ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #5: Grace of My Heart)

Grace of My Heart
Allison Anders, director (1996)

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(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)

Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.

I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.

Our loss.

The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.

Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.

“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.

Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.

Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.

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Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around,  mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.

It just didn’t quite work all the way.

I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.

Well, things change.

In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.

In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.

In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.

Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.

The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).

I mean, somebody might be living this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….

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or this…

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or this…

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They might even be living this…

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or this….

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or this…

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or this….

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Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…

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to this…

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…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.

But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.

Neither are we.

And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.

There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.

Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.

Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.

It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.

“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).

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It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.

The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.

He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.

Then he starts jabbing her.

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The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?

But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.

And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.

Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.

And then kept right on holding in.

Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…

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It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).

“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.

There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.

The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.

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In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.

Wonder how long before that part happens.

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

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“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….