OPEN YOUR EARS AND LISTEN (Fred Foster, R.I.P.)

Country Music Hall of Famer Fred Foster had a long and varied career as a producer, talent scout, and label owner. His main labels, Monument and Sound Stage 7 (a rare Nashville-based soul label), were among the most successful and important of their era, the era when independent labels had more success and importance than ever before or since. His contributions to American music included jump-starting the careers of Jimmy Dean, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (with whom he co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee”) while his labels gave a home to the likes of Tony Joe White and Joe Simon.

But his greatest moment came when he head something in Roy Orbison’s voice which had escaped the ears of record men as formidable as Sam Phillips and Chet Atkins. By the time Orbison signed with Foster’s Monument label in Nashville in 1960, he had, as the saying goes, been kicked out of all the best places in town and was scraping by as a contract songwriter for the country publishing giant Acuff-Rose. With Foster (and songwriter Joe Melson) Roy was able to fashion this:

It got just enough attention to allow a little experimenting on the next record, which was only this…

…which set Roy Orbison on the path to being one of the biggest stars of the era and gave him a grip on the souls of the lonely that will last until the day we’re officially outlawed.

Elvis had been offered the demo of “Only the Lonely” and took a pass. When he heard Oribson’s finished product on the radio he immediately ordered boxes of the 45 and began handing them out to anyone who would listen.

That’s how much difference Fred  Foster made. He passed away on Feb. 20, at age 87.

SOCIOPATHS AND SUICIDES (At the Multiplex: September through December 2018)

Almost keeping up my movie-a-month pace…Modest spoilers ahead for those who do not know about Adolf Eichmann, Kermit Gosnell or A Star is Born, going in.

Operation Finale (2018)
d. Chris Weitz

A new film about the pursuit (and, to a much lesser extent, trial) of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann years after WWII. The mix (biopic, adventure tale, procedural) is a bit awkward and the Hollywood gloss (for instance, a romance between Eichmann’s lead pursuer and a female colleague that never took place) more than usually unnecessary. The main thing to recommend it is Ben Kingsley’s carefully judged performance as Eichmann. Eichmann’s trial inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” Kingsley catches both the banality and the evil, with special emphasis on the qualities of sociopathy that allow such men to continue thinking well of themselves even after they are caught, judged and sentenced to execution. Whether the actor’s judgment is too careful will be a matter of taste. There’s always a risk some will miss the point. In a movie that needed some authenticity, I found him all too convincing. Persuading others to miss the point of their existence is something the Eichmanns of the world tend to excel at. If they didn’t, we’d be able to spot them in a crowd.

Gosnell (2018)
d. Nick Searcy

And then there’s Kermit Gosnell, in a movie whose full title Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is less honest–and less effective—than simply leaving it at his last name (as the marquees in my local theaters did). The film makes the point of the longer title well enough, so long as, like me, you didn’t hold contrary convictions going in. But I doubt it will convince anyone who actually paid to see it.

What it might convince somebody to do is to be wary of the smiling likes of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who pushed the line where fetuses could be terminated all the way into the sort of baby-killing even our modern “laws” had to give a bit of attention.

Even then, his conviction was a rare thing, abetted by a veteran male reporter who, for Hollywood’s usual bogus reasons (I mean, damn, the lead detective is already being played by Dean Cain, no less, and a lady lawyer only gets you so far), is here replaced by a young, independent female blogger who is really on the other side of the prosecution but believes fair is fair. She may not think there ought to be a law, but as long as there is one….well, you know the type. You’ve met her before, if only in movies.

For its intended pro-life audience, Gosnell gets the job done and hits its marks with some skill and sensitivity considering every strike has to be on the nose.

Again, though, the only compelling element is the performance at the center.

Earl Billings’ Oscar-worthy (and, yes, fat chance) Kermit Gosnell, who keeps fetuses who may or may not have been born alive by the hundreds in freezers and petri dishes, plays beautiful classical piano, knows the laws of his land by heart, and never loses his cool, would have made a great cell mate for Adolf Eichmann, if the Israelis had been as forgiving as we are (Gosnell was, after all, convicted of three  murders that should have turned stomachs the way Charles Manson’s did–but then we were a bit forgiving of Charlie too, weren’t we?).

Outside of Billings’ presence, the most effective scene in the movie does take place in the courtroom (which doesn’t take up as much of the movie as that long title suggests), when a “good” abortion doctor wriggles a bit–but only a bit–while trying to explain that the only real difference between what she does and what Gosnell has done is a matter of hygiene.

As to titles, I’d have gone with Baby Snuffer and let the chips fall where they may. But then I never did fit in.

A Star is Born (2018)
d. Bradley Cooper

What a relief. Not a sociopath in sight! Just the sturdy narrative Hollywood has forced itself to remake every now and then for the last eight decades, this being the fourth time it’s appeared under this very name.

The only previous A Star is Born I’ve seen is the Judy Garland/James Mason version and there’s no competing with that. But based on the clips I’ve seen, this one’s miles better than the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version and it has a real subversive kick which I won’t even pretend to know was anywise intentional.

In every other version, the ingenue on her way up keeps getting bigger because she keeps getting better, while the older man who discovered and mentored her keeps getting worse because he’s falling apart due to drink or drugs or both.

Here, Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine (née Campana), keeps getting bigger because her music keeps  getting crappier, something younger critics on-line have been more prone to noticing–perhaps because it’s that Gaga (and by that point there’s no more distinction between Gaga and her character than between Judy Garland and the woman singing “The Man Who Got Away”), the one who evolved from a street kid with big dreams and big talent into a Pop Tart with vast riches who is only distinguishable from the next in line by the “Performance” part of her Performance Art, that their generation loved enough to make a superstar.

And, since Bradley Cooper’s performance doesn’t exactly get all the way to why his Jackson Maine would commit the ritual suicide the story requires, we’re left with the possibility that it isn’t about internal collapse, but about the inabiliy to deal with external collapse. That, this time, it’s the culture that’s died, and to the point that even even Bro-country singers with wives they clearly don’t deserve can’t believe there’s anything worth living for.

Aided and abetted by fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Dave Chappelle, a completely unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally/Gaga’s pater) and an aging Sam Elliot (who, as Cooper/Jackson’s role model brother does quite well considering he’s the one with that thankless part, now de rigeur in every “serious” film, where saying “fuck” a lot means he’s really, really passionate!) it adds up to a powerful, chilling statement, whether anyone involved meant it that way or not.

Can’t wait for next year!

 

CONGRATULATIONS TO THE COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES FOR 2016…

Like last year, no Tanya Tucker. Like last year (and every year), no drama. Like last year, three worthy inductees that cover a broad spectrum. They all happen to be natives of my mother’s home state, but I’d say sincere congrats if they were from Mars. In case you think “country music” covers only a narrow spectrum, you can listen below and be disabused.

As Recording/Touring Musician, Fred Foster, who, among countless others, produced these…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO_QBfemHmM

and, with Kris Kristofferson, wrote this…

In the Veteran’s Category, Charlie Daniels…as performer…

and songwriter…

And in the Modern Era category, Randy Travis….

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXarBRNUnjE

For at least the last couple of years, the Country Music Hall of Fame has had the very good sense to have Brenda Lee announce and introduce the nominees. Highly recommend listening to the ceremony for anyone who is remotely interested in this stuff.

UPPITY WOMAN SLAPPED DOWN…L.A. STYLE…(Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #40)

MICHELLEDENNIS

First, Michelle Phillips, recalling the period of the Mamas and the Papas’ demise:

“You know, I came back from Peru, when I went there to do Dennis Hopper’s movie (The Last Movie) in 1970. I had met a young songwriter….whom nobody had ever heard of. I came back and I asked to have a little meeting with John (Phillips) and Lou (Adler). I went to the meeting with my guitar, and I played them two songs. I told them, ‘I just want to do a single. I’ve got two sides to a single.’ They said, ‘Let’s hear ’em.’ and I sat down and played them….They both sat there and this is exactly what they said: Lou said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little country Mitch?’ I said, ‘Well whatever it is, I think they’re hits.’ And John said, ‘Well, frankly, Mitch, I think you’ve lost the thread of things.’ So I got up and said, ‘Never mind!’”

(Michelle Phillips from Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas, Matthew Greenwald, 2002)

Then….facts in evidence:

The unknown songwriter was Kris Kristofferson. The two songs in question were “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Then…a few random thoughts on the subject:

To be fair, Michelle was a decent singer but she wasn’t Sammi Smith. And she sure wasn’t Janis Joplin. Maybe she had no prayer of making either song a hit.

Then again, the only song she had recommended to the group which actually got recorded (with her on lead vocal) was “Dedicated To the One I Love.” It was the last of a long line of early rock ‘n’ roll standards she pitched, none of which John Phillips had previously ever heard of (he was evidently a true, hermetically sealed folkie in the “Creeque Alley” years). It also became their second biggest hit.

So who knows?

I mention it only because it occurred to me that John Phillips’ and Lou Adler’s responses might have amounted to making the Michelle Phillips pictured above pay for her sins.

Not being married to Dennis Hopper for eight days, but, you know, that other stuff.

Sleeping around on John and not sleeping with Lou at all.

Oh, and not inspiring any more great songs for John to write and Lou to produce. Trying to think for herself.

Be interesting to know which one wanted to kill her career worse on the day she almost discovered Kris Kristofferson.