Monday, January 30, 2012

The Terrifying Sexual Menace of Rihanna

One of the downsides to working adjacent to the dance floor in a very busy bar every Friday night is the music. It's loud; ear-shatteringly, clavicle-shakingly loud, yes; but even worse than that, Friday Night means an unbroken, beatmatched stream of contemporary (read: released no more than 18 months ago) dance music from 10 to 4. I have never had much enthusiasm for any dance music created after about 1975, but the stuff before 1975 is my favorite stuff ever (and I have the band to prove it).  So it is with disappointment and confusion that I can report straight from the front lines that the youth of today is not the least bit interested in hearing anything more recent than post-K-Fed Britney.

Even worse, the DJs that work my shift play pretty much the exact same 6 hours' worth of material, in pretty much the exact same order, every week. On a certain level, this makes sense: the bar is packed every Friday, so it clearly ain't broke and is thus in no need of fixing. But I suspect that I would quickly tire of the same playlist week after week even if I made it myself, so needless to say that even with $100 earplugs, I get pretty strangly by around 2am most Fridays.

I gradually lost touch with popular music sometime around my 30th birthday -- not proud of it, but it is the truth -- so for a long time I had no idea who was responsible for any of these irritating, repetitive, tuneless sonic abortions that all the kids were going nuts for. It didn't take long for me to become familiar with the tunes, or to learn the words, or to notice that some of them were (relatively) better than others, but it all existed as a nameless, faceless, thumping that served as just one more aggravation in a room that often seems to have them coming in the windows.

Then one morning in the course of my official duties at work, I saw a five-minute capsule history on the life and career of Rihanna, the statuesque, usually well-oiled belter from Barbados, and a little quick math in my head determined that roughly 6 out of every 10 songs our annoying DJs play every Friday bear her name. Another 5 out of 10 are credited to the Black Eyed Peas, as I learned when I watched their awful trainwreck of a Super Bowl Halftime show last year, and Kanye, Ke$ha and Katy Perry -- who I will resist the urge to call KKK despite their comparably destructive influence -- fight for the table scraps. (Figures approximate.)

Once I learned that "Rude Boy" and "The Only Girl In the World" and "S & M" and "Disturbia" and "What's My Name?" and "Please Don't Stop The Music" were all by the same person, and that person's name was Rihanna, I also realized that those were the tunes in the set that the people liked the most and I, for my part, hated the least. I mean seriously, we can't get one James Brown tune or one P-Funk jam in a whole 6-hour set of dance music? These kids today, I swear to god.

In any case, Rihanna is indisuputably in charge of the world's dance floors at the moment, and her newest single, "We Found Love," just marked its tenth consecutive week at the top of the Billboard chart. It also perfectly illustrates why I can't stand any of this new music: it takes a standard-issue 1995 house beat, the kind I couldn't stand when it was the inescapable soundtrack to dotcom San Francisco (1.0), and adds Rihanna's admittedly striking voice singing about having sex at a homeless shelter or some such nonsense (you'd think that at Hiroshimaesque volume levels, we'd at least understand the words).

I don't much care for Rihanna's music (was that not clear?), but I find her persona -- what little I have gleaned of it from sidelong glances at magazine covers and having her lyrics jammed into my ears like part of an interrogation once a week and a look at her Twitter feed -- completely fascinating. It appears to be built on being not just sexually attractive, a strategy that has worked for millennia and that I admit to being a sucker for, but being sexually intimidating.

Unlike all the pop stars (and models, and actresses, and other sexualized performers) of my youth, distaste for whose work I could at times overcome in the service of a brief daydream, I cannot imagine fantasizing about Rihanna because I don't think I'm man enough.  Even in my own wildest visions of skill and stamina, I'm not sure I could live up to Rihanna's taskmasterly high standards as a lover, and I worry that she would then beat me senseless with something made of rubber before choking me out with her long, glistening, high-booted legs.

I mean, she cuts a pretty imposing figure, right? Google says she's 5-foot-8, but before I looked that up I would have sworn she was 6'6", 6'7". Roughly 80% of her songs are laundry lists of her considerable carnal demands set to music that sounds specifically designed to be played while doing it doggy-style under a strobelight.  (The rest are ballads.) I can't find a picture of her doing anything but scowling or standing like she's bestriding an invisible horse, and between the red wigs and the bondage wear and the threateningly frank lyrics, I'm afraid if she got me alone she would swallow me whole like a python. Even Madonna at her "Justify My Love"/metal-bound "Sex" book raunchiest never seemed like she might hurt you, but I wouldn't even go to one of Rihanna's shows without a MedicAlert bracelet and a living will.

Anyway, "We Found Love" is the culmination of a long-simmering campaign by Crappy House Music to take over Pop Music as a whole. As with so many trends gone bad, we can trace this one back to Madonna: her 1997 Ray of Light introduced wholly electronic, fully robotic backing tracks with lots of flanging, phasing, and 16-bar drumless breaks to the world's pop starlets. As usual, Madonna's version was pretty good, but it's gradually and insidiously infected every record recorded in the last 15 years not involving Jack White in some capacity. Even hip-hop, which bravely kept the flame of funky dance music composed by humans playing instruments alive -- albeit in sample form -- has capitulated to lame, reverb-drenched Casio beats (see West, Kanye).

Not that it doesn't make a certain kind of sense: who can afford a studio or a band or a songwriter in this economy and with the record industry cratering to boot? This way there are only two mouths to feed: the artist and the producer. 

But for all her robotic beats and explicit lyrics and menacing bondagewear, looking over Rihanna's discography I'm struck by how prolific she is: she's put out an album every year since 2005, with the lone exception of 2008. An album a year was the industry norm until the mid-'80s -- let us never forget that Jimi Hendrix released all three of his studio albums, the third one a double, in the space of 16 months -- at which point the record companies gradually decided to space out their artists' output to about an album every four or five years, the better to exploit every last potential single for every potential sale. (Prince's whole name-change fiasco was a protest of that policy.) Since the industry has collapsed over the last ten years, it seems to have regained its appetite for more product, but not many artists seem to have gone back to generating material at that pace -- people are all excited because Fiona Apple is releasing her first record since 2005. Her last one before that was from 1999. Who'd a thunk that between Rihanna and Fiona Apple, Rihanna would be the more old-fashioned?

And anyway, I protest too much. Much as I hate to admit it, I kind of love "We Found Love." Taken as the sum of its parts, I hate everything about it, but that doesn't stop me from singing the goddamn thing to myself. Cause the way I'm feeling, I just can't deny...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Strip Searching Old Ladies At The Airport

I saw a very interesting/funny/sad story the other day: it seems that in three separate incidents, three little old ladies were strip-searched by TSA workers at JFK airport in New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday.

One of these ladies, a fearsome 88-year-old named Ruth Sherman of terrorist hotbed Sunrise, Florida, was forced to lower her pants by agents so they could examine her colostomy bag. Another, 85-year-old Lenore Zimmerman of Long Beach, NY, was asked to drop her pants, pull up her top, and remove the back brace from her imposing 110-pound frame, which was then run through the X-ray machine, while Ms. Zimmerman presumably muttered a jihadist mantra.

In a reaction befitting their ages, both women wrote strongly worded letters to their Senators in complaint, and the TSA has in turn apologized for the searches, saying that it is not standard procedure to strip search anyone or to examine their assistive medical accessories, and that all JFK agents will receive a refresher training course on how to search obviously unthreatening little old ladies without offending or undressing them. It's unclear whether the workers in question will get any further punishment, though I would argue that first seeing and then handling an 88-year-old woman's colostomy bag is its own punishment.

It so happens that I have had a couple of notable security-related experiences at that very same airport.

The first took place when my wife and I were going to San Francisco for a Halloween party in 2003. (Oh, to be young and childless.) It was barely two years after 9/11, in the first flush of tightened security measures in American airports, and so we arrived for our flight nice and early, expecting long lines and endless hassle; instead we found the airport nearly empty and eerily quiet. We went to check in and found that there were no human beings working the check-in counter -- just the automated machines where you swipe your credit card and receive your boarding pass. We then went through the security checkpoint, where we were asked for our boarding passes, but not for our ID's. A few minutes later, we arrived at our plane, which had no attendant at the gate -- just another machine to run our boarding passes through. As we did that, we asked each other "Did we just get on a plane without showing anyone any ID?" We retraced our steps and decided that this was indeed the case.

Once again: we boarded a plane from New York to San Francisco, at the height of national hijacking paranoia, without showing ID to anybody. Well played, TSA -- well played.

The second incident was even more disturbing: About a year later, I was able to wrangle an invite to Blue Man Group's opening gala when they moved their Las Vegas show from the Luxor to the Venetian. (I have quite a few friends in blue places.) This presented a dual opportunity: one, to go to Las Vegas and party like the 1% for little more than the cost of a plane ticket; and two, to shoot a video in Las Vegas for the live variety show I was producing at the time.

The show, The Paco Doubledown Variety Hour, was hosted by veteran entertainer and talent scout Paco Doubledown, a washed-up Catskills vaudeville type with antiquated notions about how one makes it in "the business," and it seemed only natural that if the three of us who worked on the show (Paco, myself, and our friend AJ) were going to be in Las Vegas, we should shoot a little piece about Paco returning to his natural habitat.  All of this is by way of telling you that when I went to the airport, I had a bunch of video gear in my bag: camera, microphones, headphones, etc. Since we were going to Las Vegas, we were also all wearing suits, and the duffel bag with my camera gear was my only luggage -- I had a couple of T-shirts and pairs of shorts and a bathing suit in there too.

When we went through security, I was informed I had been randomly flagged for a search, and as I had nothing to hide, I complied without complaint, and watched as the security worker removed every item from my bag, all but turning it upside down and shaking out the contents. He was momentarily puzzled by some of the camera stuff -- the shotgun mic and the wireless lavalier mic are both somewhat suspicious looking if you don't know what they are -- but I got the nod that all was well (but no assistance repacking my bag).

A bit later, it came time to board the plane, and when I checked in the airline lady said I had been randomly flagged for a search. I replied that I had already been searched at security. She asked if I had the sticker on my bag to prove that, but I didn't. I guess in his haste to see if I had enough stuff to cover every inch of his table, the security guy forgot to give me that sticker. Anyway, she told me I couldn't board the plane without it, and I momentarily started to panic: it was a five- or ten-minute walk from the gate to the security checkpoint, and the line there was not short. If I went all the way back there and waited in line again, I worried I was going to miss the plane, and I said as much to the airline lady.

An airline gentleman appeared, assured me the plane would wait till we got back, and ran with me back to security, where he waved his little badge, bypassed the line, and got my bag emptied of its contents for the second time (by the same security guy, by the way, who seemed to have no memory of searching the same bag 30 minutes before). The big orange sticker was slapped on the side of my bag, the airline guy and I ran like O.J back to the gate. (By that I mean like O.J. in the old Hertz commercials, not like O.J. trying to escape arrest for double murder.)

From there, everything went fine: I got on the plane, went to Vegas, had a great time, shot a funny video with my friends (which I sadly cannot link to here because YouTube pulled it down for its unauthorized use of "Luck Be A Lady" as its score), saw the New York Dolls at the gala afterparty at a fancy-schmancy nightclub called Tao, and generally had a terrific time.

It was on the return trip that this joke got its punchline. MacCarran Airport in Las Vegas, in addition to being riddled with slot machines, also has far superior security to that of JFK, which seems wrong for several reasons, primarily the fact that New York is an infinitely more attractive terrorist target than Las Vegas (and by attractive I don't mean to refer to the fact that Las Vegas seems to have 680% more body fat than New York -- that's definitely true, but it's not what I meant.).

Anyway, this superior security is first evidenced by the magic poof machine (technical name unknown) -- a doorway with two dozen little air jets irregularly spaced on all sides that poof little poofs of air on your body and somehow determine whether you're wired to explode. It's a given that Las Vegas must have a ludicrously high tax base, so it's obvious that its airport can afford such space-age technology, but I'm puzzled why the busiest airport in the U.S. can't swing it.

Anyway, after the magic poof machine -- my nickname in college, by the way -- determines that I'm not about to go nuclear, I present my boarding pass and am once again told that I've been flagged for random search. Still having nothing to hide, I ignore the questionable math of being randomly tagged from a pool of 240+ passengers on two consecutive flights and submit to a third search without complaint.

Surprise! The Las Vegas security guy proves himself more competent than his New York counterpart when he finds a super-sharp pocketknife in the pocket on one end of my duffel bag -- precisely where the big orange sticker had been slapped on at JFK. I'm momentarily shocked to see it, even though it's definitely mine -- I had taken it camping the previous summer, and must have just left it in the bag and missed it. The security guy gives me the option to take it back into the airport and find someplace to mail it to myself, but I don't have time for that, so I watch him toss it in the garbage can and head off to the plane.

To recap: in the first three years after 9/11, I got on a plane at JFK without showing ID to anyone, and I got a knife that made a boxcutter look like a thumbtack through not one but two bag searches at the same airport.

So I feel bad for those two little old ladies, but it is nice to see that JFK security has gone from doing not nearly enough to doing way, way too much. Err on the side of caution, that's what I say. Who knows what those little old ladies were capable of?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Let's Watch Dan Aykroyd Sodomize The Corpse of John Belushi

I can hardly think of a movie that holds a more sacred place in my heart than the first R-rated movie I ever saw: The Blues Brothers, which I caught on HBO when I was 10 or so. This movie had everything: car chases, great music, silly comedy, subtle comedy, about 267 endlessly quotable lines, and above all, attitude.

(Incidentally: why was The Blues Brothers rated R? There's no sex, no nudity, no [on camera] drug use, no violence, and not even that much profanity. I saw much racier material on NBC's execrable Whitney/Are You There, Chelsea? comedy block during the 8pm "family hour" last week.)

I don't mean to say that The Blues Brothers is my favorite movie ever (though it is probably in the top ten), and it certainly isn't anywhere near the "best." But it is a perfect document of the time it was made (1980) by two comedians at the top of their game (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), and effortlessly straddles the worlds of comedy and music, while resuscitating a genre that had gone way out of style in the era of disco, punk, and new wave, as well as the careers of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and all the other music legends that appear in the movie.

As silly as it sometimes gets, the movie never forgets that its two main characters are quiet, calm, and cool at all times, and lets all its comedy flow from that. It is also the rare film about musicians that seems to know what it's talking about, and speaks that language fluently without explaining anything to the audience, letting the jazzbos in the audience get the in-jokes and leaving everyone else to figure it out. It understands that the life of an unfamous musician is far from glamorous, that it's dirty and dingy and frequently humiliating, but it's all worth it when you get in front of the right audience.

Every time I watch this movie, I notice something new, some little aside by one of the members of the band or one of the music legends brought in to cameo, and I fall in love with it all over again. I would also have to give a tip of the hat to John Belushi for demonstrating that a white guy that can't really sing can stand in front of a killer funk band if he really, really wants to -- that revelation has brought me quite a bit of happiness in my adult life.

In light of all that, it's probably not hard to understand why I have never even considered watching the ill-conceived sequel, Blues Brothers 2000 (released two years early in 1998). This movie looks terrible in every last way that something can be terrible. First, most obvious and most importantly, the comic engine of the entire enterprise, John Belushi, had been dead for 16 years. That alone should have been enough to scuttle the idea faster than Aykroyd could finish his elevator pitch. But Blues Brothers 2000 tries to compensate by replacing Belushi with John Goodman (the only way for Aykroyd to keep his status as "the skinny one"), plus the black scientist from Terminator 2, plus a 10-year-old kid, all of whom -- you guessed it! -- wear the black suit, hat, and Ray-Bans! Isn't that funny? Because four Blues Brothers is twice as funny as two, especially if one of them is (giggle) a little kid!

This poster alone positively screams big-budget, lowest-common-denominator filmmaking by committee, exploiting a beloved, known property and turning it into a market-tested, family-friendly monstrosity of the worst kind, and I have avoided the movie like the plague for the entire 14 years since it was released.

I would never watch Blues Brothers 2000 in a million years. I would not watch it if it were the last movie on Earth. If my choices were watching Blues Brothers 2000 or watching 2000 messy cattle births in IMAX, I would watch the cattle births.

But I happen to be short on blog ideas this week, so what do you say we take a look at it?

0:29 -- First title card: "For John Belushi, John Candy, Cab Calloway." I have a feeling I'll be sorry you reminded me none of them are in this movie.

1:30 -- Next title card: "18 years later." This movie was released in 1998 and it's set in 1998, so why wasn't it called Blues Brothers 98? Blues Brothers 2000 gives it a weird, futuristic feel that suggests science fiction or something, which is the exact last thing you want to combine with soul music. At least Blues Brothers 98 kind of sounds like a specialty line of Oldsmobiles.

2:30 -- Elwood, fresh out of prison, waits at the road, but alas, there is no Jake and no Bluesmobile to pick him up. (Aykroyd looks like he ate them both.) Cars blow by him! The visual of Elwood disappearing in a cloud of car exhaust is so funny, we get to see it twice! He waits all night and into the morning. He doesn't even sit down. Wait, does he not know his brother is dead? Is this musical comedy romp going to begin with a released prisoner processing the news that his brother, partner, and only friend is dead?

4:00 -- Frank Oz, who played the prison guard who let Jake out at the beginning of the first one, is now the warden, and goes out to tell Elwood the news. The moment is shot in such a way that we don't hear the warden say it, which begs the question, why have this moment at all? It's a bummer. But not for long, because Elwood's paralyzing grief is cut short by the arrival of a pretty lady in a red convertible. Glad we got that out of the way!

5:05 -- Smash cut to Chicago.  The pretty lady was sent by Willie Hall, the drummer from the first movie, and she tells Elwood -- exaggerating his Chicago accent to the point of parody, which he didn't do at all in the first movie -- to go see Willie, who will give Elwood a job at his club that employs pretty ladies apparently. Instead, Elwood's first stop is at a car lot, where he tries to buy another broke-down police car from B.B. King (breaking the landspeed record for quickest cameo in a movie). Aykroyd has already smiled more than he did in the whole first movie, and nothing funny has happened yet.

6:30 -- Elwood sits down with the Nun that beat him and Jake with a stick for swearing in her church in the first one. I wonder if the exact same thing will happen again?

7:15 -- Apparently not. Just downer talk about Jake and Curtis (Cab Calloway's character from the first movie) being dead. This movie is a total bummer so far but Aykroyd has had a quarter-smile on his face in almost every shot. And he really needs to ease up on the accent.

7:30 -- Whoops, spoke too soon. Elwood took the Lord's name in vain and now the Penguin is beating on him with a telescoping antenna. Maybe this movie is going to have a sci-fi element after all.

9:30 -- In the world's longest, unfunniest conversation, Elwood is told that Curtis has an illegitimate son, and Elwood decides this is the closest thing he has to family. This scene is dreadfully disjointed -- it feels like Elwood and the Penguin are conducting an interview over satellite delay. Let's don't forget that the once-great comedy director John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Coming To America) was at the helm here, and he and Aykroyd wrote the script. That's right, not ten minutes in, I'm assigning blame.

11:00 -- The Penguin decides that Elwood, a lifelong recidivist not a day out of prison after 18 years in, is a good candidate to play big brother to a tough little kid named -- wait for it -- Buster. Buster! Elwood agrees to take Buster -- an annoying screen presence from moment one -- to the library.

12:20 -- Elwood tells Buster, "Stay away from drugs, guns, and cyberpornography on the Internet and you can be President of the United States." What does Elwood know about "cyberpornography" (a term I've never heard anyone say ever)? He's been in prison since 1980.

13:50 -- The movie oddly skips an opportunity to show a photo of Belushi, after it has already shown a photo of Cab Calloway, as it turns out that the long-lost not-brother is a State Police Commander (remember? Jake and Elwood had that big chase with the State Police in the first movie?). This scene also has a leaden joke where the Commander asks Elwood to remove his hat and glasses in his office:

This shot is held on for like five seconds, just to make sure you get how funny it is.

15:35 -- So now we are watching a man process the information that the man who raised him is not his father, that his mother strayed with a traveling musician and kept the truth from him for 40 years. And Dan Aykroyd is still smiling!

16:00: Elwood asks the Police Commander to join his band, and Commander replies, quite sensibly if a bit angrily, that he's not interested. Elwood stands up and says in the hammiest manner possible, severing any connection to the spirit of the original as well as whatever audience goodwill this thing was trading on, "I think you need a hug." This is the moment I officially get mad at this movie.

17:30 -- Buster reappears, having picked the Commander's pocket, which yields $500 cash, enough to buy the police car from B.B. King. Remember the police car in the first movie? That was great, right?

19:20 -- Elwood throws the cigarette lighter out the window when the kid tries to light up. Remember? Like in the first one? Also, whereas the first movie's score was largely old soul hits -- a "Best of Sam and Dave" 8-track was always on in the Bluesmobile -- the score here is recently recorded blues music, which always sounds a little off no matter what.

20:10 -- Elwood takes Buster into a strip club, and is then shocked and horrified on Buster's behalf to see women in bikinis populating the stage (this movie is PG-13). Elwood, it seems, got a lot dumber when he was in prison.

20:45 -- Look! It's John Goodman as the bartender! How long till he's also dressed like a Hasidic diamond merchant? (Well look, if this movie is going to recycle jokes from the first one, I'm giving myself permission to do the same.)

21:00 -- What will surely be an interminable string of scenes where Elwood tries to talk band members into coming back begins with the drummer, Willie Hall, now operating a strip bar where the women don't strip and wearing purple African garb. In the first movie, they all resisted because Jake owed them money. This time, they're resistant because Jake and Elwood got them convicted, but they're all inexplicable easier to persuade. Elwood makes his pitch about the rush of making people dance, and -- you won't believe this -- Buster seems to be moved by it.

21:35 -- How random is this: Nia Peeples (from The Party Machine with Nia Peeples, remember that show, where Nia Peeples was attractive and danced to bad late-80s dance music?) is one of the State cops. Or maybe she'll sing and dance later? Get a big solo? Should that come to pass, it would say pretty much all anyone would ever need to know about Blues Brothers 2000. She gives the Commander his recovered wallet, which includes a note of thanks from Elwood for the "loan," prompting an A.P.B. on one Elwood Blues. What! The cops are already looking for Elwood? Get outta here!

22:00 -- The first musical number of the movie begins with Elwood onstage at the strip club with the house band, still smiling as he introduces the dancers. Elwood: STOP SMILING. I know that Dan Aykroyd understands that the deadpan disposition he and Belushi adopted in the first one was the key to its charm, so why does he look like he's on the verge of cracking up every moment of every shot? His continued delusion that this movie is funny is, at this point, the only funny thing in this movie.  It becomes clear the moment Elwood starts singing "It's Cheaper To Keep Her" why Jake sang lead when he was alive. Aykroyd cannot stop himself from hamming up during the performance, which is a bad habit I imagine he picked up over the course of a hundred million cheap posthumous Blues Brothers gigs with Jim Belushi.

24:00 -- Willie's bar has trouble with the Russian Mob! The Russian Mob could make a timely stand-in for the Illinois Nazis, what do you think? Anyway, Elwood offers them a drink, apparently slips them a mickey while they sing a "funny" drinking song in Russian (with Elwood inexplicably singing along) and then pass out.

27:30 -- Elwood gives a long, articulate explanation of the effects of the fall of Communism in Russia on its people, which might have made for a funny scene if not for its close resemblance the exact same joke in Wayne's World. The scene holds on a long shot of Elwood looking nonchalant, to wait out the riotous laughter in the audience before going on to the next scene.

28:00 -- Playing the role of the Illinois Nazis, the Russian Mafia! They begin a hilarious pursuit of Elwood that is sure to last the entire movie and generate at least two dozen genuine belly laughs (but not in this scene).

30:00 -- John Goodman -- here called Mac the bartender -- sings a song with the house band at the strip club, which soon turns into a duet with Elwood that, dare I say it, almost somewhat resembles the spirit of the musical numbers from the first movie. It's not like John Belushi was a great singer, he got by on attitude, and Goodman manages to do the same thing about 40% as well. Also, it puts Elwood where he belongs, at #2 status. I don't think anyone could really take the place of Jake, and it's something of an obscenity to even try, but John Goodman may be the least worst option. (Keep in mind, I say that with 90 minutes to go in this horror show, so it's subject to reevaluation).

32:00 -- The Russians shoot up and then burn down. "Willie's Stripster Bar," which is the worst name for any bar ever. The Russians see Elwood and Mac and leave them to die in the flames, a plan that has worked for no villain ever in the history of movies.

33:10 -- The first car chase begins! I hope it goes through a Mall or some other type of enclosed space!

33:50 -- My first light, single chuckle comes when Elwood instructs Mac to dump a bag of nails out on the road, and the Russians' car flips over and explodes, the first time this movie has been successful in baldly repeating something from the first movie -- in this case, totally nonsensical car chases.

35:10 -- Elwood inducting Mac into the band puts Buster to sleep in the back seat, which makes Buster about five minutes ahead of the audience.

35:45 -- This is the third time it's happened in the movie, and I haven't mentioned that Elwood parallel parks by screeching 180 degrees from top speed in the opposite direction. It's exactly as funny as it sounds.

36:00 -- Look, it's Matt "Guitar" Murphy and "Blue" Lou Marino, the guitarist and saxophonist from the old movie! They sell Mercedes-Benzes now. I guess Aretha will be making her entrance any second.

36:10 -- I let out an involuntary groan at the first shot of Elwood, Buster, and Mac in their Blues Brothers costumes. I knew this moment would come, but I still wasn't prepared for it. Elwood explains the outfits to a skeptical Mac:

"These are unsophisticated men. The only things they respond to are fear and the draw of lucre. We elicit this by using iconographic symbols and psychological intimidation. The way we look together now presents an image of strength and organization. Don't say anything, look mean, no smiling."
Elwood could easily be talking about whoever he talked into greenlighting this movie, and how he talked them into it. But I continue to wish he'd follow that last bit of advice -- his nonstop mugging has torpedoed this movie from the word go, not that it wouldn't have sucked otherwise.

37:08 -- Elwood tells Matt and Lou that he wants them to rejoin the band, and right on cue, Aretha enters. She gives the exact same acting performance she gave in the first movie -- she is terrible, but in exactly the same way that she was terrible in 1980 -- and thus feels like the first authentic element from the original to make it unscathed into this disaster. I'm sure they'll find a way to ruin it, though -- probably by sticking her with a crappy song.

38:18 -- Even worse: they have her do "Respect" at ¾ speed. She's great -- nothing can keep Aretha Franklin from being awesome, not even Blues Brothers 2000 -- but it's such a lazy choice. And I am really not okay with the ten-year-old Blues Brother in the sneakers. The Blues Brothers are supposed to be hardened criminals who came up in the school of hard knocks, not refugees from Boy Meets World. On the other hand, he does seem to be the only Blues Brother who can dance for more than four bars without calling for an oxygen tank.

42:00 -- Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn are now talk radio hosts! The movie doesn't bother to even show how they are lured back into the fold, trusting that we instinctively understand the irresistible, magnetic pull of two fat guys and a little boy all wearing the same outfit.

43:16 -- The trumpet player, who was the Maitre'd in the classic restaurant scene in the first movie, is now a funeral director (although he's dressed like a groom), but there is no danger of this funeral scene ever being called "classic."  I don't think I could be watching this movie any more closely, but I am still at a loss to explain why the Russian Mob is at this funeral. Did someone die in an earlier scene? This thing is way too PG-13 for that. Oddly, the scene ends with the Russians promising to drink vodka from Elwood's skull, which considering that he would start selling vodka in skull-shaped bottles ten years later, shows remarkable foresight on Aykroyd's part.

45:00 -- Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett do not embarrass themselves in the course of singing "634-5789," despite the efforts of skinny white boy Jonny Lang to capsize the number.

49:00 -- Noted Sinatra toadie Steve Lawrence makes a return appearance as booking agent Maury Sline, who supplies some exposition about a battle of the bands in New Orleans. You know what you guys? The New and Improved Blues Brothers Band should go and enter that battle of the bands! Wouldn't that be awesome?

51:30 -- It's explained that the next few scenes will be an exact rehash of the old movie -- The band is booked as "The Blue-grass Brothers" and Elwood crudely spray-paints "The Blues Brothers Band" on the side of an otherwise nice late-model sedan, and then -- John Popper gets a cameo? Is Blues Traveler going to play? Oh god, they are. I don't know if I can get through the second half of this thing.

55:30 -- Just when I thought this thing couldn't get any crasser, the band stops off for dinner at Bob's Country Bunker. But instead of having the band play "Rawhide," it kicks off another nonsensical car chase with the cops with some unfunny shaving cream-related slapstick.

1:00:40 -- I know I said I like the nonsensical car chases, but driving across the bottom of a pond like the car is a submarine is too silly by half.

1:02:00 -- Darrell Hammond is the leader of a white supremacist group, and comes dangerously close to being funny giving a white-power pep talk at a lakeside rally. Fortunately, the movie intervenes:

It only gets less funny from there.

1:07:00 -- The "Bob's Country Bunker" scene would be even funnier if it was at a Monster Truck rally, right? No? How about if the band plays a country two-step called "Riders In The Sky" and conjures spectral, skeletal CGI horses and riders from the clouds above the stage? Still no? What does this movie have to do to please you people? It's dancing as fast as it can!

1:12:10 -- If the State Police Commander is going to chase Elwood for this whole movie, it was a bad move to put the State Police Commander in a Blues Brothers outfit on the poster. It kind of deflates whatever infinitesimal amount of tension this pursuit might otherwise have created.

1:13:18 -- Elwood: "I guess you all want to quit." It's like Elwood can hear my thoughts!

1:17:40 -- I guess James Brown is about to reprise his role as Reverend Cleophus James. But first, blues legend Sam Moore (half of Sam and Dave) takes one called "John the Revelator." The music in this movie isn't nearly as good as in the first one, but it's easily the best thing it has to offer.

Anyway, the scene turns into a reprise of Brown's scene from the first movie, except this time it's the State Police Commander who sees the light, rises into the heavens, and his police uniform turns into a Blues Brothers outfit. When he lands, he takes the third verse of "John The Revelator" while James Brown sings backup. Repeat: JAMES BROWN does not solo, but sings backup to the scientist from Terminator 2.

1:26:30 -- What I assume will be the big final car chase begins, although I can't remember where these Blues Brothers are going or for what purpose. I'm sure it will be completely nonsensical, and it is! The sight of all these cars flying around willy-nilly raises my second light, almost imperceptible chuckle of the movie. And, it's over.

1:28:50 -- Right, they're going to the battle of the bands. And there is 35 minutes of runtime left in this thing. Believe me, I've been keeping track.

1:31:00 -- So the band is auditioning for a 130-year-old cannibal voodoo witch, played by Erykah Badu, and her butler/manservant/whatever is played like an Oscar Mayer ham by Paul Shaffer, who missed out on the first movie because of his Saturday Night Live contract. You're not going to believe this, but he plays it really big and flamboyant.

1:36:00 -- The queen impels the band to play "Funky Nassau" by turning them into green zombies. I swear I did not make that up. The band passes the audition (surprise!) but somehow they're all turned into wax dummies, a development which is not explained in any way.

1:39:30 -- "The Louisiana Gator Boys" are introduced as the other band, and of course it's full of ringers, led by B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Eric Clapton, with Jimmie Vaughan and Isaac Hayes hanging around at the margins. Oh and there's Steve Winwood! And Billy Preston! And Clarence Clemons! What an all-star band! How will the Blues Brothers ever prevail? 

1:44:00 -- The Blues Brothers Show Band (as they are introduced three times) plays "Turn On Your Love Light" and it's fine -- that is until the moment little Buster takes the mic. Whose idea was it to have a kid in this movie? Seriously -- that person should not only not be allowed to make movies, he should no longer be allowed to watch them.

1:50:00 The Louisiana Gator Boys win the contest, just as the Russian Mafia and the White Supremacists arrive. Not to worry, the voodoo queen turns them all into rats. Then Nia Peeples leads the State Police into the venue, is told by her Commander that everything's fine, all conflict and dramatic tension is officially removed from the movie, and both bands have a big jam session together from here to the end of the movie, intercut with shots of Nia Peeples, who as I mentioned hosted a dance show in the '90s, dancing as though she has never seen or heard of the custom of dancing and is in the very earliest stages of inventing it. I'm a little shocked this movie didn't figure out some kind of excuse to get her into something a little more flattering.

1:54:30 -- I am so glad this movie's almost over.

1:55:20 -- But first, and I should have known this was coming, Elwood and Buster have to make a fast getaway, to keep Buster out of the clutches of the Penguin and foster care. One more nonsensical car chase to go. Sigh.

1:56:30 -- The final insult: in mid-car chase, Elwood tells the kid to put on his seatbelt, and then leads by example. John Belushi is rotisserieing in his grave, but the movie is over, so I guess it's one of those bad news/good news things.

So long, Blues Brothers. I always dreamed that one day I'd get to sodomize your corpse, but unfortunately I can't go for sloppy seconds. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Eddie Van Halen is the Darth Vader of Rock

Last week Van Halen, in preparation for this year's tour and their first album with David Lee Roth since 1984, reminded the assembled New York music press that it still has the goods by playing at Cafe Wha?, the 250-capacity Greenwich Village music club originally owned by Roth's Uncle Manny. Sadly, I was not able to get in and see my favorite band -- their publicist was unmoved by this blog's weekly circulation of about 100.

In any case, fans like me have cause to rejoice: 27 years after their acrimonious breakup, Van Halen and David Lee Roth have consummated their reunion and made a new record, A Different Kind Of Truth (to be released February 7), pulling themselves up from the twin nadirs of Roth’s failed morning radio show and his former band’s seeming inability to do anything at all, due largely to Eddie Van Halen's Gollumesque pursuit of cheap wine and whatever powdered party favor made his teeth fall out.

Though the pioneers of virtuosic fun-metal reached a new commercial height when they swapped Roth for Sammy Hagar in 1986, they also lost both the “fun” and the “metal,” throwing both overboard for a prepoderance of melancholy midtempo rock and synth-based songs with “Love” in the title. When the wheels came off Van Hagar in 1996, a Roth reunion seemed obvious, but it would take 11 more years, another ill-chosen singer, and a failed reunion with Hagar in 2004 before Van Halen finally reached a truce with Roth and hit the road for a massive U.S. tour in 2007 (which I was lucky enough to catch at Madison Square Garden).

But even with Roth back in the saddle—the saddle in this case bestriding a 12-foot inflatable microphone—a lot of fans aren’t satisfied. That’s because Eddie Van Halen threw long-suffering original bassist Michael Anthony under the bus in favor of his 20-year-old son Wolfgang. Longtime fans are baffled by the move; some boycotted the shows, others just complained about the boy’s lack of stage charisma.

But the people complaining about the nepotistic change at bass are missing the point: Without Wolfgang, this reunion, longed-for since Reagan’s second term, never would have happened. Without Wolfgang, Eddie Van Halen would still be sulking in his studio.

Wolfgang Van Halen is the Luke Skywalker of the Van Halen saga.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (1975, Pasadena, California), there came the Chosen One who would fulfill the prophecy and bring balance to the Force. His name was Edward Van Halen. The Force was strong in him -- he quickly became known as the greatest pilot in the galaxy. His pants were tight, he could shred and do aerial splits at the same time; his midichlorians were off the charts. He was amazing.

