Monday, October 26, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #126 - Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)

Little Shop of Horrors is a film adaptation of an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of a grade “B” horror-comedy film from 1960 about a man-eating plant. It was directed by a person best known at the time for playing Miss Piggy, Yoda, and Bert of Bert & Ernie. If this all sounds like a mess, it serves as a reminder of how strange and unlikely the whole enterprise of this film was upon its release. Perhaps it’s time for full disclosure. I cannot stand most musicals, but I love this film and I have loved it since I first saw it in the theater at the age of nine in the fall of 1986. There’s just something wonderful about the chemistry of the lead cast, the incredible selection of supporting actors, and the choice of director that conjures a rewarding viewing experience with few equals in mainstream film of the last few decades.

            With strong leads complemented by Second City and Saturday Night Live alumni in cameos and walk-ons, this groups of players could be considered an all-star cast. As Seymour, the flower shop clerk who discovers a strange new plant species, Rick Moranis turns in the best performance of his career, elevating the kind of dweeby character for which he almost become typecast into a complicated and appealing underdog. Ellen Greene revisits the role of Audrey, which she pioneered in the original Off-Broadway production, and establishes a one of a kind leading lady and love interest. Audrey’s meek and insecure speaking voice falls away as she begins to sing and Greene’s powerful and passionate voice express everything the character is holding back and bottling up. Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, provides the voice of Audrey II, and in doing so contributes a key ingredient in creating one of the most memorable movie monsters of the 1980’s. Stubbs’ voice, when speaking as well as singing, spans an impressive dynamic range giving Audrey II an intensity, dimension, and unpredictability that generates an unavoidable and irresistible screen presence. Vincent Gardenia’s layered, lived-in weariness brings humanity and depth to the role of shop owner Mr. Mushnik that could seem two-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor. Sporting a leather jacket and a black wig, Steve Martin hands in one of his goofiest, most out-of-character, and most disturbing performances as Orin Scrivello, the sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist and abusive boyfriend of Audrey.

            In terms of supporting characters, one of the most important elements of this film comes not from one character, but from three. Acting as a kind of Greek chorus that breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience, Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (whose names all derive from 1960’s girl groups) set the scene with style while presiding over the action decked out in beautiful, era appropriate costumes. In these roles, Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell supply the film’s smart, energetic pacing.
  The cameos and walk-ons I mentioned earlier add to the film’s irreverent, clever tone by giving these comic talents opportunities to have fun with the story’s setting. With Christopher Guest as the enthusiastic, vapid first customer to see Audrey II, John Candy as the hokey morning radio DJ who brings Seymour and Audrey II onto his show, and James Belushi as the pushy franchise salesman eager to sell little Audrey II plants across the country, these characters round out the film’s world. Watching seasoned comedy veterans turn in these performances, you get the feeling that each of them is sending up the kinds of adults they grew up around in the early in 1960’s. Bill Murray’s inspired performance as the masochistic dental patient stands apart from these other bit parts and nearly threatens to steal the show, but ultimately builds on the film’s delightfully twisted spirit.
This was Frank Oz’s third directing job and his first apart from Jim Henson and the Muppets. Little Shop of Horrors makes extensive use of puppets but no one would mistake Audrey II, the audacious carnivorous plant from the far reaches of space, for a resident of Sesame Street. Oz’s background in theater and film production with the Muppets serves him well as he fabricates the fantastic, terrifying, and multi-faceted world in which these characters live, struggle, sing, and face death.
Admittedly, this film balances many distinct pieces and any one of them could have easily tipped the whole project toward disaster. Little Shop of Horrors’ disparate elements combine to make a final product that works far better than many other musical theater adaptations of the last thirty years. Like all of the best examples of Off-Broadway cult phenomena, Little Shop of Horrors creates an exciting, fun, and perverse viewing experience that speaks to the outsider in all of us.  

             - John Parsell

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #140 - Hayden - Elk-Lake Serenade

In my experience as a music lover, I have learned that sometimes I find albums and sometimes albums find me. Hayden’s fourth album, Elk-Lake Serenade, found me just a few years after its 2004 release and I am very glad that it did. At the time, I was going through a rough winter in a small Vermont town and this collection of songs helped me keep going. The loose, inviting, and natural tone of Elk-Lake Serenade creates a strong contrast to Hayden’s intense, arresting, and cathartic 1996 debut, Everything I Long For. Despite notable differences in overall attitude and vocal delivery, these two albums share many of Hayden’s hallmark artistic strengths including thought provoking varieties of subject matter, unusual song structures, and inventive narrative perspectives. With Elk-Lake Serenade, Hayden made good on the promise he showed early in his career by crafting a mature, distinct, and adventurous album that contributes to and advances the canon of great folk-rock albums.

Elk-Lake Serenade opens with a trio of songs that set the stage for the album’s well-paced mix of relatively brief songs of varying tempo and energy that cover a range of tones from warm, funny, and earnest to haunting, heart-breaking, and absurd. The album opens with “Wide Eyes,” a stately, surprisingly formal ballad decorated with string flourishes and anchored by a stern piano figure that serves as a reminder of Hayden’s knack for minimalist storytelling. Just as the last notes of piano fade into silence, “Home by Saturday” kicks into gear with a mid-tempo folk-rock arrangement, beautifully offset by a great pedal steel guitar part, that grants the speaker confidence as he reassures his lover that he won’t succumb to the lures of going on tour while addressing with empathy the challenges they each face while he is away. Beginning with a gentle, chiming guitar progression, “Woody” expands quickly into a sweet little folk song dominated by acoustic guitar strumming and harmonica. On the first listen, you might not catch that this song is about Hayden’s pet cat because the bemused, resigned, yet loving spirit of the song could just as easily apply to feelings toward a close friend or a family member. Closer to the middle of the set, “Hollywood Ending” provides the album its strongest uptempo number while taking the cake for oddball concepts by illustrating what could be a fever dream or just a clever rumination on the cultural obsession with mainstream entertainment. In the second half of the album, two songs offer unique perspectives on domestic life that highlight Hayden’s ability to eschew the platitudes common to many songs about life at home. “Through The Rads” clips along a pretty good pace with subtle percussion and textured instrumentation as the speaker describes the unease, conflict, and apathy he feels hearing his neighbors fight through the radiators of the house they share. “My Wife” features a driving tempo that balances nicely with the speaker’s defiant, protective, and scathing rebuke to an old friend visiting town who would benefit greatly from moving on and growing up. Both of these songs demonstrate Hayden’s brevity and concision as a writer that is consistent throughout the album. Hayden makes his point, moves on, and ensures that no song wears out its welcome. Somehow, despite the tonal shifts and seemingly abrupt changes in subject matter, the album’s center holds.

Hayden’s first album left a strong impression on a close friend of mine in the late 1990’s and I enjoyed the songs I heard from it, but I lost track of his music after that. When Elk-Lake Serenade found me, I felt like I had run into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. In many ways, the differences between Hayden’s first and fourth albums bear the marks of his respective ages when he made each of them. Everything I Long For sounds like a smart, emotionally complex twenty-five year old working through, among other things, being an angry young man in much the same way that Elk-Lake Serenade sounds like a smart, contemplative person in his early-thirties taking a moment to reflect on the bizarre, beautiful, and confounding world around him. Elk-Lake Serenade found me in a lonely town during a harsh winter while I was working through a very challenging time in my life, but listening to these songs made those cold nights pass a little more easily. Listening to this album feels like sharing an evening with a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. The conversation rambles into directions you may have never predicted, but the stories are great and it all reminds you of why you have been friends for so long. I may have been short on friends where I was living when this album found me, but listening to it, then and now, reminds me of the tremendous value of both lasting friendship and wonderful music.   

            - John Parsell

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #125 - An American Werewolf In London (1981, dir. John Landis)

I love horror movies. To me, there is nothing better than the original Universal version of Frankenstein. It combines the best elements of storytelling, make-up, acting, music, shadow and light to create an unexpected, synergistic element of the unknown. It gives flesh to the promise of cinema in the first place. Unfortunately, when we moved into the color age, and the expectation for ever-more explicit thrills advanced, the art of fear became the act of shock, and much of the appeal of horror went away – at least for me. The modern era has exchanged fright for torture. Watching one human inflict carnage upon others is a different thing than jumping at shadows. It loses the element of fun. While An American Werewolf In London director John Landis does succumb to modern bloodlust, he also manages to make a classic horror film that is hilarious and both honors and advances the genre.

The story begins with two American college students starting a hitchhiking trip of Europe on the moors of Scotland. The action begins almost immediately as they get lost, attacked by a wolf, and one of them is killed. The other, unknown TV actor David Naughton, wakes up in a hospital in London. He is being attended to by a suspicious doctor (John Woodvine) and a gorgeous nurse (Jenny Agutter). He is tortured by horrifying dreams and then he is repeatedly haunted by his decaying dead companion (Griffin Dunne), who warns David that he was bitten by a werewolf and that he would now turn into one himself when the moon is full. This is all in the first 20 minutes of the film. Landis does not screw around. He gets right to the heart of the matter. Before you can say lycanthropy our hero has entered into a love affair with the nurse, is staying at her house, and finds himself alone as the full moon rises. And then comes “the scene.” There are some moments in film history that are so completely new and groundbreaking that they not only define that particular film, they actually come to represent an entire genre. In full, clear, neon light, David strips his clothes off and the camera does not flinch or look away as his body starts to stretch and change in front of our eyes. Hair sprouts from his torso, his limbs morph from arms and legs to haunches and paws, and in a final horror, his face stretches into a muzzle as he becomes a howling hellhound. It is an absolutely amazing scene, and even though 35 years of filmmaking has passed since this film was made, this scene has not been bested. It is a testament to make-up genius Rick Baker’s lasting impact on the genre. Baker represents the last great make-up innovator (the DVD comes with several excellent featurettes about Rick Baker and the special effects processes he pioneered). Shortly after this film, computer generated effects became the de facto method of showing the impossible and something very special about the art of film was lost. But that was AFTER this movie.

For the remainder of An American Werewolf In London however, we are treated to one thrill after another as our hero runs amok in London, killing people, and letting us see exactly what it would look like to have a real monster, fully lit, in a modern city. It is a true thrill. A scene in a deserted tube station is as genuinely chilling as any I can think of. The movie leads to its climax as David finds himself back in human form, sitting in a pornographic movie theatre, once again talking to a now skeletal Griffin Dunne, while a ridiculous porno plays. It is truly one of the more uproariously funny and surreal scenes in the horror genre. The scene ends with the inevitable, however, as David, once again goes through the transition, and wreaks havoc in the movie theatre and then moves out into a mobbed Piccadilly Square for the film’s climax.

All the boxes get checked with this film. It is fabulously entertaining, provides real shocks, breaks new ground and simultaneously pays tribute to the horror tradition. Director John Landis strikes the perfect balance between star-struck fan boy and seasoned insider, making the monster movie he – and we – always wanted to see.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 5, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #139 - Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs Vol. 1

Once upon a time in the 90’s there was this place in New York City called the Lower East Side. Along with its neighboring area, The East Village, it presented itself as an eccentric haven for artists, hipsters, punks, and bohemians of all stripes. Don’t go looking for it now because it’s been transformed into something else, but back then it was a land of dive bars, of art galleries, of weird little stores and great, cheap restaurants, a place that had a sketchy energy that’s totally gone now. And Stephin Merritt, the leader, songwriter, and primary vocalist for The Magnetic Fields, in the liner notes to the 69 Love Songs box set also calls the Lower East Side “the epicenter of songwriting history in the 20th century” – mainly due to the fact that Irving Berlin grew up there. And that’s a connection that resonates throughout the works of The Magnetic Fields – though the band recorded on the North Carolina indie rock label Merge, Merritt’s group is more an heir to the lineage of songwriters like Berlin and Cole Porter than part of the scene of indie rock and pop of label mates like Superchuck, Spoon, or even the artier Arcade Fire.

And though the magical wonderland that was the Lower East Side is gone now, The Magnetic Fields have left behind a document of that time and particularly of the people who populated it – the 3CD set 69 Love Songs. Merritt is quick to distinguish that only some of these songs are “true” songs – meaning that they’re about his own lived experience – but they’re most assuredly true in the sense that even if he hasn’t lived them, someone has. His characters bounce around this wonderland trying to connect, looking for love in 69 different ways (only 23 of which are, of course, documented on Vol. 1), many of them sad and bleak, which is Merritt’s métier, but all of them also imbued with a droll and deadpan sense of humor that keeps the songs out of the realms of the overly dolorous. For example, in “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” one of his lovers is unable to find a suitable object of romance since a breakup and notes “The Moon to whom the poets croon/has given up and died” which could easily pass for a couplet from some Goth band’s oeuvre, but then he adds (drolly and drily): “Astronomy
will have to be revised,” a line that would never occur to the gloom merchants. Similarly, “A pretty girl is like a violent crime/if you do it wrong you could do time/but if you do it right it is sublime” is hardly any kind of normal love song fare, but it’s part and parcel of The Magnetic Fields’ world. Musically speaking, Merritt handles synthesizer and ukulele duties, along with a number of other more obscure instruments he doesn’t list, while his cohorts appear on the more conventional support of piano, guitar, drums, banjo, cello and other instruments. And then there are the guests – friends picked up in and around the Lower East Side of the time brought in to contribute to the scene report herein. Some of them Merritt found in other bands, others working the door of bars he frequented – both of which are true of Dudley Klute, who contributes the entire set’s finest vocal performance in “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” (also noted in the lyrics as “the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side” who happens to have an edge on the competition because he’s got a car). The guests add variety to make the set what it is – Merritt’s own dolorous baritone is cut with other voices beyond even those of other members of The Magnetic Fields to make the funniest, catchiest, and far and away the best album ever essayed by this talented group.

Normally, we avoid recommending pricy
collections and films in I’d Love to Turn You On. Who are we to, on the strength of our words alone, suggest that you should drop 20 or 30 bucks sound-unheard on a record or movie? We try to keep it reasonable and cheap. But that, and only that, is the reason I’m recommending Vol. 1, rather than the entire 3CD set, which is really the proper way to experience this music (plus you get a great booklet with a lengthy interview with Stephin Merritt detailing each track). I count 12 great songs of the 23 included on this disc, with the other 11 ranging from amusing to very good. And it includes “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” which is the greatest song of the entire set. Well, except maybe for “Papa Was a Rodeo” (one of Merritt’s faux-country tunes later covered by Bright Eyes, Kelly Hogan, and The Magic Numbers, among others) or “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (critic Robert Christgau’s favorite). Really – if you have the slightest interest, you’ll need the whole set, but if you want to dip your toes in to test the water first, Vol. 1 has the highest concentration of greats – Vol. 2 and 3 each count 10 great ones for me, though your personal mileage may vary. The whole thing is never less than entertaining, often far better than that, and great for 30 songs (by my count) out of 69, which as a batting average is better than the greatest hitter ever in MLB. Additionally, due to popular demand, Merge is reissuing the set in a limited 10”vinyl box set on November 6th, so you vinyl enthusiasts should mark your calendars.

            - Patrick Brown