LOGAN LUCKY (At the Multiplex: November, 2017)

Logan Lucky (2017)
D. Steven Soderbergh

This one is probably worth seeing twice. I don’t say that about a lot of modern movies, including some that are at least as good as Logan Lucky. But the heist plot is compelling–updating the old horse-track thefts lovingly detailed in movies like The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) to the world of NASCAR. The acting is excellent all around and, unlike Soderbergh’s similarly byzantine (and massively overpraised) Traffic (2000), it builds suspense rather than disperses it, partly by giving reasonable people a few characters they can root for.

Those characters include the half-smart brothers played by Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as though they are exactly half-smart, which means their scheme has just about a fifty-fifty chance of succeeding. Enough of these movies, from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 950) to now, have ended badly enough for the protagonists for this one to make you feel it might do the same. And enough of these movies, from Gambit to now, have ended happily enough, for hope to remain a reasonable outcome.

Soderbergh seems to know something about splitting that difference. He should make more heist flicks in this vein (which is quite different that the everybody-is-a-star vibe of his Ocean’s Eleven-Twelve-Thirteen franchise, which I modestly enjoyed but have never felt compelled to revisit).

Meanwhile, if I do revisit this one, it will be partly to judge Tatum and Driver’s performances against the known outcome. I have a feeling they made all the exact right decisions, but I’ll withhold judgment on that for a second viewing. Meanwhile, on the basis of that and the plotting alone, I can heartily recommend a first viewing for any fan of the genre.

A few things reach beyond those parameters, though: Starting with Leann Rimes’ performance of “America the Beautiful,” which is on YouTube. I’m not going to link it because it has to be seen/heard in the context of the film to be fully appreciated as the act of genius it is, the first complete obliteration of the distance between parody and the modern style of Passion. I literally couldn’t tell whether she was utterly sincere or wickedly spoofing herself (and every other melisma-addicted performer from Whitney Houston on down), just that it’s the first performance in history that works as well either way (thus making it an apt metaphor for the finely balanced plot). There’s also a funny performance from a nearly unrecognizable Hilary Swank (playing an uptight Fed) that is slightly sabotaged by the one-too-many-twists ending, and a matching one from a wholly unrecognizable Daniel Craig (playing a con who is whatever the opposite of uptight is). All these things, plus an unusually well-chosen-and-applied soundtrack, give me the feeling this is one rare new film that might hold together even past a second viewing. Anyway I’m looking forward to finding out.

I would watch it again, though, even if none of these other fine elements were present, for the performance by child-of-Hollywood Farrah MacKenzie, who gets the mountain accent that every one of the adults shades a little too close to parody or actorly precision just right, and provides the film’s anchor not so much with a beautifully played but rather obvious heart-tug moment involving a John Denver song as by simply being genuine in a movie that has fronting in its bones.

If there’s justice in the world, she’ll get an Oscar nod.

And “It’s my talent!” will become a catchphrase.

THE PAST IS OH SO FAR AWAY AND THE FUTURE IS OH SO NEAR (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #99)

These days everyone’s shouting, even if they’re doing it by proxy on their Twitter feed and clutching their pearls about all the naughty looting and what not that they really don’t approve of. Soon I reckon there’ll be shooting (to go with the looting) and it won’t be so proxy. We’ll all be choosing up sides then, whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, when I see something like this, and reflect that it happened within my living memory, I don’t know whether to be modestly encouraged or to just go ahead and slit my wrists now.

Believe me, in August, 1972, no one had any doubts about who Naomi Cohen and John Deutschendorf were going to vote for. And yet…

…whether talking or singing, they might as well be from Mars.

Or whatever plane it is to which they’ve now returned, doubtless wondering if this was the dream.

BROTHER RAY NEGATES THE FUTURE BEFORE IT CAN NEGATE US ALL (Segue of the Day: 2/15/17)

Rhino’s box set of Ray Charles’s Complete Country & Western Recordings: 1959-1986 is a gift that never stops giving. I don’t get a chance to listen to it nearly enough, but when I do, the rewards, from his justly famous Modern Sounds in Country and Western volumes to his raising John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to Biblical proportions, are endless.

This week, because I had it on headphones, I finally heard how impossibly long he holds the impossibly blue note at the end of “Born to Lose,” the sinkhole of sorrow under “A Girl I Used to Know,” the “that’s me baby!” that redeems what has, up to that instant, seemed a far too straightforward take on “Wichita Lineman,” the way he turns in the middle of the mournful standard, “We Had It All,” (done by practically everyone in Nashville, its mournfulness forever defined by Dobie Gray), and threatens to turn back time, to obliterate the distance between a present that hurts too much and a past that never quite happened and to hell with the time-space continuum, he’s gonna reach straight through time and have the “all” he missed.

For a few seconds, you know he’ll make it. He’ll defeat mere time and dust and sorrow. He’s Ray Charles after all. Another great rock and roller with no real precedents and nothing close to an heir. Which only makes it hit all the harder when the few seconds pass and you know he won’t. There’s not much worse than rediscovering mortality–yours, his and everyone’s–ten seconds after you’ve grasped immortality.

Heavy.

But nothing weighed on me quite like these, resting next to each other…

You never know quite why some thoughts come when they do, but it was while listening to these songs that I glimpsed the future, where historians will write our epitaph, and realized every book that ponders our fate will have the same title, translated into all the future’s ten thousand languages.

America: What the Hell Happened?

And I realized it’s not even impossible that those of us who lived in Ray Charles’s time for a while might live to see it.

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #6: Ray Charles)

You never know about geniuses. They’re sneaky.

Back in 2002, a series of mostly self-induced financial setbacks led me to sell off my entire CD collection at a throw. I refer to the period subsequent–and my long-standing attempt to recover what I so foolishly lost–as “The Wilderness Years.”

One of the things this has meant is keeping a constant weather eye out for the box sets that I thought were going to be easily recovered once I was back on my feet, what with the global market made possible by the internet bringing costs down and all.

Insert maniacal laughter here! No, no, go ahead. Laugh’s entirely on me.

Some things were indeed very easy to replace at a reasonable or even cheap cost.

Others darn near impossible. It ain’t like I got rich during these Wilderness Years so everything is a judgment. How long have I waited? How much can I afford? How much is it going for? Is this as cheap as it’s gonna get?

I’ve sat on certain items for years, waiting for that just-so combination of right price/right time.

The most recent recoup was the four disc set, Ray Charles: The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959–1986, which, to be honest, I had thought of as a bit of a luxury item. I’ve got plenty of Ray on both vinyl and CD, including a couple of other big boxes I did not have to pay nosebleed prices for (got ’em at a steal in fact during the local record store’s going out of business months a few years back).

To tell the truth I had only listened to this set once back in the day (it was one of the last acquired before the big sell-off) and I wasn’t sure it was an absolutely essential item. But something kept nagging me–maybe just the fact that I once had it and let it go dammit!

Or maybe some part of me knew I hadn’t given it it’s due the first time around.

I’m giving it that due now. I would probably have to say I’ve been more of an admirer than a lover of Brother Ray. There’s been a lot I’ve liked, a fair bit I’ve loved, a few that really get to me (try denying “That Lucky Old Sun” some time).

But I like to think I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong and boy was I wrong to undersell this one. It’s magnificent from beginning to (almost) end. There’s a little bit of drag on the eighties’ portion of the program that takes up about half of the fourth disc. Those era-defining synthesizers really could kill anything and most of the duets from his old Ray Charles and Friends LP ranged from indifferent to ill-conceived (big surprise exception, a gently smoldering “Who Cares” with Janie Fricke).

But the rest of it has had my head exploding for a couple of weeks. I mean, the two legendary Ray Charles Sings Country and Western albums that take up the first disc are among the best of their era and here they’re basically teasers.

I think country–the associations of the word itself, in both the nation’s and his own biographies, as much as any style of music (like Elvis and practically nobody else, Ray Charles was basically his own “style”)–may have given Charles an unusually disciplined set of parameters that actually worked to free him from the constraints of being “Brother Ray.”

He wasn’t unusual among rural blacks of his generation in having grown up with the Opry (and the music represented by the Opry, ironically enough, probably reached further in those days than it does now–Ronnie Spector and Dion DiMucci are among the famous examples of New Yorkers who grew up being profoundly affected by Hank WIlliams back then, while last I heard there are no country stations in greater New York these days). But it’s very possible those early associations gave it a special place in his own expansive soul. Certainly listening to the intensity and gravitas of the second and third discs all at once (at least when paying attention as I couldn’t help doing this time around!) is nothing less than profound, especially in this age when the unholy combination of suits-and-machines is giving the human voice such an utter pounding.

And out of all that grand experience, nothing reached this old John Denver fan quite like this. Just listen and multiply by a hundred and you can get some understanding of the whole set:

Ray Charles “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (Studio Recording)

And in case you need a little more:

Ray Charles and Janie Fricke “Who Cares” (Studio Recording)

 

THE HISTORY OF SPEAKING UP…

That’s the definition I gave rock and roll here (discussing a song which, just oh-by-the-way, I consider more “adult” than any broached below).

A few posts back I also mentioned Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout’s praise of Donald Fagen’s recent solo album as an example of another definition of rock and roll–children’s music very occasionally redeemed by a fellow collegian.

I meant my own comment somewhat sardonically but Teachout has, sadly, doubled down in an article titled “How to Be an Aging Rocker,” which manages to be a sort of perfect summation of certain falsehoods that were born in rock’s early dawn and have been repeated with such numbing regularity–by friends and enemies alike–that they have long since achieved the force of government sponsored propaganda.

By all means read the whole thing, but the basic argument is distilled in the following sentence:

“One of the reasons why so much first- and second-generation rock n’ roll has aged so badly is that most of it was created by young people for consumption by even younger people.”

Oh, my. Here we go again.

First, let me reiterate that I’m not down on Teachout, Fagen or Steely Dan, all of whom I admire.

But goodness, talk about pulling out all the usual stops:

Aren’t you embarrassed by that stuff you listened to when you were young?

Did you know that Steely Dan used to employ honest-to-God JAZZ musicians who could really play on their albums?

Have you noticed that the Rolling Stones really suck these days?

Mind you, Terry was a serious young man. He assures us his teenage musical diet was filled with Crosby, Still & Nash and the Jefferson Airplane. I’m guessing if he had gone in for the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys (the way I did, a decade later, when it was really uncool, though not nearly as uncool as my affection for the likes of John Denver and Olivia Newton-John!), he would probably have shot himself by now.

Which would be a real shame, because when Teachout is blogging, i.e., writing in a genuinely personal way, he’s quite astute and charming.

When he’s writing for hire, alas, he is prone to bouts of moral and mental paralysis.

Thus are dubious thought processes that happen to coincide with the prevailing interests of even more dubious establishmentarianism sustained, generation by generation.

So the article–couched in the false assumption that, compared to other art forms, “rock n’ roll” has aged badly–leaps from one zone-of-safety-falsehood-disguised-as-hard-risk-taking-truth to another.

All the usual methods are deployed:

There’s the straw-man argument. To which, what can I say?

Yes, the Rolling Stones really do suck and have for a long time. Of course, band inspiration is notoriously hard to sustain–much harder than individual craft and/or genius. So why not compare Fagen to Neil Young or Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen or late-period Bob Dylan, to name only the most obvious candidates? Maybe because, making the argument that they have spent decades making specious, “immature” music is quite a bit harder to sustain (even if, like Fagen, they may not have quite sustained the brilliance of youth)?

Well, yes, that could be it. Maybe. Or probably. Or certainly.

(That lays aside of course the argument that the Rolling Stones earned the right to suck because they once reached and sustained heights Steely Dan never even aspired to, heights far beyond mere “maturity.”…I’m laying it aside because I think that’s another argument.)

As for a statement like “Unlike the bluntly bluesy garage-band sound of the Stones, Mr. Fagen’s music is a rich-textured, harmonically oblique amalgam of rock, jazz and soul. It is, in a word, music for grown-ups.”

Even if, by chance you don’t think say “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” is a better “amalgam” of rock, jazz and soul, than anything Fagen has ever managed (and even if, by chance you find the attachment of the word “soul” to Fagen’s music a bit odd), you might want to consider another question or two.

Like whether the Nashville cats who played on “Heartbreak Hotel” way back when would have had any trouble keeping up with a Steely Dan session? Or whether the “country” lyricists of such immature music–or the Memphis hillbilly who turned a hot-musical-trend into a full blown cultural revolution by his manner of presenting them–had trouble comprehending Dan-style irony?

You know, way back when.

And if you know the answers to those questions (respectively, “no” and “no”)–as Teachout and oh, so many others doubtless would if they were allowed to maintain the habit of thinking for themselves all of the time instead of just some of the time–then you also know whether it’s the rock and rollers who should be embarrassed by their absence of “maturity.”

(Incidentally, if immaturity there must be, let it be as below…Sure wish we had torn down those walls. And let us also remind ourselves that somewhat different ideas of where that whole notion of an “amalgam of rock, jazz and soul” actually came from do still exist:)

Jefferson Airplane “We Can Be Together” (Live in Studio, 1970)

(And, of course, here are the Rolling Stones, being all blunt and “garage-band” sounding as they take the next-to-the-last-step to the place from whence they could not, would not, did not return:)

Rolling Stones “Moonlight Mile” (Studio recording…with unusually excellent photo montage)