Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Soundtwrecks, Dept.

'Dja ever have it when you ask what's for dinner and you're told whatever and you're really not that excited by it but you think, well, maybe it'll taste better when I'm sitting down at the table all hungry, but dinnertime comes and you're sitting at the table and you're certainly hungry and you get served whatever and it's even less appetizing than when you first imagined having it? 'Dja ever have that?

Because that was your sobsister's experience watching the telecast of Movies Rock Friday night. (You may recall that I described its promotional magazine a while back.) To describe it act-by-act is to relive the disappointment of even diminished expectations, but for you I'll do it.

We begin with a clip from the last few moments of The Wizard of Oz. We're back in Sepia, Kansas, and Dorothy is declaring a future of resolute agoraphobia for herself, ostensibly due to her love for her family and friends but likely due to the trauma of having had her ass pinched purple by midgets. Why are we seeing this clip? Well, because Movies Rock and because we're opening the show with...

Beyoncé! The top half of her dress is cut in a way that looks like she's wearing a halter top under the sort of weight girdle seen at loading docks everywhere, while the bottom half flares out violently in a mustard skirt that reaches to the floor then crumples. She looks like a centerpiece at a cut-rate wedding. And she will treat us to her rendition of "Over the Rainbow." She takes the first verse straight, but then the piano gets churchy and we're off to another running of the Melisma Sweepstakes. Why sing one boring old note when you can sing fifteen? And why bother learning the song when you can just fuck up the lyrics at will, as she does in verse three? Beyoncé is Bigger than melody and Bigger than lyrics. The crowd interrupts her overwrought-yet-limp reading of this song not with rotting fruit and drained beer cans as one might hope but with worshipful applause. Then, after having gotten all fonky with the melody, she finishes the song with a traditional, i.e., s-l-o-w, showy, and empty, flourish. She could've been singing "Macarena" for the lack of emotional specificity she displays. Just another opportunity to take her tonsils for a stroll and "act" like a not-overly-talented fifth-grader overselling "Tomorrow". Hard to convey just how vigorously Beyoncé sucks. You have to see and hear this vapid construct to appreciate the Abyss of Obviousness in which she dwells. And that you can do here. The audience, it should go without saying, bestows upon her a standing O. Just 'cause.

Jennifer Lopez comes out looking like she's smuggling the defensive line of the Philadelphia Eagles into the theater under her muu-muu. She's quite preg. And will--thank you, Jesus!--not be singing to-night but will, instead, tell us that "tonight, many of our most magical artists, musical Wizards of Oz, have gathered here to celebrate the most powerful combination in the world..." Heroin and cocaine? Shock and awe? Mary-Kate and Ashley? "...movies and music." Oh. Was this script written after the Writers' Strike commenced? 'Cause the night's introductory remarks all sound like they were written by cocker spaniels. And not clever ones either.

Cue titles.

And we're back with Cuba Gooding, Jr., still eating out on Jerry Maguire. He opens with a crap Bogart impression then launches into a mind-numbingly horrible intro that cites snippets of Casablanca's famous lines in a cut'n'paste, cutesy-wootsie style that makes glitter GIFs look dignified and sophisticated. All by way of introducing "As Time Goes By" as sung by John Legend and Mary J. Blige.

A set rolls out, presumably meant to evoke Rick's Café Americain or maybe a strip-mall kebab joint. Legend is tickling the ivories for a nearby couple. He croons the first verse in an odd oleaginous style, writhing his neck as if a small lizard were descending his spinal column. Then the drums get funky, Mary J. emerges, and we see the pattern for the evening: movie standards will be "reinterpreted" by being wrung through the funky-smooth-jazz mangle. His voice is sludgy, hers flinty. They are mismatched as a duo, the melody is ill-suited to the arrangement, their reading reveals nothing new about the song, the drive-time sax solo does nothing for my mood, and enough with the fucking melismatics already. I'm starting to think that these singers were given the sheet music and no context the day before. Because I am not sensing this is a song Mary J. has ever sung or ever wanted to sing. Ever.

Billy Bob Thornton then comes out in an outfit that looks like three blind grabs into the bargain pile at the thrift shop. He's introducing Elvis Presley in clips from Jailhouse Rock. And here the producers make a critical mistake. Whereas Beyoncé's performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"was not forced to follow Judy Garland's, some poor schlub is going to have to follow Elvis' iconic performance of "Jailhouse Rock". And that poor schlub is...

Chris Brown! Yes, my reaction exactly. Not much of a singer. More of a shouter, really. Okay dancer given Elvis moves to ape. Not helped by the "updating" of the song's driving beat into a--yes, again--"funky" groove on the chorus. It sounds like the band is composed of a bass player and a dude with a Casio organ set on "rock'n'roll" rhythm. The production is limp and boring, including the explosions triggered periodically to wake the audience, all very painful to endure, particularly since staging a number involving black inmates, including children, being beaten by a black guard might be considered a tad insensitive given the high rate of incarceration among young black males in this country. The number ends with metal bars descending in front of poor Chris who at that point would have to be found guilty of wanting to kill his agent.

A clip from West Side Story's "America" number plays Rita Moreno onstage. She tells a cute story about George Chakiris' sloping shoulders and how that messed up their performance while shooting the film, and, for a few minutes, we are treated to how this show might've been structured: film stars share anecdotes about the making-of and clued-in performers interpret classic numbers in interesting and non-crap ways. I'm sure it made for great viewing on Earth 2. Here on Earth 1, however, we get to hear...

Jennifer Hudson sing "Somewhere"! Hudson has a good, strong voice. Unfortunately, as was the case in her Dreamgirls' numbers, she is generally made to sing numbers that become unnecessarily HUGE and SHOUTY by the end. Following a soft Spanish guitar intro, she starts off controlled and quiet. Within a verse, however, she is being heard, unaided, as far north as Whitehorse, Yukon. Like the sentiment of the song could not possibly be conveyed by just singing the melody and enunciating the lyrics. Like blasting the audience through the back wall is the only way to express power and feeling. There is a story which my uncertain memory wants to cite from the film El Cid, wherein the Spaniard prepares to face the champion of the Moors in single combat. El Cid impressively cleaves a tree trunk in twain with one blow from his great sword. The Moor, in turn, floats a sheer veil down onto the blade of his scimitar. The veil is noiselessly sliced in two. That's power. Jennifer Hudson's caterwauling is not power and it's not entertaining but it signifies "good singing" to the audience which responds with a standing O. Remember when standing ovations were reserved for events like Charlie Chaplin appearing at the Oscars after twenty years in exile abroad? Yeah, me neither.

Emmy Rossum (who?) and Molly Sims (no, really, who??) come out to introduce "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" as sung by...

Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls! And hers is actually one of the best numbers of the night. Not pretending to be much more than it is. She's got personality, sex appeal, a sense of humor, and a decent voice. The staging is cute and I don't feel insulted by the experience. Two thumbs up!

Remember Kate Hudson who was going to be Big six crap romcoms ago? Well, here she is to introduce the results of the "people's" voting for "Flix That Rock" via Verizon Wireless, yada yada, I don't give a fuck either, free ad for Verizon, something something, short clip from Footloose.
There is an inverse relationship between the number of times people vote nowadays and the significance of their election.
As if--thank you, American Idol--the tastes of the hoi polloi suddenly merited consideration.
A consideration that, at standard texting rates, Verizon will fight to the death to support.

Hey, Charlize Theron! And she's introducing a Sound of Music number. It's the title track sung by...

Carrie Underwood! Tastefully dressed, she presents the song in a dignified and delicate way. Very dignified and delicate. So dignified and delicate it sounds muted. This was never a headbanger but at least Julie Andrews made the sound of music sound like something desirable, not a regrettable consequence of illness. Underwood is often like the kid whose penmanship is perfect but who has nothing to say. The anti-Billie Holiday. I will, however, give her credit for singing the melody as written and for underplaying, if a bit too much. One thumb up.

Then we are shown what is presumably the show's centerpiece and one of the evening's odder features: in a filmed segment, Usher recreates, more or less, Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" number in its entirety. On a full set with rain and soaked pedestrians. Why?, you may reasonably ask. Umm...the best I can guess is that Kelly's choreography is being treated as part of the dance repertoire in the same way that Balanchine's or Martha Graham's would be, with the qualification that Kelly's routine is much more familiar to general audiences. Usher does a creditable job of recreating Kelly's steps, although not his spirit, and the performance has curiosity value. It's just not very interesting. At the end of the film segment, he then appears, live, before the audience and executes a neat tap sequence down a staircase. Usher is a stylish dancer. He could've fashioned his own "Singing in the Rain" tribute without resorting to an unflattering recreation of an irreproducible original.

Josh Duhamel (why?) introduces a performance of "Mrs. Robinson" by...

Marc Anthony! Accompanied by one conguero and three acoustic guitarists including longtime LA stalwart Waddy Wachtel, he knocks out a sweet cover. The man looks like he could use a sandwich or two but it's got some fire and it's personalized while still faithful to the original. Two thumbs up.

Danny DeVito emerges to do some shtick on James Bond movies and to introduce "Live and Let Die" as sung by...

Fergie! She's encased in leather Saran Wrap, as are the eight backup dancers. She starts singing and immediately one knows that she grew up on the G'n"R "Live and Let Die" and not Sir Paul's. A few notes:
1) Fergie does not have much of a voice.
2) Fortunately, "Live and Let Die" does not have much in the way of lyrics.
3) As a consequence, Fergie has to spend most of the song twirling and pointing her finger like a gun.
4) Despite the relative simplicity of the song, Fergie manages to fuck up her delivery of the money phrase "live and let die" every single fucking time, coming in a beat behind the backup singers and the band.
5) This is annoying.
6) As is the sight of what appear to be the reconstituted Solid Gold Dancers pantomiming the song for its duration, accompanied by explosions and bright lights presumably employed to distract us from the fact that there isn't much happening onstage.
7) Besides Fergie punching one fist in the air and threatening the audience with the glittery gun attached to her mike stand.
8) At song's end, while the dancers caper, she is hoisted off the stage on a line by one arm, swinging back and forth while whooping into her mike, then spun in place as she is raised and lowered.
9) Yes, it was just that bad.
10) The audience, of course, rewards her with a standing O.

Carrie Underwood pulling double duty because she's just that lovable introduces a Disney song montage which segues into...

Elton John! And he's singing "Can You Feel The Love Tonight?" while playing a red piano which not-very-subtly points to his long-running Vegas show entitled, well, you know, "The Red Piano." His performance alone is apparently deemed insufficiently compelling because an enormous screen behind him features clips from The Lion King.

Jenna Fischer and John C. Reilly unfunnily flog their upcoming movie introduce a montage of "funniest musical moments from our favorite music movies."

Apropos of nothing and reminded by the appearance of not one but two Will Ferrell clips in the preceding montage, I watched the first forty-five minutes of the Bewitched film a few days back. God damn, Nora Ephron could kill Indiana Jones Meets Spider-Man at Shrek's House.

So, we're back with Shirley MacLaine who does another "Hollywood vet tells insider story" bit. Me, I could do without the self-deprecating "ha ha, I believe in woo-woo New Age nonsense!" jokes. I was struck, however, by how much she now looks like Christina Applegate aged forty years and wonder if that was a criterion to cast the latter in the Broadway revival of Sweet Charity. At any rate, Shirl talks about Sweet Charity and the song "Hey Big Spender" by way of introducing...

Queen Latifah! As I try to keep the gorge from rising in my gullet, I'll pose the following question: at what point did mediocrity become the new excellence? More specifically, why would a woman who can neither dance nor sing be asked to sing a songbook standard originally staged and choreographed by Bob Fosse? Anyone? Little help? I see twenty women on the Metro daily who look like Queen Latifah and who, sound unheard, I can guarantee would sell this song better than she does. She has no breath control, her voice is thin, she can't move worth a damn...I want her agent. I want her agent to represent me. She has the Olympian God of Agents working for her. Her ubiquity is otherwise inexplicable. There are a thousand women singing in choirs, showers, and karaoke bars in Choc City alone who could humble this poseur with two well-placed notes. The inequity of the celebrity system has never been more apparent.

Hey, Harrison Ford! Long blah-blah even he seems bored by. He introduces John Williams who conducts a medley of movie themes. JW gets a standing O just for walking out. The sequence is nothing you haven't heard or seen a million times before. He gets a second O for finishing. Okay, I want Queen Latifah's agent and this audience. I could kill with my story about how leeches can look like wet leaves on your legs when you're not wearing glasses.

Quentin Tarantino is up and he reads the heck out of his teleprompter language regarding Shaft and its theme song. He then introduces...! LL Cool J! Busta Rhymes! Eve! Okay, makes his Pea-mate Fergie sound like Renée Fleming channeling Ella Fitzgerald. He has no voice. Zero voice. What he does manage to squeak out is in an off-key, reedy alto which, let's see...given that he's trying to recreate the rich'n'creamy rumble of Isaac Hayes sounds like...anyone? Correct: shit. Out comes Busta who sprays the stage with his trademark ragga rap. Back comes looking most like Chris Rock's little brother in a fright wig. Out comes LL with some canned material. He gives it a typically muscular reading. Back comes, having shed his faux-'fro. America wonders whatever happened to Urkel. Out comes Eve. She has pawmarks tattooed? drawn? in her cleavage. That's different. She raps vigorously. The song ends.

Finally, Queen Latifah returns to the stage to introduce the closing number, "White Christmas", as sung by...

Tony Bennett! Standing O for Mr. Benedetto. He tries to reintroduce the notion of singing the melody the composer wrote with a quiet reading of "White Christmas" but is beaten down by a mob wearing Mariah Carey masks.

And, with that, J. Lo closes the show, as "White Christmas", from the 1954 film of the same name, screens behind the orchestra.

What can your sobsister add by way of conclusion to all this description?

Not much. As noted at the outset, the program was a disappointment of even my drastically-reduced expectations. For all the hoopla and ballyhoo, it was tossed off without much thought, just like most of the performances. To illustrate, let's look briefly at what, for me, is the most egregious of the available examples: Beyoncé's affectless reading of "Over the Rainbow" (and take a minute to compare it to Judy Garland's and Eva Cassidy's versions of the song). Singing a song that defines wistfulness and longing, Beyoncé is all pose and hair and clothes and tired performance tricks and extreme self-consciousness about being Beyoncé Singing A Song. She does not sing the lyrics to this song. She mouths words that serve as pretexts for her trilling. I've watched her performance several times and never cease to be repelled by the inappropriate or feigned emotions she flashes and by the way, at song's end, that she assumes the expression of a child who has recited its lesson without mistakes. She signifies emotion without feeling it and is not only not penalized for it, she is rewarded for her meretricious display. Could Beyoncé sing "better", that is to say, in a way that connects in a present and genuine way with the lyrics and their message? I don't know if she would care to make the effort to do so. But I would love to see her sing this song at a Barbara Cook master class.

Thus, what I dislike so very much about that one performance can be extended to cover the show in general. The conceit--old songs sung by new singers--is so generic as to not qualify as a conceit at all, which is not inherently negative but, instead, opens the door to any number of staging and casting possibilities. Unfortunately, the producers chose the most obvious and shopworn of the possibilities as their frame. They chose not the performers who might be the most interesting or the most adroit at singing these songs but, instead, currently- or recently-popular singers who might appeal to CBS' target demographics. I will not pretend to be shocked! shocked! that there is a commercial motive behind each and every program presented on television. That said, I never cease to be disappointed at the narrowness and meanness of the vision exhibited by network programmers and producers. Possibly because I have not worked in Hollywood.

At any rate, there you have it. You did not miss a thing by not watching except the opportunity to jeer and hoot in disbelief at the clothing, hair, and performance choices made by Some of Your Favorite Stars™. Here's looking forward to Movies Rock 2008.


frenchtwist said...

Apparently the condescension of Hollywood towards their viewing public is still running rampant. Excepting the audience who gave standing ovations to each mediocre performance, that is.

It sounds like soap-on-a-rope when it should have been Crabtree & Evelyn. Or something.

Excellent essay, thank you for the follow-up to your earlier entry.

(Whatever did happen to Urkel?)

Now, how about that "leeches looking like wet leaves" story?

the sobsister said...

The leeches story is a moving and touching one. Enough touching and moving that it's unsuitable for minors. Ha ha! But seriously, I'll have to save that for another time. Maybe an overview of my uncomfortable relationship with crawling lifeforms. Thanks for reading this piece, though.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review

Anonymous said...

Your new motto should be: "We watch the awful shows, so you don't have to!"

Oh, and "Bewitched" was even more awful at the end than it was at the beginning, if you can believe that.

Wishing you a great 2008.

the sobsister said...

Thanks, toto.

And uncle roy, I appreciate the confirmation that I bailed at the right time. Have a great '08 yourself.