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Rock Show

Rami Malek Rules Royally Rockin’ Queen Biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Bohemian Rhapsody
Starring Rami Malek, Gwilyn Lee, Ben Hardy, Lucy Boynton & Allen Leach
Directed by Bryan Singer
PG-13

“We’re four misfits who don’t belong together, playing for the other misfits hanging together in the back of the room,” explains Freddie Mercury to a record company exec in an early scene of this royally rockin’ biopic about the British band Queen.

As we see, the “rooms” Queen played got bigger and bigger, as the band became one of the most successful, acclaimed arena acts in the world—and Mercury became the most flamboyant, theatrical, front-man “misfit” in all of rock music.

Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning star of TV’s Mr. Robot, pops in a set of prosthetic teeth to play Freddie, who is clearly the star of this show as well. To cop a line from one of Queen’s hit songs, he…will, he…will…rock you!

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Malek with Gwilyn Lee as Queen bandmate Brian May.

Bohemian Rhapsody, titled after the group’s epic, progressive, majestic, multi-layered sonic soufflé from their 1975 album A Night at the Opera, traces Mercury’s timeline from the early 1970s, when he first met the other musicians who would become his band mates.

In an alley outside a London club where he’s just watched them perform, Freddie convinces guitarist Brian May (Gwilyn Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to let him replace the recently booted lead singer in their band, Smile, dazzling them with a quick vocal audition. “I was born with four additional incisors in my mouth,” he explains. “More space means more range.”

Mercury’s impressive range becomes a movie metaphor for the expansive effect he has on the group—he changes their name to the universally regal-sounding Queen and widens their horizons to a recording contract, international touring and worldwide hit records. He transforms them into a band that doesn’t sound like any other band anywhere, at any time, a unique performing and recording ensemble that doesn’t fit into anyone’s idea of a rock group, a pop act or anything else.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYHe tells the head of a record company that Queen wants to make “a musical experience rather than just another record.”

Mercury loved entertaining, experimenting in the studio, and living with his cats—and he loved other men, a fact that he discretely kept secret from the public. The movie is delicate—although direct—about how it addresses this part of his life (and lifestyle), even as it becomes the thing that leads to his eventual death from complications due to AIDS, in 1991.

The film is dramatically bookended by the band’s triumphant reunion appearance at the Live Aid charity event in 1985, culminating in a monumental, masterful, moving recreation of the concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, where Queen performed their greatest hits in front of a rapturous crowd of more than 70,000 people. It was watched worldwide on television by an audience estimated to be nearly 2 billion, the biggest ever for a TV event, much less a rock show.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

You likely know some, or perhaps even a good deal, of Queen’s music. You may even be a super-fan who knows a lot about the band itself. But you’ve probably never been where this movie takes you, particularly as it depicts the home life of teenage Freddie as he was “becoming” Mercury. Before that, he was Farrokh Belsara, the son of Parsee Indian parents who had immigrated to London after a revolution. One of the film’s most emotional parts is Freddie’s relationship with his father, who disapproves of his musical career—and his homosexuality—and who tells his son his mantra should be “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.”

And you may not know about Mercury’s romantic relationship with his early girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Their enduring bond, even beyond heartache and heartbreak, stirs one of the movie’s most tender undercurrents.

Allen Leach (he was Tom Branson on Downton Abbey) plays Paul Prenter, Mercury’s duplicitous manager. A truly delicious treat is the inside joke of casting Mike Myers as a flummoxed record exec who can’t see why his label should release “a six-minute quasi-operatic dirge” when the band brings him their latest project, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” One of Myers’ best known comedic bits, of course, is the scene in his movie Wayne’s World where his character rocks out to that very song.

Director Bryan Singer layers on the musical detail, and a parade of characters. (Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, capably played by Joseph Mazzello, unfortunately seems to disappear into the much more colorful swirl all around him.) Aaron McCusker, who played astronaut Wally Schirra in the 2015 TV series The Astronaut Wives Club, portrays Jim Hutton, Mercury’s life-mate and partner during the final seven years of Freddie’s life.

It’s a kick watching recreations of the band’s classic hits germinate and blossom, in the studio or on a piano bench, from the stomp-stomp-clap of “We Will Rock You” to the experimental rehearsal noodlings that eventually coalesce into the funky “Another One Bites the Dust.” An everything-but-the-kitchen-sink studio session—an amp swinging through the air on a rope, loose coins buzzing on a timpani head, a tambourine inside a piano—hints at how far the band wanted to push the norms of conventional pop music.

And Mercury’s rousing “Day-Oh!” chant, which could captivate massive arena crowds, also becomes shorthand for a much more private, poignant personal moment.

BH-1-72Malek struts like a peacock through Mercury’s constantly churning fashion evolution, from skintight catsuits to leather military jackets, glittery glam-rock capes and finally the iconic white tank top he wore at Live Aid. His immersive acting—and the grand, sweeping arc of the story—is the kind of thing that makes Oscar voters perk up, take notice and dole out little golden men.

He doesn’t do his own singing—what you hear coming out of Malek’s toothy mouth is a combination of Marc Martel, a professional Queen tribute singer, and actual Mercury tracks isolated from Queen master recordings. But the illusion, and the performance, are perfect, Hollywood movie-music magic at its finest. Close your eyes for a moment—but just a moment, because there’s so much to see—and it’s almost impossible to detect the difference, to convince yourself that what you’re hearing, and seeing, is really a quasi-Queen with a faux Freddie.

And at the center of it all, at the apex of this magnificent, music-packed movie tribute, is Malek. His remarkable, spellbinding performance reminds us of what we had, what was lost, and of the band, the songs and the singer who once made the whole world sing and clap and stomp along.

“We are the champions,” Mercury and Queen sang. And yes, day-oh, they were.

In theaters Nov. 2, 2018

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The Gangsta Life

‘Straight Outta Compton’ tells the ‘real’ N.W.A. story

Straight Outta Compton

Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Neil Brown Jr. (DJ Yella), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason MItchell (Eazy-E) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube) star in ‘Straight Outta Compton.’

 

Straight Outta Compton

Starring O’Shea Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins & Paul Giamatti

Directed by F. Gary Grey

R

Spawned from the mean streets of Compton, Calif., in the late 1980s, the controversial original “gangsta rap” act N.W.A. sent shock waves across America and spawned a commercial empire.

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren created tough, provocative, dangerous-sounding music that modeled and mirrored the harsh realities of their time and place: drugs, crime, violence, racial discrimination, police brutality. How dangerous-sounding? Well, even their name had to be muzzled (the letters stood for Niggaz With Attitude), and one of their most “popular” songs, “F— the Police,” caught the attention of the FBI.

Straight Outta Compton

Hassled by police outside a recording studio.

N.W.A.’s rags-to-riches rise from the “ghetto” of southern Los Angeles County to the top of the music world is a classic tale of ambition, vindication and escape. Their crash-and-burn breakup—into angry bits of bruised egos, bad decisions and broken, betrayed friendships—was the fractured flip side to a decade of high living, heavy partying and the huge sprawl of the musical juggernaut they’d built from scratch.

Straight Outta Compton captures that—much of it, anyway. The beats are fly, the story is nitty-gritty and the timing is spot-on, with the movie’s release coming at a moment in time when a growing movement in America pushes back, once again, against police violence against unarmed blacks.

A young cast of newcomers does a fine job portraying the group. O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of real-life rapper Ice Cube, plays his own father, and he certainly looks the part—he’s almost a perfect clone. Jason Mitchell is electrifying as Eazy-E, the diminutive, street-hustling, dope-peddling “investor” who became the frontman of N.W.A. after hooking up with Cube and production wizard Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins).

The two other members, DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), are relegated to the sidelines, however. Maybe that’s because executive producers Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and the wife of the late Eazy-E were more interested in telling “their” story.

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Paul Giamatti

Paul Giamatti’s towering white swoop of a hairpiece competes for attention in his role as Jerry Heller, the manager who steered the group to stardom—and into a crooked contractual labyrinth that eventually split them apart.

The movie credits N.W.A. as the architects of hardcore, “real” street rap. But it doesn’t depict them as saints: They spew profanity, take drugs, sling guns and indulge in the orgiastic excesses that you might expect of cocky young rock gods. There are moments of humor to lighten some of the heavier moods. At two and a half hours, it gets a bit overloaded in the final stretch with plot offshoots and cameo appearances by characters playing rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur and record producer “Suge” Knight, depicted by the film as a bullying, brutish thug.

But in its recreations of live performances or studio sessions, and in other moments when its explosive songs kick it, the movie really comes alive, reminding us of just how shocking, raw and impactive N.W.A.’s music was 25 years ago—and how powerfully it echoes even today.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Good Vibrations

Paul Dano, John Cusack share role of Beach Boy Brian Wilson

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Love & Mercy

Starring Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks & Paul Giamatti

Directed by Bill Pohlad

PG-13

The Beach Boys and their songs about surf, sand, hot rods and girls represented West Coast light, life, fun and frolic in the 1960s. But the story “behind the music” had darker undertones, especially when it came to the group’s leader, Brian Wilson.

This trippy, time-tunnel dramatization of Wilson’s troubled, tortured musical genius bridges two different eras, 20 years apart, with powerful performances and mesmerizing filmmaking that recreates pivotal Beach Boys moments along with other, lesser-known incidents in Wilson’s life long after the group’s heyday.

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Paul Dano as ’60s-era Brian Wilson.

The movie’s most striking feature is its use of two different actors to portray its central character. As younger Brain, Paul Dano is nothing short of phenomenal in an Oscar-worthy performance that captures and channels the drive, innocence, obsession and brilliance that coalesced into the 1960s Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.

The movie toggles back and forth between Dano’s Brian and “later” Brian, movingly played by John Cusack as a shattered shell of man in the mid 1980s, imprisoned in a toxic relationship with a greedy, manipulative therapist (Paul Giamatti) who over-medicates him into a stupor and bars him from contact with his family.

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Elizabeth Banks and John Cusack

Elizabeth Banks is terrific as titanium blonde Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who comes into Wilson’s life in 1985, falls in love with him—and leads the charge for his deliverance.

The movie takes its title from a 1988 solo song by Wilson, and if you want to hear it, you’ll need to stay through the credits. It’s well worth the wait.

Although the relationship between Brian and Melinda puts much of the dramatic spotlight on Cusack, Banks and Giamatti, it’s Dano who steals the show. Composing songs at a piano, singing on stage, tinkering in the studio or simply feeling his head swell with a symphony of swirling music that only he can hear (kudos to Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross for his mood-perfect soundscapes), he conveys the sophisticated scope of Wilson’s prodigious talents, the heartbreak of his tumultuous relationship with his abusive father (Bill Camp) and the fissures that would later lead to full-blown mental and physical breakdowns.

“Who are you, Mozart?” Mike Love (Jake Abel) of the group asks Wilson as he seethes over Wilson taking more and more creative control—and leaving the rest of the Beach Boys on the sidelines. “It’s like you’re making your own record—we’re barely a part of the Brian Wilson band.”

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Beach Boys fans will love director Bill Pohlad’s almost documentary-style recreation of the group’s early promotional videos, album-cover photo shoots and TV performances. Sequences that depict Wilson in the recording studio, working with session players and band mates on what would become the 1966 pop-opus masterpiece Pet Sounds, feel like stolen, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the real thing.

But even more casual viewers will be touched by the romance at the heart of the tale, riveted by the acting, retro-grooved by the tunes, and entranced by the opportunity to learn more about a wounded pop-music Mozart who finally, fatefully found the Love & Mercy that healed him.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Second Verse

Tuneful reprise picks up a cappella tale, reunites cast

Pitch Perfect 2

Pitch Perfect

Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson & Hailee Steinfield

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

PG-13

A musical comedy that costs under $20 million to make and racks up more than three times that much at the box office will likely get another chance to sing.

That’s exactly the case with Pitch Perfect 2, a tune-filled reprise of the its 2012 predecessor that picks up the tale of a fictional all-female collegiate a cappella group, the Bellas, and reunites almost of all of the original cast (Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Skylar Austin, Adam Devine, Anna Camp, Ben Platt and Ester Dean).

Pitch Perfect 2

Das Sound Machine

This time, the Bellas are headed to a world championship sing-off against new rivals, an über-haughy German group called Das Sound Machine. But a major wardrobe oopsy during a performance attended by Present Obama and the First Lady has caused a serious kerfluffle, throwing off the Bellas’ musical mojo. And their senior member, Beca (Kendrick), is ready to move on to life beyond the group.

Forget—and forgive—that most of the actors and actresses (playing college coeds) are pushing 30, or just beyond it. Don’t worry that the plot is a shoestring of jokes and songs stretched 10 to 15 minutes longer than it really needed to be. Let slide the fact that Wilson’s roly-poly character, Fat Amy, would never be called that name by any group of good friends—unless it’s in a movie like this one.

Pitch Perfect 2

Hailee Steinfield

Pooh to all that, because Pitch Perfect 2 just wants to make you laugh—which it certainly does—in between silly cooing about the bonds of sisterhood and the awkwardness of young love. The jokes fly fast and flip, and the humor gets spread throughout the big cast, which includes Hailee Steinfield, who plays a fresh-faced Bella newcomer; Keegan-Michael Key, of the Comedy Central sketch show Key and Peele, as a cocky music producer; and rapper Snoop Dogg, who gets laughs just as himself, singing Christmas carols. (Also watch for Katey Segal; Comedy Bang Bang’s Reggie Watts, bandleader for The Late Late Show with James Cordon; and members of the Green Bay Packers, riffing on Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious.”) Of the returning cast, Wilson, in particular, steals every scene in which she appears, and the writers know it, giving her optimum setups, plum punch lines and plenty of room to improvise.

Pitch Perfect 2

John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks

Some of the funniest bits, however, belong to John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, who play the commentators covering the various singing competitions at which the Bellas appear. Higgins’ character’s snarky, sexist, racist observations may be politically incorrect, but they strike comedy gold.

The real “star” of the show, however, is its director. Making her feature debut behind the camera, Elizabeth Banks joins a very exclusive club—alongside Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster—of actresses who’ve moved successfully into an almost wholly male-dominated domain, taken control of a major motion picture and made all the pieces fit—and work—together. Bravo, Ms. Banks!

It’s not quite as fresh as the original, but Pitch Perfect 2 is still a bright, light, fem-centric frolic of music and goofy fun for anyone who likes their laughter with a peppy soundtrack of razzle-dazzle a ca-showmanship.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Moving Pictures

A spectrum of boundary-crossing music photography

 Danny Clinch_Still Moving

Danny Clinch:

Still Moving

By Danny Clinch

Hardcover, 296 pages, $50 (Abrams)

 

Clinch, a preeminent music photographer and Grammy Award-nominated documentary film director, has used his camera to chronicle a spectrum of popular performers in both explosive performances and during reflective private moments for Rolling Stone, SPIN, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ and other publications. This handsome collection of his work—with a title taken from a Willie Nelson song and featuring powerful portraits as well as more photojournalistic, fly-on-the-wall shots of a Who’s Who of boundary-crossing rock, country, blues, hip-hop and soul performers—is a visual feast for music lovers of all kinds.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Cool Cat Daddy

Sammy Davis Jr. bio has daughter’s personal touch

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Sammy Davis Jr.—A Personal Journey With My Father

By Tracey Davis

Hardcover, 208 pages, $30 (Running Press)

Fans of the Rat Pack will enjoy this poignant, personal memoir, accompanied by a wealth of rare photos, from Davis’ only daughter with Swedish actress May Britt, who traces her father’s remarkable life and career at home and in Hollywood across six decades, in more than 20 movies, on more than 40 record albums, in seven Broadway shows—and in millions of American living rooms as a black entertainer on TV who broke the “color barrier” for many others who would follow. It’s often hard to define “cool,” but Sammy Davis Jr., baby, he had it, in every way, from every angle. He was it.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Musical History Tour

How 50 instruments shaped the development of modern music

 The History of Music in 50 Instruments

The History of Music in 50 Instruments

By Philip Wilkinson

Hardcover, 224 pages, $29.95 (Firefly Books)

 

Strike up the band! This informative, generously illustrated guided tour of musical history looks at 50 orchestra instruments and how they each contributed to the march of musical time—the spread of the lute from the Middle East throughout Europe during the Renaissance; the importance of the organ in cathedrals and churches; the versatility of the “exotic,” jingly-jangly tambourine; the role in the drum and the piccolo in the military; saxophones as the backbone of jazz. It’s a treasury of facts about composers, musicians and compositions and—of course—the instruments that made it all possible.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Retro Rockin’

‘Midnight Special’ is time capsule of TV’s ultimate ’70s concert series

The Midnight SpecialThe Midnight Special

$99.95 / 11-Disc Collector’s Edition; $59.95 / 6-Disc retail set; $12.95 / single DVD

(StarVista/Time Life)

A time capsule of television’s ultimate 1970s concert series, this rock ’n’ rollin’ retro roundup features hit-filled performances from a who’s who of pop, rock, country, soul and R&B stars (including Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Bee Gees, Jim Croce, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Denver, Peter Frampton, Linda Ronstadt, and The Doobie Brothers), comedy icons (George Carlin, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor), and bonus features on the show’s iconic radio-DJ host Wolfman Jack, the era’s colorful, star-studded fashion, recurring guest Helen “I Am Woman” Reddy, a 32-page, full-color booklet, and more. (midnightspecialdvds.com)

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

 

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Courting the King

Ginger Alden tells of life as Elvis Presley’s fiancé

Elvis and GingerElvis and Ginger

By Ginger Alden

Hardcover, 400 pages, $26.95, $10.99 Kindle edition (Berkley)

Much has been written about the late, great Elvis Presley, but none of it—until now—by the woman who was his last love, his fiancé at the time of his death, the 20-year-old native Memphis, Tenn., beauty who captured his heart and became a part of his home and his entourage for nine months, up until the fateful day she discovered his unresponsive body in the bathroom. Brimming with details and dish, this fascinating tale of Alden and the King’s courtship and life together, told against a backdrop of the final arc of Presley’s superstardom as it fell apart inside his claustrophobic castle walls, is one Presley fans have been waiting for—and about as “inside” as it gets.

 —Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Soul Man

Chadwick Boseman channels James Brown in explosively entertaining new biopic

Film Title: Get on Up

Get On Up

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellas, Viola Davis and  Dan Aykroyd

Directed by Tate Taylor

PG-13

“When I hit that stage, people better be ready,” James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) says early in a scene from director Tate Taylor’s Get On Up, the explosively entertaining new movie about the Godfather of Soul. “Especially the white ones.”

Indeed—James Brown was something the likes of which the world had never seen in the early 1960s, a keg of black dynamite sizzling with unpredictability and danger: sexual energy, gospel fervor, hyperkinetic dance moves, combustive rhythms, and intense, screaming, searing vocals. As he made his way to the top, he rewrote the rules about could, and couldn’t, be done by black artists in a music business owned and controlled by white men.

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Chadwick Boseman is electrifying as James Brown.

Get On Up is a revelation, not only because it’s so well made, written and acted, but also because it shows—reveals—so much about its subject. Most viewers will know who Brown was, and will certainly know his hits—“I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. But the exceptionally sharp storytelling and direction take us inside, outside and all around Brown, across a span of nearly six decades, from his childhood of wrenching Alabama poverty and abuse, through his rocky adolescence and finally into adulthood.

And through it all, we see, hear and feel the rhythm, music and grooves that drove him forward. Taylor (a Southerner who also directed The Help) shows us an internal funk engine constantly churning, turning and burning—young Brown incurring the wrath of his father by tapping a stick on the edge of a table, unable to stop the beat inside him; seeing a dreamy, hallucinogenic vision of his step-and-groove future in the horns and drumbeat of a Dixieland jazz band; having a sweaty, stomping, out-of-body experience on the set of a cheesy, white-bread ’60s Frankie Avalon movie.

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Dan Aykroyd plays Brown’s manager.

And Taylor skips around, putting the events in Brown’s life on shuffle instead of play mode, juxtaposing events from childhood with moments later that show how, and why, they connect, against a backdrop of politics, civil rights and Vietnam.

The movie also doesn’t shy from Brown’s darker side: He was a complicated, preening, strutting egomaniac who beat his wife, wielded guns, did drugs, served time in jail and berated and fined band members for the slightest infractions.

Portraying Brown as a teenager through his final years (he died in 2006), Chadwick Boseman (who played baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in 42) is electrifying in a tremendous performance that captures his walk, talk, mannerisms, stage moves and morphing looks over the decades.

The movie also features some stellar supporting performances from Viola Davis (as Brown’s mother), Octavia Spencer (as his aunt, who raised him), True Blood’s Nelsan Ellas (as his longtime right-hand band mate Bobby Byrd), and Dan Aykroyd (as Ben Bart, the talent agent who became his manager).

Film Title: Get on UpBut this movie belongs to Boseman, and to Taylor—and to producers Brian Grazer and Mick Jagger (yes, Rolling Stone Mick Jagger), who persevered for eight years, even when this movie seemed un-makeable, because they believed in it. When you see it, you’ll believe, too. It’s a knockout. It feels good.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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