His life changed when he met someone who could harness his power. David Lee Roth taught young Edward to shred at a frequency that wouldn’t send the ladies streaming out the exits, and to stick only to music that he, Roth, could dance to. Under Dave’s tutelage, Edward’s power grew, and so did his fortune: in 1983, a short five years after releasing their self-titled debut album, the band was paid $1 million to headline the US Festival, at that time the highest paycheck ever awarded to a band for a single concert.

But as Edward’s power grew, he began to turn. He began to see his greatest ally as his enemy; arguments and ego clashes made each album harder to finish than the last. Edward felt that his power wasn’t being fully appreciated, and that Dave was holding him back.

And maybe he was. In his 1998 memoir Crazy from the Heat, Roth says he told the band upon joining, “I will personally check every song for danceability. And we’ll play rock tunes, but ones that you can dance to.” This would become the Prime Directive of early Van Halen (to mix stupid sci-fi franchise metaphors) and it led directly to the band’s signature, exuberant sound, which led directly to fame, fortune, and Valerie Bertinelli.

But Edward felt stifled—cut off at the knees, if you will. Roth rejected some of his more melancholy material and famously hated what would become the band’s first #1 hit, “Jump,” deriding its synth foundation. “Nobody wants to hear you play keyboards, man.” Why is Obi-Wan holding me back?!?

And so, Edward struck down his friend, firing Roth in 1985, and his transformation was complete. He spent the next eleven years in an increasingly drunken stupor, and untethered from Roth’s Prime Directive, recorded all the cheesy keyboards and syrupy ballads he wanted. And as Edward embraced the Dark Side, he finally ruled the galaxy: all four Van Hagar albums entered the charts at #1, surpassing the Roth era commercially (if not artistically). It was a dark time for the rebellion.

But the Dark Side took its toll. In 1996 Van Halen fired Sammy Hagar, pretended Roth was coming back for a minute, and then took Extreme singer Gary Cherone out for an ill-fated spin. From there, it got ugly: Ian Christe’s 2007 biography of the band, Everybody Wants Some, details Edward’s sad decline blow by blow, but lowlights include his drunken demand to jam onstage with Nirvana (when told dismissively by Kurt Cobain that they didn’t have any more guitars, Edward gestured at touring guitarist Pat Smear: “Let me play the Mexican’s guitar! What is he, Mexican? Is he black?”); his drunken audition for Limp Bizkit (which ended with him threatening everyone present with a gun); and his teetering, drunken performances on a 2004 reunion tour with Sammy Hagar, when nobody seemed to even know what song the Chosen One was playing.

In 2005, Edward’s wife of 22 years, Valerie Bertinelli, filed for divorce and things got even weirder: Edward financed and scored a porn film shot in his house. To promote the film he gave a rambling, incoherent phone interview on The Howard Stern Show claiming to have cured cancer before announcing, “What’s going to happen now is, there’s a new Van Halen member involved, and that’s my son.”

How could the Van Halens fire their bassist after 30+ years of loyal service? It seems that after ten years or so of waiting around for the brothers to get their act together, he committed the unpardonable sin of playing in Sammy Hagar's band, and so he was permanently excommunicated from the band.

A few months later, rumors started floating that the band was booking appearances with three Van Halens and one Roth, and after a six-month delay so Edward could go to rehab (missing the band’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and do it right.  Despite the long-awaited reunion with Diamond Dave, fans went berserk: How can he drop Mike? Who’s gonna sing the high parts? Can this kid even play?

Of course the kid can play. Besides his likely genetic musical gifts, he’s been jamming with Edward and Alex Van Halen every day after school since he was 9. What would be weird is if he couldn’t play.

Van Halen fans should be on their knees thanking Wolfgang. Edward Van Halen went all the way to the Dark Side. He was the greatest guitar player alive for thirty years, and he knew it. His chemically enhanced ego would not allow him to do the most obvious thing in the world, the thing that would have saved his career in 1996: He would not swallow his pride and call David Lee Roth.

But then Wolfgang grew up. The Force was strong in him. His doting father bragged in interviews that the kid could do it all: sing, play drums, bass, guitar, whatever. “If I’m the speed of sound,” Edward told Howard Stern, “he’s the speed of light.”

So this 15-year-old kid is learning to play, and like any 15-year-old, he wants to rock. He’s practicing with his dad and his uncle every day, and he’s listening to their old records. And as this drunken egomaniac’s only son, following in his father’s musical footsteps, he is probably the only person in the Galaxy who could say to his father, “Uh, Dad? You know those first six records you made, with that other singer? Yeah, those are the good ones. How about we call that guy and play those tunes and make seven or eight hundred million dollars in the bargain?” There’s still good in you, I can feel it!

This is the only person who could ever get the helmet off, reunite his father with his former partner, and turn him away from the Dark Side. Wolfgang personally wrote the fans'-wet-dream setlist on the 2007 tour, and one assumes that, as a 20-year-old who wants to rock, he helped Roth to enforce the Prime Directive in the recording of the new album (which I anticipate and dread in nearly equal measure -- watch this space for a review). He may not have a lot of charisma, but then again, neither did Mark Hamill. 

UPDATE: The album is out and I am shocked to find that I really like it. Here's my review.