Category Archives: Music

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.

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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

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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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Portrait of Paul

A revealing new light on the ‘cute’ Beatle

Man on the Run

Man on the Run

By Tom Doyle

Hardcover, 288 pages, $27 (Ballantine)

 

The author, a Scottish rock journalist who’s interviewed Paul McCartney numerous times over the years, paints a candid, fascinating portrait of the rock ’n’ roll icon from one of the most tumultuous, uncertain periods of his life—following the breakup of the world-famous band, forming a new group, trying to outpace his past and find his future. It’s a whole new side to the “cute, happy Beatle” that sheds revealing new light on one of the most famous living rock stars on the planet.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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