Mar 06

Just to come again: Bring on your ‘Wrecking Ball’

No album from my all-time favorite rock ‘n’ roll performer is ever anything close to a failure, but Bruce Springsteen’s most recent release of new material before this year, 2009’s Working on a Dream, was as sloppy as he’s ever had. Two of the songs, “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket,” forever come across as virtual Springsteen parodies, each telling a story that resembled a vintage Springsteen tale except for the way they were stretched into utter preposterousness. The rest of the album was a mixed bag – certainly adequate, especially considering the high standards Springsteen has set for himself, and with a couple true gems such as the Danny Frederici tribute “The Last Carnival” – but overall as a collection of songs, it was a work in search of coherence, lyrically and musically.

Between then and now, Springsteen put out the double-sided The Promise, a compilation of numerous songs composed following Born to Run but either left off Darkness on the Edge of Town and other subsequent albums, or significantly reworked. The Promise simultaneously illustrated the ability of Springsteen at the top of his game and the extent of his wide-ranging interests, again both in music and subject matter. As if we didn’t know already, there’s a reason Springsteen has kept putting out material into his 60s: he’s a well that won’t dry up.

His brand-new album, Wrecking Ball, isn’t as satisfying or enlightening as The Promise, but it does represent the beginning of a journey back from the erratic qualities of Dream. The Boss is still a bit too infatuated with stylistic variety for his own good – some will certainly argue that it keeps things fresh, but it starts to take on a everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that becomes a distraction.

Parts of Wrecking Ball are simply overproduced. More than once when a stray gospel chant, Irish accent, rap solo or other element comes into earshot, I found myself saying, “Just play the song.” From a younger artist it might come across as insecurity, but from a Hall of Famer like Springsteen it feels more like the indulgence of someone who is just having too much fun – even in the angry songs – to help himself.

But this much can be said: Never on Wrecking Ball does Springsteen go so far as to venture into the kind of implosions that “Outlaw Pete” and “Queen of the Supermarket” represent, and often, especially after repeat listening, the pieces of flair win you over.

And when things work, they really do work. “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which has been a Springsteen tour staple for some time now, is just rousing – if you haven’t heard the live version, you’ll certainly get a taste of what it must be like. (It also includes what would seem to be the final notes played by Clarence Clemons on a Springsteen album, and your heart will break each time you hear them.)

And the pitch-perfect “Wrecking Ball,” one that he began playing on tour a couple years back (with little hint at least at the outset that it would become his next album’s title track), proves to be the best of them all.

In some ways, it’s a rough and tough sequel to the now 27-year-old “Glory Days.” Its main character is Giants Stadium, just before being demolished, and it opens …

I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey
Some misty years ago
Through the mud and the beer, and the blood and the cheers
I’ve seen champions come and go

So if you got the guts mister
Yeah, if you’ve got the balls
If you think it’s your time
Then step to the line
And bring on your wrecking ball

Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot
Let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball …

The lyrics don’t need my explanation. It’s a song that stares straight into the face of mortality. “Wrecking Ball” reminds us that everyone has their battles, and we fight them, fight them to win, even if we know, in the end, we all lose the war.

… Now when all this steel and these stories
They drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty
It’s been given to the dust

And your game has been decided
And you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories
Have turned into parking lots

When your best hopes and desires
Are scattered to the wind
And hard times come
And hard times go
And hard times come
And hard times go
And hard times come
And hard times go
And hard times come
And hard times go
And hard times come
And hard times go
Just to come again!
Bring on your wrecking ball …

The song then brings the entire E Street Band in a singing primal call to the wild, one that couldn’t sound more right. It’s moments like these that Springsteen delivers like no one else.

Feb 26

A night at the Neds

Second photo courtesy of BHSportsGuy

Nope, your eyes didn’t deceive you. That was Dodger general manager Ned Colletti at tonight’s Oscars.

I asked Colletti via text message what brought him to the Oscars.

“Once in a lifetime,” he replied. “Tom Sherak (president of the Academy) is a good friend of mine, and I came as his guest.”

As far as the results, I had few complaints. The Artist was my favorite of the nominated films, and Christopher Plummer’s supporting actor victory filled as best as possible my desire for Ewan MacGregor and Beginners to be recognized. I was a bit surprised that Meryl Streep edged Viola Davis in lead actress, but perhaps voters felt Streep’s 2-14 record in Oscar noms entering the evening was getting a little too Anthony Young-like.

The show itself was predictably ragged, incorporating numerous elements that almost seemed designed to turn off both film and television audiences, but the “In Memoriam” approach was the best in recent memory, and the Best Picture montage incorporated one of my favorite soundtrack elements of the year, from Moneyball.

My favorite part of the evening, though, was my 9-year-old’s sudden interest in watching the show and seeing her reactions as she took all this in – for better or worse – for the first time. Of the nominated movies, she had only seen Hugo – but that meant she still got to be excited about multiple awards. And she was happy, as was I, that “Man or Muppet” won for best song (out of the ridiculously low two nominees).

Feb 22

C is for California

My kids have a new book, C is for California, from WestWinds Press. Twenty-six pages, starting with “A is for Alcatraz,” “B is for Beach” and “C is for Cinco de Mayo.” How many of the remaining pages can you name?

Warning: “V is for Central Valley.”

Feb 06

‘Smash’ upends ‘The National Pastime’

[Flash 10 is required to watch video]

At Variety On the Air, I offered a largely positive take on new NBC musical drama Smash, but with a few scattered misgivings about some aspects of the show, including a couple of the musical set pieces in early episodes. Above is one of those numbers, the baseball (cough)-infused “The National Pastime.” Apologies for the spoiler for my West Coast readers.

Smash depicts the making of a Broadway show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and her relationship with Joe DiMaggio is apparently one key part of the fictional fiction. That explains the genesis of the above number, which despite the enthusiastic performances (and barely bridled sexuality) of Megan Hilty and friends, is kind of a nightmare. Corny doesn’t begin to describe it.

When I watched it a second time Sunday, months after seeing the screener last summer, to see if I had been too harsh in my initial assessment, I decided that I was – that it only ranked about an 8 on the nightmare scale, as opposed to a 10. But what still bothered me the most was how beside herself with joy Debra Messing’s character, the songwriter, was at the number. Her revelry at seeing “The National Pastime” wrapped in this kind of glory made me fear for the musical she was co-creating in the show.

I mean, in the world of this musical, you’ve got about two hours to tell the story of Marilyn in a meaningful way, and you’re going to spend three precious minutes with this? Surely there’s a better way that doesn’t involve making me wish baseball had never been born.

Some will enjoy “The National Pastime” just fine, and in any case, the rest of Smash is much better than this. But I can’t help it: “The National Pastime” is a big fat swing, leg-kick and a miss.

 

Feb 03

‘Diner’ turns 30


This one was a real labor of love for me — my Variety story on Diner looking back at the movie on its 30th anniversary and looking ahead to its reincarnation on Broadway this fall.

This film is one of my early inspirations: so funny and so poignant. Here’s how the story begins …

“Diner,” written and directed by Barry Levinson, is a wonderful movie.

That simple sentence began a lengthy, thoughtful review by Pauline Kael in the April 5, 1982, New Yorker, a review that saved a cinematic gem from quick extinction — and, as it turned out, helped pave the way for a Broadway musical decades later.

This spring will mark the 30th anniversary of “Diner,” Levinson’s inaugural effort as a helmer, which simultaneously celebrated and deconstructed the late-1950s Baltimore of his youth. Come the fall, Levinson’s “Diner” tuner adaptation, with music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow, and with Kathleen Marshall directing, will bow on the Rialto.

Set design has begun, with final casting to take place in the spring in advance of what will be an out-of-town test run in the summer.

The rebirth of “Diner” has stirred excitement about the musical (mixed with guarded curiosity) from those who remember the film for both its comedy, centered on the exploits of six Baltimore buddies, and its insightful commentary on communication bumps and bruises between the sexes.

In an age of four-quadrant blockbuster mindsets, the blossoming of what was such a personal project into a franchise is noteworthy. Though movies of such intimate scale often disappear, a few can pay off for decades.

Still, if the legit adaptation has any naysayers, that would only make sense. Ultimately nominated for an original screenplay Oscar, a Writers Guild award and a Golden Globe, “Diner” would have been relegated to an MGM dustbin if not for the power of Kael’s pen, say Levinson and his colleagues.

I watched this movie on a regular basis in my teens and 20s, but when I checked it out again last month in preparation for this story, it was heartening to how fresh and vibrant it was. It holds up remarkably well, something I would attribute to Levinson’s absolute precision with the material and the great work by the cast, which made a moment in time so timeless.

In a sense, this was Seinfeld before Seinfeld: light on plot but heavy on conversation and just trying to make it through the simple and the ridiculous parts of life. But it has a yearning that Seinfeld dropped pretty much by its second season. These guys (and Beth) want something better for themselves, but they don’t really know how to get it — in fact, most of them can’t even admit they want it.

Seinfeld would have the equivalent of the football quiz, the Carol Heathrow bet at the movie theater, “Are you gonna eat that?” But it wouldn’t have had Shrieve’s at once hilarious and harrowing verbal beatdown of Beth over his records. It didn’t, and wouldn’t, have had the ending that Diner had.

Not that I intended this to be a Diner vs. Seinfeld discussion. Both are classics.  But while I loved Seinfeld, writing my own Diner would be my dream. There’s hardly a moment in the film that isn’t kinda quietly brilliant.

They made it look so easy, Levinson and his gang. They’re just stories, right? Just people talking. And yet it’s so rich. Most of the stuff I’ve ever written on my own has aspired to be like some combination of “Diner” and a few other movies like “The Misfits” mixed in. Someday …

So, I hope you enjoy the story. For me, it’s a smile.

Feb 02

‘Here Come the Geese’

This song, “Here Come the Geese,” is on a Barenaked Ladies album for kids, but I really dig it for some reason.

It’s from the album Snacktime, which I would include on any recommendations for kids’ music.

One of these days I might post a desert-island discs list for parents. For starters, They Might Be Giants would be on there as well.

* * *

Just a reminder, because it’s been a while since I’ve said this in a post: Any Dodger Thoughts thread is an open chat thread. You can talk about old topics, new topics or out-of-the-blue topics …

Jan 31

Dodger Thoughts: Where no one thinks about the Dodgers

Passing by a billboard for the upcoming movie “Safe House” Monday on Westwood Boulevard, my wife and I were having some fun with the slogan, which is just a little too obvious in its twistiness. We kept on thinking of different examples as we drove along …

THERE ARE NO VITAMINS
Vitamin Shoppe

NO UNDERGROUND TRAINS HERE
Subway

THESE CHICKENS DON’T COME HOME TO ROOST
California Chicken Cafe

It’s as if Linda Richman had taken over the studio marketing campaign. Discuss