Paul Heinz

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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.

Joe Jackson at Thalia Hall (again)

Joe Jackson has been busy lately.  After not one, not two, but three tours supporting his very strong 2012 release, Fast Forward, he immediately took his band consisting of bassist Graham Maby, drummer Doug Yowell and guitarist Teddy Kumpel to a studio in Boise, Idaho (the location of last summer’s final show), and quickly recorded an eight-track album called Fool.  It too is strong, and at last night’s return to the fabulous Thalia Hall in Pilsen, Chicago, he and his band played five tracks from the album along with a selection of other songs spanning four decades to an enthusiastic sold-out audience.

To commemorate Jackson’s forty years in the industry and to mix things up a bit from his previous tours, the band highlighted tracks from four other albums from four different decades, though two of them were way too predictable: Look Sharp from the 70s, Night and Day from the 80s (those are the predictable ones), Laughter and Lust from the 90s and Rain from the 00s.  It’s these latter two along with the six newer tracks (one from Fast Forward) that made the evening interesting, along with a rendition of “Steppin’ Out” that mimicked the original recording to perfection, including a glockenspiel and Jackson’s Boss DR-55 drum machine whose “club beat” was used in the original.

All of the musicians were excellent and given various moments to shine, though Jackson took more solos than I remember from previous concerts, including one from his once-ubiquitous melodica.  But it was drummer Doug Yowell’s high energy performance who really sole the show.  Animated, forceful and dexterous, Yowell blew me away with the beginning of one of my favorites, “Another World,” when he managed to play the drum beat and accompanying cowbell and timbale beat simultaneously.  My drummer son and I turned to each other with mouths agape.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the final track from 1991’s Laughter and Lust, the moody tune of resignation to love, “Drowned,” along with the opening – and closer! – “Alchemy” from Fool.  That’s right, Jackson both opened and closed with the same song under dim, red lights.  I loved it, if only because it meant that we didn’t have to hear the band end with “Slow Song” again as they had repeatedly since 2000.  Adding “I’m the Man,” “Got the Time,” and Steely Dan’s “King of the World” were welcome crowd-pleasers near the evening’s end, and the new song, “Fool,” was among the most exciting songs of the night.  Jackson pointed out that it is sometime the fool – or jester – who makes life sane (“If you lose your sense of humor, you’re fucked.”) and the song’s playfulness seemed contagious to the four musicians on stage.

All in all it was a great concert.  Jackson continues to use an iPad teleprompter for his lyrics, which is a little odd for songs that he’s been singing for forty years, but hey, if that’s what the guy has to do to keep touring, then I’m all in. I’ve seen Jackson perform eight times now, and this show ranks in the top three for sure. Keep ‘em coming, Joe!

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

The Last Eleven Albums I Can't Live Without

Fifty down with another eleven below, capping off my list of albums I can’t live without at sixty-one. As a reminder, this list is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen.

Rush – Permanent Waves (1980). I’ve written extensively about Rush’s catalog before, but I’ll quickly say that Permanent Waves is their best album.  It’s such a fresh and positive collection of songs, with just enough prog-rock elements to keep things from getting stale. 

Sting – Mercury Falling (1996).  One of the best-sounding albums ever, Sting was at his peak here, creating sonic moods, telling compelling stories (“I Hung My Head” and “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) and deftly encapsulating feelings (“Let your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “All Four Seasons”).  The album preceding and succeeding this release are good too, but this is Sting’s best solo recording, and while I could certainly make an argument for the Police’s second and last albums, for reasons I don’t quite understand, I rarely turn to those aside from the title track of the former and the title tracks of the latter.

Genesis – Duke (1980).  It came down to this or the following year’s Abacab, but ultimately I can’t say no to the thrilling bookends to the album and “Turn it on Again,” among my favorite tracks ever.  Once again, Tony Banks contributes a few killer tracks in “Heathaze” and “Cul-de-Sac,” and Rutherford even adds a terrific “Man of our Times.”  Collins disrupts the genius with “Please Don’t Ask,” but oh well.  It’s still a fantastic album, and at 55 minutes in length, you can skip that one track and still have a ton of Genesis leftover to enjoy!

Yes – Tales from Topographic Albums (Sides 1 and 2).  Look, I know that The Yes Album, Fragile, Going for the One, Drama and 90125 are all great, but in the context of the other albums I’m selecting, having the first few sides of Tales is a really satisfying addition, a set of rich and mysterious tracks that still mesmerize me after all these years, having purchased the album used in Milwaukee back in 1981.  If I made a top 100 albums, I’d probably include many of the aforementioned albums.

Toto – Toto (1978).  This is another one I might get crap for, but doggone it, it’s such a solid album from front to back, with terrific hooks, crafty musicianship, and a killer lead-off track, it’s hard to resist.  Employing not one, not two, not three, but four lead singers, the album alternates between solid rock and jazz-tinged pop, and with Jeff Porcaro on the drums, it’s as tight as can be.  It you like some of the later hits off of Toto IV, check this album out and be amazed.

Indigo Girls – All That We Let In (2004).  This duo is so fricking good I could have chosen another three albums, but this one made the cut, an extremely solid album from start to finish.  The Indigo Girls is another band that really benefits from having two singers with two distinct voices and two distinct writing styles, Emily Saliers’s sweet and Amy Ray’s edgy, and the way they intertwine these voices gives them a distinctive sound. Ray’s songs on this effort are particularly strong, which isn’t always the case, and songs like “Perfect World” and “Tether” work perfectly alongside “Fill it Up Again” and “Come on Home.”  Just beautiful.

The Beatles – The Beatles, sides 1 and 3 (1968).  You knew the Fab-Four would have to be represented somewhere on this list.  It’s not easy to stay excited about songs you’ve heard a thousand times, but The White Album still grabs me, particularly side one.  I love the rising guitar motif at the end of “Dear Prudence,” the juxtaposition of “Glass Onion” and the quirky “Wild Honey Pie” surrounding “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” and Harrison’s best composition, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but its Lennon who really shines on this album throughout.  Sides two and three are tossups, with Lennon’s beautiful “Julia” almost giving the former the edge, but I love how the band rocks on side three in sharp contrast to the rest of the album (also, “Don’t Pass Me By” is on side two – which is unfortunate).  The band’s next album, Abbey Road, is probably the most complete Beatles release, and it’s second side is among the best album sides ever recorded, but I’m no longer intrigued with “Come Together” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”  With the White Album, it’s not the individual tracks that lead to greatness, but the collective whole.

Pat McCurdy – The Big, Bright, Beautiful World of Pat McCurdy (1997).  Some may categorize this Milwaukee artist as a novelty act, but I argue that there’s a lot more going on here than cheap laughs.  McCurdy, whose songwriting prowess is apparent, has a penchant for memorable melodies, social commentary and satire, with an occasional touching moment.  The song “Thankless Bastard” was a regular sing-along song for my children (which tells you something about their father), but the whole album is well-done, with a few live numbers to heighten the energy and give it jovial feel.  Yes, this album harkens me back to my nights watching McCurdy at The Celebrity Club in Milwaukee when I was young, poor, drunk and obnoxious, but I think it holds up on its own merits.

Utopia – Utopia, sides 1 and 2 (1982).  When I saw the Todd Rundgren-led Utopia open up for the Tubes on my eighteenth birthday, they didn’t leave much of an impression on me except that they were really, really weird.  I didn’t pay them any attention for the next thirty-one years, but then a record-collection friend of mine encouraged me to check out their self-titled 1982 release, and my oh my, what a superb power-pop album.  Funny and witty, melodic and complicated, mixed moods, tight harmonies.  This collection has it all.  It’s not unlike some of XTC’s best stuff, but whereas I have trouble digesting more than twenty minutes of the latter’s music, this album goes down nice and easy.

U2 –The Joshua Tree (1987). U2’s seminal release took place during my freshman year in college and the album was everywhere.  Hard-core U2 fans prefer one of their first four releases, but I’m not really a hard-core U2 fan.  The album does lose steam on the final two tracks, but it would have been a lot to ask that the heightened ecstasy be sustained beyond the album’s first nine songs.  “Where the Streets Have No Name” is the perfect opener and was quite the splash at the Super Bowl in 2002, and “Red Hill Mining Town” has always been a favorite of mine.   I’ve sadly never seen them in concert because their ticket prices are usually ridiculous.

