August 20, 2009

Remembering John Hughes

The recent death of director John Hughes got me thinking about his significance and his tremendous contribution to the last two decades of 20th century American cinema.

Hughes' most significant film was certainly The Breakfast Club, which, like Rebel Without a Cause thirty years earlier, gave a voice to the contemporary American teenager and offered both a humorous and sobering exploration of their angst, issues, and culture. The Breakfast Club expertly walked the line between comedy and drama -- something very few films attempt, and even fewer are able to do effectively.

The Breakfast Club also served as a launching pad for young stars Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez, and though only mildly successful at the box office when it was released in February of 1985, the film nevertheless marked the start of Hughes' (and the rest of Hollywood's) heightened interest in producing teen movies -- ultimately resulting in a sort of "High Renaissance" of the genre. The Breakfast Club became even more iconic a year after its release when it gained wild popularity among teens after it began appearing on cable television. As a result of all this, The Breakfast Club has forever secured a place in pop culture history as THE defining movie for Gen X-ers. (For more on these topics, be sure to read my three part series, The Evolution of the 80s Teen Movie: How Bob Clark, Gen X, and Home Video Changed the Landscape of American Cinema.

Hughes of course also wrote and/or produced and directed several other terrific 80s teen comedies including Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Weird Science. The prolific director also gave us Uncle Buck; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and the underrated She's Having a Baby. In the nineties, Hughes was the writer of the little-known gem Career Opportunities, Disney's 101 Dalmations remake, and the hugely successful Home Alone.

And of course prior to The Breakfast Club, Hughes' big break came as the writer of National Lampoon's Vacation, which earlier this year, celebrated its 26th anniversary. Maxim magazine published an interesting article -- an oral history of this film (one of the best comedies of the 80s) in one of its recent issues.

Hughes' deserves a large degree of respect and remembrance for The Breakfast Club by itself. Throw in all the films listed earlier, plus the Vacation and Home Alone sequels, and the fact that Hughes helped assemble movie soundtracks that included some of the most hip, eclectic and evocative music of the 80s (Yello's "Oh Yeah", Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me") and it's no wonder that this filmmaker was, and will remain, one of our most beloved.

Watch the John Hughes tribute from the 2010 Oscars.

August 13, 2009

Five Live Albums You Really Should Own

Many people (myself included) aren't big fans of live albums. They are too often purely money grabs by music labels and/or artists themselves as they attempt to cash in on their popularity by quickly assembling and marketing a new release without having to write or record new songs. But even more often, live albums disappoint because, let's face it, the majority of artists today don't sound anywhere nearly as good without the polish that comes from a studio. Despite this, true fans always seem willing to bite the bullet and shell out for live albums from their favorite acts. 

Still, every once in a while there's a live album of such quality or significance that it's definitely worth the money. If you're a fan of pop, rock, soul, or r&b, here are five "lives" you really should give a listen to:

Paul McCartney - Tripping the Live Fantastic

The Beatles last concert (apart from their famous 1969 one-time performance atop the Apple studios roof) was in 1966. The band, however, continued making music until their breakup in 1970. This means many of the Beatles best and most popular recordings were never performed live by them. As solo acts, John, George and Ringo rarely performed Beatles tunes in concert and when they did, they most often stuck to those they had composed themselves (e.g., George’s "Here Comes the Sun" and Ringo’s "Octopus’s Garden".) 

Tripping the Live captures tracks from Paul’s 1989-90 world tour, which marked the first time hits from classic Beatles albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, and Abbey Road were ever performed in concert. (Incidentally, the famous recording of what purportedly are Linda McCartney’s horrible backing vocals during "Hey Jude" supposedly came from the concerts chronicled on this album.)

Highlights: "The Long and Winding Road", "Things We Said Today", "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End"

The Supremes - The Supremes at the Copa 

Recorded in 1965, back in the days when the top acts still headlined in nightclubs or on the Vegas strip. The Supremes were one of the very first black artists invited to perform at the famous Copacabana in New York City. These performances helped elevate them to the top of Motown roster and paved the way for the label’s other artists (like Marvin Gaye and The Temptations) to also play the club.

Highlights: "Stop! In the Name of Love", the group’s vocal segue into "Baby Love"

Bruce Springsteen - Live 1975-85

Box sets used to be reserved for artists who had been in the business for 25 years or more, or whose early recordings were somehow never commercially available before. This release (issued in November of 1986) changed all that and now it seems anybody that’s had more than three albums issues a box set. Live 1975-85 captures ten years of Springsteen during the height of his popularity and does its best to recreate the experience of his legendary 3-4 hour concerts.

Highlights: "Rosalita", "Born to Run", "Jersey Girl"

The Fixx – React

As mentioned earlier, many bands don’t sound anywhere nearly as good live as they do in the studio. Synth pop/new wave group The Fixx bucked this trend and lead singer Cy Curnin’s haunting voice is just as rich and penetrating on this album as it is on any of their studio tracks.

Highlights: "Saved By Zero", "Secret Separation"

The Jacksons – Jacksons Live

For as much attention as Michael Jackson has received for his solo efforts and his early work with The Jackson 5, the years he spent in between as part of The Jacksons are often overlooked. The Jacksons were essentially a continuation of the Jackson 5 (with brother Randy taking the place of Jermaine) except the group now took far more creative control of their music. From 1976 to 1980, The Jacksons released four albums that spawned hits like "Shake Your Body Down", "Enjoy Yourself", "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Lovely One". Jacksons Live chronicles the group's Triumph tour (named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the best tours of the era) and includes hits from the J5 as well as Michael’s solo debut, Off the Wall.

Highlights: "Can You Feel It", "Off the Wall", the brothers’ extended banter before the "I Want You Back/ABC/The Love You Save" medley.

August 10, 2009

Defining Films of the Decades - The 50s

Here's Part 3 in my eight part series:

The 50s

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

With the two previous decades being dominated by the war effort and the Great Depression respectively, the 1950s marked the first time Americans had the time or inclination to acknowledge teenagers and their place in society. Rebel established Dean as the embodiment of America’s youth and the country’s biggest teen idol.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Film adaptation of the Tennessee Williams stage play. Marlon Brando’s explosive performance resonated with audiences, as did those of co-stars Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden (all of whom won Academy Awards for their roles.)

Some Like it Hot (1959)

With the possible exceptions of James Dean and Elvis, Marilyn Monroe is the most enduring pop culture figure from the 1950s. She gave one her most memorable performances in this wildly popular Billy Wilder comedy.
On the Waterfront (1954)

Brando strikes again. The best actor of his generation in perhaps the finest of the decade’s many gritty, working class dramas.

THE Defining Film of the 1950s:

The Ten Commandments (1956) 

Credit the enduring popularity of this film to its all-star cast (Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Debra Paget, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, etc.) and the sheer scope of this epic’s production. The Ten Commandments was the highest grossing live-action film of the decade and director Cecil B. DeMille’s depiction of the parting of the Red Sea remains one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema.

Related Posts:

Defining Films of the Decades - The 60s
Defining Films of the Decades - The 40s
Defining Films of the Decades - The 30s

August 6, 2009

Shout Out to: Lippy the Lion

One of the most overlooked characters on the Hanna-Barbera roster, Lippy the Lion was a cartoon short that served as one-third of The Hanna-Barbera New Cartoon Series that premiered in 1962. (The other two shorts comprising the show were Touche' Turtle, and the slightly better known Wally Gator.)

Lippy the Lion was significant because it was one of a handful of animated series that featured voice characterizations by arguably the two greatest cartoon voice actors of all time -- Daws Butler (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Woody Woodpecker) as well as Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and all the other Warner Brothers favorites.)

Lippy the Lion is also memorable for having perhaps the most comedically ironic sidekick ever -- Hardy Har Har, a laughing hyena suffering from depression. Now I don't know if he was ever clinically diagnosed, but I do remember Hardy being constantly dreary and pessimistic, and having this sort of general, neverending malaise. Perhaps they should have done one of those "very special" episodes of Lippy, where Hardy tries to kill himself, then finally agrees to see a shrink and gets a Zoloft prescription.

On a side note, Lippy the Lion was yet another one of those cartoon characters that never wore pants. Seems like animators love to have cartoon animals wearing clothing, as long as it's not pants. Think about it...

Lippy the Lion - Hat, no pants.

Donald Duck - Shirt, no pants.

Bugs Bunny - Classy white gloves... but no pants.

Quick Draw McGraw - Hat?... Check... Neckerchief?... Check... Gun holster?... Check... Pants?... Nope.

Top Cat has a much snazzier hat and vest than Lippy... but still no pants.

Huckleberry Hound has a hat and a tie (but no collar or shirt to go with the tie)... and no pants.

And Hardy Har Har somehow has a collar but no shirt... and of course, no pants.

What the hell?... Is there something inherently difficult about drawing pants?... Or did every animator somehow miss that day of class?

Anyway, as I check YouTube, I see the old Lippy and Hardy intro. Glad to see that they've finally been given their due.

Related Posts:
Shout Out to: The Sorels
Shout Out to: Dara Torres
Shout Out to: "The Payback"
Shout Out to: Found Item Clothing
Shout Out to: Force MD's