirk to keep things safely off the sappy side. Hairspray mimics that sort of success, selling its unapologetic philosophies with expertly tempered heart and soul.


Major kudos must go to whomever decided to hire this remarkable company. Every performer here is faultless, adding to the overall feeling of comedy and camaraderie. Even the two main villains – Amber and her mother Velma Von Tussle - are more to be laughed at then feared. Their stances are so outrageous and their sense of self so ludicrous that their eventual tumble is bound to be a treat. Of course, what makes this even better is Michelle Pfieffer’s return – after a five year absence – to big screen prominence as Velma. She’s an aged ice queen so accurately archetyped that all she’s missing is the dangle of a cigarette and a coarse, cancerous croak to turn her into the ghoul that’s hiding inside. Even though we had to wait for the actress’s return from self-imposed exile, it was well worth it.


Similarly, Queen Latifah shows that the Oscar nod for Chicago was no fluke. In Hairspray, she finds the ideal combination of groove and grace, making her both a viable disc jockey and voice of reason. She’s matched by James Marsden, who finally gets a chance to crawl out of Cyclops’ shades and deliver a knock ‘em dead turn as the eternally preening Corny Collins. Throughout the course of this toe-tapping, smile mapping spectacle, brilliant supporting performances by Zach Efron, Elijah Kelley, Amanda Bynes, and Allison Janney really help to flesh out the fabulousness. Of course, the biggest kudos will be saved for formidable newcomer Nikki Blonsky. A portly little fireplug, this is one plus size gal who can swing and sway. She belts out her songs with steadfast determination, and moves her body with undeniable agility. As the glue required to hold all the cheerfulness and mirth together, she’s great.


And then there is John Travolta. From the moment that a musical version of John Water’s nostalgic knock-off was announced, the main question on everyone lips was who would – or possible could/dare – replace Divine. That magically effete phenom, that late great drag dime store diva left some mighty big shoes (and other garments) to fill as sheltered mouse mother Edna Turnblad. On the Great White Way, the solution was simple – another larger than life gay performer, Harvey Firestein. But movies require superstars, and for a while, an unusual collection of actors was considered. But once you see Travolta inside the fascinating fat suit and utilizing what has to be one of the most bizarrely authentic Baltimore accents ever, you’ll realize that his was more than stunt casting. This is a fully realized performance, an acting tour de force that requires and earns your unbridled attention. Sure, he can sing and dance like a dream – we’ve always known that about him. But there is a depth to what Travolta does here, an unnerving authenticity that makes us forget the façade and see the fragile female inside. It’s a stunning, award worthy piece of work.


But perhaps the biggest shock overall is the surprisingly solid direction from the otherwise average Adam Shankman. Known previously for such uninspired, generic dogs as The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Hairspray makes it appear as if the filmmaker has been holding back all along. Case in point – the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore!” As Tracy’s sonic celebration of her city, Shankman wisely opens up the number, taking us up and down the streets and shops of her neighborhood. But then, he adds little visual gags and some hilarious physical comedy along the way. By the time Tracy is riding the garbage truck to school, our hearts are in our throats. As a former choreographer, Shankman “gets” movement. Unlike other helmers of recent song and dance cinema, Hairspray is a movie that understands staging without relying on MTV like variables to save its strategies.


Which brings us to the final facet of the film – Marc Shaiman’s ‘60s suggesting songs. One of the most interesting aspects of his score is how important context really is. When heard outside their setting, when played as mere souvenirs of the show, lyrical larks like “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs”, “Big, Blond and Beautiful”, and “(You’re) Timeless To Me” really have a hard time resonating. They need setting, circumstance, and perspective to play properly. Here, Shankman gives the composer just that, and what sounds trite and cloying outside the silver screen comes alive with undeniable potency. You’ll be snapping along with “The Nicest Kids in Town” and clapping along with “You Can’t Stop the Beat”. Even the more dramatic numbers – the racial call to arms “I Know Where I’ve Been” – echo more effectively thanks to the film.


Indeed, Hairspray stands as one of 2007’s great films. It dares to reach for the stratosphere and manages to move far beyond said stars. It’s intoxicating and invigorating, jumpstarting your long dead belief in the art of the movie picture while systematically saving the summer from such standard operating ordinariness as sequels and remakes. Of course, purists will palpitate over the a few missing numbers (got to add new material to get the Academy’s attention) and there will be the naysayers who can’t cotton to a musical made outside the defining era of 1930 – 1950. But this is one time when you can easily believe the hype. Hairspray is one brazen bouffant of a film. It’s very high and oh so mighty. 


 


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

As Jamie Lincoln Kitman explains at great length in this Nation story from March 2000 (which Brad Plumer thoughtfully linked to recently) “unleaded gasoline” is a phrase that serves as a semantic relic of a fairly despicable chapter in American industrial history—the deliberate use of lead in gasoline despite the knowledge that it was extremely poisonous and that there were viable alternatives to use as anti-knock additives. Though written with more evident outrage than I would prefer (I like it when writers trust me to become sufficiently outraged on my own), Kitman’s story unfolds the details of how gasoline ever got leaded in the first place. The upshot is that GM and DuPont conspired to control the research into lead’s dangers to protect the monopoly they had on gasoline additives (TEL, tetraethyl lead), which gave them what amounted to a royalty on every gallon of gas sold in most countries around the world. Company shills put out memorable press releases like this:


[TEL’s] recently discovered use for greatly promoting the efficiency of gasoline engines has led to its manufacture on a commercial scale through processes still more or less in a stage of development. This has occasioned unforeseen accidents…. One of these has been the sudden escape of fumes from large retorts, and the inhalation of such fumes gives rise to acute symptoms, particularly congestion of the brain, producing a condition not unlike delirium tremens. Although there is lead in the compound, these acute symptoms are wholly unlike those of chronic lead poisoning such as painters often have. There is no obscurity whatever about the effects of the poison and characterizing the substance as ‘mystery gas’ or ‘insanity gas’ is grossly misleading.


This is a pretty compelling in a Don Delillo White Noise sort of way, but what I found especially surprising in the article was this:


Working alongside Kehoe at first was the Lead Industries Association. Formed primarily to fight restrictions on the use of lead paint, the LIA was also ready to serve as a sort of all-purpose lead-issue obfuscator. Though it wouldn’t fund much actual research, the LIA would underwrite the original studies at Harvard in the twenties that isolated a new pseudo-psychological malady named “pica,” the so-called unnatural impulse of some small children, mostly nonwhite, to stick lead paint chips in their mouths.


Pica, a pseudo-disease? I’ve long been fascinated by pica phenomenon, primarily because it is such a strange eating disorder. Here’s a rather bizarre account of pica from this children’s health website


Theories about what causes pica abound. The nutritional theory suggests that nutritional deficiency, such as iron deficiency, trigger specific cravings. Some evidence supports the hypothesis that at least some pica is a response to dietary deficiency - nutritional deficiencies are often associated with pica and correction of that deficiency has improved symptoms. Some pregnant women, for example, have stopped eating nonfood items after they were treated for iron deficiency anemia, a common condition among pregnant women with pica. However, not everyone responds when a nutritional deficiency is corrected, which may be a consequence of the behavior (rather than the cause). But there are also people with pica who don’t have a documented nutritional deficiency.


Known as geophagia, eating earth substances such as clay or dirt is a form of pica that can cause iron deficiency. One theory to explain pica is that in some cultures, eating clay or dirt may help relieve nausea (and therefore, morning sickness), control diarrhea, increase salivation, remove toxins, and alter odor or taste perception; some people actually claim to enjoy the taste and texture of dirt or clay. Some people eat clay or dirt as part of a daily habit (just like smoking is a daily routine for others). And some psychological theories explain pica as a behavioral response to stress or an indication that the individual has an oral fixation (is comforted by having things in his or her mouth).


Another explanation is that pica is a cultural feature of certain religious rituals, folk medicine, and magical beliefs. For example, some people in various cultures believe that eating dirt will help them incorporate magical spirits into their bodies.


Despite the wide variety of theories, not one of them explains all forms of pica. A doctor must treat every case individually to try to understand what may be causing the condition.


Reading this sort of thing has fueled my fascination: The idea that people are out there eating dirt out of “daily habit” makes me want to write a short story. Since I’ve heard of it, I’ve always thought that pica is a perfect metaphor for something about our culture—something about being compelled to eat something that’s not actually food, that has no actual nutritional benefit, seems redolent of consumerism as a whole.


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

While the ongoing gloom/doom of shrinking sales figures haunt the music industry, one ongoing bright spot are the long-life albums which continue to sell thousands of copies each year (which alone would outsell many items on the charts now).  It used to be that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the top dog, raking up 100’s of weeks on the charts but other long-term faves as witnessed by this AP article: the New Canon.


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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

Originating in 1979, the Beastie Boys are still turning out new and great music to this day. Combining rock and punk with rap, the Beastie Boys achieved fame, reaching Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” at #77. On June 26th, they released their latest album, The Mix-Up, an album of only instrumental songs.


Off The Grid from The Mix-Up:


An earlier hit, Sabotage:



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Tuesday, Jul 17, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism


I abhor online predators like any ordinary parent, teacher, police officer, or citizen. They represent a fissure in our society that undermines the foundation of our communities. That foundation rests on trust, and predators poison that trust. However, apprehending them is best left to law enforcement officials and not journalists. When the two entities conspire together, as they have in MSNBC Dateline’s To Catch a Predator, lapses in journalism ethics are inevitable. 


Online predation is so repugnant and emotional it elicits visceral reactions from law-abiding citizens, including police and journalists, who are human too. They have emotions that are sometimes hard to check. Having respect or summoning sympathy for someone who sexually preys on adolescents is beyond difficult. However, that’s not what is worrying many journalists because most can empathize with Chris Hansen, the show’s host, as he withholds his emotions while snagging predators.


However, what they cannot understand are Hansen’s methods, and many are asking for more ethical common sense. The profession and public deserve that as much as the suspects, their victims, and their families. Journalism is also founded on trust, and when that trust is undermined due to questionable newsgathering tactics, one must ask if the ends justify the means. Most citizens and journalists want these predators behind bars; the question is how to place them there, not whether they belong there.


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