Movie – Listen Up is the documentary that provides an intimate look at the life of multifaceted music icon Quincy Jones, who shaped four generations of American sound. In an unusual, kaleidoscopic way, this movie takes you on a journey from Quincy’s early life of poverty on Chicago’s south side, to his move to an all-white environment in Seattle, and his life on-the-road as a trumpeter with Lionel Hampton. It follows him as he leads his own big band, and moves into production, arranging and film composing. Filmmaker Ellen Wiesbrod gets very close to Quincy, capturing many moods and remembrances. There are many comments from the great stars that he worked with, i.e. Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Dizzy Gillespie, Steven Spielberg, Miles Davis, and many others including Jones’ family. Listen Up is a fascinating summation of his career in jazz, pop, R&B, hip-hop and other styles, and his film composing (In the Heat of the Night, Roots, In Cold Blood, The Color Purple and many more). He was the 1st black to write movie scores and the 1st black VP of A&R for a major record label. He produced Off the Wall and Thriller, the two albums that launched Michael Jackson into the pop stratosphere, and was the musical mastermind behind We Are the World. Only Sir Georg Solti has more Grammy Awards than Quincy Jones, who has 27. Listen Up is like a fine jazz number, layered and intricate with rhythm, flow and nuance.
Music – This is a truly remarkable album featuring the voice of Helen Forrest, who is known as the best of the big band singers from the 30’s and 40’s (the WWII generation). At the peak of her career, she was the most popular female singer in the United States. This album showcases her work with three famous bandleaders: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. She was the classiest of all the big band singers, with impeccable phrasing and unparalleled range and breath control, which made it easy to be heard over a 17-piece orchestra. Helen’s understated vocal style was sensual, feminine, controlled and simple; it suggested poetic images and brokenhearted reverie. Helen was often ill as a child and had to overcome a hearing loss in one of her ears. She was raised by her mother and a stepfather (who she hated) mainly in a brothel in Brooklyn. She dropped out of high school and started her rise to fame when Artie Shaw hired her in 1938. Subsequently, she became a national favorite, and in 1942 and 1943 she was voted the best female vocalist in the U.S. in the Down Beat poll. In the course of her career, she recorded more than 500 songs! I like all of the old songs, but especially “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” “Skylark,” and “Comes Love.” Of course, the music is enhanced by the fabulous clarinet playing of both Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, as well as Harry James’ flawless trumpet.
Music – This is the new live performance album from the great Barbra Streisand. She grew up in Brooklyn, and when the new Barclays Center luxury arena opened there, she agreed to present a live concert, which she rarely does because she has stage fright. The album has 26 songs, nine of which she had never performed on stage before. Barbra talks to the audience about her memories of living in her Brooklyn apartment childhood home. Of course, she went on to fabulous stardom as a singer-songwriter, author, actress, film producer and director. She is one of only twelve other entertainers who have an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and a Tony award. She is the best-selling female artist on the Top Selling Artists list (32 top ten albums since 1963). She has released 51 Gold albums, 30 Platinum, and 13 Multi-Platinum. She starred in the movies Funny Girl, The Way We Were, and The Owl and the Pussycat, and many others. In Back to Brooklyn everything is perfect – the orchestra, the arrangements, and her voice (smoky, silken and lustrous). Every song is wonderful! I loved “The Way we Were,” Evergreen,” and “Here’s to Life.” Streisand, now 71, can still knock your socks off with what NY Times music critic, Stephen Holden, describes as her “gift for conveying a primal human longing in a beautiful sound.”
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.