Movie – This is the new documentary history of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studios. It is the story of how Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in the unlikely small town of Muscle Shoals, along the Tennessee River, and a group of white farm boys (known
as the “swampers”) became The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section session musicians. Countless major hit songs and great albums were subsequently recorded in these studios – as amazing as it seems. Many great recording artists are interviewed in the documentary, such as: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynard, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and many more. It is the remarkable story of how initial successes in soul and R&B led to the arrival of more mainstream rock and pop performers, and how the Muscle Shoals vibe produced so many great hits. Literally every big name wanted to record in Muscle Shoals, and to “get down and get greasy.” Filmaker Greg Camalier premiered Muscle Shoals at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, and the soundtrack alone will give you goosebumps. I loved this documentary and all the incredible vignettes, such as how Aretha Franklin just blossomed for the first time, when she got into the Muscle Shoals studios.
Movie – China’s Great Wall is a great documentary using rare aerial shots, and lavish reenactments in high definition. It reveals the myths, legends and technological marvels behind the massive structure, exploring construction techniques, and its history, featuring interviews with archaeologists, scientists and scholars. In 1907, Aurel Stein a British explorer and adventurer, making his way through the Taklimakan desert discovered the Jade Gate, the westernmost point of a more than 2,000-year-old fortification system. The walls, there are more than one, actually stretch for over 13,000 miles. They were built to defend the Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty and his people from the barbarians (Mongolians) living in the steppes to the north (around 130 BC). Other dynasties and other emperors continued work on the Great Wall and branches of it, for thousands of years, using forced labor. The purposes of the Great Wall have included border patrols, imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, and regulation of trade and immigration. The Wall includes watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations and signaling capabilities (using smoke or fire). The main Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the West, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of inner Mongolia. Before bricks, the Wall was mainly built from rammed earth, stones and wood. I found this documentary fascinating as well as educational. Of course, some areas of the Wall, near tourist centers, have been preserved and renovated, but in many locations it is in disrepair.
Music – In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores by Hilary Hahn, violin, is Hahn’s brilliant new 2-CD recording of 27 short pieces (“encores”) by contemporary composers. She is accompanied by pianist Cory Smythe. The album topped the Billboard classical charts and will likely win Hilary her third Grammy Award (she already has two). The individual pieces of new music have never been recorded before, and it’s likely you’ve never heard of the composers. The album ranges from romantic to post-modern, from jazzy Hollywood film noir to the rural, folksy and obscure, from the purely abstract to the objective. I liked the post-romantic “Whispering” by Einojuhani Rautavaara, and the meditative “Blue Curve of the Earth” by Tina Davidson, as well as the frenetic “Angry Birds of Kauai” by Jeff Myers. All of the pieces struck me as intellectual, thoughtful, technically challenging “art” pieces. Hahn started her career as a soloist at age 16, and to date she has recorded 14 albums, three DVDs, an Oscar-nominated soundtrack and an award winning album for children. She is known as the foremost American classical musician in promoting new post-modern music. She performs worldwide, and as of June 2014 is completing a tour of 50 cities in 14 countries throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Her violin is an 1864 copy of Paganini’s Cannone made by Vuillaume. (She never lets it out of her sight!) The violin case comments on her life on Twitter at @violincase. By the way, Hahn’s recording of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto was used extensively in The Deep Blue Sea starring Rachel Weisz.
Beyoncé – Music This is the new smash hit album from Beyoncé (Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter), and it has 14 new songs plus a DVD with 17 tracks. It is a hip-hop/R&B album with a fresh new sound (her fifth studio album). Some of the songs feature her singing with Drake, Jay Z (her husband), Justin Timberlake and The-Dream. She is a modern-day feminist, and her songs are often characterized by themes of love, relationships, monogamy, female sexuality and empowerment. Her songs propose the idea that a woman’s prime –personal, professional, and especially sexual – can occur within a stable romantic partnership. Monogamy has never sounded more seductive or less retrograde as when dictated on Beyoncé’s terms. The vibe on Beyoncé is moodily futuristic R&B and full-grown electro soul with an artsy boho edge. The ballads are about believing in your dreams and reaching your goals. I liked the song “Flawless” which features a speech from Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I also liked the song “Blue,” which has a cameo in it from Beyonce’s daughter Blue Ivy. Beyonce, as of 2014, is the highest earning black musician in history. She has won 17 Grammy Awards and has sold over 118 million records worldwide. On stage she is known as the sexy, seductive, sassy, provocative “Sasha Fierce,” but she isn’t like that at all in her personal life. Beyoncé is an album that is definitely worth your time; it’s sexy, tender and artistic – a “visual” album from music’s glossiest mega-star.
Movie – Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women is based on the biography of the same title written by Harriet Reisen. The docudrama gives us an intimate look at the great American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). She was raised by transcendentalist parents and grew up living near many of the well-known intellectuals of the day, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. The documentary uses dialog taken from diaries and letters, as well as interviews with scholars of American literature. Poverty made it necessary for her to go to work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, domestic helper, Civil War nurse and writer. It was the tremendous popularity of her most famous work Little Women that lifted the family out of poverty. Alcott became the equivalent of a multimillionaire in her lifetime, based on the astounding sales of her books. Most surprising is that she led, anonymously and under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard, a literary double life, not discovered until the 1940s. As Barnard, Alcott penned some thirty pulp fiction thrillers, with characters running the gamut from murderers and revolutionaries to cross-dressers and opium addicts. The documentary is a remarkably detailed portrait of a strong-minded woman who was far ahead of her time and much more complex than the dainty lady others have presented.
Movie – Ernest Hemingway: Rivers to the Sea is the DVD for American Masters, a PBS documentary about the life of the Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. The treatment is typical post-Ken Burns music/words over pictures montage. Obviously, you can’t pack Hemingway’s work and adventures or complex personality into 90 minutes, but the narrative does capture most of his life. It uses fragments of his fiction, diaries and letters plus interviews with his friends, relatives and various academics. More than 40 years after his death, Hemingway is one of the most widely read, and widely written about, American authors. In literally throwing himself into a variety of challenging and potentially life-threatening situations, Hemingway swayed public perception of writers from that of presumed privilege to that of bold action. He lived a “big” life but under the macho exterior beat the heart of a sensitive soul. The documentary, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style, moves through his early life in Oak Park, IL, to his war injury in World War 1 Spain, to Paris in the ‘20s, to his home in Cuba, to his final days living in Ketchum, Idaho. It speaks to the difficult art of writing and the writer’s lonely life, as well as bullfighting, fishing, big-game hunting, gangsters, boxers, soldiers and, of course, his four wives.
Music – This is the new CD from Barry with just him singing and playing piano (and bass) by himself. It features 16 lesser-known standards and is the perfect album for relaxing after work, or creating the mood for a romantic evening at home. It’s his most intimate, calming album of all time with beautiful melodies and well-written lyrics. I loved all of the songs and was especially touched by “Here’s that Rainy Day,” “While We’re Young,” and “Alone Together.” Manilow is Radio & Records No. 1 adult contemporary artist, and he is the top Adult Contemporary artist of all time. He has 29 platinum albums (two of them triple platinum) and has sold over 80 million albums worldwide. Not bad for a poor kid from Brooklyn, who had to work his way through Juilliard. Barry is great at introducing the wonderful songs of a different era to a new generation, and he appeals to every cross-section of society. He has Grammy, Emmy and Tony Awards, many film credits, and his concerts sell out instantly worldwide. He has cultivated a lush, sentimental, melodic, romantic musical style which I find easy to love and easy to listen to. By the way, he was Bette Midler’s music director, arranger and pianist for many years, when they were both young and unknown; both became big stars to be sure. I always loved his hit songs like “Copacabana,” “Mandy,” and “I Write the Songs,” and he’s still got the magic.
Movie - Love in Portofino by Andrea Bocelli is a CD/DVD set which is THE perfect date night, romantic, video. On this release, Andrea delivers the performance of a lifetime from the beautiful surroundings of the Pizzetta in Portofino, Italy. Playing to an intimate crowd at sunset, the legendary tenor sings the most famous love songs in the world accompanied by 16-time Grammy Award winner David Foster and a 40 piece orchestra. Bocelli has sold over 80 million albums worldwide, making him the biggest-selling singer in the history of Classical music. He holds the 1, 2 and 3 positions in the Guinness Book of World Records on the Classical music charts, and a record six of his albums have reached the Top 10 on the Billboard 200, and a record-setting eight have topped the classical albums charts in the United States. Andrea, who has a law degree and plays many musical instruments, has been blind since age 12. Although the PBS special of this performance has more songs on it, and many of the songs were previously recorded on his album Passione, the background of the truly picturesque harbor on the Italian Riviera just takes your heart away. I loved the songs like “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Love in Portofino,” and “Champagne,” but all of the songs are wonderful and the night could not have been more romantic. Andrea has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (as of 2010). Take this DVD/CD set along on your next date.
Music - Guilty Pleasures by Renėe Fleming with Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra is the luscious new album following her Grammy Award winning album Poėmes. It is an album of very beautiful songs and arias, many of them rarely recorded, selected by Renėe and sung in eight different languages. Out of the 17 choices, I especially loved “La Delaissádo,” by Canteloube, “Once There was a Golden Bird,” by Corigliano and “Dóme ėpaís” (Flower Duet, Lakmé) by Delibes (sung with Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano). Former CSO conductor Sir Georg Solti said that in his life he had only heard two sopranos with such great quality: Fleming and Renata Tebaldi! Renėe is a four-time Grammy winner and our national treasure, traveling all over the world and performing with every major opera company and symphony. She is an advocate for literacy and has been featured in the Association of American Publishers campaign (Get Caught Reading), as well as the READ poster campaign for the American Library Association. Renėe is a product of both Eastman and Juilliard, but also sings jazz and pop songs. In fact, she recorded the jazz album Haunted Heart, and the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She is known as the “people’s diva,” but speaks fluent German and French. She is from Indiana, Pennsylvania. The New York Public Library has designated her as a “Library Lion.” By the way, she has written a book titled The Inner Voice.
Movie – This new DVD is the definitive life story of Bob Marley, the musician, revolutionary, and legend. It is the story of the man from his humble beginnings in the Jamaican slums to his rise to international superstardom. Over 30 years after his death, Marley remains the most widely known and revered performer of reggae music. He is credited for helping spread Jamaican music to the worldwide audience. Working with official rights to the music and access to Marley’s family and friends, Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald creates a thorough account of Bob’s life. The film features rare footage, never before seen performances, previously unreleased music, and revelatory interviews with the people that knew him best. His death, at age 36 in 1981, does not dominate the movie. Instead, the message of hope and freedom from oppression for people everywhere is the theme, as much as the great music. Marley’s music and imagery was popular during the protests in the Middle East and Africa and at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Bob’s album Legend is the second-longest charting album in the history of Billboard magazine’s record-keeping. Marley is an impressive and thoughtful portrait that will remain one of my favorite documentaries.