Category Archives: Music Movies

The Freedom of Musical Expression

I picked up a copy of local New Orleans entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine recently. There’s a “Where Y’at Chat” feature page where locals from a cross-section of professions are asked 5 random questions and their responses are shared.page_1

In this edition, respondents were asked the question, “Happy Independence Day! When do you feel most free and independent?” I was struck by how many of the responses turned to musical expression and freedom:

“When I play the horn (Euphonium – baritone horn). It’s moving and freeing.”

~ Norman Robinson, Award-winning Radio/TV Broadcaster

“On the stage.”

~ Johnny Sansone, Award-Winning Blues Guitarist

“Singing a song with my guitar in front of an audience.”

~ Greg DiLeo, Trial Attorney

“Blaring the radio with the windows down.”

~ Mavis Larrimer, Respiratory Therapist

For Love or CountrySometimes it’s hard to imagine and therefore important to remember that there are places and there have been times where such freedoms of expression are not a way of life. Music/artistic expression and free speech are as precious as any rights we afford our citizens, and must be protected even when, or perhaps especially when, those perspectives, expressions, and points of view are counter to those of the majority.

The movie For Love or Country documented the plight of jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval whose homeland of Cuba prohibited jazz. Swing Kids is the story of teen aged jazz/swing aficionados of the early days of Nazi Germany who used music and dance as a vehicle of defiance. In both cases the narrow allowances of only state-sponsored music served as a way to repress dissonant thought among the citizenry.

Swing Kids 002Tennis player and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic who grew up in war-torn Serbia articulated those sentiments in his book Serve to Win… 

“Growing up in wartime taught me another crucial lesson:  the importance of keeping an open mind and never ceasing to search for new ways of doing things. As a people, we were controlled by a government that kept information from us. The consequences of that continue to this day. Even though we have recovered from the war, we haven’t recovered from the mindset that communism instilled:  that there is only one way to think, one way to live, one way to eat. Tennis, and my studies with Jelena (Jelena Gencic, Novak’s youth tennis/life coach and mentor) opened my mind, and I was determined to keep it open.”

DjokerDjokovic has ascended to the top of the men’s tennis game in large part because of his insatiable appetite for methods that will give him the mental, physical, and nutritional edge to compete at the highest level in the most competitive era his sport has ever seen.

So if you’re a musician, professional or recreational, or a music enthusiast, take a moment this week to appreciate the freedoms of expression of all kinds that we often take for granted.

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The Movie “Once” and Commitment to your Artistry

null I love movies about music/musicians, and I had heard great things about the movie Once, but didn’t get around to seeing it until recently. It’s about a singer/songwriter who performs on the streets of Ireland while working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop by day. He meets a piano player and they collaborate to bring their musical aspirations to life.

The storyline of artists struggling to develop their God-given talents pursue the dream in a world where the deck is stacked against them never gets old for me. It also brings to mind the reality of how committed one must be to overcome those odds. I once asked vocalist Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” what she did when times in the music business got tough. She stated simply, ” I went out and got a job.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but it’s never easy.

The movie also avoids so many of the typical movie clichés, making it more real and believable. It’s magical in its understated simplicity.

And the storyline mirrors the career of the musician who co-wrote the soundtrack and who played the lead role in the movie, Glen Hansard, who dropped out of school at age 13 to perform on the streets of Dublin and is now a successful songwriter and Academy award winner.

So you say you love music. That’s great. But when time are tough, you must ask yourself, “How committed am I and what am I willing to do to overcome the obstacles in front of me?

Here’s a performance of the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” at the Sundance Film Festival.

Singin’ in the Rain & Regrets of the Dying

https://i0.wp.com/kellimarshall.net/genekellyfans/wp-content/uploads/Gene-Kelly-Singin_l-300x225.jpgOne of my Dad’s favorite movies was Singing in the Rain, and in particular, the famous scene where Gene Kelly does just that. I was reminded of that movie recently when I read an article by Bonnie Ware a hospice worker. The title of the article is “Top 5 Regrets of the Dying,” and it’s one of those items that stay with you long after you’ve read it.

Here’s an excerpt from the article regarding Regret #5:

“Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again. When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.”

How many times do we drive down the street and see someone singing or dancing or doing something we think is odd, and we classify them as a nut, goofball, crazy, etc. Maybe they are the most sane individuals in our society.

Life is a choice, and it’s too short to have regrets. Sing in the rain every once in a while.

American Idol Amazing Moment with Casey Abrams: An Artistic Lesson

On Wednesday’s episode of American Idol, the contestants were tasked with performing a song from the movies. Casey Abrams was leaning toward the song “Nature Boy,” recorded famously by Nat King Cole among others. Jimmy Iovine, legendary music producer, and will.i.am (hope I got the punctuation right) of the Black Eyed Peas have been coaching the contestants and helping with song selection, and they weren’t thrilled with his choice.

They asked if he had another song in mind, and he threw out (I Can Feel it Coming) “In the Air Tonight” (by Phil Collins and from the film Buster, in which he also had an acting role) but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. Iovine and “.am” were more supportive of that tune. At the 11th hour Casey did an about-face and reverted back to “Nature Boy,” his original choice. A skeptical and slightly perturbed Iovine said in a clip that aired just prior to the performance (paraphrasing) “At this point in the competition they need to listen to their coaches. He’d better kill it out there”…and he did!

Once again, Casey accompanied himself on the upright bass, as he did during an audition when he sang another jazz standard, “Georgia (On My Mind).” Though jazz vocalist/bassist Esperanza Spalding has attained commercial success, it’s a brave choice for a young singer, as the upright bass requires a sophisticated ear for the vocalist to stay on pitch.

More impressive though, is the fact that the 20 year-old artist stayed true to himself in the face of scrutiny from a legendary music producer/executive nearly three times his age and a member of one of the most successful pop groups on the planet. The pressure in the face of their resistance must have been overwhelming, especially when singing a song that required sensitivity and nuance vs. a tune that he could “belt out” so to speak. Though his vocal wasn’t perfect, it was stylish, heartfelt, and it was beautiful in contrast to the selections from the other contestants.

My Point Here:
It’s a great lesson to all artists. While there are mentors, coaches, educators, fans, and others who will give advice, much of which is very beneficial, ultimately you know who you are as an artist. More importantly, you have to live with the consequences. And if you listen to others and fail, you’ll never forgive yourself to ignoring your inner voice.

And finding your own voice and developing individuality is important, even if you’re not an artist or up and coming pop music star.

Link to Casey’s performance of “Nature Boy”

Assessing Academy Award Nominees for Best Song

Well it’s Academy Award night and the celebs are parading down the red carpet. Here are the nominees for Best Song:

Music (Original Song)
“Coming Home” from Country Strong Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
“I See the Light” from Tangled Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
“If I Rise” from “127 Hours” Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
“We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3″ Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

All songs have their merits. Randy Newman is one of my favorite all time songwriters, within and outside the movie world. But within the Toy Story series, he set the bar too high with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “When Somebody Loved Me.”Though neither won the Academy Award for Best Song, both will be remembered as iconic songs in film history.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives “Coming Home” Oscar buzz and perhaps makes it a sentimental favorite. “I See the Light” is beautifully performed and orchestrated, but perhaps a little reminiscent of past Disney film tunes.

“If I Rise” with Dido and composer A.R. Rahman is from the movie 127 Hours. The story is that of a mountain climber who takes desperate measures after being trapped under a boulder, and it’s a testament to the strength of the human spirit. The song is a hauntingly beautiful song that captures both the mood and spirit of the film, and gets my nod for Best Song.

Jeff Bridges, The Fabulous Baker Boys & Cross-Artist Learning

I’ve always been a fan of the actor Jeff Bridges, and in particular the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys. Jeff portrayed half of the sibling piano lounge act who struggles with the reality that he’s selling out in Tiki Bars and hotel lounges every night when he yearns to play a more progressive form of jazz that’s more true to his talents and passion.

It’s the story that strikes the core of artistic work of any kind – Staying true to your self in your work.

I’ve also found fascination in listening to artists of all vocations speak about their craft and gaining insight into how they approach their work and the creative process. I’m a fan of the television show Inside the Actor’s Studio, because I love listening to artists discuss their approach to the creative process.

On the music front, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the great musicians of my hometown like Ellis Marsalis, Jr., Pete Fountain, Henry Butler, and Irvin Mayfield (It’s great to be a New Orleanian!).

Since Bridges is a musician and an actor who has starred in critically acclaimed movies about musicians, he has a unique perspective on the common threads of both artistic outlets. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of his post-Oscar interviews on that subject: 

“Movies are more than just entertainment, they are connecting us. And music is the same way. We have a movie about music here, but music and movies are a common link for all of us. I am hoping that this will kind of raise my profile, and I am all about getting us all together, getting the world healthy. Sometimes I’ll think of movies as a great example for the way the world can work. You have all these different opinions, and all these different ways we can work together. And we can make the most beautiful movie we can make, and we have the opportunity to make this the most beautiful world too. So I hope that furthers that idea.”

The brief post-Oscar interview at BuzzSugar.com

Movies About Music & Musicians

Hollywood is at its best when it produces movies that inspire. With respect to movies about music and musicians, here are a dozen that inspire me:
1. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) (Jeff & Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer)
Jeff Bridges is one of my favorite actors and is extremely versatile. Characters seem real and the movie avoids relationship cliches and stereotypes that so often leave the viewer less than satisfied.
2. For Love or Country (2000) (Andy Garcia)
Garcia portrays Cuban trumpet player Arturo Sandoval. All musicians talk about how important our art is to us, but this movie makes you ask the questions, “How much do I really love music and what would I do to pursue it?”
3. Swing Kids (1993) (Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale)
Compelling story of a movement of young kids who used Swing dance and jazz as a form of rebellion against the Nazi movement in pre-WWII Germany.
4. Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) (Richard Dreyfuss)
Some might find this movie corny or sappy, but I love it. The movie really captures the essence of what makes great music teachers great – The ability to reach into the core of each student individually and give them what they need and to grow as a musician and as a person.
5. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) (James Cagney)
The most iconic performance by James Cagney in his portrayal of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, especially when you consider that Cagney was known as a tough guy, gangster type in most of his movie roles.
6. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) (Gary Busey)
This movie captured the excitement of the early days of rock and roll. Though Busey’s career never lived up to its potential, he turns in a great performance here.
7. This is Spinal Tap (1984) (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer)
Every cliche of the ego-driven rock star is exposed here – some real laugh out loud moments and don’t underestimate the value of the musical talents of the leading actors here in making this movie work.
8. Walk the Line (2005) (Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon)
It’s difficult to portray flawed celebrities in a way that makes you understand both why they were beloved and how they could be despised at times. This film “walks that line” wonderfully.
9. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) (Sissy Spacek, Tommie Lee Jones)
Like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn’s story had an unpleasant side (primarily her relationship with an abusive husband) that needed to be a part of the mix if the movie was to be credible. Likeable for many of the same reasons.
10. A Mighty Wind (2000) (Ensemble Cast)
It’s clear that the cast and creators of this movie, who have also put together a string of satirical films with a cult following (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman) had a clear affinity for the folk music movement of the 1950’s and 60’s while understanding how the personalities easily lent themselves to jest. Heartwarming and funny and not far from an accurate portrayal of the mindset of the folk musician.
11. The Five Pennies (1959) (Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong)
Danny Kaye was one of the most likeable and engaging celebrities on the screen or off. Movie features a fun performance by Louis Armstrong.
12. The Blues Brothers (1980) (John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd) Though the movie resorts to car chases and the storyline gets slow at times, this movie stands the test of time for 2 reasons: a plethora of cameo appearances by legendary blues & R&B musicians; and the chemistry and playfulness of the lead actors in their most lovable and enduring roles/characters.

Here are a few others that I haven’t seen that are highly regarded:
Sid & Nancy (1986) Gary Oldman delivered a powerful performance portraying Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols.
Bird (1988) The troubled life of brilliant and groundbreaking jazz saxophone player Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Directed by jazz aficionado and musician Clint Eastwood.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972) Diana Ross gives an Oscar-nominated performance as jazz vocalist Billie Holliday.
Ray (2004) Jamie Foxx in his Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles.
Round Midnight (1986) Dexter Gordon gives a critically acclaimed performance as an aging jazz saxophonist.
Amadeus (1990) The story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart garnered 8 Academy awards.
Shine (1996) Based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott.

Here’s a more extensive list from UC Berkeley

Your thoughts?

Happy 100th Birthday Louis Prima

In 1985, David Lee Roth’s recording of “Just a Gigolo” hit the Billboard top 40. While many of my friends who grew up in the era of music video considered it a new song, there was nothing new about the song if you grew up in an Italian-American family in New Orleans.

Louis Prima was one of the most dynamic performers of his era, and his 1950’s Vegas show was a favorite stop of many of the celebrities of the day, many of whom rose to greater levels of fame and success. But they realized that Louis Prima was one of the most dynamic musicians in the business, and he had a rare gift. No performer exuded the joy of playing music like Louis and his band (The Witnesses led by sax player Sam Butera).

My fellow Sicilian-American, New Orleans native would have been 100 years old today. His son Louis Prima Jr. currently performs a tribute show to his dad. The music of Louis Prima has been rediscovered by new audiences through remakes by David Lee Roth, Brian Setzer, and other artists. His music has also been re-discovered and utilized by TV commercial and film producers.

Prima’s success was a great source of pride in my family growing up, and it was only later in life that I began to understand why. Here’s one my favorite (thought somewhat lesser known) Louis Prima songs, “Banana Split for My Baby.” Happy Birthday, Louis.

Rocky without the Music of Bill Conti – Fuggetaboutit!

So what does a guy named Cortello do upon his first visit to the City of Brotherly Love back in 1995? Walk in the footsteps of one of Philly’s most famous natives, Rocky Balboa. You might not have the same affinity for the movie that I do, but there’s a history here. When the original Rocky movie was released, I was 12 years old. My cousin and I would visit the “2nd run” movie theater in our neighborhood and stay and watch the movie over and over.

I told my son the story and had the joy of bringing him to the movies to see Rocky Balboa (or Rocky VI if you’re counting) in 2006. Although you know it’s coming and even though you’ve seen it before, the workout scene when the Rocky theme song (a.k.a. “Gonna Fly Now) begins to play still brings chills down my spine.

Because some of the successive movies in the Rocky series were so “over the top” so to to speak, it’s easy to forget how special that movie was, especially for its time. The movie garnered 10 Academy award nominations and 3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Director. All of these accomplishments came on a shoestring budget estimated at just over $1 million, and it spawned an era of movies about underdogs overcoming great odds.

And yes, one of those nominations was for Best Music, Original Song by Bill Conti (music), and Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins (lyrics – though the instrumental version is more well known, there was a vocal version as well).

My point in the context of this blog is that the scene that I am referencing (or scenes if you’re referring to the series) and the music that accompanies those scenes are inseparable. You simply can’t imagine it without the music.

(Side note: At one time, a statue of Rocky was dedicated at that location atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After some art aficionados (or snobs?) complained, the statue was moved and placed at the stadium known as the Spectrum, but eventually returned to a grassy area aside the museum. At the top of the steps you will now find a set of Converse sneaker footprints, where tourists like me convene to stand in Rocky’s shoes!

The only reference that I could find to Rocky at the Philly Museum of Art Website was in these driving directions:

From the Art Museum

  • From the intersection of Art Museum Drive and Kelly Drive, turn right and pass in front of the Museum by the Rocky statue.)

The Music of NFL Films: Sam Spence

You may not know the name Sam Spence, but I’d bet you know his music. Spence has written over 700 songs for NFL Films, and if you’ve ever seen highlight reels of NFL football games from 1966-2001, you’ve heard his music.

When I was a boy, there was a weekly syndicated show called NFL Game of the Week. NFL Films would pick the best game of the previous week of football (hence the name), and compile a 30 minute compilation narrated by the legendary voice of the early days of NFL Films, John Facenda. If you watch Chris Berman on ESPN, he often channels the voice of Facenda as a tribute when he begins his own recap of the week’s games.

The synergy of that music combined with the film and narration took the sport to another level. It was iconic. This was more than a sport. It was gridiron theater, and the music still sends chills down my spine. In this video clip, Spence talks about his music and conducts a group of students: