June 8, 2012
Through the weird synchronicity that haunts film scheduling, several movies about musicians will be released shortly. There’s Rock of Ages, the latest Broadway musical adapted to the screen, with Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta Jones and other stars slumming their way through 1970s rock warhorses. Two documentaries—Neil Young Journeys and Searching for Sugar Man—present careers in music as a sort of cautionary tale, with life on the road serving as either doom or salvation.
I asked Jason Beek, drummer in the Eilen Jewell band, how accurate movies about musicians on the road were. In film, the road changes you, for better or worse depending on the plot you’re in. One way or another, narratives have to end, while in real life musicians keep plugging away without the reversals, betrayals and epiphanies that Hollywood demands.
Eilen Jewell draws from rock, country, jazz and blues, paying tribute to the past while building a uniquely modern sound. She put her band together in 2005, with her husband Jason on drums, Jerry Glenn Miller on guitar and Johnny Sciascia on bass. The band plays 150 to 175 shows a year, usually traveling in a 15-person van. “We are ‘on the road,’ away from home, in a van or on a plane for seven months out of the year,” Beek told me.
“We try to limit our travel to the daytime,” Beek explained. Driving between gigs can be relatively easy in the Northeast, where venues can be a couple of hours apart. “But we have been on tours where we have to drive as many as eight hours. We really try to limit our travel to no more than six hours on a gig day.”
What goes wrong on the road? “Mistakes happen with promoters, people get lost, wrong info, loose ends,” Beek said. “We travel with an upright bass internationally and that is always squirrelly.” The drummer told about how the group was delayed while leaving the United Kingdom. “7 a.m. and I’m arguing with the head of the airport about how they had no problem letting the bass into the country, but now it is too heavy to fly out? We had to have our driver ferry it over to Ireland for the next shows.”
Since so many articles cite Almost Famous among the best rock films, I asked Beek his opinion. “Eilen and I didn’t see Almost Famous,” he answered. “Johnny our bass player says he didn’t like it, and Jerry our guitar player said it was ok.
“I think you’ll find at least as many opinions about rock movies as there are musicians,” he went on. “For example, I thought recent films like Ray, Walk the Line and Cadillac Records were entertaining if only because my musical heroes were being portrayed on the big screen.”
Beek pointed out how Hollywood tends to reduce and simplify facts and ideas. “Both Walk the Line and Ray followed a formula about a dramatic childhood event, addiction, recovery and then a happy ending,” he said. “Some musicians I know think those films are totally worthless as far as telling it like it is—whether how hard it can be on the road or whether they got the facts straight about a particular artist.”
Separate genres of music have their own cycle of road movies. For pop, you can go back to the first musical to win a Best Picture Oscar, The Broadway Melody, in which two naive sisters on tour fight over an oily leading man, or The Good Companions, a British film adapted from J.B. Priestley’s comic novel of clueless musicians touring the hinterlands of England. Later films like Blues in the Night presented the road as a place of peril, especially regarding romance.
Jazz films tend to take a dim view of the road. It helped lead Charlie Parker to heroin in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Bird, and left Dexter Gordon’s character a wreck in ‘Round Midnight, although traveling was a more benign plot device in The Glenn Miller Story.
Country music loves cautionary tales, so the road brought nothing but trouble to Gene Autry in The Old Barn Dance, Rip Torn in Payday, Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose, Clint Eastwood in Honkytonk Man and Burt Reynolds in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. One of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s pet projects has been a biopic about Hank Williams, who famously died in the back seat of a limousine on his way to a concert in Canton, Ohio. Schrader told me a scene in which a delirious Hank is handcuffed to a dressing room cot backstage in an attempt to prevent another drinking spree.
More recently, Walk the Line showed the temptations of the road in vivid terms, as Johnny Cash engages in drunken hijinks with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins while June Carter looks on disapprovingly. And Crazy Heart won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for playing a country musician who uses the road to avoid responsibility.
Dozens of films were set in the world of rock’n'roll, but films specific to touring took a while to emerge. One of the first, A Hard Day’s Night, is also one of the best. According to film historian Alexander Walker, when The Beatles signed their film contract, the studio prohibited them from being seen drinking alcohol and chasing girls. Director Richard Lester made that a theme of the movie, with the boys disappointed again and again in their efforts to drink or chat up girls.
Studios rarely treated rock music seriously until Light of Day (1987), written and directed by Paul Schrader, with Michael Fox and Joan Jett as a brother/sister rock act. It helped that they actually sang and played their instruments, something that didn’t happen in movies like Eddie and the Cruisers and Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Concert documentaries can provide a better insight into touring. In Dont Look Back, directed by D. A. Pennebaker, Bob Dylan tours England, meeting an adoring public, fawning fellow musicians and a hostile press. The chilling Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, follows The Rolling Stones on an American tour that culminates with a murder at Altamount. And could touring be any more hellish than in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap?
Neil Young Journeys is the third feature director Jonathan Demme has made about the musician. Most of the film is devoted to concerts Young gave at Toronto’s Massey Hall in May 2011. Demme also shot Young at his childhood home and touring northern Ontario in a 1956 Ford Victoria. Approaching his fiftieth year as a professional musician, Young is as passionate as ever, despite the obvious rigors of the road. Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing it on June 29.
Searching for Sugar Man, another Sony Pictures Classics release, comes out in July. It opens in South Africa, where musicians and journalists explain how Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from 1970s Detroit, was so influential in battling apartheid. Without giving too much away, the film shows just how harsh and unforgiving the music industry can be—although it has a twist that is both uplifting and heart-rending. Searching for Sugar Man answers a dilemma every artist faces: How long can you struggle against rejection before giving up?
So do any movies get the road right? Steve Rash’s The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey, made touring seem delightful as Holly made his way from Clovis, New Mexico, to New York City. Of course, Holly’s story had what screenwriters consider a golden ending: death by plane crash. (Lou Diamond Philips played Richie Valens, who died in the same crash, in La Bamba.)
Tom Hanks, an avowed Eilen Jewell fan, chose That Thing You Do! as his directorial debut. A knowing tribute to the one-hit wonders who supplied a steady stream of hits to Top Forty radio, That Thing You Do! recreated the package tours that dominated the mid-sixties, with giddy newcomers and jaundiced veterans thrown together on bus rides to perform at county fairs.
In the meantime, do not miss the opportunity to see Eilen Jewell, a first-rate songwriter and a wonderful singer, and her crack band. They are appearing tonight at Manhattan’s City Winery and with luck will reach your town soon. Here’s the title song from her third full-length album, Sea of Tears.
March 7, 2012
For 60 years, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been the gold standard for how to film a fairy tale. It was the most successful musical of the 1930s, out-performing Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Show Boat. It popularized such best-selling songs as “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And it was the first in a remarkable run of animation classics from the Disney studio.
Two new live-action movies will look to unseat Disney’s version of Snow White in the coming weeks. First up, and opening on March 30: Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen. It will be followed on June 1 by Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a huge risk for Disney, but also the only direction he could take his studio. Disney’s cartoon shorts helped introduce technological innovations like sound and color to the moviegoing public, and characters like Mickey Mouse became famous the world over. But Walt and his brother Roy could not figure out a way to make money from shorts—the Oscar-winning Three Little Pigs grossed $64,000, a lot at the time, but it cost $60,000 to make. Like Charlie Chaplin before them, the Disneys needed to commit to feature films to prosper.
Disney picked the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” because of a film he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and starring Marguerite Clark, the 1916 Snow White was distributed by Paramount. As a star, Clark rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. She had appeared on stage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Winthrop Ames and produced in 1912. By that time Snow White had already reached the screen several times. Filmmakers were no doubt inspired by a special-effects laden version of Cinderella released by Georges Méliès in 1899 that was a favorite Christmas attraction in theaters for years.
A popular genre in early cinema, fairy tale films included titles like Edwin S. Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which took six weeks to film; a French version of Sleeping Beauty (1903); Dorothy’s Dream (1903), a British film by G.A. Smith; and William Selig’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1903).
Ames borrowed from the Cinderella story for his script, but both the play and film feature many of the plot elements from the Grimm Brothers tale “Little Snow White.” Although Snow White the film has its dated elements, director Dawley elicits a charming performance from Clark, who was in her 30s at the time, and the production has a fair share of menace, black humor, and pageantry. The film is included on the first Treasures from American Film Archives set from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Young Walt Disney attended a version in which viewers were surrounded on four sides by screens that filled in the entire field of vision. “My impression of the picture has stayed with me through the years and I know it played a big part in selecting Snow White for my first feature production,” he wrote to Frank Newman, an old boss, in 1938.
Disney was working on his Snow White project as early as 1933, when he bought the screen rights to the Ames play. That same year the Fleischer brothers released Snow-White, a Betty Boop cartoon featuring music by Cab Calloway, who performs “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The short owes little to the Grimm Brothers, but remains one of the high points of animation for its intricate surrealism and hot jazz.
The Fleischers, Max and Dave, had been making films for almost twenty years when they started on Snow-White. In 1917, Max patented the rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace the outlines of figures—a technique still in use today. He was making animated features in 1923, introduced the famous “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons the following year, and captivated Depression-era filmgoers with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye.
The pre-Code Betty Boop was a bright, lively, sexy woman, the perfect antidote to bad economic times. Soon after her debut she was selling soap, candy, and toys, as well as working in a comic strip and on a radio show. Snow-White was her 14th starring appearance, and the second of three films she made with Cab Calloway. Her other costars included Bimbo and Ko Ko, to me the eeriest of all cartoon figures.
(For flat-out weirdness, I don’t think anything tops Bimbo’s Initiation, but all the Fleischer brothers’ films have something to recommend them.)
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had an enormous impact on Hollywood. Variety called it “a jolt and a challenge to the industry’s creative brains.” The film ran for five weeks in its initial run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing to some 800,000 moviegoers. Although it cost the studio $1.5 million to make, the film grossed $8.5 million in its first run. Its success helped persuade MGM to embark on The Wizard of Oz. The Fleischers, meanwhile, set out to make their own animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman will make, but they are following some tough acts.
September 16, 2011
Their fans include Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in Stormy Weather the greatest musical sequence of all time. Over a career spanning eight decades, they starred in vaudeville and nightclubs, on Broadway and television, and made a huge impact in film. And yet the Nicholas Brothers are largely unknown today. And an important part of their legacy is in danger of disappearing.
According to Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum, the Nicholas Brothers—Fayard (1914–2006) and Howard (1921–2000)—were “the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.” Mr. Goldstein put together a compilation tribute to the team that received a standing ovation at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival; he’s repeating that program at the Film Forum on Monday, September 19. Grab any opportunity to see the brothers’ work you can, because not much of it is available.
The brothers grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents performed in the Nicholas Collegiates band in vaudeville houses. As Goldstein told me in a phone interview, Fayard could wander backstage and meet all of the great African-American acts of the time. “He’d watch them and copy them, then went home and taught their steps to his little brother.” Apart from some courses in acrobatics that Harold took later, the brothers had no other formal training. By 1932, with Harold not yet a teenager, the brothers were a featured act at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“We tend to think of them now as stunt dancers because of their acrobatics,” Goldstein said. “But that takes away from the fact that they were incredibly graceful, elegant dancers. They were great comedians, too, with a real chemistry between them, and Harold was also a wonderful singer.”
The Nicholas Brothers were a hit on Broadway in both The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms in part because choreographer George Balanchine was a big fan. “He had them doing amazing things,” Goldstein enthused. “I think Balanchine’s the one who came up with Harold sliding in a split through the legs of like ten showgirls at once. Amazing stuff.”
But the brothers never starred in their own movie, a source of frustration to them over the years. “Being black made them a specialty act in Hollywood,” Goldstein explained. “The Nicholas Brothers got big billing in most of their films for Twentieth Century-Fox, but they never got a featured role. They only made five films for Fox because the studio didn’t know how to use them.”
The brothers’ films at Fox included Down Argentine Way, where they could skirt around racial issues by pretending to be “Latin American,” and Stormy Weather, whose all-black cast also included Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. When Fayard was drafted, Harold performed solo in two movies. At Gene Kelly’s insistence, Fayard and Harold re-united on screen for MGM’s The Pirate.
“Originally in The Pirate they had speaking roles,” Goldstein said, “but the studio cut them out. You can see snippets of them in the background of shots, but basically they had one number, ‘Be a Clown.’ And it’s not their greatest piece because Gene Kelly couldn’t do what they could do.” But Kelly could copy them, and The Pirate features some of his most virile and stunt-laden work. Goldstein believes that Harold helped coach Donald O’Connor, his life-long friend, for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.
Fed up by racism, Harold left the country for Europe in the 1950s. But the brothers’ influence can still be felt throughout our culture. Bob Fosse modeled his first dance act on them, for example, and Joseph Jackson hired Fayard to help train his children, The Jackson 5. Both Michael and Janet Jackson were later students of the brothers. Fayard and Howard also taught at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Goldstein’s compilation clips feature some of the Nicholas Brothers’ best routines on film, a succession of jaw-dropping leaps, flips, and splits executed with flawless style. The tribute also includes selections from their home movies, a source of considerable worry for the programmer.
“I’m very concerned about the home movies,” he said. “No one seems to know where they are. Back in the 1930s, the Nicholas Brothers had a 16mm camera, and they filmed wherever they went. When they got to Hollywood in 1936, they filmed in front of all the studios, they took shots with their friend Joe Louis, and there’s a clip of them dancing behind a soundstage with Fred Astaire.”
According to Goldstein, the UCLA Film & Television Archive made video masters of the footage in the 1980s, but the films themselves appear to be missing. “Twenty years ago I had the 16mm prints in my hands, and now I don’t know where they are. They are such a valuable document, not just of their lives but of the entire era.”