Sarah McLachlan – Surfacing (1997).  I recall purchasing this album and 10,000 Maniacs’ Love Among the Ruins in Allentown, PA with my friends Scott and Todd.  I wavered holding Surfacing in my hands, and Scott said, “You should get it.”  I did, and happily absorbed this album as part of soundtrack to my first year of parenthood.  What I dig about this album is the alternating between darkness and heartbreakingly beautiful, with neither side winning.  The song “I Love You,” is pretty terrible, but it’s the only song I consistently skip on this release.  The opening track packs a punch, as does “Sweet Surrender,” and then we get to probably the most forgiving and empathetic breakup songs ever, “Adia,” with beautiful vocals skating on top of a tasteful guitar and piano arrangement.  A lovely album.

So there you have it! Sixty-one albums. There are undoubtedly another thirty or forty that I might have chosen at a different time, but this collection would serve me quite nicely if I were forced to downsize my collection to a paltry sixty-one. In a week or two I’ll do a recap, with a graph of years represented and some of the albums I considered that didn’t quite make the cut. Happy New Year!

ELO in Chicago

An early morning email from a friend opened the door for me to attend Jeff Lynne’s ELO concert at the Allstate Arena in Chicago on Wednesday night, a show I’d toyed with going to until I saw the ticket prices, but leapt at the opportunity to attend last-minute for a more reasonable price.  ELO's music was a significant part of my childhood, and while I kept up with the band through the early 80s, I certainly can’t be labeled as anything other than a casual fan, unlike many of the thousands who attended last night’s show, which ran a little over an hour and a half.  The number of recognizable songs performed in such a short span was amazing.  Just when I thought, “I think that about covers it,” the band would break into yet another gem from the mid-70s.

Dressed in dark pants, a black shirt and grey blazer, 70-year-old Lynne masked his age with a beard, curly hair and sunglasses, and while his mid-range voice sounded strong and pure, he wisely relegated much of the higher vocals to his stellar backup singers, who added the animation that Lynne lacked and enabled the band to stick to the original keys for most (if not all?) the songs.  Twelve musicians joined Lynne on stage, including three string players and three keyboardists, one of whom spent the entire show doubling the string parts, allowing the arrangements to cut through the mix and sound much fuller than three strings could accomplish as a trio. 

The nineteen-song set strayed none-too-far from ELO’s first greatest hits album, including nine of the eleven tracks from that LP and only one song post-1980, “When I was a Boy,” a 2015 recording whose strong melody and nostalgic lyrics fit in nicely among the evening’s other songs.  There were a few other surprises, including the debut song off the band’s first album, “10538 Overture,” and “Wild West Hero,” among my favorite tracks from Out of the Blue and one that I played incessantly thirty years ago.  One song that was surprisingly absent was "Fire on High," which surely would have brought the house down and to me would have been a far better opener than "Standin' in the Rain."

Lynne didn’t engage his audience with storytelling the way James Taylor, Jackson Browne and other aging rockers do, but he still gave off an appreciative vibe for the audience, thanking them several times in a way that appeared heartfelt.  Lynne's music director, Mike Stevens, took the reins to introduce the large cast of musicians.

During the performance of “Handle with Care” from the Traveling Wilburys, the crowd cheered during the second verse, and while I couldn’t see the screen from my vantage point, I knew that they were most likely reacting to a photo or video of the departed members of that band.  The last time I saw this song performed live was at the Vic Theatre in 2003, when Tom Petty dedicated it to those who had gone.  Though Roy Orbison had died a long while back, it had only been a year and half since the death of George Harrison and a still-raw two months since Petty’s long-time bass player, Howie Epstein, succumbed to heroin addiction.  Here we are a decade and a half later, and it’s comforting to see Lynne and Bob Dylan still standing and still playing music.

As fans of aging rockers, we need to embrace these moments while they last.  Last night at the Allstate Arena, the fans of ELO surely did.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved