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When that Apple 1984 parody video spot portraying Hillary Clinton as a pedagogue of old values hit the Internet, it didn’t matter a bit that the clip didn’t come from the official Barack Obama camp. It still had its effect, being seen by millions of people who could care less where it originated, absorbing its message nonetheless.
WEAKEND PLANNER PLAYS A GAME OF ONE ON ONE
Roy’s Still Managing Himself, Like Joss Stone, and Takin' Care of Business, Like BTO
TRAKIN CARE OF BUSINESS:
10 FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS
1. Amy Winehouse at the Roxy, L.A., Black to Black (Universal Motown):
The buzz on Sunset Strip was palpable, as the U.K.’s newest soul sensation prepared to make her local debut just a day before her Back to Black album debuted at #7. Everyone was there, many touting her SXSW performances over the weekend, including—just behind me in the packed wristband section—Bruce Willis, Courtney Love and various members of Grey’s Anatomy. In person, the bouffant-bearing, tattoo-wearing Winehouse is diminutive and seems rather fragile, until she opens up her mouth to belt out a song, fronting a nine-piece band made up of members of the Dap-Kings, the group that usually plays with Brooklyn soul belter Sharon Jones, with a three-piece horn section and a couple of animated back-up singers. Alternately hiking up her two-piece turquoise, strapless dress over an ample decolletage and toying with her beehived extensions, Winehouse lives up to her reputation by imbibing from a red plastic cup and sounding just a wee bit tipsy, looking like she stepped out of the Shangri-Las by way of Dusty Springfield. “Tears Dry on Their Own” sports the unmistakable intro to the Motown classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” while “You Know I’m No Good” is prefaced with an unapologetic story about cheating on her boyfriend. The title track is right out of a Spector Wall of Sound production, but the first line is anything but innocent pop: “He left no time to regret/Kept his dick wet/With his same old safe bet.” She’s Shirley Bassey meets Shangri La’s frontwoman Mary Weiss, with the added fillip of looking like one of those hot Jewish minxes that used to populate my Hebrew school class. “Wake Up Alone” sounds like the theme to a ’60s James Bond film or a classic teenage weepie circa “Leader of the Pack,” as Amy sensually purrs like a kitten: “When he comes to me/I drip for him tonight/Drowning in me, we bathe under blue light.” You can detect a skiffle-reggae backbeat to “Just Friends,” and “Me and Mr. Jones” is like a lost ‘50s doo-wop classic, but it is the encore of “Rehab” that galvanizes the crowd, Amy’s “No, no, no, no” response to an intervention representing a soulful triumph, an “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” retort to those who would spoil her good time. Performing not quite an hour, with a wobbly sound system and somewhat flagging energy, understandable considering the spate of shows she’d just done, it is obvious that a star is being born before your very eyes, even if in its very nascent stage. Move over Corinne, Joss and you, too, Lily… this year’s U.K. “It” girl has just stolen your thunder.

2. Black Snake Moan: Memphis native Craig Brewer’s faux exploitation flick tells the tale of a lovesick black bluesman with the biblical name of Lazarus, a stoical Samuel L. Jackson doing his best fire-and-brimstone since Pulp Fiction and the abandoned white trash nymph he tries to save, a sizzling Christina Ricci upping the ante from Carroll Baker’s breakthrough performance in Elia Kazan’s 1956 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ controversial Baby Doll. The very mixed critical reaction proves the difficulty of reviving previously taboo genres in these explicit yet hypocritical times. Hidden beneath its tawdry, hot-button ad image of Ricci in a cut-off Confederate T-shirt and panties imprisoned with a chain to the waist by Jackson’s overzealous healer is a sentimentalized black comic tale about Southern myth-making and the origins of the blues, a modern equivalent to Uncle Remus’ tales of Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby. Like Brewer’s previous Hustle and Flow, Black Snake Moan is peopled with colorful pimps (a marvelous turn by Mississippi rapper David Banner), well-meaning preachers (the stolid John Cothran Jr.), unfaithful wives, nurturing earth mothers (a glowing S. Epatha Merkerson) and callow youths (a superb Justin Timberlake as a soldier forced back home by anxiety attacks and a lust for Ricci). If Hustle and Flow was steeped in the world of hip-hop, Black Snake Moan, named after Jackson’s spiritual angst and Ricci’s physical compulsion, is about the root causes of the blues—the constant tug between the sexual temptation of the devil and the transcendent devotion to a higher power, the aching void of abandonment, and the way a man’s fingers playing across a set of strings can express and fulfill that longing. In fact, it begins with a scratchy black and white clip of Son House explaining the phenomenon, and throughout, Brewer shows a reverence for the music and its makers. From House’s “That’s Where the Blues Started” to Jackson’s own renditions of songs like “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather” and modern-day practitioners such as The North Mississippi All-Stars and John Doe, the film’s action is accompanied by a rich, blues score that highlights the different sides of what often sounds like a monolithic 12-bar format to the uninitiated. Dedicated to the late bluesman R.L. Burnside, Black Snake Moan may be trash, but it also has the courage of its convictions, with more on its mind than mere titillation, although there’s certainly enough of that to keep you from being bored.

3. The Stooges, The Weirdness (Virgin): Sometimes it’s hard to go home again, especially back to the groundbreaking punk primitivism that characterized such classic albums as The Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power. Still, who amongst us would begrudge the World’s Most Forgotten Boy aka Iggy Pop aka Jimmy Osterberg, from making the trip, especially when he brings along original band members like flame-throwing guitarist Ron Asheton, his brother, monster drummer Scott Asheton and squawking sax man Steve MacKay. With latter-day noisemeister Steve Albini producing and L.A. punk stalwart Mike Watt on bass, The Weirdness offers a reasonable throwback to the sturm und drone that characterized the legendary band’s three-chords-and-a-cloud of feedback by way of Albert Ayler heritage, with the Ig’s lyrics the only concession to the fact it’s 2007, not 1969. The fact the Man Who Searches to Destroy hasn’t crashed and burned some 40 years later adds a heroic nature to the rant and rave, with his targets now such modern nuisances as money (“ATM”), war (“My Idea of Fun… is killing everyone”), Europeans (“Free & Freaky”), Yuppies (“Greedy Awful People”), gold-diggers (“She Took My Money”), organized religion (“The End of Christianity”), unfaithful women (“Mexican Guy”) and simply getting fucked up (“I’m Fried”). And while songs like “Trollin’” and “You Can’t Have Friends” prefigure the N.Y. punk revolution that was to follow and the title track echoes his influential Bowie collaborations on The Idiot and Lust for Life, The Weirdness ultimately suffers from not being quite weird enough. It’s not easy going from the guy most likely to die young and leave a beautiful corpse to a respected elder statesman. “I wanna be your friend to the bitter end, baby” sings Iggy. “But I can’t be.” At least he’s still in there trying.

4. Casino Royale: Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, craggy-jawed Daniel Craig is the best James Bond since Sean Connery himself, and if that seems like faint praise in the wake of subsequent lightweights like Pierce Brosnan and Roger Moore, it’s not meant to be. Director Martin Campbell, who previously helmed 1995’s GoldenEye, has come up with a grittier, more realistic, and yes, romantic, approach to the famed secret agent, and while Craig is sterner and less inclined to the flippant remark as past Bonds, he brings a steely intensity and physicality to the role which makes it a post-24 take on Ian Fleming’s original prototype for Jack Bauer. There is even a semblance of a plot threading its way through the various chase set pieces, which don’t just seem superfluous, but are fully integrated into the narrative. Eva Green’s smart and sexy Vesper Lynd isn’t just another piece of Bond girl eye-candy, either, but a conflicted character in her own right who offers a glimpse into what will ultimately make our hero so emotionally guarded. There are no gadgets this time, and the only returning character is Dame Judith Dench’s taciturn, cynical Bond boss M, but, by going the prequel route, Casino Royale turns out to be a most welcome reinvention of a franchise that has long threatened to descend into self-parody.

5. Infamous: It’s too bad writer/director Douglas McGrath’s Truman Capote biopic came out after Bennett Miller’s more celebrated Capote, because in many ways, it is the more compelling picture, especially the lead performance by Toby Jones, who proves a better ringer for the author than the Oscar-winning performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two movies cover the same period in the famed novelist’s life, juxtaposing his role as the fulcrum of the ‘50s Manhattan literary/high society circuit with his devotion to what would become his defining work, In Cold Blood. McGrath, who previously directed versions of Charles DickensNicholas Nickleby and Jane Austen’s Emma, even boasts a superior cast, with Sandra Bullock as author and pal Harper Lee, Sigourney Weaver as Babe Paley, Peter Bogdanovich as publisher Bennett Cerf, Jeff Daniels as the Kansas investigator who befriends Capote, Gwyneth Paltrow as a sultry nightclub crooner and Hope Davis as Slim Keith. James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, plays doomed killer Perry Smith, showing his remarkable range in a haunting role. McGrath uses a Reds-style talking heads interview style to tell the story, concentrating more on its sensational tabloid aspects than the more literary Capote. By being more explicit about the burgeoning attraction between Capote and Smith, the movie manages to place the central conflict, the author’s commitment to finishing his book vs. the real-life exploitation of its characters, in much sharper relief than its more artful doppelganger. Once you get past the oddity of two films about the exact same subject, Infamous, by being unafraid to explore the tawdrier elements of the story, seems to boast an honesty its more critically praised rival lacks. Like In Cold Blood itself, the line between non-fiction and fiction becomes irreparably blurred.

6. Arctic Monkeys, “Brianstorm”: The first track/video from the acclaimed U.K. band’s upcoming sophomore album Favourite Worst Nightmare is a montage of flash-popping images, fueled by its patented start-and-stop jangly pop-rock, with one-liners like “Use me/Show me the jacuzzi.” The group itself appears only in shadowy silhouette, accompanied by a garish Shindig/Hullabaloo fluorescent, kaleidoscopic backdrop, with shimmying go-go dancers, marching protractors, anatomical diagrams, leering marionettes and all sorts of clinical graphic detail. It’s all quite exhilarating, if a little disorienting, with plenty of hairpin turns, buzzsaw guitars and a jittery drumbeat that is creepy, crawly and catchy. See the clip on YouTube here.

7. Life Support (HBO): Former music journalist-turned-writer/director Nelson George teams with ex-R.E.M. collaborator and co-writer Jim McKay for this clear-eyed, but hardly dispassionate, look at the ravages of AIDS and drug addiction in the black community, based on a true story. Queen Latifah plays Ana Willis, a one-time addict with HIV who turns her life around to become an activist, giving out condoms and educating those around her on how to avoid and/or live with the disease. Like in Sherrybaby, she is forced to give up her older daughter, the lovely Rachel Nicks, who goes to live with Latifah’s judgmental, unforgiving mother, played by playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Wendell Pierce, Detective William “Bunk” Moreland in The Wire, is her understanding, supportive husband, who is nevertheless wracked with guilt for giving Latifah the disease, while Rayelle Parker is the younger child that lives with them, caught in the wrenching conflict between grandmother, mother and daughter. The film’s grit and unflinching honesty, thanks to cable, make it superior to your everyday network TV movie of the week, as does Latifah’s impressive performance, which is so natural it feels real, especially in the documentary-like group therapy scenes. Too grim to be entertaining, it nevertheless presents a side of life many of us have never seen.

8. Bluebeard, Deluxe With Reverb (Shelter From the Storm): You’d be excused for thinking this band’s story was something out of Spinal Tap or an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. A mainstay on the Sunset Strip scene of the late ’70s, selling out the Whisky-a-Go-Go or opening for the likes of Van Halen, Steppenwolf and The Motels, the group never did quite make it to the majors, releasing a single album, Bad Dream, on an independent label in 1979. Twenty years later, original member Vincent Bitetti, who had gone on to make millions as a video game executive, acquired the masters and proceeded to try to reunite the band, including enigmatic lead singer Robert Barry Leech. A prodigal Ian Anderson type with a history of drug and alcohol problems who had joined a religious cult, Leech recorded several songs with the band only to hang himself in his garage in 2003, shortly before a new album was to be released. Experiencing an epiphany while viewing the open casket at his funeral, Bitetti was determined to restart the group as a tribute to the singer, hooking up with veteran producer/arranger Barry “Foz” Fasman to form the independent Shelter From the Storm label to release the album. Deluxe with Reverb includes a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” from the band’s first album, this time as a duet using Leech’s recorded vocals along with those of new singer Ellington Erin. The disc also features the title track from Bad Dreams as a bonus, with Leech, as well as new songs like “Forever and Beyond,” in memory of the late lead singer, and “How Difficult Is That?” a nod to the group’s chief influences—Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Dubbing the result “original classic rock,” it recalls the days when soaring vocal harmonies, artful guitar solos and symphonic arrangements were the order of the day. Caught between punk-rock on the one hand and hair metal on the other, Bluebeard’s resurrection is a tribute to the sustaining power of music as a life force. The band opens for Blue Oyster Cult this Friday (3/23) at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills and Sunday (3/25) at the Grove in Anaheim. Go see ‘em and flick your Bic for old time’s sake in honor of a band that refuses to give up the ghost.

9. American Idol: No, I don’t watch it, but I can’t help but get caught up in the current campaign to subvert the process by electing the supremely untalented Sanjaya, being waged by both Howard Stern and www.votefortheworst.com. With the public increasingly dictating its entertainment choices, this is the ultimate middle finger to the pretensions of the show and the commercial juggernaut it has become. If viewers can actually elect the clueless Sanjaya, causing terminal embarrassment to everyone involved, it would be a watershed moment in popular culture, the inmates ultimately taking over the asylum. So far, the guy has made the Top 10, which means he's shoehorned himself onto the national concert tour. The real question is, will the show’s powers-that-be put an end to the nonsense and risk the so-called “integrity” of the process, or will they allow Sanjaya to continue to defeat more worthy opponents? It’s the ultimate test of democracy, and that’s what America is all about isn’t it? Oh, by the way, do you have to be a U.S. citizen to be elected American Idol? Just asking…

10. Gripe of the Week: With the Internet busting capitalism wide-open and turning it transparent, it has created an interesting phenomenon in the tyranny of the eyeballs. These days, it’s all about the numbers. The more people you can aggregate to your site, the more advertising you attract, the more money goes into your pocket. Everything is judged on sheer popularity, from American Idol voting by cellphone to user-generated polls like www.digg.com, where voting dictates the online ranking of the day’s news stories. But even our founding fathers recognized the potential dangers of populism, creating the Electoral College to prevent pure public rule from wreaking havoc with our government. It’s all about the majority, with the minority relegated to the back of the line, which hovers dangerously close to the mass hypnosis of fascism, when you think about it. And while the Web has also provided niches for every conceivable sub-culture, the power goes to those who control the most hearts and minds, which puts those of us with less widespread positions, who decline to pander, at a distinct, and increasingly dangerous, disadvantage. This year’s presidential campaign will bring the issue into sharp relief. When that Apple 1984 parody video spot portraying Hillary Clinton as a pedagogue of old values hit the Internet, it didn’t matter a bit that the clip didn’t come from the official Barack Obama camp. It still had its effect, being seen by millions of people who could care less where it originated, absorbing its message nonetheless. Is it a good or bad thing when this kind of propaganda emerges from the bottom up rather than the top down? At this point, that distinction is irrelevant, meaning the public's loyalty, the so-called people's choice, is completely up for grabs. Which should make for a fascinating race for the White House, even if it could lead to the emergence of a Face in the Crowd-style demagogue. Whoa, that's two Elia Kazan references in one column. How long will it be until there’s a call for the abolition of the Electoral College as an elitist, anti-democratic institution? Leaving us in a world where even Sanjaya could be elected President. —Roy Trakin



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