Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me

Last week I made the utterly insane declaration that I was going to take the Kid to see The Muppet Movie for its 40th Anniversary limited release in theaters. And then I promised to share the tale of our adventures, so here I am to made good on that along with sharing a bit about my nostalgia for the muppets.

It was just last month when I wrote this piece about Sesame Street's 50th Anniversary. A few days afterwards, I began to see advertisements on Facebook for the 40th Anniversary of The Muppet Movie, which made me suspicious about those algorithms, but also curious if it would be worth the trouble to see this at the theater with the Kid. And until late last Thursday morning, I had determined that given our past experiences (Hidden Figures, Coco, Moana, Ferdinand, Despicable Me, Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, etc.), it would be great in theory, but not worth the effort.

Mind you, I just passed on a formal outing to see the new CGI version of The Lion King for all of the above-referenced reasons (to which I will add Toy Story 4). Because in spite of her ability to sit quietly with a hand-held device for at least 30 minutes without so much as a peep, THIS KID CANNOT SIT STILL IN FRONT OF A LARGE SCREEN. And nobody has good money to waste on popcorn when half of it will end up on the floor. Nor can I afford to rent an empty theater for her to run around in for an hour in the dark.

But Thursday morning, two friends posted this article. And the next thing I know, I was recalling the words to this song and then I went looking for YouTube videos to post on the FB page and then I started searching for the closest theater with the best showtime and then hours later I'm on this improbable, hapless mission to drive across the Wilson Bridge in rush hour traffic by 4pm. Just as improbable and hapless as it was for an unlikely bunch of Muppets to travel across country to achieve Hollywood stardom.

As I shared in my Facebook post, this movie is peak nostalgia for me. And as I heard in the voices of the commentators who were discussing it the next day on Morning Edition, it has that same effect on all of us Gen X-ers who have seen this movie at least a dozen times (and its various sequels, and the original show, and Labyrinth, and Fraggle Rock, and the Muppet Babies).

Maybe I shouldn't try to speak for everyone in my generation, but there is something very emotional about seeing Kermit the Frog on that log with that banjo singing a song that many of us probably sang for some elementary school assembly (kinda like this clip from the Queen Latifah Show). There is the sweet nostalgia of looking back on that era of our youth--the innocence of a time when we could be entertained by the corniest of premises.

So yes, I got a little dust in my eye when those first familiar chords were strummed. I looked over at my sleeping Kid and had a full circle memory of being at the theater with my mother to see this movie (again for the umpteenth time) with my younger brothers. Now I'm the mother with the high strung little person who had to be taken out of the theater to diffuse a 20 minute meltdown in the bathroom...(and maybe I'll share the entire story at another time), but thankfully, we returned to enjoy the rest of the film without incident.

I tried to imagine how our parents reacted to all of that ribald adult humor and how so much of it went above our little heads. How Henson and Co. were clearly fans of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles and how significantly this Muppet film must have influenced the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou. How normal it was for us to accept that there was barely a handful of female muppets (all of whom were voiced by male puppeteers except for Fran Brill over at Sesame Street); yet, the diversity on display in that menagerie of characters would eventually inspire the likes of Kevin Clash (Elmo) and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph (Abby Cadabby). And let's not forget to mention Avenue Q...

Back to the myriad reasons for our sentimentality--I was five when this movie was released and I can't name a single memorable Disney movie from the 70s. The 80s was a slightly more creative decade for the Mouse, but all in all, big screen kid's fare consisted of superheroes, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg blockbusters. And that was one of the inside jokes of watching the Muppets and SS during that time, because their parodies for younger audiences featuring real-life stars in comedic spoofs of their work was a wink at our parents. Who can forget Pigs in Space? And why else would we have tuned in to see Lynda Carter, Christopher Reeve, or Sylvester Stallone sing?

Ultimately, I realize that my own nostalgia for the Muppets has been the combination of this year marking a series of transitional personal milestones and the need for some form of escapism. Nostalgia during tumultuous times is like eating comfort food in the winter. Each of my recent trips back down memory lane has been akin to wearing my favorite pajamas, hugging my favorite stuffed toy, and eating my Grandmother's Sunday cooking. Which of course evokes the bittersweet acknowledgement of time and loss...because the longer we live, the more we have to look back on.

Hence that lump in the throat that develops whenever we hear Jim Henson as Kermit the Frog. To a lesser extent, we know that most of the other familiar voices have moved on (died or retired), and everything must change. In addition to Jim Henson, who created our beloved Kermit, many of the actors who had cameos in that movie are gone. Some of those classic muppet characters didn't return for subsequent incarnations of the show. Some of the people from that era in our lives may be gone or perhaps we're taking care of them. Our lives are busy, hectic, chaotic, and preoccupied; yet there is something so calming and special about that moment when an unassuming felt puppet frog tells us that we too can chase our dreams. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lazy Sundays: Thirty Years of Romantic Comedies

It has gotten to that point in my life where every week it is brought to my attention that some major pop culture milestone occurred at least 25 years ago. And after I adjust to the shock, do the necessary calculations in my head, and then accept that yes, I am that old, I take a few moments to reflect on said milestone or event at issue. This isn't a scientific fact, but it feels as if this phenomenon is happening with more frequency now that I am on the other side of my big college reunion in May. So I have to admit to being a little caught off guard when I learned that one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally, is turning 30 this year.

I am sure that I knew this because I still watch the Today Show and they are always good for a cast reunion segment. And I seem to vaguely recall that Rob Reiner, Meg Ryan, and Billy Crystal appeared together on the red carpet earlier this year, but for whatever reason, here I am scratching my head in disbelief that somewhere at my parents' house there is a well-worn VHS copy of this film that I can't watch anymore because no one owns a working VCR.

I won't take you through a sentimental re-visitation because there is really not much to unpack here. This movie is still one of the funniest and is IMHO, the ribbon-cutting high water mark for the romantic comedy genre for our generation, so there is no need for debate or additional discussion. Instead, I offer my Busy Black Woman list of other great romcoms that I believe merit some appreciation along with WHMS. My criteria highlights films that: (1) were released after July 1989; (2) place a coupling as the central vehicle for the plot; (3) I can enjoy watching at any point i.e., beginning, middle, or end; and (4) the comedy still holds up however many years after its theatrical release.

Boomerang (1992)
This is one of the funniest romcoms that almost never makes anyone else's favorites list, which is a shame. I'm guessing that is because it is tempting to see this movie as just another classic Eddie Murphy performance, but it is so much more. Instead it offers a role reversal scenario with the notorious womanizer who has seemingly met his match in his femme fatale boss...before the era of #MeToo. And it features an all-Black cast, so that also makes this movie a stand-out for me (while others might overlook it).

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
It might be tempting to assume that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan merit their own category; however, they only starred together in one other movie, You've Got Mail (1998) which is certainly a good film, and despite being perennially enjoyable, it isn't my favorite. My reason for selecting SIS over YGM is simple--the earlier film is sweet and timeless, which seems rather ironic when you consider that both films were made in the era before social media, smartphones, and even the internet. 

Forget Paris (1995)
I've read negative reactions to this movie over the years (as a Billy Crystal vanity project in which he wrote, directed, and starred), but it is brimming with hilarious moments. And while it might be tempting to compare it to WHMS and find it lacking, that's actually the point. This is the aftermath to happily ever after, with the tests and trials of two adults in midlife working to build a life together after the honeymoon.

Hav Plenty (1998)
This film is an underrated indie gem. The Hub, his sister, and I are probably the only people on the planet who think this movie even merits inclusion on any list. It's not that obscure, given Babyface's involvement in getting it produced and distributed, but it definitely doesn't get the same level of attention as most of the other films on this list. But it is at its heart a hopeless love story that makes the guy the lovelorn party who, as it turns out, is better off without the girl (if you believe the original ending).

High Fidelity (2000)
Jon Cusak is the anti-hero of this movie as the schmuck who does not deserve the love of any woman, let alone the ex-girlfriend who gives him what must be the third or fourth chance to screw things up. But he is self-aware of his fuckery while she apparently believes that her bad taste in men could only get worse, so maybe it will all work out.

Bridget Jones' Diary (2001)
If the category is a love triangle set to a soulful Motown soundtrack, then this is your movie. I never read any of Helen Fielding's books, but that doesn't mean they had the right to ruin everything with two sequels, as if maybe we care what happens after the first happily ever after. Well, no matter because as the Brits say, the first movie was brilliant with Hugh Grant cast as the bad boy our mothers warned us about (but we ignored her and enjoyed fucking him anyway).

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
There isn't anything that unique about this movie except for Joey Fatone. And I mean that in all sincerity. It is literally the same plot as every other sitcom or Lifetime movie that tells the story of a plain, awkward, sheltered girl who eventually blossoms/gets a makeover to become a less awkward, sheltered woman to win the heart of the really nice hot guy. Except in this version, her cousin is Joey freaking Fatone!

Two Weeks Notice (2002)
Are you even surprised that Hugh Grant makes another appearance on this list given his prolific success as a romcommer? I know that the die hards prefer him in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) or Notting Hill (1999), but his chemistry with Sandra Bullock in this film is undeniable. I mistakenly thought that she was also a constant presence on the romcom scene, but her only other title is While You Were Sleeping (1995). I like this movie for its modern take on the His Girl Friday (1940) theme.

Something's Gotta Give (2003)
I watch this movie in amazement that Jack Nicholson agreed to be the actual butt of the joke...but he is and it is hilarious. And because of that, it is even funnier at the end when he laments to being the chick in the chick film right before everyone lives happily ever after.

Hitch (2005)
It makes all the sense in the world to cast Will Smith as a relationship consultant to an awkwardly funny guy like Kevin James, but what makes this movie hilarious is how undone Smith becomes when the tables get turned on him. Not that he is even naturally awkward around Eva Mendes, it just becomes clear that for all of his charm and expertise, even the most confident guy in the room can lose major cool points and still win the girl.

Knocked Up (2007)
This movie offers another version of the boy-meets-girl-and-gets-her-pregnant-after-one-night romcom theme. Even though we know it will all work out in the end, because only Fools Rush In (1997); yet somehow it is a lot funnier to wonder what might happen if the guy is an unemployed stoner and the girl is an up and coming TV personality (hint: hilarity ensues). Just know that an improbability isn't an impossibility, which makes this film both enjoyable and endearing. 

Baggage Claim (2013)
This movie is so bad with its borderline Tyler Perry-esqe qualities, but because there is no preachy lesson about finding true love with the blue-collar brother who lives next door...nevermind. At least it manages to be funny without relying on the man wearing a dress trope (although Jenifer Lewis does appear as somebody's mama). More importantly, it is on this list as one of my guilty pleasures because as much smack as I talk about bad Black movies, I like this one.

Honorable Mentions

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so these two classic films that obviously pre-date WHMS merit a mention:

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
I'm not a film historian, so I can't call this the original romcom, but I think it qualifies as a contender for that title. I love this movie although its casual references to domestic abuse are definitely problematic some 80 years later...(the 1956 remake High Society isn't funny at all).

Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Definitely not on your typical romcom favorites list, but once you consider that this is a classic love triangle embedded in a classic morality play set to a classic 40s-era big band musical, this movie is the real deal.

And finally, let's skip ahead four decades to mention these films:
Splash (1984)
One of my all-time favorites and also, one of Tom Hanks' very first starring roles.

The Princess Bride (1987)
Yep. Inconceivable, right? And the director is Rob Reiner, who later goes on to direct WHMS.

Roxanne (1987)
Another sentimental favorite from my youth, back when Steve Martin was a wild and crazy guy, and Daryl Hannah was the golden girl.

Coming to America (1988)
This movie was released a year prior to WHMS. And yes, this most certainly is a romcom (actually one of the first to feature a Black couple). She's your Queen to BEEEE!

And that's all folks! There are quite a few films that were considered but didn't make the cut this time around, but no worries because when Steel Magnolias turns 30 later this year, we'll revisit the broader genre of favorite chick flicks.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Black Music Month 2019: Diamond R&B Divas

This time last year, I don't recall if any of us knew that by summer's unofficial end, we would be saying our earthly goodbyes to Aretha Franklin, but we were. If there are any lessons that we should learn from that, one must be not to take anyone for granted. So for the last big Black Music Month piece (yeah, I know it's July), let's give some proper respect to a few R&B Divas who celebrated their 75th birthdays this year!

Apparently, 1944 was a great year to be born. On the Busy Black Woman FB page, I posted mini-tributes to Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Gladys Knight on their respective dates of birth, so in keeping with my goal to provide an index of those selections for posterity, here are those playlists. In addition to those music selections (with contributions that were made by my guest music editor and good friend RC), there are a few other song choices, remakes, memorable performances, and additional biographical information on each diva.

The Boss, Diana Ross (March 26)

So I am going to state my case at the outset about Ms. Ross--there is NOTHING you can say about her that will ever lower her status in my mind as one of the greatest divas on the planet. NOTHING. I am an eternal fan of hers ever since I saw her in The Wiz and decided that she was a better Dorothy than Judy Garland had been in The Wizard of Oz (and I am not here for any back talk about Stephanie Mills either).

I made individual posts on the Facebook page, so I can't link to them as a whole, but here is the initial post (from The Wiz) and I chose four others. From the early days of her career with The Supremes, my favorite song has always been their first hit Where Did Our Love Go (1964).  From her solo career I chose Reach Out And Touch Somebody's Hand (1970), Upside Down (1980), Endless Love (1981) her duet with Lionel Richie, and Missing You (1984) her song released in tribute to Marvin Gaye.

At first glance, that would appear to be a very straight-forward playlist, so let's deep dive into several of these choices. I have to admit that my fascination with The Supremes was a by-product of my love of Ross, so nowadays my reaction to a lot of their songs is meh. While I am 99.9999% sure that I heard the original version of "WDOLG" at least a hundred times before I heard this remake by the British group Soft Cell in 1981 (part of the extended version of Tainted Love), if we're being honest there is that .0001% chance that it was the other way around...

The other Supremes songs that I liked were not even sung by the entire group. For example, Someday We'll Be Together (1970) was supposed to be the farewell number sung to set up the transition of Ross to a solo act, but Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong aren't singing background on the track. Instead, they appear in the performances and are recorded on the B-side song, He's My Sunny Boy (which sounds better as a Jackson 5 song, too bad it was unreleased). The version of "Someday" we know was recorded with Johnny Bristol, one of the original writers of the song, which had previously been released with another singer, Jackey Beavers when they were a duet known as Johnny & Jackey in 1961. Later when the Supremes performed, Jean Terrell who replaced Ross in 1970, sang the lead (here with Smokey Robinson). Another song in that same category is Ain't No Mountain High Enough (1970) which I have seen billed as sung by the Diana Ross and The Supremes...which it technically was, but as a duet with The Temptations in 1968. The older version sounds like an okay karaoke rendition next to the superior Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell megahit from 1967; the remake was on Ross's solo debut.

Speaking of Marvin Gaye, the one thing I recall hearing when he died in 1984 was that he and Ross had a tumultuous working relationship on Diana & Marvin (1973), so it was ironic opportunistic that she would dedicate "Missing You" to him. Apparently, that wasn't a rumor... Nevertheless, their album had several UK hits, including You Are Everything and Stop, Look, Listen To Your Heart, both remakes from the Stylistics self-titled debut album released in 1971.

As for remakes/samples of Ross's hits, I heard "Endless Love" every day during a cross-country family trip, so the original is hard-wired into my memory, but the Luther Vandross/Mariah Carey remake isn't half bad. On 1997's Life After Death, Biggie Smalls famously sampled Ross's I'm Coming Out on Mo Money Mo Problems, but he also less famously sampled Missing You. Is that why Puffy sampled Sting's Every Breath You Take for his tribute to Smalls (to avoid confusion)?

So back to what I said at the outset--nothing diminishes Diana Ross in my eyes as a diva. She didn't discover the Jackson 5, but they did tour with her so theoretically, she introduced them to the world. She got to be Dorothy in the movie because she wanted the role and in hindsight, I still don't care that y'all think Stephanie Mills sang Home better because Ross was the bigger star at the time. Yeah, it might have been potentially dangerous to continue an outdoor concert in a thunderstorm, but YOLO and it was in Central Park and it was to build a playground (and sentimentally, I remember watching it with my Mom). It is entirely possible that she and Marvin Gaye had patched things up by 1984...at least it looked like they had during the Motown 25 tribute. Over the years, everybody has had their say about Diana Ross: from Dreamsgirls, the Broadway play (1981) and the film (2005); to Mary Wilson's original memoir (an excerpt of which I recall reading when it was published in ESSENCE magazine in 1986); to Barry Gordy's 1994 autobiography (which inspired another Broadway production in 2013, Motown: The Musical); to the Unsung episode about Florence Ballard (2009).

So if there is anything more we need to know, we can read her memoir, or we can just listen to what she sang in the Theme from Mahogany (1975)...she's always known where she wanted to be.

The Godmother, Patti LaBelle (May 24) 

If there was ever a sanging sister who defies all categories, it is Mama Patti. She is a music diva, an accomplished actress, a published author of several cookbooks, an entrepreneur, AND (I know this is shouting, but) SHE HAS HAD THE SAME SINGING VOICE throughout her career! My little tribute can't do justice to all that she is, but I'm undaunted...

First, here are the selections from the mini-Patti Playlist that was posted to the FB page. From her days with LaBelle (with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) hits include Lady Marmalade (1974), What Can I Do For You? (1975), and Isn't It A Shame (1976); and then solo Patti was represented by a definite disco/roller-skate jam Music Is My Way of Life (1979), and these Quiet Storm standards You Are My Friend (1977), Over the Rainbow (1981), Love, Need and Want You (1983), If Only You Knew (1983), and Somebody Loves You (1992).

And each of those selections offer an adequate sampling of the classic Patti that we all know and love, but if you dig a little deeper, there is so much more to discover. For example, there is very early Patti from her days as the lead singer of The Bluebelles singing Down the Aisle (1963), as well as an earlier version of Over the Rainbow (1966). If you've never heard her version of You'll Never Walk Alone (1964), you'd be surprised to learn (like I was) that was originally a show tune (1945) and a sports anthem, not gospel (1985)! Such is the transformative power of Patti's voice. She can do Broadway just as easily as she can do church. And jazz. And country.

There is also Patti the actress, who made one of her first appearances on screen in A Soldier's Story (1984) as Big Mary, and then later turned up as Dwayne Wayne's mother, Adele, an epic scene stealer on A Different World (in one of my favorite episodes). She also had her own short-lived sitcom Out All Night in 1992. There is Patti the lifestyle guru who had her own show on the Cooking Channel and is now planning to venture into the frozen food business (beyond those legendary Patti pies). And again, that just barely scratches the surface.

As is always the case whenever I put these playlists together, I learn so much, so the big revelation here was the interesting rivalry between LaBelle and Diana Ross. Not that it isn't surprising among the various girl groups of that era, but if you are at all familiar with the plot of Dreamgirls, this interview is classic #PettyPatti. At the end, it references how Cindy Birdsong, who had been a member of the Bluebelles left that group to join The Supremes, under circumstances that allegedly influenced Nona Hendryx to write Can I Speak to You Before You Go To Hollywood. (By the way, Patti told Andy Cohen in a more recent interview that she and Ross are on better terms now. She and Cindy Birdsong have made up as well.)

So on that note, let's give an Honorable Mention to Nona Hendryx, who will also celebrate her 75th birthday this year (October 9). This gem from the 80s archives, I Sweat comes from the soundtrack of one of those utterly forgettable 80s movies, Perfect...about aerobics. Sarah Dash, who will celebrate her 75th birthday next year (August 18), pursued a solo career as well, but she is probably better known for her work with Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones. Here is Patti reunited with Hendryx and Dash in 2008 (not missing a beat after 30-some years singing solo).

So how does one sum up such a fascinating career? Well you can't, so either check out her memoir or sit back and listen to When You Talk About Love (1997).

The Empress , Gladys Knight (May 28)

Now I know she's been a solo artist for 30 years, but it is nearly impossible to talk about Gladys Knight without acknowledging the Pips, with whom she recorded all of her hit music during the first half of her career. In fact when the FB list was published, only one of those songs came from her solo career.

From their days at Motown, the hits included: I Heard It Through The Grapevine (released in 1967, before Marvin Gaye's 1968 release, and after it was recorded by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966); If I Were Your Woman (1970); and Neither One Of Us (1972). Then they decamped for Buddha Records and scored major hits and success with Midnight Train to Georgia (1973) and The Makings of You (from the Claudine soundtrack in 1974). In the 80s hits included Save the Overtime (1983), Love Overboard (1987), and License to Kill (1989).

But the fact that she spent the greater part of her career in a group doesn't diminish her stature, especially since she was the lead singer. It isn't like they broke up and the Pips went on to score hits for themselves...At Last (1977). As this hilarious clip from the Richard Pryor Show (1977) demonstrates, the Pips were always a class act, but without Gladys, they were three guys in tuxedos. And that skit is even funnier when viewed along with this clip from the PBS special of the Three Mo Tenors (2001), with their tribute to the Pips (around 4:30) as well as this spoof (circa 2008). It just took a while for us to adjust to seeing and hearing her as a soloist as was the case in this memorable scene from A Different World--part of an entire episode about her needing new backup singers.

While her music career was inextricably connected to the Pips, her forays into acting allowed us to see her as a star in her own right. She guest-starred as herself on The Jeffersons (1983) and was good-natured enough to tolerate the joke that Diana Ross was a better singer (and then later came by to rehearse). As is always the case when I research these types of pieces, I found this gem from Charlie & Co. (1986), a show that I had forgotten about (so we'll be revisiting the topic of forgotten Black sitcoms in the near future). We saw another examople of an unfazed Gladys in this episode of Living Single...because only a saint could endure Denise Nicholas's off-key singing (it cuts off, but if you're a fan of the show you've seen it and know that Gladys mercifully takes the mic). At least Jamie Foxx was able to hold his own during this touching duet when she guest starred as his estranged mother.

Hence, my premise is that of these three divas, Gladys is the Gamma Girl, the type who possesses the quiet confidence to let you realize her greatness without her having to announce it. Listen closely to her music, and that is how nearly every song unfolds. She starts off sweet, as she does here in her first hit song, Every Beat of My Heart (1961), then allows the excitement to build, like she does in I Don't Want To Know (1994). Then she just knocks it all the way out of the park, as she does with this version of How Great Thou Art (1968) and the Star Spangled Banner at the most recent Superbowl (yeah, I know but goosebumps). She can hold her own with other divas and knows exactly how much to give and keep (after all, this was on her album). And despite the crazy costume, how could anyone not recognize her unmistakable voice (come on Dr. Ken, Anita Baker???)!

The other big revelation from this project is that when Gladys Knight and the Pips were signed to Motown during that storied label's heyday, they discovered the Jackson 5 and made the initial recommendation to sign the group. But as she recounts in her understated manner, she didn't have the stature of her label-mates, so the credit went to others. That story also hints at the rivalry that has existed between her and Diana Ross all of these years...but I am not here to take sides. Because Gladys ain't never been shy about spilling tea, which we know from her 1997 memoir in 1997 and 2013 reality special on OWN.

But I am here to pay tribute and give credit where it is due, and as such, Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me (1974) is one of the greatest songs. Ever.

WHEW. There is so much more to these three women, and as you might imagine, the attempt to compile and condense 55+ years (about 170 years or more combined) in the music business into brief career snapshots is more than a notion for some casual music blogger. But I tried. Happy Black Music Month!