Monday, March 28, 2005

Odds and Ends

First off, to update my last entry: I have since found out that Elvis Costello closed the show with "The Scarlet Tide," one of the songs he wrote for the movie "Cold Mountain." It was a beautiful ballad, and I'll be adding it to my growing EC collection.

I found out that had I hung out at The House of Blues a little longer after the concert, I would have had the chance to meet the man. My cousin's friends invited us to stay at the bar and have a drink, but we begged off, exhausted. Damn, damn, damn. He came out after we left, so they got to meet him and have a chat. He was really cool (as if there were any doubt about that!).

An old buddy of mine from high school, Ray Vega, will be performing in June at the Flushing Town Hall. His specialty is "Latin bop" and salsa, and he's just terrific. We played trumpet in several bands together while at Music & Art, and he continued on to have a great career as a musician. He was Tito Puente's lead trumpet player for many years, and tours the country both as a working musician and as a sought-after teacher of master classes for trumpeters. Ray's also released a number of CDs, and they're great. We hadn't been in touch for a few years, but after a pal of mine said he was getting tickets for Ray's concert, I e-mailed him to let him know I'd be there, and he immediately wrote back. We'll be going backstage to see him after the show, and I can't wait to see him and get one of his wonderful, enveloping hugs.

"Desparate Housewives" had a new episode last night! I think the last one was around Valentine's Day. I've missed my Wisteria Lane friends and was very happy to see them last night. Great show. Then ABC debuted a new medical drama, "Grey's Anatomy," and I liked it. It was a little quirky but nicely developed, with interesting characters and good acting. What's not to like? (Well, OK, I could have done without the millions of promos that the network's been running for it -- which it has done ad nauseum for other new programs, such as "Jake In Progress," "Blind Justice," and "The Bachelor." I've enjoyed John Stamos in "JIP," but haven't bothered with the other two.)

Up until last week, the only thing I'd watched on the FX network was Denis Leary's excellent "Rescue Me" series about NYC firefighters. (Season 2 starts in June.) Then I heard that Glenn Close was joining the cast of "The Shield," on FX Tuesday evenings, so I tuned it in to watch her debut. Well, Ms. Close could probably recite a repair manual and make it sound compelling, so having her on the show was good enough for me. I was pleasantly surprised by the rest of the cast, star Michael Chiklis and a solid roster of supporting players. Both acting and writing are good, so it's a pleasure to watch.

Incidentally, Michael Chiklis has had an interesting career. His first big break came when he was cast as John Belushi in a tv movie based on the biography "Wired." The bio was not exactly a love song to Belushi, more like "warts and all." Many sordid tales of his dug use were spun, and brother Jim Belushi and best bud Dan Aykroyd were most vocal in their dislike (to put it mildly) of the book and the planned movie. They claimed that many of the worst stories quoted by the author were from "people who weren't even there." From all accounts, Chiklis gave a good performance, however, it was years before he worked again. A lot of people didn't think that was coincidental, as a lot of powerful people did not like the material he had to work with in "Wired." His comeback was with a police drama called "The Commish," and after that eventually went off the air, he was cast in "The Shield," which garnered a lot of controversial press in its first year. I expect that calmed down after viewers/reviewers saw what a quality program it actually was, not unlike "NYPD Blue" at its inception. Chiklis has fought hard for his career, and it has paid off. More power to him. He and Close work well together, and I wish much success for them and for the show.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Once in love with Elvis, always in love with Elvis

My first Elvis was, of course, The King, Elvis Presley. I took a lot of shit for loving Elvis; in elementary school (late '60s-early '70s), I was always made fun of for saying I was an Elvis fan. Yes, I liked the Partridge Family and the Osmonds like most of my contemporaries, but I was not afraid to say I liked Elvis. And now I'm damn proud that I stood up for myself.

I still love Presley, but have also found room for another Elvis: Costello. When he broke onto the scene as an angry young punk from England, I liked a few of his songs, but thought he was a bit weird. He had this odd way of walking on the side of his foot and looked a lot like Buddy Holly.

Well, through the years, both Elvis and I have matured and branched out. He's embraced a variety of musical styles, from opera to chamber music to Burt Bacharach, and excelled at all of them. However, the man STILL rocks! I did something very unusual this past weekend, something that I hope becomes a new habit, and it's all because of Elvis. Let me explain.

A couple of months ago, I got an e-mail alert that Elvis was touring. I checked out the tour, and he was appearing nowhere near where I live (that has since changed), but he WAS scheduled to play The House of Blues in New Orleans on March 12. I LOVE The House of Blues in New Orleans. Love, love, love it. Up until last weekend, I had only eaten and drank there. This time I was determined to see Elvis, no matter what.

I called a few friends, all Elvis fans, to see if they'd join me on a great weekend adventure in Nawlins. All had financial or other commitments that prevented them from coming along. So, I called cousin Christine, who lives in Nawlins, and offered to take her to the show if she could get us tickets. Christine is VERY connected in that city, and getting the tickets took no more than a couple of phone calls and $50 per ducat. Which I was very happy to pay. It was then decided that I'd crash at her place and we'd have some good times Louisiana-style over the weekend, capped by the Elvis concert. I don't usually do crazy things like fly 1,500 miles to go to a concert and then fly right back home again, but after this past weekend, you can bet that I will slowly edge towards being a wild and spontaneous person, able to pick up and do fun things...maybe even at the last minute! Unplanned! How nutty is that?

We had a great time. The show was amazing. Elvis was amazing. I knew the names of less than half the songs, but loved them all. He played a full two hour show, pausing every couple of tunes to let his guitar technician sling a different guitar over his shoulder, and it was incredible. At the end, he performed a ballad (I think the title must have been something about the difference between a widow and a bride) and at one point stepped away from the microphone and sang without amplification. It took a few moments for the room to hush, but hush it did. I have never had this quality experience at a concert before, and doubt that anyone else could pull it off. Granted, The House of Blues accommodates only about 1,000 people, but still. Quite a trick. What a performance, and what a performer.

Elvis Costello has a great voice and exceptional songwriting skill. His lyrics are thoughtful, intelligent and poetic. Definitely someone I would love to meet and spend some time with. (Now I'm thinking of a blog entry along the lines of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," listing people I'd like to get to know over a meal! He's on the list.) Whether he's performing his own songs, those written by others (Charles Aznavour's "She," featured in "Notting Hill") or those written with others (any of his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, especially "God Give Me Strength"), he's terrific. After seeing him in such an intimate venue, I'm hooked for life. I'll be seeing you again, Elvis. Count on it!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Did The Oscars Rock?

The annual Oscar awards, broadcast Sunday, February 27, were experimental in many ways. Producer Gil Cates, in an attempt to shorten the length of the show, had some awards handed out in the aisles, and some presented on stage, but to a group of nominees -- the losers would slink off as the winner(s) accepted the award. I'm all for a shorter broadcast, but this was beyond tacky. Had I been one of those nominees, I would have preferred to receive my award at a non-televised-but-excerpted-at-the-main-show ceremony, such as the one they have for Scientific Awards. Give me a break.

One effective way to speed things up would have been to omit things like Chris Rock's pre-taped Q&A with movie goers. What exactly was Rock trying to prove with this unfunny waste of time? Oh, I knew where he was going with it, but, y'know, didn't Rock insult the Oscars enough in pre-show interviews?

Chris Rock is a brilliant comic who makes you think as well as laugh. He didn't do much of either as the Oscar host. A few funny lines were overshadowed (in my opinion) by his un-funny schtick with Adam Sandler, filling in for the "absent Catherine Zeta-Jones," his introduction of Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek as "the next four presenters," and that Q&A. It made me long for the days of Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg, all of whom were fantastic Oscar hosts. The only living person who could possibly top Billy Crystal would be Robin Williams, but I think the censors are too afraid of his rapid-fire wit (he even poked fun of this by walking out with tape over his mouth). Jim Carrey would also be a good candidate. Or Ellen DeGeneres.

If the show is entertaining, then why worry about its length? Present fewer awards at the televised ceremonies, feature more clips from the movies, tributes to Hollywood legends (dead AND alive), and actually celebrate the industry. That's what the Oscars are really about. They say that viewership dropped because the nominated films didn't appeal to a younger audience; no true blockbusters among them, unlike years featuring crowd pleasers like "Titanic" or "Lord of the Rings." Okay, if you know that your nominations skew to a different demographic, plan other parts of the show that will bring in the desired audience. For instance, had it been publicized that Beyonce would be performing three of the five nominated "Best Songs," that might have attracted some viewers. (By the way, Beyonce is a gifted vocalist, and looked spectacular in her variety of gowns, but three songs? Come on! No one else was available? Share the wealth!)

Perhaps it's time the Oscars broke down and split the categories into "Drama" and "Muscial or Comedy," as they do at other award shows. That way, they could get away with televising only the awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress in their categories, along with Best Song. It would tighten things up and broaden the range of nominees. How fair is it to choose five nominees from so many potential and deserving films/people? Wouldn't it be a more exciting show? Call me, Gil -- let's talk!

By the way, I figured out why the humorless Sean Penn took such umbrage with Rock's jokes about "seems-to-be-in-everything" Jude Law. Penn is currently filming a new movie with Law, and that's probably why he took offense. Penn, though a bit over the top, is someone I'd like to have as a friend -- he apparently has a deep, heart-felt sense of loyalty.

Also, did you notice that the composer/vocalist who won the "Best Song" award seemed unimpressed by Antonio Banderas and Santana's rendition -- which I though was terrific -- of his "Al Otro Lado Del Rio?" Instead of an acceptance speech, he sang a verse of the song in his own quieter style. I thought both versions were fine, but still consider his an upset win over "Believe."

While on the subjectof "Best Song," there was one original song written for the movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera," entitled "Learn to Be Lonely." In the movie (so much better than the Broadway version; even I, who normally loathe its composer, loved the film - see it!), it was sung over the end credits by actress Minnie Driver. Driver, who played a diva in the film, had her operatic singing voice dubbed, but was given the opportunity to perform at the end. She recently released a CD, which got decent reviews, so I wasn't surprised when gossip started flurrying about how upset she was not to be asked to perform it at the Academy Awards. Renee Zellweger deliberately chose not to perform the nominated song from "Chicago" that she sang in the movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones at the ceremonies a couple of years ago, saying she'd be too nervous to sing it live and would rather enjoy the show. In other words, she's known for her acting, not her singing, so let's stick to our strengths, hmm? A good move; Queen Latifah stepped in and did a great job with the hugely pregnant Zeta-Jones. In this case, though, were the producers trying to please their audience by having well-known artists (Banderas, Santana, Beyonce) perform songs by lesser-known talents? Well, then spark some interest in the show by publicizing this, as mentioned above, don't just insult the original artists!

Keeping in mind the slights made by the producers by presenting awards in the aisle or en masse, dissing the musical talent and hiring Chris Rock as host, I would recommend that they be made to listen to Aretha Franklin's classic "Respect," at full blast, for the amount of time the Oscars took to broadcast. Given their distaste for original artists, though, I'll allow them to have the version first recorded by its composer. That would be Otis Redding. It would NOT be an additional punishment, just a reminder that there's often nothing wrong with original artists. A lesson well learned.