Archive for fred astaire

The Public Veneration of Mediocrity

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on 17 November, 2008 by Ally

I have become increasingly disturbed by the current trend towards mediocrity on television. We the so-called public seem to derive more pleasure from the bland and incompetent than from the talented. The only dancing programme on terrestrial television is Strictly Come Dancing, a competition where John Sergeant is saved weekly by the public vote, thanks to the sheer novelty of seeing him dance badly. Each week he tries admirably, but he simply has no innate dancing ability. He appears as either Tweedledum or Tweedledee in a dinner jacket, galumphing gracelessly around the floor, his feet landing clumsily in something vaguely resembling rhythm while his professional partner desperately tries to divert attention away from him by flashing her legs from beneath a glittery pink dress. The judges practically pulsate with fury, urgently persuading the public to stop supporting this awkward goon at the expense of contestants who can actually dance. No such luck! Clearly their fun little strategy of including a few token “no-hopers” has backfired. This is the ninth week John Sergeant has been saved by the public vote, while the elegant and surprisingly adept Cherie Lunghi was voted off. This is precisely the kind of ill-considered voting that made Boris Johnson the Mayor of London. Well, perhaps not quite that irresponsible. But still, a new demographic must be considered — the “yeah, that’ll be a laugh” vote.

Meanwhile the only music show on prime time terrestrial television is The X Factor, a sickening (and sickeningly compelling) glorified karaoke competition. Each week contestants perform songs of a different theme — disco, Mariah Carey, funeral dirges and so forth. In terms of record sales it is the most influential music show in Britain. The Michael Jackson evening was cited as responsible for drastically boosting sales of Jackon’s latest compilation. The US equivalent, American Idol managed to land Jeff Buckley at the top of the iTunes chart after one contestant performed a Buckley-styled version of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous Hallelujah. How can this be? How can a televised Open Mic Night inspire such a retail frenzy? And how can there be no room on the schedules for genuine music? If you want to see professional musicians playing live music with some degree of skill and accuracy, you have to stay up late and watch Later with Jools Holland. And that’s shite too.

It used to be that people were impressed by displays of talent and skill. During the Great Depression people were uplifted and entertained by Fred Astaire’s dazzling footwork and Groucho Marx’s lightning-fast repartee. Now we have another recession from which to distract ourselves, and our idea of entertainment is to complain in droves about tasteless prank calls —  whilst simultaneously demonstrating our own lumbering lapse of taste and judgement by voting for inept dancers, interminably bland singers and bumbling mayoral candidates.

Songwriter of the Day: Irving Berlin

Posted in Music, Of the Day with tags , , , , , on 15 October, 2008 by Ally

Irving Berlin

I have been admiring the songwriting of Irving Berlin of late. I recently purchased two great albums which showcase his work; Ella Fitzgerald’s Irving Berlin Songbook, and a cheapo (but flawless) Fred Astaire compilation called “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”. The latter isn’t entirely devoted to Berlin, but both are packed with classic songs performed impeccably in the singers’ respective styles. And the Fred CD actually features the recorded sound of tap dancing, which will never cease to bring joy to my tiny jaded heart.

Irving Berlin was one of the few so-called Great American Songbook composers who wrote both the music and lyrics to his songs. He was astoundingly prolific, so naturally there are plenty of songs in his oeuvre which don’t appeal to me – “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is particularly grating, for example. But he wrote more than his fair share of classics, many of the best ones introduced by Fred Astaire on stage and screen. Take “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” for example.

Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935)

The chorus melody (“I’m… puttin’ on my top hat…”) is bordering on inane, but it gives way to this insanely complicated bridge packed with internal rhymes, awkward accidental notes and dizzying syncopation. “I’m going out my dear to breathe and atmosphere that simply reeks with class.” Somehow it manages to sound elegant and memorable despite the difficulty in actually singing it. What I wouldn’t give to be able to pull stuff like that out of my head. And paired with such a charming and inventive dance routine… don’t get me started! Absolute magic.

The entire Ella Fitzgerald album can be heard on last.fm, although the tracklist rather awkwardly merges the songs from both discs. Highlights include laid-back, swinging interpretations of Astaire gems “Cheek to Cheek”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” and “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – which includes a brief scat interlude. And then there’s the heartbreaking “Supper Time”, about a wife’s reaction to the news of her husband’s lynching. Ella doesn’t get much room to break out into her vibrant improvisations on the album, but her interpretations go straight to the heart of the songs.

Whether it’s Fred or Ella, you can hear great performers at their best, singing the work of a great composer at his best. Everybody wins, don’t they?

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Posted in Film, Woody Allen with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 September, 2008 by Ally

Woody Allen, 1985

They always say you ought to write what you know, which is why so many films chronicle the creative process. From Sunset Boulevard to Adaptation, Hollywood’s favourite subject is itself. But great as they are, most of these films seem determined to make the audience understand the pain of the artist, the stress of putting together a production, how hard it is to make something look effortless. It’s rare to find a film that appreciates the finished product above all, and understands the spell it casts over the ordinary person sat there in the dark.

Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of those films. Set in Depression-era New Jersey, it stars Mia Farrow as Cecilia. She’s a timid woman with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello), and a stressful waitressing job which she constantly jeopardizes with her clumsiness and daydreaming. Her only comfort is the cinema, where she can lose herself in shimmering Hollywood gloss for an hour and a half.

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You’ll Never Get Rich

Posted in Film, Musical with tags , , , , , , , , , on 10 September, 2008 by Ally

Directed by Sidney Lanfield in 1941, credits courtesy of the local council...

You’ll Never Get Rich is the first of two pictures Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth made together. It launched Hayworth as a major star and pinup icon, and gave Astaire a much-needed boost in a career suffering from the lack of Ginger Rogers. Rita was truly beautiful, and a talented dancer as it turned out. Fred was as graceful and charming as ever, and the dance routines are magical. Problem is, all these great ingredients are dumped into a picture that isn’t very good. And… why is it called You’ll Never Get Rich anyway?

The plot is a standard farce based on love, lies and misunderstandings. Robert Curtis (Astaire) is a choreographer in a fancy night club owned by Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley). Mr. Cortland is rather fond of Miss Sheila Winthrop (Hayworth), one of the girls in the chorus line. He buys her an engraved diamond bracelet, but Mrs. Cortland (Frieda Inescort) finds the bracelet and demands answers. Martin spins a web of lies, telling his wife that Robert is courting Sheila, and asking Robert to play along. After being threatened by Sheila’s actual suitor (John Hubbard), Robert is only too delighted to be drafted into the army. This is clearly an exercise in morale-boosting, it being made “during the war”. Continue reading