Sherlock Holmes on Screen

Sherlock Holmes - Jeremy BrettI grew up in the sixties and seventies as the youngest of three sons born into a lower-middle class family. My parents worked hard and pinched pennies, almost to the point of making it a science. We fell into that fairly sizeable category of Americans who could say (cliché as it is) “We didn’t have a lot, but we always had enough.” My parents never spent lavishly on anything. The two days of the year that our parents did indulge us were, not surprisingly, our birthdays and Christmas. Indulge might be too strong a word. On both occasions, we received several gifts, some of which were things that we specifically wanted. There was almost always one, higher-ticket item that was the centerpiece of the day for each of us. To ensure that we’d get what we wanted, we’d write out wish lists for my mother, often annotated with rankings of items. These lists, which would be added to, or amended, up to a few days before Christmas, would include from about five to maybe a dozen items. We wouldn’t expect to get every item on our lists, but we usually got our top-ranked choices.

You may call it just another aspect of the commercialization of Christmas, but one of the favorite objects in the house every fall was the Sears Wish Book, a Christmas catalog with over 300 colorful pages of popular gift items that your loved ones would likely enjoy finding under the tree on December 25. We would pore over that catalog for hours, dreaming of playing with toys that no doubt looked better in the beautifully laid out pages than they ever could in our basement. Nevertheless, the most interesting items invariably found their way onto our Christmas lists.

My brothers and I typically knew each other’s most desired present. That knowledge proved very useful on those occasions when our mother had questions about an item on one of our brother’s lists and we’d be able to guide in her in the right direction. We were three boys and we wanted toys, not shirts, not socks, not underwear, just toys! Then one year I was completely blindsided by my oldest brother. The number one item on his list wasn’t a toy, it was a book! Specifically, it was The Complete Sherlock Holmesby Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a massive, 1,122-page collection of all the short stories (56) and novels (4). Apparently, he’d seen a handful of the old Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and he wanted to check out the original source material. I didn’t get it! Why would he waste his top choice on a book, an adult book, at that? Surely The Complete Sherlock Holmes wasn’t in the Sears Wish Book! I figured that it’d take him months to read such a book. How could that be any fun?

Well, he got that book, and he was serious about reading it, too. He wasn’t just going to put it on his book shelve to look all impressive. He probably had a couple of the short stories finished by the end of the day and close to a dozen read by the end of that week. As I recall, it did take him months to finish that collection, but he did it willingly. In fact, he got into it so much that he later got a deerstalker hat, like the ones seen in the original illustrations by Sidney Paget (in Great Britain) and Frederic Dorr Steele (in the United States). Thus, my first introduction to Sherlock Holmes, was through my big brother.

I read my first Holmes short story in a high school English class when we were assigned to read “The Red-Headed League.” Late in college, I took a literature class that focused on the history of the mystery genre and read the Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. Both of those were interesting, but not so much so that I felt a need to tackle The Hound of the BaskervillesComplete Sherlock Holmes. Instead, of reading Holmes, I was more content to watch Holmes. As I’d gotten heavily into movies in my mid-teens, I’d watch just about anything I could. By the time I’d reached my mid-twenties, I’d seen several of Rathbone’s Holmes pictures and several other Holmes movies, as well, such as Sherlock Holmes (1932), A Study in Scarlet (1933), A Study in Terror (1965), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes(1970), They Might Be Giants (1971), and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985).

When I visited my oldest brother in Connecticut several years ago, he gave me a partial tour of The Constitution State, which included a trip to Gillette Castle in Hadlyme. Now part of Gillette Castle State Park (one of the top tourist attractions in the state), the former private residence was designed by actor William Gillette and built between 1914 and 1919. Gillette was already a very popular actor when he adapted several of Doyle’s stories into a four-act stage play. He even met with Doyle and got his blessing. After several out-of-town tryouts, Sherlock Holmes opened on Broadway on November 6, 1899 to grand success. After a lucrative run on The Great White Way, he enjoyed similar success with the play on London’s West End. It was Gillette, more than any other actor, who established the look of the character, which is imitated to this day. Many other troupes also staged the show in countries worldwide, making him a fortune. Gillette starred in several revivals of the show into the 1930s, touring with it throughout the United States. In 1916, Gillette starred in the motion picture adaptation Sherlock Holmes, the only filmed record of his performance. Long believed lost, the film was found in the archives of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris just last year! It’s now in the process of being restored. As for my brother, decades after first reading those Doyle stories, he was still enthralled by anything relating to the British detective, such as visiting the Gillette Castle – though in all fairness, that site is very much worth checking out regardless of whether one holds a fascination with Holmes.

Movie versions of Doyle’s detective date all the way back to 1900, just a handful of years into cinematic history. In the century-plus since, Holmes has probably become the most frequently seen literary character on screen. At this point, there are almost too many versions to count! Nevertheless, rather than being burnt out as a character, the public’s current fascination with Holmes is likely the highest it’s been since Doyle was writing the original stories. At the moment, there are two popular TV series in production, an ongoing theatrical series, as well as the recently-released Mr. Holmes. Starting with the Rathbone films, here are some of the highlights of Holmes’ screen incarnations.

In all, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred together as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, respectively, in fourteen films. The first two – The Hound of the Baskervilles (based on Doyle’s novel) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (based on Gillette’s play) – were quality productions released by 20th Century Fox in 1939. The remaining dozen were produced as B-pictures by Universal and were released between 1942 and 1946. Several of the Universal films were clumsily re-set to World War II. Nonetheless, for many fans, Rathbone’s portrayal is still the yardstick by which all others are measured.

From the fifties through the seventies, Britain’s Hammer Films remade, or re-envisioned, just about every horror movie/franchise from the thirties and forties, only in color – some for better, some for worse. Nearly all of them starred Peter Cushing and/or Christopher Lee. In 1959, they tackled The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing as Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. This one may be for better.

Between 1984 and 1994, Jeremy Brett starred as the master sleuth in thirty-six hour-long episodes and five telefilms for Britain’s Granada Television. Known by the umbrella title Sherlock Holmes, the episodes actually span four distinct series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike other Holmes series, this one only featured direct – and faithful – adaptations of the Doyle stories. A sizeable number of Holmes enthusiasts now consider Brett’s characterization to be definitive.
As the virtual perfection of the Brett series cast a long shadow, since then, producers seem to have shied away from creating anything too close to what had already been done for fear of unflattering comparisons. Consequently, more recent adaptations of the famed detective have strayed from the original conception of Holmes in favor of greater artistic license. For instance, in the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Ritchie’s take on Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson Sherlock Holmes - Robert Downey Jr._1(Jude Law) expands the characters from intellectual detective and empathetic doctor assistant, to also being rough and tumble fighters. No longer content to just discover what has occurred in the past, they are willing to physically force the action forward. A sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, arrived in 2011 and a long-awaited third chapter is now rumored as a possible 2016 release.

When Holmes returned to the telly in the UK, it was in a version that reset the time period to modern-day London. Sherlock, which premiered in 2010, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular detective and Martin Freeman as his ever-faithful sidekick. The show was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. British television being British television, however, the show is produced infrequently, with seasons of just three episodes. Additional seasons were produced in 2012 and 2013, with the next not expected until 2017! American television being American television, producers on this side of the Atlantic are ever-ready to adapt, duplicate, or imitate a successful British show. In this case, it came to us in 2012 in the form of Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller. The twist of it being reset to modern-day New York City, however, wasn’t twist enough, so Dr. John Watson was morphed into Dr. Joan Watson, essayed by Lucy Liu. The series has already run for three seasons, with a fourth coming this fall.

In the just released Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen stars as the long-retired and increasingly forgetful investigator who is still bothered by an unsolved thirty-year-old case. Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, its setting is the English countryside after the Second World War, and so examines the detective at a point in his life never explored by Doyle, who died in 1930. With so many Doyle stories from which to choose, as well as an ever-increasing canon of novels by other writers, the Holmes well is unlikely to ever run dry.

In the (unlikely) event that the many choices above aren’t enough to satiate your thirst for Holmes, there are a few other titles in the library’s collection that you may want to view. These include 1988’s Without a Clue, a parody starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley; Hands of a Murderer: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (1990), an American telefilm starring Edward Woodward; Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004), a British telefilm starring Rupert Everett; 2010’s Tom and Jerry Meet Sherlock Holmes, a straight-to-video animated tale with one-time movie star Michael York voicing Holmes; and the 2013 documentary How Sherlock Changed the World. So get a clue and check out some Sherlock Holmes DVDs at your favorite branch of the Des Moines Public Library!

Canada’s Punk Rockers: Rebelling Against… Something, and Doing It Well

The CD cover for Sum 41's "Underclass Hero."I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it, but my international travel has been limited to three trips to our neighbor to the north, Canada. Actually, one of those barely even qualifies. In 1999, while in Detroit during a multi-city baseball trip with two of my nephews (neither of whom had ever been to Canada, but wanted to be able to say that they had), I drove to Windsor, Ontario long enough for us to get burgers at Harvey’s, the biggest Canadian-owned burger chain in the country. The length of the entire trip was maybe an hour. My previous forays into The Great White North (a tip of the cap to Bob and Doug Mackenzie, characters from the once-popular SCTV sketches) came many years earlier during a pair of family vacations with my parents. Both of those trips were in the western provinces, the English-speaking part of the country, where the relative differences in culture to that of the Midwest isn’t any greater than that between the Midwest and the American east coast.

The impression of Canada that I came away with from those three trips was that of a slightly cleaner country than my own United States, inhabited with people who seemed a little more polite than my own fellow countrymen. I’m sure that that assessment doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as those things seem to be the most common ones that Americans observe about our neighbor to the north. The trouble with impressions made from vacation trips, however, is that you tend to visit “nice” places and seldom stray into decaying areas filled with have-nots. The picture is very seldom balanced. For all I know, Canada may have had its share of urban blight and teeming slums, no different than the United States, but I didn’t see it. Consequently, my view of Canada was fairly rosy.

Several years ago, I noticed a certain musical trend coming out of Canada, which was the surprising number of Canadian punk bands that were making inroads into the United States music charts. My general perception of Canada was somewhat rocked by the thought of the country now being a hotbed for emerging punk artists. “What are they rebelling against?” I wondered. Could it be the lack of recent Stanley Cup triumphs by their NHL franchises in recent years? Or, were they pissed off about the 1995 merger of their homegrown Tim Hortons restaurant chain with America’s Wendy’s International? (For the record, Tim Hortons was spun off as its own company again in 2006, only to merge with Burger King eight years later; so they might be pissed again!) Who knows the reason? In any case, punk, the music of rebellion, was alive and well in Canada. The punk of the nineties until now, of course, isn’t quite the same as what it was when it first came onto the music scene in the seventies.

So, what is punk? As is the case with other popular genres, the music is defined by common lyrical content, tempo, and instrumentation, but also by the attire worn by band members (and their fans), as well as their general attitude, whether it be their stage presence or the way they act during interviews, public appearances, etc. Punk originally emerged in the seventies as part of the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, and particularly in Britain, as a political outcry by a generation of young working class men who were coming of age only to find an economic landscape littered with failed manufacturing companies and entire industries paralyzed by lengthy strikes. The decline of the British Empire had resulted in a generation of workers feeling hopeless about their prospects, but with few viable ways to express their frustration. This frustration resonated to some degree with the younger generation in the United States and Canada, but the economic difficulties in North America were never as devastating or long lasting as they were in Britain.

Although punk originated on this side of the Atlantic Ocean with The Ramones in the mid-seventies, punk never became more than an underground movement here. Had it not been for the safety-pin piercings and spikey, multi-colored hairdos of its adherents, it’d probably have gone unnoticed by most Americans. A few major cities had fervent punk scenes, but the movement never really took hold across the board. By 1980, several of Britain’s punk bands had already evolved into what would become known as new wave, which – in part due to the launch of MTV in 1981, which initially relied on newer bands willing to produce music videos – did have a decided impact in North America and around the world.

Simple PlanWhile new wave siphoned off most of the major British groups who were hitting the American pop charts during the eighties, punk didn’t completely wither away. In fact, it was renamed hardcore punk to more clearly differentiate it from the much poppier post-punk bands of the eighties that would eventually morph into alternative rock. Hardcore punk soon jettisoned the “punk” portion of the name and carried on the angry attitude for ensuing generations of rebellious young music fans. By the late-eighties, a punk revival was fomenting on the west coast wherein the music was more akin to the late-seventies style. By the mid-nineties, Green Day, The Offspring, Blink-182, and Everclear were among a wave of bands championing this more melodic form of punk that would boost the genre into the upper reaches of the U.S. singles charts for the first time, with accompanying massive album sales. It is this strain of west coast punk that gained traction in Canada during the late nineties and into the new millennium.

Before I go any further, I want to point out that punk didn’t just suddenly appear in Canada during the late nineties. In fact, some of the first major punk bands in North America were Canadian. The first Canadian punk band to be signed by a major label (Columbia) was The Diodes in 1977, which came within a year of their formation. The Toronto, Ontario-based band released three proper albums, as well as a fourth album of demos and outtakes between 1977 and 1982. They were largely responsible for creating the vibrant Toronto punk scene, as the band and their manager turned their practice space into the city’s first punk club. Hamilton, Ontario’s Teenage Head was started by high school classmates in 1975 and they had their self-titled debut disc on store shelves by 1979. Teenage Head released several albums during the eighties, which may have been helped or hindered by the notoriety they received for two Toronto concerts (in 1978 and 1980) that ended in riots and police intervention.

On Canada’s west coast, punk was also becoming established. Vancouver, British Columbia’s D.O.A., formed in 1978, was soon regarded as one of the progenitors of hardcore punk during the early eighties. Since then, D.O.A. has experimented with various musical styles – with a revolving door of members – but they always seem to return to their punk rock roots. In the process, they have released an impressive eighteen studio albums! Nomeansno formed in Victoria, BC in 1979, the result of attending a D.O.A. concert that got them pumped up for punk. Their distinctive sound comes from placing the instrumental emphasis on the bass guitar and drum kit, rather than on lead guitar. Since 1982, Nomeansno has released a dozen albums and numerous EPs.

A new breed of Canadian punk bands began emerging in the late nineties, no doubt inspired by the success that America’s west coast punk bands were already achieving. This time, however, almost all of the action taking place north of the border was in the province of Ontario.

Sum 41 came together in tiny Ajax, Ontario in 1996, but were soon gigging in the province’s larger cities. Their first album was released in 2000, but it was 2001’s All Killer No Filler that brought them fame on both sides of the border. Often sophomoric in their lyrical approach, the quality of their musicianship and production, however, make their albums a rollicking romp. Through 2011 they’ve put out half a dozen studio albums, plus one live disc.

Montreal, Quebec’s Simple Plan was formed in 1999 by several high school friends who’d initially gone their own way after graduation, but came together again a couple of years later. Their first album, No Pads, No Helmets… Just Balls (2002), was an immediate success, using a formula that might be described as “party punk.” Since then, they’ve released three more studio albums and a live set.

Hailing from Burlington, Ontario, Silverstein began in 2000 as a side project of its five members. After recording a well-received EP that same year, the quintet decided to become a permanent arrangement. Silverstein’s post-hardcore sound is a melding of screamo and punk. The band has recorded eight full-length albums between their first in 2003 and their latest, which was released this year. A good place to start might be 2005’s Discovering the Waterfront.

Like Silverstein, Alexisonfire (pronounced Alexis on fire, not Alex is on fire) also mines post-hardcore territory. Formed in St. Catharines, Ontario in 2001, the combo’s disc debut came with an eponymously titled album in 2003. The highpoint of their five-album career may be 2006’s Crisis.

Glass BoysTogether since 2001, Toronto, Ontario’s Fucked Up released a succession of EPs and singles before recording their first full-length album in 2006. Three more albums have been issued subsequently, but the prolific band continues to churn out EPs and singles at an amazing rate. The eclectic rockers vary from the usual enraged vocals and limited, but feverish guitar lines of traditional punk songs to also include lengthy instrumental passages, atypical arrangements, and experimental sections. Their latest album, 2014’s Glass Boys, may be their most subversive yet.

Other Canadian punk bands worth a listen include The Mahones, Propagandhi, Billy Talent, and Death from Above 1979. Click on any of the linked items to take you to the online catalog records of each of these bands. Reserve them, take them home, and give them a spin. Then you too can find out why punk is alive and well in the land of the maple leaf!

Swedish Popular Music: “I Don’t Care, I Love It”

AviciiLately, it seems that every time I hop in the car I hear the song “Wake Me Up” by Avicii come on the radio. So I was wondering, who’s this guy with the Latin sounding name? After a few minutes of searching the Interweb, I found out two things: 1) Avicii is the pseudonym of Swedish electro-dance producer and DJ Tim Bergling, and 2) Avicii is not Latin at all, but a word that means the lowest level of hell in Buddhism. Now I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I understand, once there, you can’t escape that level of hell. What those connotations have to do with this artist’s music, I’m not going to even hazard a guess! Personally, I find it kind of catchy.

At just 24, Avicii has already been a star in Europe for several years. With “Wake Me Up,” he’s the third Swedish act to land a tune in Billboard’s top ten in the past year, following Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Swedish House Mafia’s “Don’t You Worry Child.” Before those acts hit the U.S. top ten, it’d been a long time since a Swedish artist had accomplished the feat. You have to go all the way back to 1996-97, when Robyn had a pair of singles that each rose to number seven. While it remains to be seen whether Avicii , or Icona Pop, will become fixtures on U.S. music charts  (Swedish House Mafia had already announced their imminent breakup prior to the release of “Don’t You Worry Child” in 2012), Swedish acts are hitting the American singles charts the hardest they have in many years.

Despite the fifteen-year gap in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, many Swedish acts have achieved a notable level of success in the United States during the interim. Those artists include Alcazar, Basshunter, The Cardigans, The Hives, Lykke Li, Opeth, Eric Prydz, and The Sounds. The names in that list cover many different musical genres, proving that popular music in Sweden isn’t limited to a particular style. That said, however, I find it interesting that the Swedish acts that found massive mainstream success in the United States all fall into a pretty narrow range: mixed-gender pop/dance groups accenting female vocals.

Ace of BaseThe most recent of these Swedish superstars is Ace of Base, who stormed onto the scene in 1992 with the album The Sign (originally released in Europe as Happy Nation, with a slightly different track listing) which became one of the best-selling debut albums in recording history. Comprised of Ulf “Buddha” Ekberg and siblings Jonas “Joker” Berggren, Malin “Linn” Berggren and Jenny Berggren, Ace of Base placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, including the number one title track from their American debut disc. Worldwide, Ace of Base has sold over fifty million albums, making them the third-bestselling Swedish act of all time.

Roxette is a duo made up of vocalist Marie Fredriksson and songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Per Gessle. Fredriksson and Gessle came together after successful stints in other groups, but each one’s previous success in their native Sweden was nothing compared to what they’d achieve together. In the three years covering 1989-91, Roxette was a hit machine in the United States and throughout the world. Stateside, they had four singles shoot to number one while another pair peaked at two. Their career has continued far longer in Europe than it has here, but with worldwide album sales of over seventy million, Roxette is the second-bestselling Swedish act ever.

As popular as the two aforementioned bands have been, they never even approached the spectacular heights achieved by ABBA between 1972 and 1982. From almost the very beginning, ABBA – whose name is an acronym of the band members’ names:  (A)gnetha Fältskog, (B)jörn Ulvaeus, (B)enny Andersson, and (A)nni-Frid Lyngstad – was  an absolute sensation in Europe and throughout most of the English-speaking world.  The band certainly had plenty of success in the states, too, though not nearly as much as one might expect. They only placed four singles in the U.S. top ten, with just one reaching number one (“Dancing Queen”). Throughout their career, and for some years after, it just wasn’t cool to like ABBA in this country. Perhaps the nation’s ABBAcollective mood during that time – due to the Watergate Scandal, the Oil Crisis, rising unemployment and inflation rates, the Farm Crisis, etc. – was such that many Americans weren’t in the proper temper for such bright, bouncy tunes.

The general assessment of ABBA’s output, however, appeared to shift significantly in the early nineties. At that point, several contemporary American artists covered ABBA songs, a couple of popular Australian movie imports (Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) highlighted ABBA tunes, and ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits was released, which has been a consistent seller ever since. By the end of the decade, the musical Mamma Mia! had landed on U.S. stages, continuously playing venues throughout the next decade, and followed in 2008 by a film version starring Meryl Streep. Suddenly it was cool to like, even love, ABBA. On March 15, 2010, the band was fully legitimized when it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite the fact that they never officially disbanded, the group has not recorded together in over thirty years. Even so, ABBA has sold over 300 million albums worldwide, easily making them the most successful Swedish act of all time, as well as one of the planet’s biggest acts, period.

Before I bring this blog entry to a close, I’ll also mention a couple of Swedish rock bands that had a taste of mainstream success in the United States. Seventies pop/rock cover band Blue Swede holds the distinction of being the first Swedish music act to score a number one single in America. They did so with a remake of the B.J. Thomas hit “Hooked on a Feeling” in April 1974. Although you may not remember the band, you may well remember the “ooga-chaka ooga-chaka” background chant that they cribbed from English singer Jonathan King’s earlier cover version. Blue Swede hit the top ten again later that same year with a cover of The Association‘s “Never My Love” before disbanding in 1975. In the mid-to- late 1980s, the hard rock band Europe was Sweden’s apparent answer to the American arena rock/hair metal trend of that period. Europe placed four songs on the U.S. top forty singles chart (two of those rising to the top ten) and had two albums reach the U.S. top twenty albums chart. Europe remains an active recording and touring act still popular throughout… well, Europe.

Visit the Des Moines Public Library for thousands upon thousands of CD titles across every musical genre. CDs have a three-week checkout period, no limit above the overall fifty-item limit, and – best of all – they’re free!

The Mockumentary: The Long and Short of It

No doubt about it, This Is Spinal Tap was one of funniest movies of the eighties. Why stop there? I’d say it’s one of the funniest movies ever! Written by and starring, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner (who also directed), This Is Spinal Tap is the story of an up-and-down rock band across two decades. Often referred to as just Spinal Tap, its actual full title is This is Spinal Tap®: A Rockumentary by Martin Di Bergi. Although its title calls it a This Is Spinal Tap“rockumentary,” this is the first movie that I recall being referred to as a “mockumentary,” as Reiner described it in contemporary interviews. The term, which surprisingly dates to the mid-sixties, conjoins the words “mock” and “documentary” to describe a work that parodies a subject via a distinct filmic style. This is Spinal Tap parodies metal bands that take themselves too seriously, while simultaneously poking fun at the documentary process itself.

The origins of the mockumentary are unclear. The seeds of the style date back at least to the 1950s, when variety shows would often use sketch comedy to lampoon current topics and public figures.  For instance, early television innovator Steve Allen – on the appropriately titled The Steve Allen Show – staged fake interviews with members of his comedy troupe for the ongoing “Man in the Street” segments. He also created a send-up of NBC’s nightly network news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, which in his hands became “The Nutley-Hinkley Report.”

The difference between parody and mockumentary is that the latter takes it a step or two further. Whereas a parody is executed with the performers giving a literal or figurative wink at the audience indicating that they’re fully in on the joke, a mockumentary is carried out with straight faces, requiring the viewer to determine where the humor is contained. Mockumentaries are also created by copying a specific filming style that, in some cases, blurs the lines between truth and fiction even more.  In fact, upon the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, some people thought that Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was an actual documentary.

A Hard Day's NightPerhaps the first film that can be categorized as a mockumentary is director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, which seemingly records events occurring over a few days in the life of The Beatles at the height of Beatlemania in 1964. Four years later, satirist Pat Paulsen, a regular on TV’s The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, launched a mock presidential campaign as a running gag on the show. Paulsen, with his usual deadpan delivery, used lies, double-talk, and attacks on other candidates, to poke fun at the campaign process. It culminated in his own TV-movie, Pat Paulsen for President, which was narrated by iconic actor Henry Fonda! That mostly-forgotten program, however, provided the blueprint for the mockumentary format.

Stand-up comedian Woody Allen directed his feature-length debut in 1969 with Take the Money and Run, which documented the story of bungling bank robber Virgil Starkwell. Allen returned Real Lifeto the style twice later in his career: 1983’s Zelig and 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown. In 1978, Monty Python’s Eric Idle wrote and co-directed The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, a send-up of The Beatles. Idle also starred as one of the members of the imaginary rock band (fellow Python Michael Palin also had a supporting role), while much of the extended cast was made up of Saturday Night Live players. Albert Brooks, who has his own SNL connection and is sometimes called “The West Coast Woody Allen,” made his directorial debut, like Allen, with a mockumentary. In 1979’s Real Life: An American Comedy, Brooks drew direct inspiration from PBS’ pioneering 1973 documentary series An American Family.

Since helping to popularize the comedy subgenre with This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest has gone on to create a cottage industry of sorts with a continuing line of mockumentaries. Guest Waiting for Guffmandirected, co-wrote (with co-star Eugene Levy), and starred in 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, 2000’s Best in Show,  and 2003’s A Mighty Wind. Those films took on the subjects of small-town community theater productions, upscale dog shows, and folk music, respectively. Although they are not blockbuster hits, they have a proven audience, and all have received critical plaudits.

The biggest sleeper hit of 2006 was probably writer-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The story of a supposed Kazakh TV reporter who is sent to the United States to make a documentary about American life and culture, however, drew criticism from several quarters. Baron Cohen, a TV star in his native England, was able to dupe countless Americans into believing his cover story, making many of them look incredibly foolish in their filmed interviews.

The OfficeDespite the success of Guest’s films and of Baron Cohen’s film, the use of the mockumentary style has mostly shifted to TV sitcoms in recent years. The first to use it to great success was the original, British version of The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, which ran from 2001-2003. To date, it has spawned additional versions in seven other countries:  The United States, France, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden. The American version of The Office debuted in March 2005 and was an immediate hit.  It ran for nine seasons, propelled several cast members to stardom, and received six nominations for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy, winning once.

You might think that The Office would have become so identified with the mockumentary style that no other television show producers would dare use it again so soon. Surprisingly, that Parks & Recreationdidn’t prove to be the case, at all. In 2009, two more mockumentary sitcoms debuted – and both also found success!  NBC’s Parks and Recreation bowed in April of that year and recently began its sixth season, having been nominated once for the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. ABC’s Modern Family, premiered in September 2009, and has won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series each of its first four seasons. Apparently, the mockumentary is a comedic style that Americans just aren’t tiring of quickly.

Mockumentary, parody, straight comedy, or otherwise, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of movie and TV series titles from which to choose. DVDs rent for $2.00 apiece, checkout for one week, and no longer have a limit other than the fifty-item overall limit. Come in and checkout as many as you can carry!

The Family Business: Country Music Style

Miley Cyrus apparently subscribes to the adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The former star of Disney TV’s Hannah Montana set the media abuzz with her surprisingly raw dance routine on the recent Video Music Miley CyrusAwards telecast. Of course, had Katy Perry or Lady Gaga performed that same routine, there would probably be far less scrutiny, but this was a bit of a shocker from the previously untarnished twenty-year-old. Riding high with the current number one single “Wrecking Ball” on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Cyrus seems determined to shed her squeaky clean teen image in favor of a rather salacious adult persona. 

I suppose that you can’t blame Miley Cyrus from wanting to make the break. Billy Ray CyrusAfter all, she’s actually trying to distance herself from two things: her teen image and her country singer/actor father, Billy Ray Cyrus. I assume that it’s difficult to sell yourself as a pop diva when many still think of a line dance craze at the mention of the name Cyrus. Billy Ray, of course, is probably still best remembered for creating that craze with his monster hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” way back in 1992. Although he has twelve studio albums to his credit, none has repeated the incredible success of his debut disc, Some Gave All. For over a decade now, he has focused much of his attention on acting. Among other roles, he starred as a Montana physician who took a job in New York City in the PAX  TV (now ION Television) show Doc, which ran from 2001-04, and as the on-screen father of his real-life daughter’s Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana dual character from 2006-11. 

Miley is far from the first progeny of a country singer to make a name in her/his own right in the music field. Surprisingly, however, she is the only one that I could discover who had not followed a country music icon into that same genre. Whereas Billy Ray is undeniably a country singer (who also cut some religious discs, but in a country style), Miley is clearly a pop singer. Apparently, this is a rare occurrence, as my check of similar parent/child music performers across all genres showed that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. One such example of disparate genres is John Raitt, the late star of several major Broadway musicals, and his daughter Bonnie Raitt, who became a blues-rock musician. Another is Ravi Shankar, the recently-deceased sitar virtuoso, and his daughter Norah Jones, who opted for a career as a jazz vocalist/keyboardist. A third might be singer-pianist Nat King Cole and his daughter singer Natalie Cole, but Nat, who started in jazz and ventured into pop, shared much musical territory with Natalie, who started in R&B and soul, before moving into pop and jazz. 

Despite Miley’s spurning country for pop, several country music icons have had offspring who have followed in their footsteps and become stars in their own right. Depending on your age, you probably rate either Hank Williams or Johnny Cash as the most iconic figure in the history of country music. Either way, those superstars would be a difficult act to follow, and yet, both had a child who managed to get out of the shadow of their famous father and into a spotlight of their own. 

Hiram King “Hank” Williams was the first superstar of the genre, as he took what had previously been referred to as “hillbilly” music onto the national stage in the 1950s, writing several dozen classic honky tonk tunes before Hank Williamsdrinking himself to death at age twenty-nine! His son, Hank Williams, Jr. (born Randall Hank Williams), started out as a sort of Hank Williams tribute performer, but after some mild success doing that – and having first to overcome his own fondness for drink and drugs – went on to become one of the most popular country artists of his generation. He found his own voice in the outlaw country style, with his long career peaking in the 1980s. Junior’s son, Hank Williams, III (born Shelton Hank Williams), has followed in the rebel footsteps of his forbearers, acquiring a considerable reputation for enjoying a certain naturally growing “weed.” Hank the Third started his music career in punk and hardcore bands, but more recently has drifted in and out of the traditional honky tonk style, often creating a hybrid of honky tonk and rock that generally gets him labeled as an alt-country artist. 

Johnny Cash (born J.R. Cash, as his parents couldn’t decide on a name!) enjoyed a half-century career yet his reputation seems to continue growing even a decade after his death. Like the Williams clan, Cash also went down the Johnny Cashdark path of alcohol and drugs, with alternating periods of living under the influence and being sober. Nevertheless, he remained productive through it all, releasing dozens of albums and writing over 1,000 songs. Perhaps country’s first “outlaw,” Cash was a genre-bending artist who embraced the poor and downtrodden. With his first wife, The Man in Black fathered Rosanne Cash, but had little contact with her until she graduated high school. Rosanne then spent the next three years serving in various non-musical and increasingly important musical capacities on her father’s cross-country tours, learning her lessons well. Starting in the late 1970s she began releasing critically lauded, but infrequent albums in the neo-traditionalist vein, spawning several number one hits and earning recognition for her own remarkable songwriting skill. 

Johnny Cash’s second wife was June Carter, a member of The Carter Family, The Carter Familyoften acknowledged as “The First Family of Country Music.” June’s mother, Maybelle, was one of the founding members of The Carter Family, originally a folk/gospel trio that was one of the most important artists in the creation of country music during the 1920s and 1930s. Starting in the 1940s, June spent over half a century working in the family business. With first husband, Carl “Mister Country” Smith, one of the most popular stars of the 1950s, June had daughter Carlene Carter. Like her mother, Carlene began her career as a member of The Carter Family, but had her greatest success as a solo artist during the 1990s as a neo-traditionalist.

Lorrie-Morgan-2009-300-01Country crooner George Morgan was the singer of the 1949 number one hit “Candy Kisses,” the first of his twenty-three singles that would reach the country top forty. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and a long-time member of the Grand Old Opry, Morgan was the final artist to sing on stage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and the first to sing on stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, when the venerable program moved to its new digs in 1974. George’s daughter, Lorrie Morgan, was a major star of the late-eighties and throughout the nineties, achieving three number ones among her fourteen top ten singles.

Mel Tillis is primarily known for two things, possessing one of the most Pam Tillisbeautiful voices in country music, and having one of the most severe stutters of any public figure. As a songwriter, he is one of the most covered artists in country music history, penning dozens of hits from the late-fifties forward. In the 1970s, Tillis became one of Nashville’s biggest stars. By the time his career was winding down in the 1990s, he’d had six number ones and another thirty top ten country hits.  By then, his daughter, Pam Tillis, had become a star and was making her own mark on the country charts.  By the start of the new millennium, Pam had had a number one hit of her own, as well as another dozen top ten country hits. 

Like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings was one of the main figures in the outlaw country Waylon Jenningsmovement of the 1970s. In fact, there was a previous connection between the two, as they once shared a Nashville apartment and, by their own admissions, large quantities of amphetamines. Although he was already a successful musician, Jennings didn’t become a superstar until he gained complete creative control over his recordings in the mid-seventies.  In 1969, Jennings met and married Jessi Colter, who went on to her own successful music career as one of the few women to be part of the outlaw movement. Their only child, Shooter Jennings (born Waylon Albright Jennings) is currently an alt-country star. 

Whether you’re looking for classic or current country music stars, we have them in the collection of the Des Moines Public Library. Browse our shelves, or browse our catalog, for hundreds of country titles. With our new, higher-limit CD policy, you can check out up to fifty discs at a time. So come to the library and get your country on!

The Financial Crisis of 2008 on Film

It’s been five years since the height, or should I say the depth, of the Financial Crisis of 2008, the worst in America since The Great Depression almost eighty years earlier. The collapse, or near collapse, of several national banks and major brokerage houses precipitated the resulting Wall Street crash, which has affected every one of us. For some, it’s been severe and direct, for others it’s been moderate and indirect, but no one has escaped its consequences. At Wall Streetworst, people have become unemployed, been evicted from their homes, lost their health insurance coverage, and/or significant portions of their life savings. Others may have not seen a pronounced change in their current lifestyle, but have been forced to put retirement plans on hold in order to maintain it. Even those who didn’t lose money themselves are still affected by the loss of governmental services, as a result of suddenly lowered tax bases.

The crisis actually began with the bursting of the housing bubble, which peaked in 2006, causing a domino effect on related financial industries.  According to the Senate Financial Crisis Report, 2011 (aka  the Levin–Coburn Report), the meltdown was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” By the time all was said and done, trillions of dollars of personal wealth had been lost by American citizens, and a global financial crisis had been triggered. Despite the far-reaching effects of the downturn, only marginal efforts have been made in terms of (re)regulating American finance, or bringing any of the culprits to justice. Many of us still have a lot of unanswered questions regarding this calamity.

My quick summary above is meant only to be an entry point into this topic. I’m not an expert on high finance, and I don’t pretend to be. If you too are still searching for a better understanding of what happened and why, but don’t have time to trudge through some dry, thousand-page, highly pedantic account of this subject, then I’ve got an alternate route for you. Filmic attempts to explain the crisis began appearing from the earliest days of the debacle. Several first-rate documentaries have been produced that do a stellar job of elucidating the major causes of the crisis. The following titles are owned by the Des Moines Public Library. You can find them among the non-fiction DVDs. They carry a Dewey Decimal number denoting their subject matter (the economy), which in this case is the 330s. If you look for a left or right bias in any of these titles, you’ll likely find one; that’s unavoidable, but each one presents its case in a reasonable, rational manner. As a group, I believe that they cover the main arguments from either side of the American political spectrum.

Maxed OutMaxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders (2006) – Produced and released in the midst of the bursting housing bubble, this doc details how American wealth has been built as a “house of cards” that can’t help but collapse. It makes clear how predatory lenders offer credit cards to those who can least afford to pay them off, making card holders lifelong customers often able to pay only the minimum balance. Too easily acquired home and auto loans are also addressed.

IOUSAI.O.U.S.A. (2008) – Released in late-August 2008, the month prior to the ultimate unraveling of the national banks and investment banking institutions, I.O.U.S.A. predicted the collapse based on various factors at play in the market at the time. Original interviews, with such heavyweight figures as Warren Buffett, Paul O’Neill, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin, lend credence to the filmmakers’ conclusions.

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) – Populist filmmaker Michael Moore ventures Capitalism - A Love Storyout to show the human impact of the financial meltdown. Moore visits several locales and interviews numerous average Americans whose lives have been upended by corporate greed run amok. Afterwards, he seeks answers to why this can occur in a Democratic society by going to Washington and Wall Street, where governmental leaders and corporate heads are less than forthcoming. In the final section of the film he outlines some strategies for change that have been employed successfully in other Western nations.

Inside JobInside Job (2010) – If you have time to see only one film about the financial crisis, this one is it! Narrated by Matt Damon, Charles Ferguson’s fine overview of the financial crisis won the “Best Documentary, Features” Oscar in 2011. Pointed interviews, well-chosen graphics, extensive research and worldwide locations are used to explain the global economic meltdown in an easily understood fashion. On top of all of that, it’s a surprisingly sleek film for a documentary, with crisp, gleaming photography that suggests the budget of a high-production-value Hollywood movie.

The FlawThe Flaw (2011) – The title derives from a famous quote by Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in which he admitted before the U.S. Congress that he put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets, convincing him not to impose regulation on the then-current risky mortgage lending practices. That flaw, the film contends, is people’s greedy nature and their willingness to swindle people if it means they will profit from it personally. Although the film takes its subject seriously, it also uses selected film clips (especially old cartoon segments) to add humor to the otherwise heavy mix.

Few narrative movies have been made that dramatize the financial crisis. Perhaps the subject is too massive to easily, and successfully, cram into a two-hour window. Or, maybe Hollywood types think it’s too much of a downer to appeal to audiences. In any case, at this time there are only a pair of movies that deal directly with events of that period that I can recommend (several other films, including Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, deal with it only peripherally or incidentally). Find the following titles in our regular DVD collection.

To Big to FailToo Big to Fail (2011) – HBO produced this reenactment of events during September 2008 when there appeared there would be further banking/brokerage house failures in the wake of the demise of Lehman Brothers. William Hurt stars as Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and centers on his efforts to create a federal government bailout that will prevent additional failures and help restore consumer confidence in Wall Street.

Margin CallMargin Call (2011) – Margin Call is an ensemble thriller offering a 24-hour window into an investment bank (read: Lehman) at the height of the financial crisis. It’s more focused on dramatics than on getting details right, but it does provide Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and Stanley Tucci ample opportunity to display their considerable talents.

Hair and the Rock Musical

HairOne of the most ubiquitous images of the late-sixties and early seventies was the orange, green, and yellow psychedelic poster for the musical Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. I was too young to actually know what Hair was about. All I knew was that it was something big and that it was very controversial. What I didn’t know at the time was that several songs that I was familiar with as radio staples were from that production, having all debuted in 1969, the year following Hair’s Broadway debut. Three Dog Night took “Easy to Be Hard” to number four, Oliver pushed “Good Morning Starshine” to number three, The Cowsills shot to number two with “Hair,” and The Fifth Dimension enjoyed a six-week stay at number one with the medley “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

Hair was conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, who had met while appearing in a short-lived off-Broadway play in 1964. To help fill time between acting gigs, they decided to write a play that would try to capture the growing counter-culture movement of the sixties. Later, they were introduced to composer Galt McDermott, who set their words to music. Hair originally opened off-Broadway as the debut production of Joseph Papp’s Public Theater on October 17, 1967. After a six-week run there, Papp and new co-producer Michael Butler moved it to The Cheetah, a discothèque located on 53rd and Broadway, for 45 performances starting December 22. Following that second off-Broadway run, Hair had a hiatus during which it was thoroughly revised, including the addition of 13 new songs and the introduction of nudity.

When Hair opened on Broadway at the Biltmore Theatre on April 29, 1968 it became the first rock musical to play The Great White Way, and very possibly the first to play anywhere. Its loose tale of a “tribe” of young hippies touched on numerous topics that were still considered taboo by the majority of the American populace:  anti-Vietnam War stance, Hair DVDrecreational drug use, sexual freedom, religious irreverence, and environmentalism. Much of the stagecraft was experimental (a spare, gray set scrawled with graffiti, overly stylized hippie costuming, “psychedelic” lighting) and the acting was unconventional, using improvisational techniques and repeatedly breaking the “fourth wall.” Most of all, it had exuberant music: edgy lyrics and captivating melodies. The result was a work that defied nearly every musical and theatrical convention – and it was a sensation. Curious crowds quickly made it Broadway’s biggest hit.

Butler, a Chicago businessman, was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War who was considering a run for the U.S. Senate on an anti-war platform at the time he stumbled onto the Public Theater version of Hair. He soon gave up his political aspirations and instead used the musical to further his anti-war agenda. The Broadway run of Hair lasted an impressive 1,750 performances, though its longevity was no doubt diminished by its success elsewhere. Butler licensed productions in virtually every major U.S. city. At one point, concurrently-running versions were playing in nine American cities, while national touring companies simultaneously crisscrossed the country. The staging of Hair in London’s West End ran an equally astonishing 1,997 performances. The creators continued to write additional songs that made their way into various versions playing throughout North America and the world. Many of the regional U.S. and international versions were even tailored with topical and/or local references to appeal to their specific audiences.

In the meantime, dozens of cast albums were recorded, with the original Broadway cast album becoming a multi-platinum smash and a Grammy winner for Best Score from an Original Cast Show Album. In addition to those mentioned above, literally hundreds of other cover recordings were made by popular musicians ranging from Barbra Streisand to Sérgio Mendes. Between the licensing of the many productions and the music royalties, all of the principals involved in the show became wealthy. Subsequent revivals have continued to thrust the musical back into the public eye.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how much effect Hair actually had on turning national sentiment against the Vietnam War, as there were many factors, but it’s safe to say that it was a contributing cause.  By the time master filmmaker Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) adapted Hair for cinema screens in 1979, the show’s moment had passed, and the movie was only a marginal success. To this day, however, the stage version continues to be regarded as one of the best artistic works to depict the mood of the radical sixties.

Hair’s success, naturally, spawned a wave of rock musicals hoping for similar fortunes. Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Grease, Pippin, The Rocky Horror Show, The Wiz, and Evita were all launched in the early to mid-seventies and attained Hair New Albumconsiderable popularity, either on Broadway, the West End, or both. In fact, many theatre critics of the time predicted that rock music would be the norm for stage musicals going forward.  That, however, did not prove to be the case. After an initial flood of productions, rock musicals slowed to a trickle by the latter part of the decade, with none attaining the massive success of the aforementioned titles.

The eighties and nineties produced a few very notable rock musicals – Little Shop of Horrors, Chess, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, and Rent, but those were exceptions. Audiences were increasingly turning to gargantuan productions featuring more traditional, pop-oriented musical fare, such as 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, The Lion King, and Jekyll & Hyde.

In more recent years, rock musicals written expressly for the stage have become a great rarity. Generally, rock musicals are now adapted from pre-existing works. These so-called “jukebox” musicals have been popular with audiences, perhaps only because the tunes are already proven hits. Examples include Tommy (by The Who’s Pete Townshend), Smokey Joe’s Café (by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and their collaborators), Jersey Boys (by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons), Rock of Ages (featuring hits of eighties arena rockers), and American Idiot (by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong).

It’s impossible to predict how long these jukebox musicals will remain popular, but it’s interesting to note that as far as rock music is concerned, Broadway appears content to continue looking to the past, rather than at the present. The legacy of Hair – an incredibly bold statement about America’s youth during a highly contentious time in our nation’s history – has been cast aside by Broadway in favor of the tried and true, and safe.

If you love stage or film musicals, as well as movie soundtracks, the Des Moines Public Library has hundreds of titles available. They are conveniently grouped together in the Show Tunes section of the CDs.