THE SECOND MOST EXCITING THING THAT WILL HAPPEN ALL YEAR….

On March 26, 2019, the Criterion Collection is releasing I Wanna Hold Your Hand on DVD and Blu-Ray.

I don’t do advertising but if you want to know how I feel about the movie you can go here or here.

I find it double hilarious that this is the first film by Robert Zemeckis selected for Criterion’s prestige touch, given that his 2004 commentary (which will now be abetted by a bunch of new extras) made it clear he didn’t think much of what he had done, mostly because it didn’t make any money.

Criterion chose wisely. Zemeckis was later responsible for Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, Castaway, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and many others that made a whole lot of money. This is still his best work.

..And the most exciting thing that will happen this year?

Stay tuned.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2018, Countdown)

10) Leslie Kong The “King” Kong Compilation (The Historic Reggae Recordings 1968-1970) (1981)

Kong was among the most famous reggae producers and label owners and it was his records–by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, The Pioneers, Toots and the Maytals–that broke the music internationally. All his big stars except Cliff are represented here and, while the music hardly lacks a political edge, Kong’s artists seemed to prize spiritual concerns above all.

Dekker’s records (especially “The Israelites”) are likely the ones recognizable to general American audiences (Cliff broke really big after Kong’s untimely death, producing his own biggest hits in a style clearly influenced by Kong’s earlier productions for him, fair enough since he was the one who induced Kong to start a recording label in the first place–both Cliff and Desmond Dekker reported undergoing deep spiritual crises after Kong died, which perhaps speaks to the sort of man it took to produce these visionary sides). In 1970, Kong wanted to release a comp of early tracks he had cut on Bob Marley’s Wailers. Bunny Wailer allegedly threatened to put a curse on him if he did so. Kong released the record anyway and died within the year.

That’s one theory on his unfortunate demise. My own involves the C.I.A.

I only had to hear this record once to know it wasn’t God.

9) The Beatles (1962-1966) (1973)

The “Red” album (and the accompanying Blue album, about which more in a minute) is how a lot of us who just missed the sixties got to know the Beatles. Well that and the air, where, like Elvis (and no one else, then or now), they were ever-present.

And, from this distance, this is still the best way to learn (or relearn) just how astonishing they were. Yes, there are dozens of tracks from the period I wouldn’t want to live without that aren’t here….But if you just want the essence, this can hardly be bettered. I bought this a week or two after I skipped my senior prom and took my mom to see I Wanna Hold Your Hand instead. In a life filled with mistakes, that might be the best series of decisions I ever made.

8) The Beatles 1967-1970 (1973)

I’ve always been an “early Beatles” devotee…and I’ve always known how silly the distinction is. This does just as fine a job of narrating their fall as the Red album does their rise. Hearing it now (after not having listened to it for a few years while watching more than the usual amount of water flow beneath the bridge) I can hear a lot of brilliance I previously cottoned to only as craft. (“Old Brown Shoe” anyone? “Let It Be?” I could go on.)

I’ve always leaned toward them having broken up at the right time, too–a feeling once locked into place by hearing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” segue into “Honky Tonk Women” on an oldies station…Ouch!.

But “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” was the only thing I heard this time that didn’t make me wonder if I’d been wrong all along.

And…..

I can say all that and still admit I’ve never believed they meant a word of it, or needed to. I just don’t know if it makes me better or worse than those who need to believe otherwise.

7) Blondie (1976)

A stunning debut that, unsurprisingly, went mostly unnoticed at the time because Debbie Harry had dropped in from another planet. The look was futuristic with a pre-civilizational undertow (and who could resist that combo), but the voice was something new under the sun and the not-quite-flat affect was pure cult. No way would a woman who looked like that and wrote such whip-smart lyrics ever fail to become a star. No way would any woman who sounded like that ever be more than a novelty success.

One thing you can hear that might split the difference even now is how she had assembled–or latched onto–a band that could do most anything (never mind whether the vocal is from a Betty Boop contest in a Dada club, why is the guitar break from a spaghetti western?….Forty years later and it’s still confusing.) Of course, we know which way it went. She changed just enough. I’m glad. But I’m glad this exists, too. The world can always use a smile, especially if there will never be any way to know whether the joke’s on you.

6) Brenton Wood 18 Best (1991)

Southern born, L.A. raised (and based) soul singer who you probably think just about defines “journeyman.”

I’d give this a close listen  before you settle on a conclusion. His two big hits, “Gimme Little Sign” and “The Oogum Boogum Song,” catch him in prime form, but he stretched that form so gently and often that his comp amounts to a mysterious shape all its own.

I wasn’t surprised, reading up on him, to find he was an acolyte of L.A. r&b legend Jesse Belvin–Wood’s style seems an updating of the Belvin ethos. He floats like a butterfly, and, as this goes along, you start wondering just how many places he can land without getting swatted. Pretty soon, you’ve listened to the whole thing with a smile on your face and you know why he was a hero everywhere from East L.A. to the Carolina beaches to Leslie Kong’s island.

5) Neil Young Tonight’s the Night (1975)

Along with 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, my go-to Neil Young.

I seriously hope these are the two bleakest albums the man has recorded. But, being hooked on them, I don’t know if I can relate to him being any happier. (Which, except for “Rockin’ in the Free World”–where he ain’t all that much happier–he isn’t on any of the other stray tracks I love from across his career.)

One thing I admire is that he never made another Death Record. It’s not only cheating if you make more than one, it means you’ve made less than one. Now I hear there’s a live version from 1973, when this was recorded. Some say it’s even bleaker.

I’m thinking hard on whether that makes two…and whether I really want to go there to find out.

4) Elton John Rock of the Westies (1975)

Along with 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, my go-to Elton John album. I don’ t know if this and Tonight’s the Night are my favorite 1975 albums…but if you told me those were the only two I could keep, from a year Fleetwood Mac and Al Green were going strong, I wouldn’t kick.

Pop gems throughout. And if “Grow Some Funk of Your Own,” isn’t Elton’s finest vocal I don’t know what is. It’s certainly Bernie Taupin’s greatest lyric. I don’t know much, but I know when the gay English dude can dance with the pretty senorita in a border town without having a knife pulled on him and being told to get back home, we’ll all be living in a better place.

3) David Lindley, El Rayo-X (1981)

This is a nice debut album from a west coast sideman who had played with everybody who was anybody in the California Rock scene. The closest his ethos comes to resembling a big name’s is probably Warren Zevon, though it’s crossed with Jackson Browne and a light, but persistent south of the border flavor.

There are twelve tracks and eleven of them go down easy.

Where the one exception came from nobody knows, because for fury, menace and freedom, it has seldom been matched anywhere, and there is no additional evidence, on this fine album or anywhere else, that David Lindley is the sort of dude who would run straight over you with his ’49 Mercury and never even notice.

2) Moby Grape Live (2018)

I made this my impulse buy of the summer on the recommendation of Robert Christgau. He gave it an A- and scribbled something about the drummer and this being the best live music he’d heard from the famous San Francisco scene of the late sixties.

What is it really? A bunch of jamming musicians’ musicians who opened at Monterrey Pop and had the same chance to wow the world that was seized upon by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Otis Redding. As I was listening to it (a not unpleasant experience mind you–they always played better than they sang, even in the studio–but not making me wish I did drugs so I could relate either), I remembered that Christgau once gave B+ grades to Tanya Tucker’s Greatest Hits, Chirpin’ and Beauty and the Beat.

I know taste is subjective, but the onset of senility can’t be discounted.

1) Smokey Robinson Smokin’ (1978)

CD version of Smokey’s live album from ’78. Long difficult to find on vinyl so this is the first time I’ve heard it.

It’s a wonderful album, filled with great moments from both the singer and his crack touring band. Needless to say, they don’t lack for material. I especially love the interaction with a black audience neither he nor they had reason to suspect would become permanently mixed again when the following year’s “Cruisin'” put his solo career back in the cultural space he had earned as frontman for the Miracles. And Smokey was as great on stage as he was in the studio–just one more way he was the complete poet Bob Dylan surely meant when either his mind or his mouth called him America’s greatest living example of same.

And nothing–not even “Mickey’s Monkey”–can match the first moment, when he steps to the mike in front of what he must have assumed would always be Black America and only Black America to open the show with “The Tracks of My Tears” and invests it with such shattering intensity it feels like he’s trying to save the American Experiment single-handed–and as if he just might be the only man who can.

If you lived through 1978, it might take you the rest of the day to shake that off.

I’m chalking up the album’s obscurity to the same forces that killed Leslie Kong.

Your mileage may vary.

“You say it, we play it….”

Til next time.

FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE SEVENTIES

Again, the links are to those I’ve written something substantive about…

1970 Two Mules for Sister Sara (Don Siegel) (over Patton and Kelly’s Heroes)

1971 Dollars (Richard Brooks) (over Billy Jack, Klute, A New Leaf and The Last Picture Show)

1972 The Harder They Come (Perry Hanzell) (over Bad Company, The Candidate, Sounder and What’s Up Doc?)

1973 Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich) (very close run over American Graffiti)

1974 The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola…his best, and most prescient, movie by a long measure) (over Chinatown)

1975 Night Moves (Arthur Penn) (over Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Shampoo)

1976 The Bad News Bears (Michael Ritchie) (Good year. Nothing close)

1977 Heroes (Jeremy Kagan) (Lean year. And, despite TV-Movie-of-the-Week production levels, nothing close…Please don’t watch any version that doesn’t include “Carry On, Wayward Son” over the closing credits.)

1978 I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis) (over American Hot Wax and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith)

1979 The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller) (over Norma Rae)

I’ll try to keep ’em rolling tomorrow. The picking’s are about to get…a bit slimmer.

QUEEN FOR A DAY…AND OH WHAT A DAY (Theresa Saldana, R.I.P.)

tsaldana4

(Theresa Saldana, Wendy Jo Sperber, Nancy Allen in I Wanna Hold Your Hand)

I just learned that Theresa Saldana, the actress who played enterprising reporter Grace Corrigan in 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, passed away in hospital a few weeks ago at age 61. I don’t have the heart to do much research, but, so far as I can tell, no cause of death has been announced.

Saldana has a fine list of credits, including Raging Bull and The Commish. But she could have been in every movie made since 1978 or never worked another day after IWHYH and I’d still remember her the same way. With Wendy Jo Sperber (1958-2005, breast cancer) and Nancy Allen, she made up the trio of high school girls at the heart of Robert Zemeckis’s otherworldly tribute to Beatlemania, which I wrote about at length here.

They were a magic threesome. America’s failure to respond to them or the film put paid to the last golden age of cinema as far as I’m concerned. The movies have been adrift right along with everything else ever since (okay, since 1980, but close enough!). Good things still happen, they’re just floating free, anchored to nothing and no one.

But, whatever the strengths of IWHYH or the rest of her career, Saldana was a rare actor whose career wasn’t defined by her work. She survived a horrific attack from a stalker in the early eighties and spent the rest of her life devoting perhaps her best efforts to helping pass laws to protect both real and potential victims of stalking. I saw I Wanna Hold Your Hand in a theater with my mother in the spring of 1978 in Dothan, Alabama. I doubt either one of us ever laughed harder. Hard as the road got for my mother in the years after, I know for a certainty that she never laughed that hard again. So if you had told me when I walked out of that theater that one of the actresses I had just seen would do more good in the world than she and her cohorts had just done for us, I would have called you a liar.

And I would have been wrong. I hope God’s blessing her tonight.

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ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (TAKE #1: I Wanna Hold Your Hand)

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Director: Robert Zemeckis (1978)

“Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record–you could actually buy this stuff?–and anounced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else–who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta–began to muse that ‘even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite,” it could be that it would be brought together again–by the Beatles.’”

Greil Marcus (on the response in his college dorm following the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show). “The Beatles.” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1980 edition)

WARNING: (Slightly outrageous claims made below. Proceed at your own risk.)

I’ve probably seen I Wanna Hold Your Hand at least a dozen times and it’s never failed to make me laugh as hard as I did when I was evidently one of about six people to see it in a theater on its initial 1978 release.

I can’t think of any other comedy that’s rewarded me so thoroughly and so often.

The plot’s simple enough. Four girls from Jersey enlist some questionable male companionship and take a ride to New York city on a Saturday night in February of 1964 and–each for her own reasons–spend Sunday scheming how to get into the Sullivan show for the first American television appearance of the Beatles.

One way and another, they all make it–even the one who doesn’t actually get inside.

That’s it.

Except, of course, that it’s much, much more.

The film’s makers, the writer/director team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, went on to become enormously successful and–not always a given–also make some fine movies. But they’ve never come close to matching the speed and fluidity they showed here in their first outing.

No shame in that, because as far as I know, no one else has either.

It’s that good: part physical comedy tour-de-force; part valentine to what was already (a whole fourteen years later) a by-gone age, which was to a large degree by-gone because of the forces the movie observes being set in motion; part historical drama related to known facts but not ultimately bound by them (check Ronnie Spector’s autobiography for what was really happening in the Beatles’ hotel rooms on the momentous occasion–let’s just say rock star behavior hasn’t changed much through time–and, for truth and beauty, I’ll take Nancy Allen leaving something sticky on Paul’s bass any day); part loving satire (the hardest kind to pull off and the only kind that ever matters past the first laugh); part homage to good old American energy and ingenuity (would that it were still common for them to be put to such high purpose) and, perhaps best of all, part knowing glance–two cups specific, one cup general–at the tensions of teenage existence in the age of mass-whatever (communication, transportation–in this case, a hearse–and hysteria).

Straight exposition would be pointless, so I’ll just come out and admit that I’ll always come back to the movie for all those reasons, plus a few more:

Start with the key performances by Wendie Jo Sperber (who careens through this like a bowling ball which has sprouted legs and a dazed smile, skipped its lane and is now determined to knock down every pin in the alley–especially any that are standing between her and anything that looks remotely like Paul McCartney), Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Eddie Deezen, all proving they were capable of much, much more than modern Hollywood would have to give.

Then add the most effective use of the Beatles’ music on film this side of A Hard Day’s Night.

Then add the beautiful ambience of sixties-era settings you rarely see even in actual sixties’ movies–the inside of the Sullivan theater in all its pastel glory, a barber-shop with gleaming red leather chairs and a gum-ball machine, a record store with actual teenagers in it!

And don’t leave out those moments near the climax of the film when the various parties are finally making their way from the darkened streets to the beacon light of the theater’s famous entrance, filmed in such a way that the pure exhiliration of the moment and the dark uncertainty of the future are both present and accounted for (Allen’s flight from her prig-thuggish fiance’s car is especially striking).

Or Deezen and Sperber’s escape from a stalled elevator, which nearly choked me to death on the floor of a Dothan, Alabama multiplex the first time I saw it and still floors me.

I mean there’s more, but that’s enough to justify coming back I think.

So now all that’s left is to ask myself why something this good has been virtually forgotten–considered hardly worth mentioning in the careers of Gale and Zemeckis, let alone the history of seventies’ Hollywood.

Granted such things are subjective…but are they really all that subjective? I mean, I’m a mainstream, suspicious-of-cults-by-nature sort. Can I be that wrong?

Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it! I’m going to seek reasons!

Granted also it didn’t make money. Surely that’s a problem. But let’s make a note that, in matters of reputation, similar objections have been overcome before.

Granted, finally, that most of the movies made in what will likely turn out to be American film’s last really great decade took on what were presumed to be far weightier subjects. But the heavy-makes-for-worthy mindset hasn’t prevented flame-keepers from esteeming Duck Soup or His Girl Friday on a level with the great dramas and crime films of the thirties and forties. Or Some Like It Hot from being rated on a similar level in the fifties.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is every bit as good as those films and can bear the same kind of scrutiny. More really, because while those wondrous creations–and others I could mention, starting with the name Preston Sturges–are pure confections, this one rings true to something very much like life.

Which is what we’re always being told should be so mightily esteemed. Right?

Right.

So why no love?

It never really occurred to me that I was missing a vital link in the crit-illuminati’s logic-chain until I began reading Sheila O’Malley’s voluminous (and extremely enlightening) blog posts on Elvis Presley and his complex relationship with both his audience and what passes for our intelligentsia. While the straight story of this very wonderful movie is ostensibly about Beatlemania–which might be something that the usual assortment of bemused egg-heads would be prepared to get excited about, especially if the public has been seen rejecting it!–its real subject is not the Beatles’ part of the equation, but the other part.

That would be the fans.

And not just any fans.

A very specific group of those fans.

Not the Lenny Bernstein crowd.

Not the college crowd Greil Marcus described in the quote above.

Not the serious-minded souls biding their time, waiting for Sergeant Pepper (or at least Rubber Soul) to arrive so they would really have something to talk about.

No, not those fans.

Any movie this great made about those fans wouldn’t need me to make a case for it. There’s no need to even speculate about this because those fans have in fact had great movies made about them–principally American Graffiti and Diner (the time frame is slightly shifted I know, but I can imagine nearly all the male protagonists of either film milling about Greil Marcus’ dormitory, making–or nodding along to, or sneering while privately admitting there just might be something to all this–just the sort of comments he reports).

And, yes, that includes the ones who weren’t headed to college.

Plenty of love exists for those movies and their subjects–love that will probably be reiterated in future posts in this category.

But they aren’t better than I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which is about those other fans–perhaps even more despised and marginalized in the Beatles’ story than they are in Elvis’ (where they’ve been deeply scorned at every turn but at least never quite made invisible).

You know.

Girls.

Those silly things.

Young girls. Screaming girls. Girls who won’t stay put.

About-to-be-sexually-liberated girls.

Also smart girls. Tough girls. Nice-but-nobody’s-fool girls.

Girls-who-fit-in-but-aren’t-exactly-hip girls.

Girls who are a half-step away–at most–from being those same kind of women.

For all that intellectuals are forever insisting they prefer the company of such women, a wall sure does seem to come down way more often than not when it comes all the way down to giving them their cultural due.

This movie–oddly enough written and directed by men who have spent the best parts of their careers helping prop up that very wall–gives them that due in spades.

However accidentally, it posits the powerfully insidious notion that, without them–without them very specifically–you don’t have any Elvis or any Beatles or any of the good things those words have come to imply, musically, politically, culturally and every other way.

And then backs that notion to the hilt.

Which means it’s not just a very wonderful movie but something of a miracle.

Now we just need to hope for one more miracle–one small step to a better understanding.

Recognition of the obvious.