Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Queerest Thing I Found on the Internet This Week

differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal

I consider it a compliment.

The Bronx. Formed in 2002, this Los Angeles-based punk rock quintet has released four albums and toured around the world. Lead vocalist Matt Caughthan is a sexy little beast with a versatile voice and cocky stage presence. There's a tendency for bands like this to make dark and humorless videos, but The Bronx went a different direction for "Youth Wasted," a kick ass cut from from their fourth album.

Here's what happens when punk rockers meet a trio of models from Playgirl, that purveyor of bro bods. It's a party, dude! And something fabulous enough to qualify as the queerest thing I found on the Internet this week. (The song is a damn good swaggering anthem, too.) Enjoy...

"Youth Wasted"
With Steve (a.k.a "The Hammer"), Jim (a.k.a. "Double Gunz") and Mike (a.k.a. "The Meat Wagon").

The men of The Bronx...

The Bronx, left to right: Ken Horne, Joby J. Ford, Matt Caughthran, Jorma Vik & Brad Magers

And believe it or not, they also perform as Mariachi El Bronx, their Mexican folk alter egos. Check out their video for "Holy."

The band's website is here.

Wanna check out some other posts in this series? Go here or here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #23: Can't Stop the Music

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Can't Stop the Music
 (released June 1980)

Village People (circa 1980), left to right:
David Hodo, Randy Jones, Alex Briley, Ray Simpson, Felipe Rose & Glenn Hughes

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: After the phenomenal worldwide success of Grease in 1978, producer Allan Carr could have made any movie he wanted. He decided to make a biography about Village People, a popular disco group with a distinctive sound and a couple of gold records. The real history of Village People is pretty interesting. French music composer/producer Jacques Morali wrote four songs about locales with big populations of gay men -- San Francisco, Hollywood, Fire Island and Greenwich Village -- then recruited struggling singer/actor Victor Willis to provide lead vocals and added a bunch of anonymous background singers in the studio. The music hit big in dance clubs and gay bars. Suddenly, Village People were in demand for public appearances. But aside from Victor Willis, there was no group. The first Village People EP cover featured mostly models!

Village People EP, released July 1977
Jacques Morali and business partner Henri Belolo set up auditions for real singer/dancers to accompany Victor Willis and decided that the group should embody six masculine American archetypes. After some tweaking, the lineup for the first full-length album became Willis (policeman), David Hodo (construction worker), Felipe Rose (Indian), Randy Jones (cowboy), Alex Briley (G.I.) and Glenn Hughes (leatherman). Those are the voices you hear on hits like "Y.M.C.A." and "In the Navy."  

When Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard sat down to write a script for Can't Stop the Music in 1979, they essentially abandoned everything but those six archetypes and concocted an insanely fictionalized origin story. Their goal appears to have been two-fold: deemphasize the gay elements of the biopic for mainstream audiences while simultaneously throwing as many male bodies and winking double entendres at gay viewers as possible. The result is that Village People, easily one of the most unconventional and provocative groups to emerge from the disco era, become secondary characters in their own movie. The main character is Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg), an Americanized version of Jacques Morali. Jack's a composer who needs to get his music heard by somebody in the record industry. As the guest DJ at a club called Saddle Tramps, he plays one of his own instantly forgettable tunes, "Samantha," but it impresses his retired supermodel friend Samantha (I kid you not) so much that she decides to use her connections to get Jack's demo tape heard. Samantha (Valerie Perrine) loves Jack's music, but not his voice. "It sounds like a cry for help." New voices are needed.

Samantha literally wanders the streets of her neighborhood, New York's Greenwich Village, looking for singers. She recruits Felipe (who's always dressed like a Native American, complete with elaborate headdress, skimpy loincloth and jingle bells), Randy (in cowboy garb), and David (an actor friend who's dressed like a construction worker for a commercial.) David really wants to sing: "Fame, fortune, platinum records -- it's every boy's dream." Then there's a fantasy sequence where he sings "I Love You to Death" surrounded by hypersexual female dancers in blood red costumes on some kind of futuristic factory brothel set. It's a terrible, vaguely creepy song that kind of makes you think he could be a disco serial killer.

Before they ever get to that demo tape, there's an excruciatingly long sequence where a bunch of other major and minor characters have to be introduced, including Samantha's agent (Tammy Grimes), who wants her to return to modeling, Jack's mother (June Havoc), a Broadway veteran who thinks her son is a musical genius, and Alicia, a plot device who just happens to be friends with a singing cop named Ray Simpson. Remember how I said that the original Village People policeman was Victor Willis? He left the group for a solo career shortly before principal photography began. So they just hired another African American singer with facial hair, put him in a cop uniform and assumed no one would notice. Yeah, that happened. And finally, before we get to that goddamn demo tape, Samantha has to have a love interest -- uptight tax attorney Ron White, played by 1976 Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, who's only previous acting experience was appearing on the Wheaties breakfast cereal box. After a lasagna dinner involving all of the above and some people who don't even have names, Felipe, Randy, David and Ray make that demo tape. In Samantha's backyard. They've all just met for the first time, yet miraculously manage to perform a fabulous, unrehearsed first take of a song called "Magic Night" after reading the lyrics off some napkins. But uptight Ron can't handle the magic, telling Samantha, "Your friends are too far out for me!" That's this movie's way of suggesting that Ron is a homophobic asshole. It's resolved by having Samantha sleep with him.

Never satisfied, Jack wants a "big sound," meaning more voices. A ridiculous open audition is held at Ron's law offices -- featuring everything from a stripper to a flaming baton twirler -- but then Alicia the plot device shows up again with yet another friend, national guardsman Alex. He doesn't even have to audition since he's already wearing a G.I. uniform. Finally, at the one hour and ten minute mark, Glenn the leatherman shows up, hops on top of a piano and belts out the Irish American ballad "Danny Boy." He's hired, too. It's a sextet. But what are they going to call themselves? Don't worry, Ron's socialite mother (!) is there to provide some inspiration by wondering aloud, "Didn't Greenwich Village people types go out with the '60s?" "Village People!" shouts Samantha. "I can sell that."

Sufficiently loosened up enough now to strut through Greenwich Village in a crop top t-shirt and short shorts, Ron arranges rehearsal space for the boys at the Y.M.C.A. No, that doesn't make any sense, but it does lead to the film's best and gayest production number, a homoerotic extravaganza of male bodies, some bare asses and even a blink-and-you-miss-it glimpse of full-frontal nudity. It's like somebody unconnected to the film made a decent music video of Village People's biggest hit and they just spliced it into the middle of this fiasco as a reminder of what made them famous in the first place. Side note: They had to re-record "Y.M.C.A" for this sequence to feature Ray Simpson's voice on the soundtrack. Another side note: The best thing I got out of the Y as a kid was trampoline lessons.

Samantha arranges for her record executive ex-boyfriend, Steve (Paul Sand), to hear the guys perform. He takes one look as them and mutters, "I hate Halloween." (We're an hour and twenty minutes into the movie now and I finally laughed at something that I think was intentionally meant to be funny.) They sing "Liberation," a not-too-subtle pro-gay anthem, but screw up the choreography... probably because there were just too many distractions at the Y.M.C.A. for them to concentrate during rehearsal. Steve says he's not interested in the group even though secretly he is and only wants to trick them into signing crappy contracts. Samantha, somehow their manager now, decides to make a commercial for the American Dairy Association with the guys. She's positive a milk commercial will have everyone clamoring for Village People. And then they make the longest commercial in history -- four freakin' minutes -- featuring children, dancers, giant prop glasses, balloons and all-white costumes. This time, the choreography is perfect, at least in the sense that no one bumps into anyone else. It's all staged for a song called "Milk Shake," which has the distinction of being not only the worst song in the movie, but also one of the most execrable things ever recorded. The Dairy Association doesn't want to air "Milk Shake" because it may be "too controversial for their American family image." I'm going to have to side with the Dairy people on this one; it makes their product seem like some kind of magical unicorn juice that'll turn kids into tacky, hyperactive, Broadway-bound diva-urchins.

How will Village People ever catch a break? Turns out Jack's mom, the Broadway veteran, knows how to negotiate a contract. And Ron's socialite mom, also coincidentally/conveniently an event planner, has a big San Francisco charity fundraiser concert that needs performers. "Would it be possible for the boys to sing a few songs?" Ron's mom queries. And then the entire cast goes to San Francisco, where the movie grinds to a complete halt so that The Ritchie Family, another disco group from the same record label, can sing a song that has nothing to do with anything. Steve shows up with contracts for the boys -- despite having never seen them perform for a live audience, ever -- and the group suddenly starts fretting about the fact that they've never performed for a live audience, ever. That tension lasts long enough for Glenn Hughes to emote, unconvincingly, "Leathermen don't get nervous... leathermen don't get nervous." David Hodo combs his mustache one last time, and just before Village People take the stage, Samantha's agent pronounces the audience "bizarre and chic," which it most decidedly is not. It's a bunch of bland, blindingly white, middle-class people who look like they were bused in from Utah.

Finally on stage, Village People sing "Can't Stop the Music," a banal tune that sounds like it was written for one of those Disney Channel shows, and then they reprise it -- even though they were asked to sing a few songs. The mothers, Samantha's agent and even Alicia the plot device join them on stage, flailing about enthusiastically as a blizzard of glitter oppressive enough to cause permanent respiratory damage engulfs them all. Credits roll... and you get to hear an instrumental version of "Can't Stop the Music." Your total time listening to "Can't Stop the Music" is eleven minutes. For comparison, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is only eight minutes.

Can't Stop the Music was promoted as "The Movie Musical Event of the 80's." Yes, just like that, with the grammatically incorrect possessive apostrophe. It was directed by Nancy Walker, a Broadway and TV veteran best known for her role as Rhoda's mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and it's spinoff, Rhoda, plus her long-running commercial pitchwoman gig as Rosie the Bounty paper towel lady. She had directed some sitcom episodes, but Can't Stop the Music was her first (and only) film. There's really no sensible explanation why producer Allan Carr would ask 58-year-old Nancy Walker to direct a disco musical. I guess the voices in his cocaine-addled head made a convincing argument: "Listen Allan, Martin Scorsese is busy with Raging Bull." "And Robert Redford is directing Ordinary People." "Maybe you can get Nancy Walker, the paper towel lady." "Yeah, see if she's available!!!"

Nancy Walker on the set of Can't Stop the Music
Can't Stop the Music is an ill-conceived, witless mess. Bad direction. Bad script. Bad acting. Steve Guttenberg's performance is so manic, it's like he chugged a couple of Red Bulls before every scene. Proposed drinking game: take a shot every time you can see the veins in his neck pop out. You'll be drunk in about 30 minutes. Poor Valerie Perrine (a 1975 Oscar nominee for Lenny) wrestles mightily with stupid pratfalls and fatuous dialogue, but she never really has an unaffected moment. In his first movie role, Bruce Jenner gives a drama club performance, hitting his marks like a hammer and saying the correct words when it's his turn to talk. You wouldn't necessarily expect the members of Village People to be good actors, but they are, in fact, no worse than the professionals. Felipe Rose has the biggest part, spends virtually the entire movie in Native American drag, but manages to project a genuine sweetness. Both Randy Jones and Ray Simpson have a natural presence on camera. David Hodo works a slightly jaded groove pretty well. Alex Briley has virtually nothing to do outside the last four production numbers, but he appears to be a pretty good sport about that. And Glenn Hughes arrives late, brings an endearingly goofy charm that transcends his amateurish performance and steals the picture. Frankly, Village People weren't half bad at playing homogenized versions of themselves. Ironically, the final credit of the picture is this: The persons and events in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons or events is unintentional. Yup, this movie is extraordinarily stupid from beginning to end.

