Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Rocketman Review

Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived.  Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole.  Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.

It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song.  While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century.   I’m all in.

But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film.  We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts.   By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative.  Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.

More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film.  Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due.  The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies.  In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat.  It should have been electric.  Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves.  I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?”  We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.

And why on earth is the band nameless?   Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential.  There are no scenes showing their camaraderie.  No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France.  No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance.  Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.

I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago.  Look, you can play with facts in films.  I get it.  Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential?  You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene.  But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release?  If you’re going for fantasy, go all in.  If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can. 

The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene.  Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse.  He also sings the material, which is impressive.  I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly.  And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about the film does.

The Florida Project

A month ago, I lamented about this year’s best picture Oscar nominees and listed the few movies I saw in 2017 that I thought deserved recognition, only one of which made the Oscar cut: Get Out.  I’d like to add one more movie released in 2017 that should have been recognized for more than just a best supporting actor nomination for Willem Dafoe: The Florida Project, a low-budget film released last fall to rave reviews, though if you blinked, you might have missed its theatrical release.

The Florida Project is one of those rare films that I gravitate toward – short on plot, long on characters and realistic slices of life.  It brings to mind some other films like Beginners, Nebraska, Lovely and Amazing, The Squid and the Whale, Boyhood and the Joe Swanberg films (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire, All the Light in the Sky, and the like), though its portrayal of the American poor through children’s eyes has almost nothing in common with those films.  In that sense, it’s like no other film I’ve seen.

Director Sean Baker’s portrait of poor families living in a rundown motel outside of Disney World is captivating, largely due to the amazing talents of child actors Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik and Valeria Cotto.  Much of the film is shown through their perspective, as they stroll from motel to ice cream stand to waffle house to cow pasture to abandoned homes.  I marveled at some of the dialogue between the children and am curious about how much was scripted and how much was simply kids being kids, as they express wonderment of a fallen tree that’s kept growing or take delight in sharing an ice cream cone.

The adults are worthy of note too, and not just the incomparable Willem Dafoe – wonderful as the motel manager who, without sentiment, protects the lives of his poor tenants in ways large and small, a more important figure in their lives than the mobile food pantry volunteers who hand out bread in the motel parking lot.  Bria Vinaite, who plays mom to Prince’s Halley, is also a standout as an aimless adult doing whatever she needs to do to pay next week’s rent, including using her daughter to hawk wholesale perfume in a country club parking lot.  Yes, she’s a neglectful parent, but I found her also to be sympathetic, as her love for Halley shines through at times, though not always in the most conventional way.

The film shows a side of life that we don’t often get to see – the American poor, eking out a living, relying on each other for basic niceties, not having the luxury of caring about politics or the environment or the economy.  Surviving is all they have time for.  Like my experience watching the film Boyhood, I kept waiting for the Hollywood dramatic turn: a car crash, a molestation or a murder.  There were times when the kids were running through a parking lot or crossing a street, and I winced, expecting one of the children to land on the hood of a car.  But like Boyhood, The Florida Project doesn’t take the easy way out.  Many lives are crushingly difficult, not because of life-altering events, but because of the harsh, daily grind, when one day bleeds into the next, never exercising the difficulties of the day preceding it.

Often, I value a movie on how much I’d like to see it again, and I was taken with something Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote about the movie.  He was more harsh in his assessment of the characters the film portrays, but he still loved the film.  He writes: ”…you’ll most likely not want to see (it) twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.”

I think he and I agree on this point.  I’m not sure I’ll be eager to rent this movie again, even for all it’s attributes.  But if you haven’t seen it once, you’re missing out.

Stevie Wonder in Chicago

@@If Stevie Wonder ever begins to look his age and lose some of his ridiculous vocal range, take heed: the end is nigh.@@  Fortunately, neither has come to pass, as witnessed by a huge crowd at the United Center in Chicago on Friday night.  I was expecting to enjoy the show but ended up loving it, partially for the Man himself and for his amazing ensemble of backing musicians, but also because of the diverse and enthusiastic fans that left me leaving the arena feeling positive about the status of American racial relations.  Music can indeed bring people from different backgrounds together, something I learned back in 1987 when I attended Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, but in light of recent events and seen through eyes that are almost three decades older, Friday night’s concert was even more special to me.

Wonder came on stage first to talk to the audience – something I am not a fan of as it detracts from the thrill of the opening number – but quickly charmed the audience with what was for me a surprising sense of humor along with his well-known appeals for peace and love.  When he introduced the first song of his magnum opus Songs in the Key of Life, one certainly couldn’t argue that “More than ever, love’s in need of love.”  Six vocalists began the haunting opening phrase of the 1976 release, and Stevie followed with the familiar opening line, “Good morn or evening friends…” 

I thought Arcade Fire crammed a lot of musicians on stage last year, but Wonder put that band to shame, as six horns, six backup singers, two drummers, two percussionists, two guitarists, two keyboardists and a bass player graced the stage.  During peak numbers such as “Pastime Paradise,” an eight-piece string ensemble and approximately ten-piece choir joined the crew, and along with a harmonica player and conductor the total number of musicians exceeded forty.  Wonder highlighted just how thrilling it is to play with “real musicians” and allowed each to shine at various points throughout the evening, most notably a playful competition with his backup singers at the conclusion of “Knocks me off my Feet.”  While all the backup singers naturally held their own, I was amazed at how Wonder’s range continues to defy human physiology; he sounds as strong at sixty-five as he did at twenty-six when he recorded Songs in the Key of Life.

Stevie’s mastery of keyboards and the chromatic harmonica is well known, but during the second set he displayed his chops on an instrument that I thought was a stick but have learned since is actually a newer tapping instrument called a harpejji.  A cross between keyboards and guitar, it offered a terrific accompaniment to several songs, including what appeared to be the only off-the-cuff track, a Buddy Guy tribute of “Hi-Heel Sneaker.”

I always thought Songs in the Key of Life had some filler tracks on the second two sides, or at the very least some filler minutes of some otherwise decent tracks, and I stand by my conclusions after hearing the album in its entirety, but when you have kick-ass musicians on stage performing for a full three hours, it hardly seems to matter.  After the album's completion, Wonder’s alter-ego DJ Chick Chick Boom took over, playing snippets from a series of songs including the crowd-pleasing “My Cherie Amour” and “Superstition.”  Had he been able to find room for “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” I would have been beside myself.

Wonder’s creative output since 1976 has been sporadic, and – at times – embarrassing, but no one can deny that from 1972 to 1976 he was one of the best, if not the best, composers.  Forty years later, there’s no denying that he remains one of the best performers, and one of the few who can attract an audience of equal parts black and white, a special ability in a culture that so often separates itself along racial lines whether by circumstances or by choice.  It felt good to buck this trend, if only for evening.

A special thank you to my kids who bought me and my wife the tickets for our twentieth anniversary!

Review: Jackson Browne in Chicago

At sixty-six, Jackson Browne could easily phone it in and play concert after concert of the certified hits that came with regularity during the first decade and a half of his 40-plus year career, but on Tuesday night at the Chicago Theater he went a different route, playing deep cuts and new material along with a few crowd-pleasers for a balanced and effective show. 

Beginning with 1996’s “Barricades of Heaven,” 1972’s “Looking into You,” and two songs from his new album Standing in the Breach, it was apparent that this wasn’t going to be a greatest hits show, and the evening was all the more rewarding because of it.  Browne stitched his new material seamlessly with his older tunes, which you could take one of two ways I suppose: 1) his new material is as strong as his old material; or 2) his new material explores the same territory he’s been exploring for decades.  It’s probably a little of both, but when you have an absolutely stellar band with equally stellar sound backing you up, and you’re reciting lyrics like: The seeds of tragedy are there/In what we feel we have the right to bear… well, I’ll take a little familiarity with my new Jackson Browne.  All told, he performed seven songs from his new album.  If you had asked me beforehand if that was a recipe for a successful evening, I would have demurred, but to my ears many of the new tunes were as strong as the old ones.

After being assaulted at several arena shows lately, I was thrilled to be able to hear every instrument on stage without reaching for the earplugs, and I spent much of the evening admiring the guitar work of Val McCallum and Greg Leisz (who played dobro, guitar and lap steel), both absolute monsters at their instruments, and one got the feeling that Jackson Browne had as much fun watching these guys display their craft as he did singing his compositions. 

Alternating between guitar and piano throughout the evening, Browne sported an all-black outfit (as did the rest of the band), and the stage lighting bathed the musicians in shades of violet, with occasional splashes of color to enhance various songs, most notably the desert shades of “Leaving Winslow,” a song Browne introduced with a childhood memory of playing on a trestle bridge with his buddies and flattening pennies on the railway.

Early in the second set, Browne asked, “What would you like to hear?” and after a deluge of requests, he answered, “Yeah, I thought so.  But after that what do you want to hear?”  But as far as I could see, the request resulted in only one audible, the 1980’s hit “In the Shape of a Heart,” and the rest of the evening proceeded much as his previous concerts in Philadelphia and New York. 

I knew I could leave a happy man after Browne performed 1993’s “I’m Alive,” albeit a whole tone lower than his studio recording.  It became apparent during the show that keys had been adjusted to accommodate Brown’s aging voice, but that said, his signature mellow tone still sounded excellent, and I got the feeling that he could have hit the high notes consistently had he been forced to.  If there was one complaint about the evening, it’s that the band played on a similar energy level throughout with little in the way of dynamics; even some of the rockers came off sounding country.  But this is a minor quibble, and for the last selections of the concert, Browne broke into crowd favorites and rocked a bit with “Doctor My Eyes,” “The Pretender,” “Running on Empty” and “Take it Easy.”

As I was buying junk food at Walgreens after the show, a woman behind me said to her boyfriend, “I was hoping for ‘Late for the Sky.’”  I was too, but I give Browne a lot of credit for playing so much new music that was actually worth playing and worth hearing.  He continues to sing about the stuff that matters, from the Haiti earthquake, to politics, to the Gulf oil spill.  We need guys like Browne to continue to fight the good fight and to be willing to put new music at the forefront.  I'll take that over a greatest hits show any day.

Rush Mixes it Up (to a point)

I imagine that being in a band with twenty albums of material is burdensome at times.  With that much history behind you, pleasing all of your fans while attempting to please yourself has got to be a daunting task.  For years, Rush has fallen into the routine of playing whatever album they’re promoting, along with what I like to call “the first song on the album syndrome.”  If they played an album from Signals, it was “Subdivisions.”  If they played a song from Power Windows, it was “The Big Money.”  Hold Your Fire?  “Force Ten.”  Roll the Bones?  "Dreamline."  It became very predictable, and I often wondered why they didn’t allow themselves to dig a little deeper into their extensive repertoire.

On Saturday at the United Center in Chicago, Rush mixed things up to a degree that undoubtedly left some people beside themselves with joy and others scratching their heads at yet another missed opportunity.  I was somewhere in the middle, but ultimately I have to applaud Rush for finally shaking the dust off of some tunes that hadn’t seen a live performance in over a decade.  Rush has always thrown a surprise or two in their setlist – “Presto” on the Time Machine tour, “Between the Wheels” on the R30 tour, “Circumstances” on the Snakes and Arrows tour – but this time around they performed at least six unexpected tracks.

If you liked 80s Rush – not their crowning back-to-back albums Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures – but from the subsequent synth-heavy releases, you were a happy camper.

Kicking off the 2 ½ hour show with “Subdivisions,” Rush didn’t leave the 80s until the 8th track, and not before surprising the audience with two songs I’d been hoping to hear for the past twenty years: “The Body Electric” from Grace Under Pressure, and “Territories” from Power Windows.  In fact, PW won the contest for most songs (aside from Rush’s new release, Clockwork Angels).  Who would have figured that one?  “Analog Kid” from Signals was another great addition and a crowd favorite.  Less effective was “Grand Designs” from PW, and why the rock trio can’t perform something other than “Force Ten” from Hold Your Fire is a mystery.  It’s never been a showstopper, so why continue to grind through yet another performance of a tired song?

Geddy Lee was in fine form on Saturday, his voice as strong as it’s been in years, hitting the higher register on most songs – especially those from Clockwork Angels – consistently.  Sure, he can’t sing “Temples of Syrinx,” but who can?  Geddy couldn’t even hit those notes twenty years ago.  Neil Peart made the wise choice of performing three mini drum solos this time out rather than one extensive solo.  The result was an effective interlude between songs, rather than an extended piece that – to my ears at least – had sometimes grown tiresome.  Especially effective was Neil’s electronic solo prior to “Red Sector A” (yet another surpriing choice).

Still early on their US tour, Alex occasional forgot to lip-synch the prerecorded vocal tracks he’s supposed to pretend he’s actually singing, but the result was the same.  He also forgot to press his acoustic simulator at the beginning of “The Garden,” so the first two or three chords came blazing out of his guitar before he recognized his mistake.  Still, he and his bandmates were – as always – masterful at their instruments and a pleasure to watch.

Equally masterful was the addition of a seven-piece string section that accompanied the band throughout the Clockwork Angels selections as well as three other songs.  The highlight for me, aside from a beautifully pulsating introduction of the “The Garden,” was the addition of strings on “YYZ,” in which they doubled the guitar parts at key moments, lifting an already unbelievable song to new heights.

Some of the new material went over very well.  “Caravan” has already become a fan favorite after its introduction during the Time Machine tour, and the driving “Headlong Flight” electrified the audience.  Other songs went over less enthusiastically, and it wasn’t hard to conclude that Rush probably played two new songs too many.  Nine was a lot to digest.

Ending the set with the typical trio of “The Spirit of Radio,” “Tom Sawyer” and a medley of selections from “2112,” Rush left the audience on a high note.  But it’s easy to understand some of the disappointing posts I’ve read on-line.  Of Rush’s twenty albums, ten had no representation whatsoever.  Furthermore, they performed only one song from the 70s, (2112), one song from Permanent Waves (The Spirit of Radio) and two songs from Moving Pictures (Tom Sawyer and YYZ).  It would have been nice to have heard “Free Will,” “Limelight,” “La Villa Strangiato” or a track off of Presto (“Superconductor,” anyone?).

Nonetheless, my son, my brother and I left the show happy to have heard a great band playing at a high level after all these years.  In fact, I attended my first legitimate concert with my brother back on October 9, 1982, when we saw Rush perform at MECCA in Milwaukee.  The Brewers were in the World Series, and Geddy and Neil both came out sporting Brewer garb during the opening number of “The Spirit of Radio.”  When Geddy was supposed to sing, “one likes to believe in the spirit of music,” he substituted “music” with “baseball.”  A more auspicious introduction to concert viewing in the eyes of a fourteen year-old boy there has never been. 

Now, almost exactly thirty years later, and I saw Rush with my ten year-old son.  How cool is that?  And who the heck would have thought back in 1982 that the Canadian trio would still be pumping out solid material to well-attended concerts?

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved