Saturday, April 23, 2016

Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Hi everyone,

When I saw last year that Elvis Costello was on a book tour in support his new memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, I bought my ticket for his D.C. stop immediately. I can't claim to be his biggest fan, but I love some of his music, and I always find him entertaining. Elvis Costello first got my attention in 1989 when he released Spike, an album that includes some songs co-written with Paul McCartney. One of its singles, "Veronica," became a big hit on the radio and MTV, which I thought was impressive considering it's a happy tune about someone with Alzheimer's disease. My other favorite song on Spike is called "Tramp the Dirt Down," an unfriendly commentary on Margaret Thatcher. I guess I was that kind of kid.

I saw Elvis Costello perform a live set once in person, when he opened for Sting, but I mostly catch him randomly on TV. I remember when he showed up on "Frasier" in the '90s, playing a musician who just got hired to perform daily at Cafe Nervosa, ruining the Crane Brothers' peaceful coffee-shop hangout. And, I tuned in that night in 2003 when he filled in for David Letterman as host of "The Late Show." (Why do I remember these things?) Also, over the years, Elvis Costello showed up on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," always game to do something fun.

My favorite thing that Elvis Costello has ever done, though, is "Spectacle," a music-filled talk show, which he hosted. He interviewed musicians and other famous faces about music and performed related songs with his guests. The show aired from 2008 to 2010, but I didn't see it until last year when I finally got around to renting the DVDs through Netflix. Elvis Costello is so knowledgeable about music, having played with so many different musicians of different genres. Through this show, I learned about artists I love as well as ones I'd never heard of before. This show was a perfect combination of friendly, informative conversation and wonderful performances in a relaxed setting in front of a small audience. It should still be on the air and required viewing in schools!

But I'll get off that soapbox and sum up my admiration for Elvis Costello by saying this: with his fantastic songwriting abilities already established – Listen to "Alison," "Beyond Belief," "God Give Me Strength" or the rowdier "Pump It Up" and "Oliver's Army," just to name a few. – Elvis Costello always tells interesting stories, whether he's singing or talking. So, I had a good feeling about him writing a book. When I picked this book up at Sixth & I Synagogue last October and realized that it was 672 pages, I may have questioned my logic a bit, but I still kept the faith.

Before the author even appeared on stage, I noticed that Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink includes no index, and the photos are sprinkled throughout the text without any captions. The first thing Elvis Costello said to us about the book was that we might notice it includes no index and the photos aren't captioned or stuck in the middle on a cluster of special paper. He explained, "I'm telling a story. If you read the book, you'll know who that person is in the picture." I couldn't wait to get started.

This book is great! It reads really fast because, as we know, Elvis Costello weaves good tales. It was an interesting read because, since I'm not overly familiar with his vast body of work, I rolled right past the specific details and lyrics about various unfamiliar songs that I'm sure his superfans would study more fiercely. After reading the book, I learned that a companion CD exists, which probably includes many of the songs the author refers to in his story. I wish I had known about this helpful resource while I was reading.

I favored learning about Declan MacManus before he became Elvis Costello – the boy who went to work with his dad (Ross MacManus, a popular singer and musician in his own day), hanging around in the back rows of dance halls, watching him and the other musicians rehearse, fostering his growing love for music. This book covers a good amount of family history with wonderful details about his grand and great-grand relatives as well as his own upbringing. It was exciting to following his determined move from office jobs to rock-and-roller. Feeling the passion and drive he had to share his craft is inspiring.

I've known about Elvis Costello's rise on the new wave/punk music scene and his early reputation as an angry young man, but the one I've come to know better is the Elvis Costello of now – the proper British gentleman, who always wears a suit and hat and is quick to joke, explain music history, and play with varied musicians, like Emmylou Harris and Mavis Staples. For me, his exploits with his old bandmates, The Attractions, at the height of their fame are more side notes to the richer life he's led, learning and honing his musicianship – always moving forward to the next thing, sticking by his family, and eventually finding his own personal contentment.

In the book's acknowledgements, Elvis Costello thanks his wife, jazz musician Diana Krall, for making him take the time to write everything down for this memoir so that he and the family will have it. That's what this book reads like: a personal keepsake for future generations of the MacManus Clan to remember not only his extraordinary life, but also the lives of those distant working-class relatives who have already passed. The old black-and-white photos complement this effort, capturing the author at all ages as well as relatives, friends, scribbled song lyrics, and other mementos.