Stray Gay Observations: I own a vinyl copy of the Can't Stop the Music soundtrack. Someone gave it to me as a birthday gift back in 1980. I think I played it a couple of times and then it just became one of those kitschy things you save. The album contains 10 songs, only six by Village People. "Liberation" sounds like vintage VP, and would likely have been a club hit if it had been released about two years earlier. But Can't Stop the Music was released after disco had peaked and a palpable backlash was underway. The timing was way off and the soundtrack was a schizophrenic endeavor filled with kid-friendly junk like "Magic Night" and "Milk Shake" and the four unremarkable songs by other artists. Play the Saturday Night Fever or Grease soundtracks, then listen to Can't Stop the Music. The contrast in quality is astounding.

About thirty minutes into Can't Stop the Music, a gay male couple, arm in arm, stroll briskly past the camera. That's the film's single unequivocal nod to homosexuality. No one ever uses the word gay in this movie. Not even once. At all times, Village People are presented as non-conformists, as if their homosexuality was undetectable, or moot. And that's the biggest problem with this movie: the filmmakers didn't have the courage to tell to the truth. They made a ludicrous effort to put these men in some kind of a universe where gay isn't really a thing and accidentally created the cinematic equivalent of the most flamboyant, roller-skating, disco-dancing, glitter-blush-wearing elephant in the room.

Should You See It? You know how 1959's sci-fi disasterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space is considered to be one of the worst films ever made? Can't Stop the Music is the Plan 9 From Outer Space of movie musicals. What more of a recommendation could you need?

Next Week: How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 3

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my underwear. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the next couple of months. Summer needs a soundtrack! In part three of this 6-part series, I'm featuring earworms from First Aid Kit, Metronomy and Red City Radio.

First Aid Kit. They're a Swedish folk/acoustic/country duo comprised of sisters Klara and Johanna Soderberg. They became internationally known in 2008 after uploading a cover version of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" on YouTube. Their third album, Stay Gold, is out this summer. Website is here.

First Aid Kit: Klara & Johanna Soderberg
Song & Video: "My Silver Lining" --  At a time when Nashville is mostly content to release an endless stream of raucous songs about trucks and drinking, these Swedes are forging an innovative route, uniting traditional country, indie rock and Fleetwood Mac-era pop. This one captures yearning with a stunning delivery and arrangement. The gorgeous video was shot in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.

Metronomy. Originally a side project of London-based multi-instrumentalist and producer Joseph Mount, Metronomy evolved into a quirky electro-pop quartet. The songs are all about the highs and lows of love, but there's a refreshingly off-kilter vibe in the execution. Website is here.

Metronomy, left to right: Oscar Cash, Anna Prior, Gbenga Adelekan & Joseph Mount
Song & Video: "Love Letters" -- The song is a groovy re-invention of 1960s pop (and the album version is even better). The whimsical video -- probably my favorite of the year so far -- frames the British band inside the brilliantly conceived set of a make-believe TV variety show universe. In matching black turtlenecks and wine-colored blazers, the quartet knocks out the song on keyboards, drums, bass and even a tambourine.

Red City Radio. This Oklahoma punk/rock band is aggressive and gritty, sure, but also accessible thanks to their sense of humor and a knack for killer hooks. There latest release, Titles, came out in late 2013. Website is here.

Red City Radio, left to right:
Jonathan Knight, Dallas Tidwell, Garrett Dale & Paul Pendley 
Song & Video: "Two Notes Shy of an Octave" -- One of the things I sincerely love about Red City Radio is that their song titles are usually absent from the lyrics. Such is the case with "Two Notes Shy of an Octave," a perfect kiss-off song for any season. The video is all about the band's appearance at an open mic night that takes an unexpected (and hilarious) turn for the worse. (PS - There's a nice assortment of hot men in this video, including a couple of woofy bears.)

I dig the lyrics of this song, which I'll concede are tricky to understand. Here's the chorus:

Doesn't matter if you tell the truth
Doesn't matter if you lie
Doesn't matter if there's holes in your alibi
I'm not buying
Doesn't matter if you tell the truth
Doesn't matter if you lie
Doesn't matter if there's holes in your alibi
I'm not buying at all
And you can call me a bad friend
And you can just not call me

Did you miss the first two volumes in this series? Click here for volume one, or here for volume two.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) # 22: Mahogany

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

Mahogany (released October 1975)

Mahogany: Diana Ross
Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Signed to the fledgling Motown Records in 1961 at only 17, Diana Ross became lead vocalist of The Supremes, the most commercially successful female group of the Sixties. Going solo in 1970, she released "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and scored a number one hit on the Billboard pop and R&B charts, plus a Grammy nomination. When Motown founder Berry Gordy decided to make movies, his first project was a biopic about legendary jazz/torch singer Billie Holiday entitled Lady Sings the Blues. Ross was cast in the lead role, prompting criticism from Holiday fans and industry insiders alike. But under the direction of Sydney J. Furie, Ross delivered a performance that Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert described as "one of the great performances of 1972." She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, but Liza Minnelli picked up a statue for Cabaret that year.

And then Diana Ross made her second film, Mahogany. It's about a high-end department store secretary named Tracy Chambers (Ross) who takes fashion design classes at night and dreams of making clothes. It's never really clear what kind of woman would wear her clothes, since they're a cross between Kabuki theater and Cirque du Soleil costumes. Anyway, Tracy lives in a run-down Chicago neighborhood like the cast of that beloved '70s sitcom Good Times. Unfortunately, none of her friends or neighbors are that interesting or funny. Her Aunt Florence (Beah Richards) sews her designs for her, but don't get used to this character because she disappears after two scenes and never comes up again. Tracy keeps crossing paths with Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer who's running for alderman and wants to restore her neighborhood. Let's just say he's not nearly as eloquent or savvy at politics as Barrack Obama -- Brian gets into fistfights every time he emerges from his campaign van. And despite his naked contempt for Tracy's career aspirations, they fall improbably in love and she helps him run for office. Meanwhile, back at the department store, revered fashion photographer Sean (Anthony Perkins) drops by searching for a muse. He mistakes Tracy for a model and invites her to Rome. She goes, leaving Chicago without even saying goodbye to Brian or poor Aunt Florence.

Up to this point, Mahogany is just silly and implausible. Rome is where it all takes a turn for the worse, becoming a flagrant, ludicrous, overwrought train wreck -- and that makes it a lot of fun to watch. In Rome, it's immediately obvious that Sean is in deep denial about being gay -- and he has a creepy, obsessive fixation on his models. "There's only one word that describes rich, dark, beautiful and rare," he tells Tracy. "I'm going to call you Mahogany." And one lavish 4-minute montage later, she's an international supermodel. Convinced that he's in love with his creation, Sean becomes psychologically unhinged when he can't perform sexually with Mahogany. Seriously, he goes from bitchy queen to homicidal maniac pretty quickly over that. And because Anthony Perkins played a cross-dressing, knife-wielding madman in Psycho, I kept expecting him to throw on one of Mahogany's dresses and slash her to pieces. Instead, he comes up with a screwball way of killing her and fails.

Of course, Brian's not out of the picture, either. He shows up in Rome after losing his election. Indifferent to Tracy's success as Mahogany, he apparently flew thousands of miles to disapprove of her lifestyle in person and get into a spectacularly awkward homoerotic knock down, drag out catfight with Sean. Oh, he also spits out the movie's tagline: "Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with!" But Tracy won't know the meaning of success until she sells those Kabuki-inspired frocks to somebody. When models work the runway in her designs and luminaries of the fashion world approve, she realizes -- SPOILER ALERT, but not so much -- that she needs to be with Brian because Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with! 

Diana Ross is an extraordinary woman. She was already a fashion icon by the mid '70s. So, on paper, the idea of casting her as a supermodel must have looked like a cinematic coup. Ross' performance is erratic in the early Chicago scenes, then ferociously mercurial in Rome. Her evolution from wannabe designer to Frankenstein's fashion monster is wholly unbelievable (though bizarrely entertaining). To be fair to Ross, no actress could make that character work or rise above the hoary cliches and idiotic melodrama of John Byrum's screenplay. Worse for Ross, Motown Productions founder Berry Gordy dismissed the film's original director, award-winning British filmmaker Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), and finished the picture himself. Mahogany was his first directorial effort; his approach is, to put it kindly, crude. And Ross was his former lover. Nothing good could come from all that.

And one more thing about John Byrum's screenplay. Brian repeatedly invalidates Tracy's dreams and ambitions, essentially dismissing them as self-centered and superficial. He wants her by his side as political eye candy, more or less. It's classic subjugation. So, the idea that Tracy would abandon Rome and her burgeoning fashion line for this asshole is completely nonsensical. Even for 1975. We all know there's not going to be a happy ending for this couple. The plot of Mahogany 2 would go something like this: After failing to get elected to any office, Brian hits the bottle pretty hard. One day he finds Tracy sketching dresses again and knocks her down a flight of stairs. While he languishes behind bars for assault with a rotten personality, Tracy flies to Rome and resumes her fashion career. She becomes wildly successful -- something we learn via a dazzling 4-minute montage -- designing Kabuki-inspired capes for the pope. Back in Chicago, Brian is murdered by his cellmate.

Diana Ross & Lando Calrissian... oops, er, Billy Dee Williams

Stray Gay Observations: The closing credits declare, "Costumes Designed by Diana Ross." The whole movie is filled with the kind of clothes that get you kicked off Project Runway.

Ross also recorded the movie's dangerously-close-to-cloying theme song, "Do You Know Where You're Going To." Aside from the irritating fact that it's the default music for the whole movie, it bothers me that the title ends in a preposition and does not contain a question mark.

Anthony Perkins worked steadily after playing schizophrenic murderer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), but he was often cast as someone sweet and nervous or somewhat unbalanced. He's the single best thing about Mahogany. A fine actor, I suspect he recognized the script's insurmountable flaws, had some hammy fun and cashed the paycheck. (He succumbed to AIDS complications in September 1992.)

Should You See It? Mahogany is a godawful movie. But consider this: When I reviewed Valley of the Dolls early in this series, I mentioned that it's a renowned camp classic. And for anyone who didn't know what camp is, I offered this explanation: Camp is what happens when a bunch of creative people come together to make a serious drama, but something goes monumentally awry in the process and they unintentionally make a comedy. They just don't know it until the audience starts laughing in all the wrong places. Mahogany succeeds as camp.

Next Week: Can't Stop the Music (1980)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #21: The Way We Were

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

The Way We Were (released October 1973)

The Way We Were: Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Before I watched The Way We Were the only thing I knew about the movie was that it starred Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and the title song was an enormous, Oscar-winning hit. The trailer gave me the impression that I was about to see a wartime romance with tearjerker potential. It carefully avoids the film's sociopolitical drama and sells one thing: Streisand & Redford Together! They might as well have called it that.

Redford is Hubbell Gardiner, a blonde, blue-eyed, all-American guy who falls in love with Streisand's Katie Morosky, a passionately radical Jew. He's affluent, carefree and apparently irresistible. She's tireless, stridently political and not necessarily the kind of girl a white-bread boy takes home to meet mother, unless he hates his mother. Years after their mutual infatuation at some unspecified New England university, Hubbell and Katie accidentally meet up again in a New York City bar. She takes him home and to bed, where he falls asleep on top of her after sex. There's some hint that it might have been her first sexual experience, maybe, or not. All we really know is that this is pretty much what it takes for her to fall head over heels in love and give him the key to her apartment. Hubbell is fascinated by Katie and somewhat respectful of her political fervor, but mostly she's his respite from a glib and tedious circle of friends and acquaintances.

Hubbell and Katie couple up, break up, reunite and marry. At various points along the way, Katie tries to change herself enough to fit into his world while simultaneously fretting that she's not attractive enough for him. Hubbell writes a book entitled A Country Made of Ice Cream, sells it to Hollywood and they relocate from the east coast to the west coast -- along with Hubbell's best friend and his wife, who used to be Hubbell's college girlfriend and, yes, all that turns out to be just as bad an idea as you think it is. Hubbell becomes a screenwriter and Katie takes an unfulfilling studio job reading film synopses or something. There's little time for happiness in their cozy Malibu beach house because Hubbell has landed in Hollywood at the same time that Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities is determined to expose every Communist in the movie industry. Katie's suppressed political instinct resurfaces and Hubbell is bewildered by her impulse to get involved.

The Way We Were has big problems. Streisand and Redford, 30 and 36 respectively at the time of filming, just aren't credible as college seniors in the film's extended flashback. The supporting characters are consistently undeveloped, wasted (poor Viveca Lindfors, James Woods and Herb Edelman), or unceremoniously dispatched from the picture without so much as an inkling as to why they were there in the first place. The editing is choppy, the photography is oddly flat, and Pollack's direction is uninspired -- which is especially frustrating since he's directed some really fine films, including Tootsie. Worse, the DVD extras include a number of impactful scenes Pollack shot and ultimately discarded, most of which would have arguably given the film more coherency, a lucid climax and an even more poignant resolution.

The potential for a great story is all there, but The Way We Were is a badly executed film. The original script by Arthur Laurents -- based on college events and his personal experience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- was written with Barbra Streisand in mind for Katie Morosky. (This is confirmed by both Streisand and Laurents in the DVD extras.) But when Sydney Pollack signed on to direct, he had the role of Hubbell Gardiner rewritten to accommodate Robert Redford. (Pollack states that directly in the DVD extras, too.) Reportedly, eleven different writers worked on the script, so Laurents' original vision was undoubtedly lost. The politics have mostly been eviscerated, too, so all that's really left is a jumbled, lukewarm narrative about star-crossed lovers set to a lush, melancholic score. Streisand does have her moments as Katie, a character that's alternately obsessive and foolish. Her big emotional outbursts come at regular intervals, so things never get too dull. Redford brings surprising depth to Hubbell, a character who likes things easy and would surely have coasted through life on charm, good looks and family connections if he hadn't met Katie. I grew tired of Streisand and lost all empathy for Katie late in the film when she wistfully muses, "Wouldn't it be lovely if we were old... we'd have survived all this and everything would be easy and uncomplicated the way it was when we were young." Hubbell wearily replies, "Katie, it was never uncomplicated." In that single moment of impeccable acting, Redford almost makes you forget the preceding hour and forty-five minutes worth of botched storytelling.

Stray Gay Observations: Barbra Streisand is another one of those entertainers I'm supposed to love because I'm gay. For the record, I like her, but I've never really gone out of my way to see one of her movies. In 2012, she co-starred with Seth Rogan in The Guilt Trip, an amusing story about an inventor whose mom tags along with him on a cross-country trek to get various investors interested in his latest product. I saw it because I like Rogan, but Streisand is quite good; she has an impressive chemistry with her co-star. Streisand's music? I've enjoyed some of it over the years -- dear God, the woman's been recording since 1963! -- but the only one of her songs on my iPod is "Enough is Enough (No More Tears)," a disco duet with Donna Summer.  

Throughout The Way We Were, Robert Redford's hair never changes style, despite the fact that the movie appears to take place over about a 20-year period, from roughly the late 1930s to the late 1950s. It's a totally anachronistic hairstyle.

The Way We Were is a period piece; Redford's hair is a decisively '70s style.
For me, the most interesting question raised by The Way We Were is this: Can you have a successful relationship with someone who doesn't share your politics or worldview? All I know is that I can't date (or even fuck) a guy who watches Fox News.

Should You See It? Lots of people think The Way We Were is a grand cinematic romance, but I'm sincerely baffled by the popularity of this movie. All I see is a gracelessly executed star vehicle filled with dozens of closeups. Redford is fine in a thankless, almost passive role, but it you want to see him give a solid performance in a better movie with political overtones, check him out in All the President's Men -- he has excellent chemistry with Dustin Hoffman. If you're a Streisand fan, my guess is that you've already seen The Way We Were. I honestly can't think of a single reason to recommend this to anybody else. It's not terrible, but even Streisand & Redford Together! can't rescue it from mediocrity

Next Week: Mahogany (1975)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Cruel Summer Music Mix 2014 - Vol. 2

As a southerner, I've been listening to these seven words all my life: "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." I call that southern science. And it's not particularly comforting when the sweat is rolling down my back into my underwear. Anyway, it's going to take more than sunscreen, shade, AC or lots of citrus-kissed blonde ales to get me through the next couple of months. Summer needs a soundtrack! In part two of this 6-part series, I'm featuring earworms from tUnE-yArDs, Sam Smith and Fucked Up.

tUnE-yArDs. Music meets performance art. Based in Oakland, California, tUnE-yArDs (yes, it's deliberately stylized that way) is the creation of Merrill Garbus, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist wild woman with a seriously unconventional imagination. She's an amalgam of influences, yet startlingly original. Accompanied by Nate Brenner (bass and synthesizers), they're work is an eclectic, convention-defying, passionately theatrical endeavor. Check out the tUnE-yArDs website here.

Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs
"Sexual roles just never really made sense to me at all," she told Mother Jones in 2012.

Song & Video: "Water Fountain" -- It's a tribal, percussive, and rhythm-driven pop song that's chaotic, exuberant and catchy as hell. You can dance to it. Wildly. Garbus says the tune may fool you into "thinking that you're listening to a kids' song," but it's actually about "the disintegration of society and the rotting of American cities." The video looks like a mashup of Pee Wee's Playhouse, Yo Gabba Gabba and Sesame Street on acid.

Sam Smith. This British singer-songwriter first got noticed in 2012 as the guest vocalist on Disclosure's "Latch," a synthpop cut that hit the charts in a dozen countries. That collaboration led to a solo EP and critical acclaim -- he landed on top of the BBC Sound of 2014 poll, a list compiled by 170 DJs, critics and bloggers to honor emerging artists. He has an amazing vocal range and claims he honed his voice by singing along to Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston records. And just before the release of his first full album (In the Lonely Hour), Smith addressed rumors about his sexual orientation by telling Fader magazine that the release "is about a guy I fell in love with last year, and he didn't love me back." Heartache + Music/Lyrics/Emotive Voice = Success? That formula worked pretty well for Adele a few years back.

Sam Smith

Song & Video: "Stay With Me" -- It's a raw, moving gospel-inflected ballad. There are multiple videos for the song, but I like this one, a straightforward studio session with a full choir. Smith's website, with an alternate video version of the song, is here.

Fucked Up. As their name suggests, this is a hardcore band. But beyond pushing buttons and boundaries with that name (The New York Times has referred to them as "a well-regarded, profanely named Canadian band"), this ambitious sextet has been delivering prodigious, melodic punk and experimental rock since 2002 -- and that's a long time for a hardcore punk band to remain relevant. Their live shows are raucous events that feature manic singer Damian Abraham, who's been called everything from "an unhinged monster" to "a brute wrecking ball of a man." He's got a killer grin, too.

Fucked Up, left to right: 
Ben Cook, Sandy Miranda, Jonah Falco, Damian Abraham, Mike Haliechuk & Josh Zucker

Song & Video: "Sun Glass" -- It's a rollicking, slamming but ultimately accessible wall of sound. Even if you don't understand most of the lyrics, you may find yourself sporadically shouting "Sun glass!" right along with Abraham. This is the kind of song you play at a pool party and people start asking, "Who is that?" The video is sort of effortlessly cool, juxtaposing sun-tinged glimpses of the band with images from a fervid live performance.  

There are some pretty great lyrics between Abraham's chant-like roar of "Sun glass!" See below.

Did you miss volume one in this series? See it here.