Thursday, July 27, 2017

Some Back And Forth On Popular Culture: Movies And Music: Mimickry And iteration


Department Of We Need The Real Thing:


....Finally saw La La Land last night.

Either I saw a different film with the same name, plot and cast as that film that won all those Oscars, or that’s gotta be one of the most overhyped pieces of tripe I’ve seen in a long while.  The leads can certainly act, but they can’t sing, and they can’t dance.  Supposed to be a nod/tribute to the great MGM musicals of the 40s and early 50s and the RKO musicals of the 30s?  More like a nod off - in those films the leads could act, but also sing and dance – the kind of thing you expect from leads in a musical.  Ryan ‘n Emma, you ain’t no Fred ‘n  Ginger.  Fred  and Ginger awed George Balanchine.  Ryan ‘n Emma wouldn’t awe a high school dance.  

The music?  Why bother - unlike the forgettable guy that wrote the forgettable numbers for this forgettable film, the classic musicals had unforgettable guys like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Yip Harberg, Richard Rogers, Johnny Mercer, etc. - writing unforgettable music for unforgettable films.

The choreography? Hermes Pan, Stanley Donen, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly did the choreography.  Mandy Moore, you ain’t no Hermes Pan...


....Honestly it was a piece of shit.

Irrational at it core. Let singers and dancers sing and dance.

The question is: what lies at the root of a culture that goes nuts for such mediocrity?

Moonlight was ok but wasn't Oscar worthy. Still, I was glad it bumped La La Land out of the best picture limelight....


....Very much agree – I was also left cold by The Artist, a silent film nod to silent films, which only reminded me of how much better they made silent films back when they made silent films.  I think tribute films are Elvis impersonators – why settle for an imitation when you can enjoy the real thing?


...You are so right. 

Truth to tell I never saw The Artist, could have but just didn't want to. For precisely the reason you say. 

Same thing btw with tribute records and shows. They can be fun in a campy way, Elvis impersonators, but that's not their typical premise, campy fun. It's rather homage. But the performances are usually second tier, if that high. Why not just hear the real thing? 

My wife once took me to the play based on the music of Leiber and Stoller. It was ok but couldn't touch the real thing, those songs sung by the artists who recorded them. They're invariably better. I am going to see the Carole King play Beautiful. Maybe it'll be an exception and do justice to the original, the way Jersey Boys does. (Only saw the movie.) 

The odd time a cover or tribute surpasses the original. It's like finding a diamond in a pile of detritus. 

Go to You Tube.

Listen to ZZ Top's original version of Sure Got Cold After The Rain Fell then listen to Alan Jackson's version, which is on a ZZ Top tribute record but you can hear it on You Tube. AJ out ZZs ZZ. 

Cassandra Wilson does that too. She can take so so pop hits and make real evocative art out of them. Like with Last Train To Clarksville or Harvest Moon. Ray Charles too. He turns anything he sings into gold. I use the present tense for because he's an eternal presence.


....I think you’ve identified the difference between mimicry and creativity.  No one listening to Alan Jackson would think he’s trying to imitate ZZ Top.  It’s Alan Jackson’s version of the same song.  It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s performance of “Little Wing”.  It ain’t Stevie Ray Vaughan imitating Hendrix.  It’s not a tribute.  It’s Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing”.

Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This A Lovely Day?” was written for and first appeared in “Top Hat” (1935), one of the finest Fred and Ginger RKO musicals (my all-time favourite is 1936’s “Swing Time”).  In “Top Hat:, the song was sung by Fred Astaire.  Aside from movie junkies, few people would know that the song comes from the 1935 film, and no one would know that it was originally sung by Fred Astaire to Ginger Rogers.  That’s because “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” doesn’t belong to any one performer.  As part of the “Great American songbook”, it belongs to everyone who has the ego or chops (sometimes both) to perform it and be held to account against all the greats who have recorded it (and I’d certainly include Fred Astaire among them). 

Along with Fred’s original, I’ve got five versions of that song in my music collection, by Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall.   No one remotely sounds like Fred Astaire, and none of the arrangements are remotely like the film’s.   Every artist makes the song their own.  No one sounds like anyone else, because no one is imitating anyone else.

I think maybe that’s the key.  If you don’t have anything new or different to say, why bother?  You’re always going to suffer by comparison to the real thing.


Interesting point distinguishing between imitation and mimicry.

All I can say to it is that mimicry would be to singing as is mimicry/impersonation to comedy, which is to say, mimicry can be a unique mode of comic entertainment, Rich Little, Frank Gorshin or whomever. No singer worthy of their salt tries in tributes or in covers to mimic the original nor would they admit to it. They try and would say they try to impart themselves, their own voice, their own sensibility, into what they cover. It's just that in my listening experience they rarely do the original justice. It's a rare pleasure when they do. 

Btw, here's a hilarious attempt to impart a unique group sensibility to a great song, best sung, imo, by Bobby Hatfield:


P.S. On this theme, isn't Janis Joplin's version of Little Girl Blue magnificently the best one?


I’ve got multiple versions of Little Girl Blue – by Janis Joplin, Nina Simone (who does a achingly beautiful version to the arrangement of Good King Wenceslas?(!)), Frank Sinatra, Coleman Hawkins, and Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall.   Janis’ version is nothing like any of the others.  I’d say I think it’s certainly the best blues version, but they’re all so different, I’d rather just say it’s  a great performance by a great artist that ranks right up there with the great performance of other great artists (except for Krall, who I think is derivative, syrupy and boring).


......That's fairly enough said.

I may be too eager to turn my enthusiasms into "objective", as if, rankings. But I've spent some time listening to many, many different versions of Little Girl Blue and can't find anything that, at least for me, touches what Janis Joplin does with it. You mentioned Stevie Ray Vaughan before. A thing that's amazing about him, for all the guitar slinger he can be, is how delicately fine his touch becomes when need be. Same with Janis Joplin and markedly so on Little Girl Blue, how she ranges from pathos to empathy and sympathy to the strength of hope in what she conveys is so good. I can't think of anyone who imparts such drama and feeling to the song. For me hers transcends just being a blues version.

By the way, if you haven't ever, check out Radio Deluxe, a two hour weekly radio show hosted by John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, his wife. It's dedicated essentially to jazz and popular singers with a lot of pleasant and musically competent chatter. Wonderful show. I think you'd love it. You can find it online too...

And me:

....Also, further on this theme and its tributaries, I got into an argument with someone about Joni Mitchell. Two points I made only the first is a source of contention:

She cannot sing ballads and songs that call for big emotion. I said this with specific reference to her album Both Sides Now and I used At Last as a case in point. I think Etta James wins the gold on that one and our country woman doesn't make the cut to the finals.

Non contentious is the point that when she sings her own material and, too, songs that suit the way she sings, she's uniquely at her best and no one come close to what she does so uniquely well. In fact the same said Jessica Molaskey is putting out a tribute record to her and the show has played a few tracks. They're ok but here for me it's as you say, why bother?

Collateral issue: we also fell out over Little Green on Blue. The subject matter, her giving up her kid for various reasons including being able to travel and sing unencumbered put me away. I formed such a dislike for her from that song. Something a tad precious, self satisfied and self indulgent about our feted fellow citizen. 

It never came up with the guy I was arguing with but I just heard a version of her singing Summertime, maybe recorded 15 years ago or so. At first I thought it was Diana Krall, who I generally like but find tending to being vocally one dimensional, and I thought this is a pretty but still a stiff version that suffers from a certain flatness. Then I thought maybe it's not Diana Krall, the voice has a different quality. It turned out not to be Elvis's wife but rather Joni Mitchell. The singing was unimpressive. 

Finally, I think it was Kurt Elling I heard doing The Lady Is A Tramp. Again I came to it already underway and thought for a while it was Sinatra till I thought maybe it wasn't. It wasn't. On your distinction between mimicry and iteration this may veer close to the former. But I didn't care. He sounded glorious.


.....Thanks for the tip – that indeed sounds like something I’d love.  Re: versions, I know what you mean - the cleanest example for me is a classical music solo piano work.  The composer tells the performer not only what notes to play, but usually also the tempo in which he wants them played.  Every performer plays the same notes (unless they’re making a mistake).  But they don’t sound the same.  They don’t play the same notes the same way.   Great pianists perform not only in how they play the notes, but in how they play the silences between them.  That’s what separates the plunkers from the Paderewskis....

Me: (final note)

...Bob (Robert Palmer) is best known as the author of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, which was published in 1981 and is still in print. It remains essential reading for anyone interested in the indelible music that, drawing on its African roots, originated in the Delta, moved to Chicago, and made an inestimable contribution to the creation of rock & roll. In his conclusion to that book, Bob writes of the blues, "A literary and musical form...a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature...these are different ways of describing the same thing. A gigantic field of feeling...that's a way of describing something enduring, something that could be limitless. How much thought...can be hidden in a few short lines of poetry? How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who's ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain."

The notion that "pressure on a guitar string," the singular tone of a musician's playing, could convey all that is important in human history lies at the center of Bob's thinking, writing, and playing — at the center of his being, really. He was not a religious person in any traditional sense; he was probably closer to a pagan. But music was one of the means through which he sought transcendence. "For Bob, music was a religion," says Robbie Robertson, the former guitarist and main songwriter in the Band, who knew Palmer for many years. "It would stream out of him in the same way that somebody would be trying to impress you with their knowledge of God."

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