Thursday, August 16, 2018

Phenomenal Aretha Franklin

That voice, the lightning bolt power of that voice, was like the Eighth Wonder of the World.  When I was a schoolboy back in South Central Los Angeles during the politically turbulent 1960s, the first time I heard her sing "Respect" on local radio, I had goosepimples.  My soul felt instantly illuminated.  I'd achieved super-consciousness.  Her voice was invincible and invincible was also how she made me feel.  That was a feeling we needed in the Civil Rights era.  She was unapologetically Black and, with her clarion call of a voice, lifted up our community to feel the same way.
Of course, I had to dash over to the local record store (called The House of Aisha) four blocks away from our house and buy the 45.  I'd eventually buy another one because I wore the first copy out.
She was called The Queen of Soul...but, to me, she seemed to be more than a queen. She was a Goddess with magical powers in that voice.  It was raw.  It was real.

"Respect," "Chain of Fools," "Natural Woman," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Since You've Been Gone," "Rock Steady"....
I bought her records, her albums, listened to her on the radio and I watched her TV appearances. Oh, and I let my backbone slip dancin' to her music!  We all did.  Also, I was lucky enough to see her perform live onstage more than once.  She was dynamic and unforgettable.  Her work, through all my years, was a part of my life.  When I started my TV career, working as an entertainment news contributor, I had to review 1980's THE BLUE BROTHERS movie.  It was a fun comedy.  But, honestly, I didn't feel that it really came to life until Aretha Franklin appeared as a diner waitress and threw down singin' "Think."  Lawd, have mercy!
When I was a VH1 veejay in the late 80s, I was thrilled to present her music videos "Freeway of Love" and her duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting."

She was an expert musician and a smart singer.  She could adapt her style for the changing times to make her work stand out in the 80s the way it did in the 60s. She'd continue to do that.

A lot will be written about her today and through the weekend.  There will be special tributes and pieces with writing far, far superior to time.  Nevertheless, I wanted to write a little something -- and share one of my favorite examples of how Aretha Franklin could go into areas outside of the rhythm and blues workshop to embrace a tune and make it her own.

To me, Aretha not only took you to church with the majesty of her gospel-fueled voice, she was a great actress.  A great actress who did not technically act in films the way other sings who won Oscar nominations for their performances did -- singers like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, to name a few.  Nevertheless, like those fellow vocalists, Aretha Franklin realized that a good song is a monologue.  It tells a story. It has an emotional life.  She gave each song that life.

Remember how fanboy happy Frank Sinatra was as a presenter on the Academy Awards right after Aretha Franklin had sung the Best Song Oscar nominee, "Funny Girl," from the 1968 movie FUNNY GIRL starring Barbra Streisand?

Betty Hutton, one of the top Hollywood musical comedy stars of the 1940s to early 50s, had one of her biggest hits with the 1947 film, THE PERILS OF PAULINE.  In that film, Hutton introduced a Frank Loesser tune that got an Oscar nomination for Best Song.  Here's the Aretha Franklin rendition of "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" from 1947's THE PERILS OF PAULINE.

Aretha Franklin was friends with and was a Civil Rights activist with Dr. Martin Luther King when we Black Americans were demanding respect -- demanding the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to housing and the right to equal opportunities in the workplace.  When Dr. King voiced opposition to the Vietnam War, money from donors started to decrease rapidly.  Aretha sang to raise funds for Dr. King.  She sang at Dr. King's funeral after his voice was stilled by a racist assassin's bullet in 1968.  Decades later, in 2009, she sang at the inauguration of America's first Black president, Barack Obama.  What a life.  What a legend. Aretha Franklin was peerless and fearless.  May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jazz Great, Morgana King

When I was growing up on 124th and Central Avenue in South Central L.A., Sundays were always music days in our household.  Mom and Dad would play albums on the family hi-fi in the living room.  The artists I grew up hearing on our Jazz Sundays were Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Joe Williams, Chet Baker, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne and Morgana King.
Today, many folks are probably more likely to mention Michael BublĂ© or Diana Krall when asked to name jazz singers.  King was not a mainstream jazz singer.  She was not mentioned as widely as the artists I listed in the opening paragraph but she was greatly respected within the jazz community.  The millions of moviegoers who saw Morgana King as Mama Corleone in THE GODFATHER didn't know that she had an exquisite jazz voice.
News broke today that the acclaimed jazz singer passed away at age 87.  She was stricken with a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma according to a report in The Washington Post.  Her death was kept private news apparently.  She died in March but her passing was just recently made public by a longtime dear friend who posted a tender farewell to her on Facebook.
Morgana King died in Palm Springs, California.  If you didn't know that "Mama Corleone" was an extraordinary jazz singer, just play this:

Here's another cut from the great Morgana King.  Her rendition of "A Taste of Honey" is classic.  This was frequently played on the Rivers Family stereo.  It is a delicious treat for the ears.  Treat yourself and listen.

Monday, August 13, 2018


How was your weekend?  Mine got pretty animated after Saturday night transformed into the post-midnight early Sunday hours.  There I was, about 3 o'clock in the morning, watching some fruit get his sexual groove on with friends and strangers at a wild, passionate, totally uninhibited, unusual and delightfully vulgar orgy.  All the characters in states of loud sexual ecstasy were supermarkets items. Yes.  Supermarket items.  Fruits, vegetables, meats, buns, a box of grits, a taco shell and condiments.  You name it, it was getting humped.  The animated feature with potty-mouthed supermarket items is 2016's SAUSAGE PARTY.  I couldn't sleep, found it on Netflix, and giggled like an 8th grader for its 90 minutes that ends with a filthy yet fascinating food orgy with products hooking up sexually with same shelf and opposite shelf items.  One of the main characters, a neurotic wiener who falls for a bun named Brenda, is voiced by Seth Rogen.  Other character voices are supplied by Salma Hayek, Jonah Hill, James Franco and Kristen Wiig.
At the end of this feature -- which does have some storyline cleverness -- I found myself saying, "He is one brilliant, versatile actor."
SAUSAGE PARTY is something you could watch for counter-culture entertainment on the 4th of July.  Folks are shopping for their July 4th cookouts and such. The story opens when the large supermarket is closed, dawn is breaking and all the supermarket food items are about to sing their daily upbeat morning song.  It's a song of hope and thanks to the gods.  They're excited that they may be purchased and taken to a Garden of Eden-like paradise in the Great Beyond.  The Great Beyond is that place on the other side of the supermarket doors.
They have no idea that their fate is to be peeled, sliced, boiled, grilled, microwaved, squirted and eaten.  Up till then, they only thing they feared was their expiration dates.  When the real truth is learned, they must fight for survival and then embrace the lives they have, while they have them, without prejudice and conservative attitudes.  SAUSAGE PARTY is clever and memorable not in an innocent Disney or Pixar way, but in a way that gives you fast-paced, sexy anarchy.  Like a subversive 1940s Tex Avery working without Hollywood production codes in this 21st Century.
Now...about the " brilliant, versatile actor" comment I made.

Did you see AMERICAN HISTORY X, the 1998 Oscar-nominated film about a young neo-Nazi skinhead who winds up in prison?  Did you see the rich and under-appreciated 2006 adaptation of Somerset Maugham's THE PAINTED VEIL set in 1920s London and China?  Did you see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and the Best Picture of 2014 Oscar winner, BIRDMAN?

It wasn't until I was reading the closing credits did I see that the voice of the Woody Allen-esque bagel in SAUSAGE PARTY was done by the actor who gave a distinct character performance in each one of those four films I named.

Sammy the Bagel was voiced by …. Edward Norton.  Ed Norton starred in and co-produced THE PAINTED VEIL.  It made my list of the Top Ten Films of 2006.  This is quality of big, mature, well-written and well-acted film Hollywood used to give us back in the day.  If you've never seen it -- and you're an Ed Norton fan -- make it a weekend must-see.
He's an amazing actor.  Ed Norton's vocal work as a bagel alone is a reason to sit through SAUSAGE PARTY.  Well...that and seeing a lesbian taco get lucky.  And a box of grits in a 3-way.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Killer DVD Double Feature

I have another DVD double feature movie tip for you.  Like the other double feature tips I've posted, this pair of classics also has something in common.  The first one is an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that altered certain formats in Hollywood filmmaking, scared the bejesus out of a nation of moviegoers, influenced a future generation of horror/slasher film directors and was detailed in cinema studies textbooks for its editing and cinematography.  Director Francois Truffaut considered it a work of art.  The movie is, of course, PSYCHO starring Anthony Perkins as twisted Norman Bates, manager of the Bates Motel, and Janet Leigh as doomed bank secretary Marion Crane.
In the story of PSYCHO, we learn about a boy who was raised by his widowed mother after his father's death.  We learn that the main character killed his mother and her lover.  There's a house and in that house is a physically abusive monster of an unmarried man.  The man character gets psychiatric attention.  These same elements exist in another film, another film that also has excellent screenplay.  Only, in this movie, we come to care about the killer who gets psychiatric attention. We come to know the warm, heartbroken, human side of this imbalanced character.  We see his ability to love, protect, teach and to have tolerance for others.  The movie is 1996's SLING BLADE.  Billy Bob Thornton played mentally disabled Karl Childers.  Thornton also directed the film and wrote the screenplay.
Lucas Black played Frank, the sweet and forlorn boy.  He's now in the cast of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, a popular TV series on CBS.

Billy Bob Thornton won an Oscar for his screenplay and was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.  For 1960's PSYCHO, screenwriter Joseph Stefano wrote one of the best, most memorable screenplays of the 1960s -- or any other decade -- but did not get an Oscar nomination.  Mr. Stefano should have been an Oscar nominee.  His script is challenging.  It broke a Hollywood mold in killing off the leading lady in the first hour.  As for his dialogue, it is at once revealing, unsettling and witty.  For example, when Norman Bates says, "I don't hate my mother.  I hate what she's become," that is one of the most brilliant lines of self-loathing ever written for a Hollywood film.  I get a chill when he says "My hobby is stuffing things."  And I always giggle when Norman casually remarks, "I hate the smell of dampness, don't you?  It's such a -- I don't know -- creepy smell" before he changes the linen in the motel rooms.
People don't seem to remember and talk about SLING BLADE as much as they do Hitchcock's PSYCHO.  Billy Bob Thornton's independent film was quite popular when it opened.  The late Elizabeth Taylor loved it and helped get the word out about it via syndicated entertainment news columns in newspapers.  To be honest, that's why I went to see it when it opened.  SLING BLADE touched me.  I consider it a classic.  When I was young Frank's age, I was so in need of a father figure too.  Frank confided feelings to Karl that I had in my heart but never told anyone.  I didn't know who I could tell when I was his age.  SLING BLADE put tears from that ancient heartache in my eyes.  What a moving screenplay.

Today, moviegoers remember Billy Bob Thornton from MONSTER'S BALL, the comedy BAD SANTA and the TV series version of FARGO.  I wish his SLING BLADE would be re-appreciated.  As an actor, he disappeared into that role, playing a unique Southern character who gave you a hint of Boo Radley from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Another thing about SLING BLADE.  The late John Ritter was a beloved TV sitcom actor who found fame on the THREE'S COMPANY series.  In SLING BLADE, we see his dramatic acting depth.  The gentle, paternal and gay schoolteacher he played in SLING BLADE is a beautiful performance and one of the dearest gay male characters ever written for an American film.

Enjoy the DVD double feature.

Friday, August 3, 2018

On Asian-American Actors and Woody Allen

My previous two posts focused on Asian-American actors.  This post will make it three.  Spielberg's blockbuster hit, JURASSIC PARK, is on TV right now.  When this movie was just opening, I worked on WNBC's local weekend morning news show.  I got cast member B.D. Wong to come in for a live, in-studio interview.  He and I went to the same gym back in those days and he lived in my neighborhood.  I asked him to be on the show.  During the interview, I commented that the Spielberg sci-fi thriller would be dinosaur-big at the box office and would probably inspire a sequel.  I asked him if he'd be interested in repeating his scientist role in a sequel.  He said, "Yes," but he was not in the next JURASSIC PARK thriller.  No one wrote a part for him.  That's an example of Asian-Americans being underrepresented in film, in my opinion.  Look at 1993's JURASSIC PARK again.  If it was not for B.D. Wong's scientist character, there would not have been any modern-day dinosaurs.  He was a Dr. Frankenstein, if you will.  A vital character who scientifically engineered the rebooting of dinosaurs.  But a few JURASSIC PARK sequels went by before someone had the idea to bring B.D. back in for another appearance.
When I was in high school, I went to summer camp.  I'd gone to summer camp in my elementary school years and hated it.  I didn't want to be in the San Bernardino mountains.  I wanted to be home, indoors, with a cold drink and watching classic Warner Bros. cartoons.  The high school camp experience was the exact opposite.  It was a late 1960s camp experience called "Camp Brotherhood Anytown."  The National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored this camp to bring Southern California kids of different races and backgrounds together to dialogue in that politically turbulent decade.  A few of us guys from the same high school in Watts attended.  We met kids white kids who lived in the Beverly Hills and Brentwood areas.  Kids who'd been to Europe.  Some of us black teens had never been out of California.  After we talked and heard about their high school experiences compared to ours in South Central L.A, the thing that hit us in the face like a bucket of cold mountain creek water was the access they had to scholarships, financial aid and extra-curricular school activities that we'd never even heard of -- and they came from financially upscale suburban households.  The differences weren't just racial.  The differences between the haves and have-nots were especially stunning to us.  Those white teens from upscale families had privileges they didn't even realize.

One the fellow campers I met and kept in touch with was a dancer, an Asian-American high school student named Cherylene Lee.  She was a show biz kid so, of course, I loved chatting with her.  When we all returned from camp, she was planning to audition for a musical slated to play the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the L.A. Music Center.  Cherylene had a movie to her credit.  She was in FLOWER DRUM SONG, Universal's film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway hit musical comedy.  In this number, Cherylene was littlest one in the trio of kids.
In a current edition of The Hollywood Reporter, there's a major article about CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  It's "CRAZY RICH ASIANS:  The Stakes Are High for 'Crazy Rich Asians' -- And That's the Point."  The columnist wrote that before CRAZY RICH ASIANS, opening this month, 1993's THE JOY LUCK CLUB was the only Hollywood studio movie to feature an entirely Asian-American ensemble.

What about 1961's FLOWER DRUM SONG?  Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki repeated her Broadway leading lady role.  She'd won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her dramatic performance in 1957's SAYONARA.  She'd add a hit sitcom to her credits thanks to ABC's THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER.  FLOWER DRUM SONG also featured the versatile and vivacious Nancy Kwan, handsome actor James Shigeta and fabulous comic actor Jack Soo (years later, a member of the BARNEY MILLER hit sitcom ensemble on ABC.)

In our talks and letters, what was a main topic between Cherylene and me in our teen years?  Diversity in show biz.  She knew I wanted to go into TV and, if possible, film.  We both hoped there would be respectable work opportunities for two young people of color.  We knew then, in the late 1960s, that there were color barriers in show business.

Is there work for people of color in Film and TV?  That topic is still active today.  Recently, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in Los Angeles released findings -- disappointing findings -- on the current state of Hollywood's embrace of diversity and inclusion. In areas of Underserved Groups in Films, Films Without Any Characters and Percentage of Speaking Characters, the Asian-American community is last under woman, characters with disabilities, LGBT characters, Black and Latino characters.  That is why CRAZY RICH ASIANS is such a big deal.  People who have been overlooked will be getting close-ups on the big screen come August 15th.
If we people of color had been hired by network TV news shows and syndicated film review programs to be film critics, we would have raised these diversity and inclusion issues years ago. We notice those things and we tend to call them out because we know how it feels to be passed over and ignored.  For a fairly recent example of how Asian-Americans were underrepresented in a film, watch Woody Allen's Oscar winning 2013 film, BLUE JASMINE.  Cate Blanchett deserved the Oscar she won for Best Actress.  Sally Hawkins deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  However...BLUE JASMINE is a film that takes place in and was shot on location in San Francisco.  I lived in San Francisco around that time in some of the very neighborhoods seen in the film.  You know what I saw every single day in San Francisco?  Lots and lots of Asian people.  Everywhere.  I saw them and interacted with them.  San Francisco has Asian-American people like McDonald's has buns and burger patties.

Now watch BLUE JASMINE.  There's not one single role done by an Asian-American actor.  I was dumbfounded.  The characters played by Peter Sarsgaard and Louis C.K., and the dentist played by Michael Stuhlbarg could have been played by Asian-American actors.  And, if they had been, BLUE JASMINE would've had a more accurate representation and feel of the San Francisco so many of us know.  To a degree, with his characters played by Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale coupled with the way they played them, Woody Allen shipped the 1970s/80s Brooklyn vibe of his previous New York City-based films to San Francisco.

BLUE JASMINE is on Netflix.  Check it out and see what I mean.  And, again, I wish all the best the cast of CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Hollywood pays attention to box office receipts.  We people of color need to have each other's backs and help each other out, especially considering the recent reports on inclusion that were released.  CRAZY RICH ASIANS, a big budget Hollywood romantic comedy with a predominantly Asian-American cast, opens this month.  Members of the cast grace the current cover of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER.  The lead actress is Constance Wu, whom I absolutely adore as the over-achieving suburban mom on the ABC sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT.  I want this movie to hit her career with a great, big, beautiful bolt of electricity.
Rarely do we get a major Hollywood release featuring a large Asian-American cast of actors.  I cannot wait to see CRAZY RICH ASIANS.
For about three years now, diversity has been a Hollywood hot point.  Long story short, the playing field has not been level for people of color seeking Hollywood employment.  And, I might add as an insider, it has not been level for people of color in the TV industry either.  Film is my passion.  However, after my VH1 years as a celebrity talk show host, the biggest and thickest color wall I hit when I worked in the local and network New York City news arena from 1992 to 2000, was when I wanted to do film reviews on a regular basis. There was always resistance from white execs in the news department.  I arrived in New York City in 1985 with four years of regular film reviewer TV and print credits on my resume.  In fact, it was some of that film review work that got me my first New York City job offer that blessedly yanked me away from Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  But, white TV execs in New York City news departments were quicker to let Cody Gifford, a college guy who'd taken a film course in his previous semester, do weekly film reviews on TODAY (which he did as his proud mom, Kathie Lee, watched) than let an experienced person of color have the same opportunity. And I was not the only Black, Latino or Asian-American film reviewer frustrated by the lack of equal opportunities on TV.

Last month, July 16th, Tre'velle Anderson of The Los Angeles Times did an excellent and much needed report on the lack of race and gender diversity in the field of film critics.  In a video, we see 14 crticis of color speak out on the need for inclusion in their field.  And those were just critics of color in just L.A. alone!  Imagine if the many frustrated minority critics I've seen over the years at screenings in New York City were interviewed too.

Yesterday, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reported that despite the hard push of former Motion Picture Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs to get more racial diversity into its membership, despite "Oscars So White," despite Frances McDormand telling people that they that can request "inclusion riders" to insure race/gender equality in production teams -- something McDormand stated in her Oscar acceptance speech early this year --  despite all that... the needle has not moved much in a favorable direction for inclusion.  People of color, women, the LGBT community and the disabled continue to be served slim pieces of the pie. White guys still get the big slices.

I strongly feel that diversity and inclusion are sorely, critically needed in those executive branches populated by the folks who do the hiring, do the programming and are the people who can green light a project.  That's where we need the race and gender diversity -- whether it's a Hollywood studio office, a top talent agency boardroom, a network TV news department or a movie channel.  We also need our liberal buddies -- the ones who are constantly employed -- to look around, to really look around, notice that the playing field is not level and call out the inequality.

In the meantime, we need to help each other out.  Support CRAZY RICH ASIANS when it opens August 15th.  Give it some box office love and power.
Also support SORRY TO BOTHER YOU from Boots Riley, BLINDSPOTTING...and Spike Lee's newest also opening in August, BLACKkKLANSMAN.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Spielberg and WEST SIDE STORY

I have a question about the new Steve Spielberg project.  If you keep up with entertainment news, I'm sure you've heard he plans to remake the movie musical classic, WEST SIDE STORY.  This is one of the most beloved movie musicals that ever came out of Hollywood.  It won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1961.  Rita Moreno won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and George Chakiris won for Best Supporting Actor.  The late great Leonard Bernstein composed the music for the Broadway show.  His memorable music adds to the beauty of the film.
You know that the story was a modern-day version of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET set in New York City.  We see rival teen gangs and racism give the story a jolt.  Watch the movie again.  The Puerto Ricans feel the cuts and jabs of racism. They feel it in housing and employment.  They have to deal with a racist cop.  Tony, who left the gang of white teens, has reformed and now wants a peaceful life.  He falls in love with Puerto Rican Maria and she falls in love with him.  Keep in mind that the movie came out when America's Civil Rights movement was underway.  Black people were demanding racial tolerance and equal rights in the U.S.A.  Interracial marriage was still illegal in several American states when moviegoers were paying to see Tony and Maria as the star-crossed lovers in WEST SIDE STORY.  This movie musical came out at the perfect time.  It had an urgent social relevance coupled with wonderful show tunes and dance numbers.  I love WEST SIDE STORY.  I have a certain reverence for that film.
So why is Steven Spielberg so hot to remake it?  I am a solid Spielberg fan and have been ever since I was a teen and saw his made-for-TV film, DUEL. on ABC in 1971.  But why does he need to remake WEST SIDE STORY?  His desire to have racially correct casting is noble.  The original film star, Natalie Wood who played Maria, was not Latina.  Oscar winner George Chakiris is Greek and he played the leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang.  As I wrote, Spielberg's intent is noble.  However...let's look at hit Broadway musicals of modern times that made it to the big screen:

EVITA:  1996 starring Madonna
CHICAGO:  2002 Oscar winner for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
DREAMGIRLS:  2006, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson)
LES MISÉRABLES:  2012, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway)

Absent is that huge Broadway musical hit that, oddly, never got a screen adaptation.  1991's MISS SAIGON, a musical drama love story set in 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War.  Based on Puccini's opera, MADAME BUTTERFLY, MISS SAIGON has love, war, racial conflict and lots of special effects.  It's a spectacle.  That's right up Spielberg's alley! In 2017, there was a limited engagement Broadway revival of it.  Here's a taste of the MISS SAIGON stage experience.
Why doesn't Steven Spielberg give us a film adaptation of MISS SAIGON?  It's got starring and supporting roles for Asian-American actors and singers.  Asian-Americans are in major need of representation in Hollywood.  Even in modern times, roles that should have gone to Asian-American actors were "whitewashed" and given to white actors.  Spielberg could score a home run for giving movie-goers some Asian-American acting and musical talent in a big budget Hollywood film version of a play that was an international hit.  But...that's just my opinion.

In late August, we celebrate the centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth.  I bet we hear more then about the WEST SIDE STORY movie remake plans.  In other movie news, a movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's long-running Broadway musical hit, CATS, will hit the big screen.  A film adaptation starts production this coming November.  The cast of CATS onscreen will include Sir Ian McKellen, James Corden, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Swift.

Phenomenal Aretha Franklin

That voice, the lightning bolt power of that voice, was like the Eighth Wonder of the World.  When I was a schoolboy back in South Central L...