Unlike a typical memoir, this one is not a chronological life story. It's more like a box of memories. Chapters about Elvis Costello's parents and grandparents run alongside chapters about working with Paul McCartney, T Bone Burnett, Burt Bacharach, and Allen Toussaint. Within those, he recalls his encounters with Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, and even classic film director Frank Capra. You never know who or what he'll run into on the next page. Elvis Costello will keep you reading to find out.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #50. Black Mass (2015)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details. Visit the Johnny Kitties page for a full list of Johnny Depp's filmography and links to all previous Johnny Kitties blog posts.]

James Bulger, I was always fascinated by – not just where he came from, how he lived, and all that. But being able to evade authorities for a good 16, 17 years, few have done that. So, I was always fascinated with the story....I feel like it's an important film. It's not just random entertainment.
– Johnny Depp on Black Mass

Who is this bad guy? 
Black Mass tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), the infamous criminal from South Boston who became an FBI informant to help take down an Italian mafia family. Based on the book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill, this gritty crime thriller directed by Scott Cooper, costars Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, and some other familiar faces. 

If he's in it, I will go. 
I was excited to see Black Mass for two reasons: 1) Johnny was playing a real person in a serious drama and 2) the story takes place in Boston, which usually makes me nostalgic and homesick. But when I heard that Johnny might pull out of starring in the movie due to some contracting issues, I was partially hoping it would happen because seeing a movie about a violent, angry gangster is not my idea of a good time. 

I had horrible allergies on the day I saw Black Mass during opening weekend. The air-conditioned theater made them go away, but then I turned into a ball of stress. Johnny has played serial killers and other gangsters before, and I usually end up kind of rooting for them by the end of the movie. I have trouble finding any redeeming qualities in Whitey Bulger. I left the theater wondering what Kitties I could get out of Black Mass.

What happened?
Above: Johnny
Below: the real Whitey Bulger
Black Mass is a well directed, well told, interesting story. Also, as Jimmy Kimmel told Johnny, "There's a lot of great acting in this movie...But you're the best one." Those who worked with Johnny on the film agree: "A lot of the crew were from South Boston and many of them knew Whitey," director Scott Cooper explains. "They said it was like a ghost came back." 

All the press I inevitably saw about Black Mass was repetitive: Finally, Johnny was taking a break from Disney, his elaborate costumes, and outlandish characters and returning to his roots, doing some "real acting acting." It's true that I shared similar excitement about him working on a true story, but that general opinion in the press (which I assume is due to their overall distaste for Captain Jack Sparrow) is wrong. Does all the makeup and lack of hair, piled on to look exactly like Whitey Bulger, not count as a crazy costume? It seems to me that playing someone like "The Mad Hatter" or "Sweeney Todd" is hard, if not harder, than playing this gangster. From my perspective, the hardest thing about playing Whitey Bulger is probably his bad attitude. Who wants to be in that guy's head? 

What's to like?
I agree with Jimmy Kimmel that Johnny is "the best one" in this movie, but it doesn't surprise me. I've always said that Johnny is really great at playing mean and angry. In this role, he is menacing all the time. Since the real Whitey Bulger didn't like the book on which this film is based, he declined to meet with anyone involved with the project. Instead of getting direct access to his subject, Johnny built this character by watching FBI surveillance tapes, looking through photographs, and interviewing Bulger's family members and associates. As usual, the extensive research paid off. Joel Edgerton observed, "Johnny is already a mysterious character. He has a certain rock-star aura about him. I'd see him roll up to work in the morning and walk to makeup, and then I'd spend all my time with what felt like a different person. You sort of forget what he really looks like. By the end of filming, I'd spent more time with Whitey Bulger than I'd spent with Johnny."  

For the character, Johnny captured a stillness that kept everyone guessing. "The thing about him, my character, was that he, I think, was most effective, most frightening, when he got very quiet," Johnny explains. "He was always very still," Scott Cooper adds. "Johnny and I talked about that a lot – Whitey's ability to strike when people were least expecting it." 

I watched Black Mass, fearing that Whitey would kill whomever he was talking to at any moment, and sometimes he did. Black Mass has some violent scenes that I wish weren't in it – some things are better left to the imagination, in my opinion. But the violence has purpose, Johnny notes; violence was like another language for Whitey Bulger and his gang. Pairing that notion with Scott Cooper's directing style, the audience experiences everything as it happens. As a fan of Scott Cooper's 2009 Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, about an alcoholic country singer, Johnny was excited to work the director. If you saw that movie, you've seen the dark, scary, nauseating side of alcoholism, and Scott Cooper uses that same in-your-face view for Whitey Bulger's violent, criminal activities in Black Mass
I got overly excited when Kevin Bacon – a familiar face – showed up in the middle of this movie. With Johnny looking nothing like himself and every situation in this film feeling treacherous, I was pleased to find these other actors who I recognized: aside from Kevin Bacon and Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, and Cory Stoll are in this great cast too. 

I also like how the story is revealed in Black Mass. The Bulger family seems like any other, but the brothers steered their lives in different directions – Whitey remained a lifelong criminal while his brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) became a prominent politician. Because FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) was one of Whitey Bulger's childhood friends, he was able to convince him to become an agency informant. Throughout the film, everyone involved – good and bad – becomes more entrenched in Whitey Bulger's world. As each of his associates are caught and arrested, his criminal activities are confirmed during their interrogations. After being on the run for 16 years, Whitey Bulger was arrested in Santa Monica, California, in 2011. Eventually, he was sentenced to two life terms plus five years in prison for 19 murders, among several other charges. 

All kitties should stay away from Whitey Bulger.
It was slim pickings to find a scene for The Kitties in Black Mass. My favorite scene is between Whitey Bulger and John Connolly's wife Marianne, played by Julianne Nicholson. Knowing that Whitey and his lot are up to no good, she argues with her husband about socializing with them in their home. In protest, she decides to spend the evening in her bedroom. When Whitey Bulger learns where she disappeared to, he heads upstairs and has a veiled threatening conversation with her. I'm a sucker for good acting. I started to draw this but then realized it's still not very Kitty appropriate. 

Instead, I chose the scene below, where Whitey Bulger (Gordon) realizes that his time in Boston is up when The Boston Globe breaks the story about his dealings with the FBI. (I'm not sure how Mini and B.J. made their way into this scene's props. They are sneaky.) 

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #50. Black Mass (2015) [March 27, 2016]

Johnny keeps busy. 
Last year, Johnny tackled another horrible character, Donald Trump, in an 50-minute spoof that was posted on Funny Or Die in February. Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie is a parody of the making of a TV movie about how this guy made it big at whatever it is he does. Shot last December, this film costars Johnny's friends Alfred Molina and Stephen Merchant, among others, along with a slew of other famous faces making cameos, including Henry Winkler, Christopher Lloyd, Jack McBrayer, and Ron Howard. You can see the trailer and other clips here, but the full film is no longer available on the Funny or Die website. Funny or Die, if you're only going to post something this monumental on your website for a limited time, let the world know your schedule. I missed seeing the full film because I waited a few weeks before trying to find it. 

In the end, as much as I love Johnny, I think it's a good thing that I only found a few clips and scenes from this four-day secret filming effort. I have no tolerance for The Donald. (This does not mean I don't want access to see the whole thing, Funny or Die! I am waiting...)  

Johnny also officially went rock star this year. He formed the Hollywood Vampires with friends Alice Cooper and Aerosmith's Joe Perry. The band released an album last September comprised of covers and original songs, and has been doing lots of press since then. The album offers a bunch of impressive guest performers, including Paul McCartney, Dave Grohl, Joe Walsh, and Christopher Lee. The Hollywood Vampires performed a tribute to Motorhead's lead singer Lemmy during this year's Grammy Awards telecast and are currently on a worldwide tour. 

What's next? 
"The Mad Hatter" returns in Alice Through the Looking Glass, which will hit U.S. theaters on May 26. In late March, Johnny and director James Bobin did a live half-hour Q&A session on Facebook to promote this film. See you at the theater! A Johnny Kitties tribute for Alice Through the Looking Glass will follow its DVD release. 

Photo credits: All Black Mass photos © Warner Brothers Pictures; Johnny as Donald Trump courtesy of Funny or Die; Holllywood Vampires photo courtesy of Hollywood Vampires Twitter account  

Wednesday, April 06, 2016