Either he REALLY gets me or he’s just plain stopped listening

The Fella and I sit watching “Community.” Vaughn breaks into his Annie’s Song*.

The Fella: Didn’t Barry Manilow actually have an “Annie’s Song”?
Elsa: Wasn’t it John Denver?
TF: Oh, sure!
E: But I don’t know how it goes.
TF: I think it’s the “you fill up…” [He trails off, obviously reluctant to give us both the earworm.]
E: Ah. “Like a thing in a thingee.”
TF: Yup.
E: Like a blank in a blanket.
TF: Uh-huh.
E: Like a frog in a bucket.
TF: Exactly.

*which is nowhere to be found online, so here’s Troy and Abed mimicking Jeff.

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True Stories: a movie review

After the smash success of Talking Heads’ legendary performance film Stop Making Sense, the studio gave David Byrne a huge measure of control over his next film project, True Stories. What an odd movie they got.

Written by Byrne, Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), and Stephen Tobolowsky (Now don’t tell me you don’t remember him because he sure as heckfire remembers you! Needle-nose Ned? Ned the Head? He dated your sister Mary Pat a coupla times until you told him not to? Bing!), True Stories takes us on a tour of a fictional town — Virgil, Texas — gearing up for its sesquicentennial celebration by staging “A Celebration of Specialness.”

It’s as gee-whiz as a 1960s picture postcard: bright, dated, and absolutely flat. The establishing shots are carefully square-on, keeping the focal point dead-center, never oblique or slanted. And the film’s attitude is just as surprisingly direct. Where we might cynically expect glancing sarcasm or viciousness, Byrne instead gives us refreshing sweetness.

This is a small-town character study — Our Town by way of Weekly World News. We meet a spinner of endless tall tales, a man who claims he can grab your nose and read your mind, a lady who never gets out of bed (our narrator enthuses: “She has enough money, she doesn’t need to. Wouldn’t you?”), a husband and wife who lead the community but haven’t spoken directly to each other in years, and a preacher who sermonizes about vast conspiracies controlling everything from our political structure to the rate at which we run out of toilet paper.

As the name implies, True Stories is more a collection of tales than a single story. The musical numbers help to tie the whole series together, but movie’s real heart is Louis Fyne (John Goodman, incredibly winning in his first major role), a big bear of a man unabashedly and doggedly looking for love. We first meet him at work (in the computer assembly’s clean room, where the world can’t touch him), then follow him on a series of unsuccessful dates and outings. In less kind hands, Louis could be a joke or a figure of fun, but Goodman’s earnestness and humor make him a remarkable character, a simple man with a complex soul.

The strength of the film comes from the same place. It doesn’t shy from the absurdities of everyday life, and in fact it exaggerates them to the point of hyperbole… but it never, ever diminishes them. Rather than jeering at the mundanities of Americana, True Stories amplifies them with equal parts affection and irony.

About half-way through the movie, our guide takes us on a driving tour through a new (and mostly uninhabited) suburban development, a banal expanse of tract housing against the barren backdrop of the Texas plains. And in this flat, blank landscape, he says — with startling sincerity — what might well be the film’s motto: “Look at this. Who can say it isn’t beautiful?”

[cross-posted to The Video RePort]

life list: funk yes

This is a little story about goals, serendipity, and the difference between wishing and doing.

A month ago, I listed my personal top 40, and on that list was P-Funk’s Give Up the Funk. After a few weeks of listening to those songs over and over, there are some I would drop and some I love even more. “Give Up the Funk” falls into the “even more” category, or the “more and more and more and more!” category.

For reasons I still can’t explain, in late May I was suddenly, strongly, irresistibly seized with the desire to see P-Funk in concert. I’d heard from friends that George Clinton et al provide a fantastic live show; for a few of my friends, it’s been transformative, transcendent. At the very least, it’s full-on funk and fun. I wanted to see it first-hand. I immediately added “See P-Funk live” to my life list.

And — here’s the thing — I also immediately started checking out options. I thought “Gee, maybe they’ll tour sometime in the next year or two, and maybe they’ll come to Boston.” Is it worth a four-hour round-trip to do fulfill a life-list goal? Sure it is!

But it isn’t necessary. I hopped onto George Clinton’s site and discovered to my amazement that
A) P-Funk is currently touring;
B) they’re playing my small city, at a venue walking distance from my home;
C) the show was two weeks away and tickets were still available.

That’s right: because I didn’t spend time wishing and wondering, because I jumped in and started doing, tonight I’m checking an item off my life list: See P-Funk in concert. Oh, funk yes. That’s a little lesson for me: less wishing, more doing.

Smithsonian urges Clinton: “Give up the funk. We want the funk.”

It’s official: Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership, the transporter of funk, will be the central feature of a permanent musical exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture (scheduled to open in 2015).

Presumably, in order to fit the immense metal Mothership into the newly built museum structure, the curators will have to tear the roof off the sucker.

personal top 40

One of my online friends on another site challenged us to come up with our own personal top 40 songs. I hesitated, then decided that such a ranking is necessarily shifting and impermanent, which removed a lot of the pressure. The task proved both instructive and startling: I found an unsuspected folky streak in myself, and I’m surprised at how many of my favorite artists got edged out by songs that just make me feel good.

These aren’t the best songs by the respective artists, or even the most personally meaningful, but they are the songs that I would stop everything to listen to, that I would hear in my head all day, all week. These are songs I croon absentmindedly, songs I belt out alone or with friends, or songs I play when I want to feel the most like myself.

This exercise drove home something I’ve been thinking already: I need to find a way to get more music into my daily life. I need to get better speakers for the laptop, buy a cheapie iPod and fill it, move the stereo (which is now in a little-used corner) or maybe just move the speakers.

These are in no particular order, except that I put the one long note first.

1. Picture in a Frame – Tom Waits (I coulda picked any of a dozen Waits songs, but this one is special: I pitched hard for this to be the first song at our wedding. The Fella, who loves Tom Waits even more than I do, nixed it, though I’ve never understood why. C’mon: “I’m gonna love you ’til the wheels come off”? Every time I hear it, I get all teary-eyed.)
2. No One Will Ever Love You Honestly – Magnetic Fields
3. A Town Called Malice – The Jam
4. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – Richard Thompson
5. Baby’s On Fire – Brian Eno
6. I’d Like That – XTC
7. Is She Really Going Out with Him?– Joe Jackson
8. Crazy Little Thing Called Love – Queen
9. Los Angeles – X
10. Jezebel – Iron & Wine
11. My Baby Just Cares For Me – Nina Simone
12. Suffragette City – David Bowie.
13. Wicked Little Town from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
14. That’s When I Reach for my Revolver – Mission of Burma.
15. The KKK Took My Baby Away – The Ramones
16. Elvis Costello — like with Tom Waits, I could’ve chosen almost any song at random, but I actually gave it some thought and came up with I’m Not Angry, one of those rare songs that still sounds as amazing to me as it did when I 30 years ago.
17. Girl – Beck.
18. Love Will Tear Us Apart Again – Joy Division
19. I Don’t Love Anyone – Belle and Sebastian
20. Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) – Ella Fitzgerald
21. Sway. I just love the song, not a particular version — but I first noticed the song while watching “Dark City,” so I’ll link that version.
22. Who Loves the Sun – Velvet Underground
23. Life During Wartime – Talking Heads
24. I’ll Follow the Sun – The Beatles
25. A Day in the Life – The Beatles
26. When You’re Next to Me – “Mitch & Mickey” (Eugene Levy & Catherine O’Hara)
27. Working in a Coalmine – Devo
28. Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker) – Parliament Funkadelic
29. Llorando – Delores del Rio a cappella [Note 1: warning! Mulholland Dr. spoiler in that clip! Note 2: oddly enough, I don’t care for Roy Orbison’s English-language version at all.
30. I Hear the Rain – Violent Femmes
31. Driver 8 – R.E.M.
32. Why Don’t You Do Right – Peggy Lee (more recently made famous by Jessica Rabbit)
33. the abysmally depressing My Man – Billie Holiday
34. Lithium – Nirvana
35. Bye Bye Blackbird – I don’t have a favorite version, but I’ve linked to one by Diana Krall that approximates what I hear in my head when I sing it. (What comes out of my mouth is almost certainly quite different.)
36. Brick House – The Commodores
37. Bear Necessities – Phil Harris (The Jungle Book soundtrack)
38. If I Should Fall from Grace with God – The Pogues
39. All Day and All of the Night – The Kinks
40. (You will think I’m kidding but I’m not.) How High the Mountain (Y’all Are Brutalizin’ Me) – Ronnie Dobbs (David Cross)

I know there will be a handful of songs I CANNOT BELIEVE I left off this list, but for the moment, this feels pretty solid. “That one’ll do.” “Let’s go have us a champagne jam.”

A Mighty Wind

Do you remember the breathtaking moment in 1984′s This Is Spınal Tap when the founding members perform a lovely a cappela version of “All the Way Home,” a skiffle song from their early days? A Mighty Wind captures that sweetness and wraps it up in satire.

This 2003 mockumentary from Christopher Guest purports to tell the story of three once-prominent folk groups now gathering to memorialize their late mentor and producer. The characterizations and songs are eerily well-drawn. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Guest himself (the trio made famous as Spinal Tap) appear as The Folksmen, a fictional fusion of folk groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins head the New Main Street Singers, a second-generation pop-folk neuf-tette that make their bread & butter playing to bored crowds at amusement parks. Mitch and Mickie (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) are the sweethearts of the folk world, once madly in love but now face to face for the first time in decades.

Here, Guest manages the delicate balance that characterizes the finest satire: he knows his subject inside-out and understands what makes it great as well as what makes it absurd. We’re treated to a loving send-up of folk excesses, all swaddled sweetly in the lovely music (much of it written by the cast). Mitch & Mickey’ beautiful theme “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow” received an Academy nomination for Best Song — and deservedly so — but I’d argue that there are even finer songs in this film.

A particularly fine example is The Folksmen’s “Never Did No Wanderin’.” At first listen, it’s a perfect piece of folk music: haunting, mournful, potent, stirring. But then the lyrics sink in and it reveals itself as a deliciously witty indictment of folk’s cozy niche in the hearts of comfortable well-heeled suburbanites. It’s a wicked bite of parody and a fantastic song all rolled up together, indivisible.